Calling a new restaurant a tavern when it's ensconced in the downtown Hilton is a bit of a stretch. Taverns were originally rustic drinking houses, way stations on Europe's roads, offering simple food and perhaps a bed for the night. The word conjures up highwaymen, roaring fires, and Henry Fielding's Tom Jones slurping oysters and tearing flesh off a roasted bird.
But this is an Urban Tavern, apparent when you enter from O'Farrell into its sleek, warmly lit space, creamy white with touches of earth-colored stone and wood. In the more informal front space, there's an inviting bar/lounge, the currently de rigueur communal table in polished wood under striking glass pendant shades, and small white-clothed tables spaced along a banquette. In the more formal yet intimate back of the room, there are snug booths under ceilings crossed with beams made from rough railroad ties. Judicious use of mirrors — including a long wood-framed one over the banquettes — enlarges the room and makes it sparkle.
The most striking element of the decor is an engaging, brightly colored, life-sized horse sculpture, appearing to be assembled from bits of old farm machinery. The horse, we're told, was a fortunate discovery at a local art gallery, and it became such a favorite that it appears in silhouette at the top of Urban Tavern's oversized one-page menu.
Said menu was devised by Laurent Manrique, famed French chef of Aqua, who with Chris Condy as C&L Partners now also owns Café de la Presse and the Rouge et Blanc Wine Bar and consults for Fifth Floor. The menu extends from the south of France (pissaladière, salade niçoise, tapenade) into Spain (cazuela, crème catalane). It's divided, somewhat eccentrically, into starters, salads, and four main course sections: "grilled" for meats; "plancha" (which means grilled on a metal plate, or griddled) for fish; casserole; and mussels. Sides are divided into potatoes, beans and lentils, and vegetables.
We settled into our comfy booth and studied the menu while sipping glasses of 2006 Sanford and Benedict Riesling ($9), 2005 Quivira Zinfandel ($11), and a tall, minty, rather dry mojito ($11). We picked at a plate of tangy house-pickled vegetables ($4) and dipped country bread in a delicious oily pesto. Wines by the glass, some cocktails, a list of a dozen bottled beers, and a few bar snacks such as olives ($4) and spicy sausage ($4) are listed on the back of the menu. The separate wine list is eclectic and interesting.
The charcuterie plate ($10) boasts a top-notch local pedigree — Paul Bertolli, whose passion for salumi started the local craze for preserved meats. The plate comes with four slices each of excellent prosciutto, soppressata, pistachio-encrusted mortadella, and salami, along with pickled onions, cornichons, whole-grain mustard, and a dark, thick grape mustard.
I was afraid that the large ricotta gnocchi ($11) would be tough when they were brought to the table sizzling hot, baked in a cast-iron casserole – Urban Tavern's signature. But they turned out to be amazingly silky, baked in a tomatoey sauce with sleek strands of oyster mushrooms and melted parmesan. From four different preparations of mussels — the classic marinière with garlic and white wine; pastis and fennel broth; tomato and pancetta; and Berber spice and cilantro (all $14) — we chose tomato and pancetta, which dressed the heap of shellfish with a subtler-than-expected combination of sweetness and salt. Either the mussels or the gnocchi would do for a light main course.
The eight grilled meat and five fish dishes come with your choice of one sauce or vinaigrette (additional sauces are $3 each), but are otherwise ungarnished; if you want something more than pure protein staring up at you from a cast-iron pan, vegetable sides are $4 each.
With the 10-ounce, already sliced, rather thin sirloin ($21) came a properly peppery black pepper and Armagnac sauce on the side and beautiful skinny French fries, modishly served wrapped in paper in a sculptural metal cone with a saffron aioli. The fries would have been even better if they'd managed to arrive at the table hot. Alongside the steak came an entire head of roasted garlic speared with a sprig of fresh rosemary, and we spread the sweet, soft cloves on more of the rustic bread. Creamy garlic mashed potatoes were the perfect accompaniment for the meltingly tender beef daube Catalane ($22 for one person, $42 for two, and $79 for four), classically French despite the Spanish adjective. The only disappointment among our main courses was the enticingly named chicken "bouillabaisse"-style ($19 for one person, $38 for two, $72 for four), served with crisp toasts spread with aioli. Despite the dish's ingredients of fennel, tomatoes, garlic, and onions, it tasted rather bland and reheated. As a companion pointed out, beef stew only gets better with age, but chicken is not as resilient. However, we very much enjoyed a side dish of hearty lentils with bacon and lots of translucent slivered garlic.
The dessert list offers alluring, somewhat uncommon sweets (all $9), with rather disappointing results. The point of having a crème catalane, rather than a crème brûlée, is its thicker, smoother texture; what we got was a standard crème brûlée, overwhelmed with raw saffron flavor that obliterated any hint of the star anise the menu mentioned. The point of brioche "perdue," i.e. French toast, is its custardy, eggy texture; the two dry pieces of grilled bread didn't fill the bill, though we liked the heap of roasted berries and fruit and crème fraîche alongside.
But on the whole, Urban Tavern in the evening felt like a totally different restaurant than the one we'd visited for a disappointing lunch. It consisted of a rather flavorless cold tomato soup poured around a knot of equally underwhelming crab ($10); a salad of marinated calamari and underripe watermelon ($11); a Caesar ($9) that came with so few anchovies that we had to request more, and a pervasive and unwelcome dusting of hot red pepper that made it very un-Caesarlike; and an overcooked and oily-tasting chunk of salmon ($20), without its accompanying tartar sauce, which only came after two requests and an agonizing wait. The peach melba ($9) we shared, made with good vanilla ice cream, suffered from an underflavored peach.
At dinner a month after the disappointing lunch, the kitchen had noticeably improved, but slow and rather clueless service persisted. Our server was earnest, but she didn't tell us what the soup of the day was (we overheard it later from another server), didn't know what lumache pasta was (an ingredient in the shellfish casserole which turns out to be large shells), and, when we wanted to know which four cheeses were on the cheese plate, promised to find out but never told us. On the plus side, she did know that paillasson potatoes are a kind of grated potato cake. And she cheerfully bore away portions of dishes to be boxed up to go.
Still, there's nothing quite like the rather glamorous Urban Tavern in its gritty downtown neighborhood. Not only is it conveniently close to several of San Francisco's theater and concert venues, but its menu is also suitable for both full meals and grazing. We watched two young girls sitting across from us snack, delightedly, on a shared plate of salmon rillettes, eggplant caviar, and hummus ($9); a casserole of Berber-spiced mussels ($14); a side of white beans, tomatoes, and olives ($4); and two glasses of Prosecco ($9), getting out of there for about $25 each. Two different tables, two totally different experiences.