Once inside, the splendor of the place sets the tone for an evening of convivial dining. The bar to the left is all cherry wood, black leather, and earth tones, with amber-shaded sconces and wrought-iron chandeliers illuminating the terra-cotta golds and bronzes. Five tiers of aperitifs, digestifs, and everything in between are arranged against the windowed backdrop of Taylor Street, creating a colorful spectrum of bottle glass and streetlights. Some 100 pen-and-ink sketches hang on the walls here and in the Petit Cafe across the aisle, where theatergoers headed for the 8:30 curtain down the street nibble small plates and wood-fired pizzas. The Petit is a good place for a preprandial cocktail -- perhaps a Key lime martini, a sweet, tangy, buttery blend of cointreau, lime, pineapple juice, and vanilla Stoli that tastes remarkably like Key lime pie. Not exactly post-impressionist, but true to the spirit of the place.
The Grand Cafe proper is a toweringly impressive dining room with 30-foot ceilings, ornate pillars, vaulted windows, and prodigiously vertical potted plants. Originally the Monaco's turn-of-the-century hotel ballroom, it was restored a few years back to its current state of Old Euro grandeur, with poured, fan-patterned terrazzo floors, walnut booths upholstered in velvet, and custom-made art deco chandeliers. The overall effect might have been overpoweringly genteel, but newly commissioned artworks add informal touches that make dining here friendly as well as festive -- Moulin Rouge-ish murals, peachy faux finishes, and eccentric, life-sized figurative bronzes by sculptor Albert Guibara. An open kitchen along one wall suffuses the whole with seductive fragrances; the result is as warmly elegant as a Right Bank bistro.
Take the hors d'oeuvres, for example. First there's the wonderful house-made baguette and its accompaniment, a rich, habit-forming sun-dried tomato tapenade. The polenta soufflé is an improvement on the light 'n' fluffy version of long tradition -- creamy, moist, and dense, ribboned with hot cambozola (the blue cheese lover's blue cheese) and set on a bed of meaty, earthy wild mushrooms. The confit of duck -- crunchy on the outside, tender within -- is complemented by a substantial salad of pungent arugula dressed with a shallot-Dijon vinaigrette. Seared, smoky dayboat scallops come on a platter of sweet, puréed fig and tangy balsamic syrup: a surprising confluence of flavors that works.
Other dishes need some fine-tuning. The grilled entrecôte (rib-eye steak to you) is downright skinny and not as tender as it should be, but its accompaniments -- silky artichoke halves with aioli and the best thin frites between Pier 23 and the Balboa Cafe -- make up for it. The vegetable cassoulet, scooped from its baking dish at the table, is on the bland side, although the dish's individual seasonal veggies -- juicy yellow squash, al dente beet wedges, silky carrots, earthy parsnips, and tough Brussels sprouts -- retain their particular flavors, and the casserole's white beans melt in your mouth. But the salmon en croûte -- a fillet wrapped in pastry dough and baked -- is flaky and layered with a tasty mushroom duxelles (minced mushrooms sautéed in butter), and the sautéed Swiss chard that shares its plate tastes garden-fresh.
Pastry chef Ken Lobel's dessert menu includes a Grand Cafe modern classic, Le Grand Banana Cream Pie, a glamorous meal-closer in which rich, dense, but not overly sweet banana cream sits on a bed of coconut caramel, topped with whipped cream edged in macadamia brittle and a shortbread fan, while spears of fresh banana guard its perimeter. More appropriate for us banana-haters is the warm chocolate cake, a fudgy rendition oozing with dark Valrhona and crunchy hints of brittle, though its accompaniment is a scoop of merely so-so malted-chocolate ice cream. More house-made ice cream -- light, sweet, and with all the character of flash-frozen ice milk -- comes in three varieties (vanilla bean, mint chocolate chip, and coffee in our case), served up in a bland, unwieldy almond-florentine cone.
The Grand Cafe takes its booze seriously. The inclusive wine list (German, Australian, and Californian as well as the French stuff) features 19 vintages by the glass, plus 18 champagnes and five draft beers. You can also sample an impressive array of tequilas, cask-aged rums, single-malt scotches, Madeiras, and ports under the establishment's tasting program: three half-ounce shots for one relatively low price (around $12, depending on what you choose). It's probably the best way to sample a 14-year Oban, a 10-year Laphroig, and a 10-year Springbank in one toasty sitting. Also available: single-cask scotches, small-batch bourbons, and cognacs aplenty, plus Anchor Steam's sublime Old Potrero single-malt rye at $12.50 a shot.
The Peacock Terrace, a new, private dining room upstairs, allows you and 34 of your closest friends to dine in solitary, brocaded, art nouveau splendor. If you're in a more informal mood you can grab a bite in the aforementioned Petit Cafe, which offers an all-day (and into the late night) menu of French onion soup, salad lyonnaise, cheeses, pâtés, and profiteroles as well as sandwiches, pizzas, and coffee drinks. In mid-afternoon the Petit's setting is tranquil and distinctly relaxing. It's nice to sit there by the window, sipping a Couer de Lion 25-year Calvados, watching the ebb and flow of the Geary Street foot traffic and contemplating our troubled century from a safe, if temporary, distance.