To get to Leatherneck Steakhouse, which the Marines' Memorial Club barely advertises on its sign, you pass through a lobby decorated with glass cases of military uniforms, pack into one of the tiny elevators, and step out into a world of 60-year-olds, skyscrapers, and mist.
At the bar, conventioneers drink two-olive martinis alongside men in Hawaiian shirts whose squared shoulders and plank-straight spines mark them as former leathernecks. A piano is playing in the entrance to the dining room — a little Phil Collins, a little Rodgers & Hart. Decorated in beiges and burnished woods, the restaurant looks like a 1960s jazz lounge remodeled sometime in the mid-'90s. But no one's paying attention to the furniture; they, like you, are looking out the expanse of windows onto a Superman view of the Financial District and the bay beyond.
Leatherneck may be the lowest-profile of this city's steakhouses, mostly patronized by tourists and members of the private club (all active or retired members of the armed forces). But a reservation — not to mention a collared shirt and proper pants — is required to eat there. It's a quirky place, where the salt shakers have bulldogs etched in them, military cartoons are tacked up above the urinals, and the restaurant's classic American menu of chops, steaks, and fish is ornamented with both out-of-date and forward-thinking touches. Most critically, Leatherneck's executive chef, Paul Lozito, and chef de cuisine, Bill McVicker, give a damn about the food they're putting out. And that makes all the difference.
It was no surprise that the chefs gave a damn that my New York strip — certified Angus, with the cleaner, milder resonance of wet-aged beef — was presented to the table the medium rare I had ordered it, with a feverish pink core that paled at the seared, smoky edges of the cut. And good thing. The steak, which came to the plate with a tuft of watercress and a few shaved shallots, cost $29. (Of course, that's half the cost of the same cut at Alexander's or Harris'.) The cooks also put a good char on the edges of a fat, 12-ounce pork chop ($21), leaving the meat faint pink and tender from the inside of the fat cap all the way to the rib bone. And a 6-ounce wagyu flatiron steak ($22) paved over in peppercorns showed off the breed's most distinctive characteristic: fine veins of fat tasting of cultured butter, as if the animal had been raised on croissants and creamed corn.
The sides were prepared just as carefully as the meats. Every entree comes with an iceberg wedge smothered in blue cheese dressing — a salad that defined dining out in 1995 — and I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed the contrast between the cool crunch of the lettuce and its tart cream coating, studded with marble-sized chunks of cheese. Haricots verts ($8) sautéed with shallots and butter were cooked until the beans had lost their snap but none of their sweetness. And the kitchen makes its own Tater Tots ($8) by piping fat cylinders of mashed potato, scented with truffle oil, into the fryer. Creamy-centered with delicately crisp ridges, the tots are almost as essential to the meal as a table next to the windows.
The menu is short: a cluster of appetizers, steakhouse classics, a few lighter entrees, a handful of sides. Given the heft of the salad and the meats, the restaurant's oysters Rockefeller ($13), smothered in spinach and Hollandaise and broiled, are pleasant but unnecessary. Although the waiter described Leatherneck's crab cakes ($13) as its signature dish, they were just fine — barely bound with flour and egg to keep the crab flavor in the forefront. Not worth skipping the tots for.
For a restaurant with $30 steaks and an average tab of $50 to $70, the service can be quirky. The servers would unfurl napkins and lay them on the laps of female diners, answer detailed questions about the entrées, and then forget to change out plates and silverware between courses. One bartender called everyone in my party "honey" and stirred up an excellent well-spirit Manhattan. We watched her co-tender, though, gather bottles of red wine that had just come back from a private party, combine them, and stick them back in the fridge. (Seeing as how the wine list is mostly Safeway-shelf quality, beer's not a bad choice.)
But the food continually surprises.
Sea bass ($23) was pan-roasted just so, with meat flaking apart in great, glistening chunks. The meat was ringed with a saffron-tomato butter sauce, and oven-roasted tomatoes, open clams without a hint of chewiness, and chunks of Mexican-style chorizo, an American twist on a classic Iberian combination of flavors. And the pink cast of one night's special, braised shortribs crusted in a relish of fresh horseradish and parsley ($18), made me pull the waiter aside to confirm my suspicions of how it was cooked. Yep, Lozito and McVicker had acquired an immersion circulator — an appliance common to the kitchens of Coi and Sons + Daughters, not hotel restaurants — and slow-cooked the beef sous-vide for two days until the meat attained an ethereal tenderness. I ate far too much of it for comfort, accompanied by piano renditions of the Flashdance soundtrack, and watched the sky shift from lavender to deep purple, the towers of Union Square transforming into a constellation of lights to rival Aries and Cassiopeia.