You could be forgiven for wanting to escape from the world in the coming weeks. The holiday gauntlet has officially been thrown down, and with it the usual emotional, physical, and financial challenges of the stretch of days between Thanksgiving and New Year's. They might not yet know your name at Two Sisters Bar & Books, but the sliver of a bar/restaurant in Hayes Valley is the place to feel welcome.
The space is narrow enough to touch with your fingertips if you stood in the middle and spread your arms wide. The wallpaper wouldn't be out of place in a San Francisco parlor, circa 1910, or a smoky bar in Paris or Prague. The light is dim and the jumping jazz soundtrack gives the place a speakeasy vibe. One wall is taken up with a low bookcase from which patrons are encouraged to borrow books — it's stocked with everything from the classics to the Hunger Games. This is the kind of bar where it's not only accepted, but encouraged, to sit on your own and read.
As you'd expect from the name, the bar was started by two sisters, Mikha Diaz and Mary Elliott, who got the idea while on a train between Krakow and Warsaw. As such, the atmosphere and menu are vaguely European bistro, with some Northern Californian bits thrown in: local purveyors, Edison lightbulbs, house-made everything ... you know the drill.
Begin with a strong drink from the cocktail program headed up by Michael Cecconi. The Two Sisters is a fairly standard twist on the Manhattan; the Harvest Manhattan is made with pumpkin liqueur that sounds like it has a high potential to be a treacly mess, but the rye, vermouth, and bitters in the drink balance it out. A chamomile Old Fashioned is a bit too heavy on the chamomile infusion in the bourbon; it tastes medicinal, but wouldn't be unwelcome if you were suffering from a head cold. Or you could sip one of four local microbrews on tap, or have a glass, half-liter, or bottle from the mostly California wine list.
The bartenders are charming, but that's where the service begins and ends, save for some totally on-their-game busboys. Order food at the bar, and stick to small plates and snacks — the food comes out fast, but the kitchen cooks with more heart than expertise. Paper-thin house-made potato chips go well with a horseradish crème fraîche dip for a peppy take on a tired party go-to. Deviled eggs, which have become the latest 1950s revival hit on menus across town, have centers that are runnier than the norm and an almost-useless hint of truffle, though a dusting of fried capers on top is a nice touch. The well-curated, local charcuterie and cheese plates come with bread and sweet roasted garlic.
For a small meal, there's the perfectly satisfying, perfectly simple grilled cheese sandwich — melted St. George cheddar cheese and garlic butter, grilled almost to the point of burning but saved just in time to achieve caramelization—served with a sidecar of tomato soup in an oversized teacup. The soup had all the cleanness of fresh tomatoes with none of the tinny aftertaste of Campbell's, and that classic grilled-cheese-tomato-soup combo, paired with a cocktail on a gray day, has the power to put anything right in the world.
Bigger plates are where the kitchen starts to go a little wonky. A braised butter-bean salad looked promising, with fresh lettuce and big slices of shaved parmesan, but was swimming in so much lemon-parsley vinaigrette the tartness was overwhelming. One of our two beer-braised short ribs had meat that was falling off the bone, as it should, but the other was so overcooked it took some work to cut into, and the sweet oatmeal-stout sauce desperately called for seasoning. But the unadorned, butter-roasted Brussels sprouts that came with it were quite nice.
Duck cassoulet fared better than the short ribs — it was a perfectly average cassoulet, with nothing to recommend it and nothing to censure it, either. The only mystifying element was the untoasted baguette slices on the plate, so soft they made poor vehicles for the heaviness of the peasant casserole. And we were pleasantly surprised by the fish of the day, that night a silver salmon, which was seared medium-rare with a crackling skin and dressed in a superb lemon burre blanc that showed that someone in the kitchen knows what they're doing.
Two Sisters celebrated its first birthday last month, and seems to have found its groove in the pre- and post-dinner rush, with couples and friends sharing small plates and good conversation. Earth-shattering food isn't the only reason to go out to eat, after all, and the atmosphere here is so welcoming and comfortable that the content of the plate is secondary to the company.
One night the small room was extra-crowded; it turned out to be Booze & Book Club night, the last Wednesday of every month, everyone sitting around and talking books over drinks and charcuterie. Amid the din of literary discussion, I'd found a place that almost felt like home.