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Deco Dreams 

An art show's lingering effects take us on a tour of deco restaurants

Wednesday, Jul 28 2004
Last year the American Museum of Natural History in New York presented a crowd-pleasing show about chocolate (titled, neatly, "Chocolate: The Exhibition"), and, not one to miss a trick, opened a special little eatery (called, with admirable restraint, the Chocolate Café) to tempt attendees who had just viewed pre-Columbian ceramics, European silver chocolate services, 19th-century cocoa tins, and holiday candy molds with the hazelnut chocolate biscotti, chocolate croissants, and triple chocolate cakes of their dreams. (There were even chocolate-covered potato chips and three different chocolate stouts on the menu, not really the stuff of anybody's dreams. Nightmares, maybe.)

I found myself wondering, during two visits to the recently ended "Art Deco 1910-1939" show at the Legion of Honor, just what form a cafe created in the exhibit's style would take. Such an eatery would be a celebration more of form than content, and wouldn't recognize an art deco school of cuisine (though an insistent reverie of gleaming black beads of caviar next to stark white sour cream in the era's silver dishes danced in my head). There was a lot of old-fashioned food served on those modernistic dishes -- creamed chicken and peas in patty shells, for instance. (If it was a show of Italian futurism, that would be different. That would be easy. Its chief theorist, F.T. Marinetti, literally wrote the book -- The Futurist Cookbook -- on that one, and we'd be supping on fennel and kumquats with sandpaper and velvet.) There'd be cocktails, of course; cocktails were quintessential deco. How could a martini glass not be deco? Anyway, it would be all about the setting, everything snappy and shiny. (Not that there isn't room for several kinds of art deco, not to mention disagreement among the proponents of each. An article a few weeks ago in the New York Times, in support of a furniture show called "Ruhlmann: Genius of Art Deco" at the Metropolitan Museum, allowed as how the Chrysler Building isn't art deco. And if the Chrysler Building isn't art deco, then I'm Queen Marie of Roumania.)

I wished I could visit the now-altered Redwood Room at the Clift, which in its original state was pictured on the cover of Deco by the Bay: Art Deco Architecture in the San Francisco Bay Area, a 1995 book by Michael F. Crowe. Or the wonderfully named Patent Leather Bar and Orchid Room, preserved in gleaming Ansel Adams photographs, the original inhabitant of the space at the St. Francis that became the Compass Rose and is now Restaurant Michael Mina.

But I did manage to trip through time for several meals, imbibing art deco atmosphere along with tasty viands that fed our 21st-century appetites. Peter, Anita, and I supped charmingly at Bix, an S.F. stalwart that is the closest thing we have to a supper club, a two-story room smack in the middle of the Barbary Coast and once home to a nightclub that celebrated New Year's Eve every night (just the thought of that exhausts me). At Bix, the exuberance is still there, though considerably more contained. The atmosphere is sweetened by nightly live music (solo piano at the beginning of the week, complemented later by a vocalist; by the weekend, there's a jazz trio on hand), and there's always a lively crowd clustered in front of the massive bar, backed by many shelves of glittering bottles. (M.F.K. Fisher once wrote that you should never eat in a restaurant that features live music, but in this case she would be wrong.)

The upstairs (reached by a dizzying staircase) is ringed with cozy booths. Under a poster of Josephine Baker there's a glass-fronted case displaying art deco cocktail shakers and period books, including the classic Savoy Cocktail Book from 1930, with its iconic cover of a silhouetted man quaffing a drink, its intoxicating path tracing a zigzag through his body. The menu reads like a supper club, too, though filtered through a modern sensibility ("BIX supports local farmers and sustainable agriculture"). There are lots of interesting hors d'oeuvres (not a heading one sees often these days), such as potato pillows with crème fraîche and caviar, listed before first courses such as steak tartare and oysters on the half shell, several salads, and entrees including grilled wild salmon and duck breast.

Our cocktails (mine a perfect Sidecar) arrived in individual silver shakers, given another brisk rumba at the table. Our food was unfailingly luxurious in conception, though the realization faltered a bit: There was nothing wrong with the celery-cured wild salmon with potato pancake and a sprinkling of caviar or with the simultaneously old-fashioned and very of-the-moment grilled marrow bones "St. John" with parsley salad, an homage to Fergus Henderson's London restaurant, and we love love loved the juicy truffled hamburger on rye toast with frites (we'd come back for it). But the tempura-fried Idaho morels were soggy rather than crisp, and the kitchen seemed to have an odd fetish for cherry tomatoes, which overpowered the Maine lobster spaghetti and were very present on the plate of two round patties of chicken hash, a traditional dish that almost worked. Still, it was clear that the kitchen was motivated by the concept of deliciousness, especially when we dived into a bowl of rummy bananas Foster over vanilla ice cream and a caramelized frozen mascarpone mousse over chunks of Blossom Bluff nectarines -- pure genius.

After a screening of King Vidor's 1928 silent The Patsy -- with adorable flapper Marion Davies in an evening coat trimmed with white fur that would have been right at home in a glass case at the Legion, dining on creamed chicken in patty shells at the Yacht Club and impersonating Mae Murray and Lillian Gish -- we continued the mood by descending down a flight of stairs to Shanghai 1930, yet another supper club that feels timeless. We walked by a jazz trio holding forth in the mirrored bar room as we were led to a table in the dining room, lined with sculptural Chinese pottery and glass etched in deco patterns. "It's wonderful to see such a crowded room at 9:30 on a Thursday night," I said as I sipped an icy Orange Drop and perused the daunting three-page menu. We skipped the beluga caviar service in favor of chili-encrusted fried calamari, still tender under its crust; an unusual cold salad of crisp threads of eel tossed with pale green crescents of celery and pickled ginger; and steamed shaolung bao, soup dumplings that lost much of their point (biting into them and getting a rush of liquid) when they stuck to the steamer. But we were more than happy with the meaty, moist squab smoked over tea leaves, served with fat buns and sour plum sauce; the "fish on a vine," a white-fleshed fillet scored to look like a bunch of grapes, lightly fried, and served in a slightly sticky and very tasty reduction of red wine, verjus, and soy sauce, garnished with red grapes; exquisite baby pea shoots wokked with Kaoliang liquor; "jade and ebony," plump black mushrooms paired with baby bok choy; and especially the divinely fatty, vermilion-glazed pork belly simmered in red wine lees (vinegarlike residue). This was food of substance, delivered in a stylish setting.

But my most thrilling deco moment was, alas, one that is not easily repeated: a surprisingly delicious lunch at the members- and invited-by-members-only City Club (155 Sansome, 362-2480,, which roosts on the top two floors of the Stock Exchange Building, built in 1929 (timing!) and designed by the echt-art deco architect Timothy Pflueger and interior decorator Michael Goodman. I was impressed by the invention and quality of the meal we had (ranging from a classic, impeccably roasted beef hand-carved to order to an original risotto made with chorizo, the first I'd ever seen), but I was already delirious due to the classic and original setting, a set of perfectly preserved art deco rooms. A number of different artists had created every detail, and there was almost too much to be absorbed in one visit: the famous Diego Rivera mural, of course, with its themes of California industry, but also carved fireplace surrounds; overmantel decorations; bronze elevator doors encrusted with copper, silver, and brass; massive marble-topped tables; a sculpted, gold-leafed ceiling on one floor and a brass-leafed one on the other ("When they ran out of money after the Crash," we were cheerfully told).

Luckily there's a guided tour of the facilities given the first Wednesday of every month at 3 p.m. by Masha Zakheim, ex-S.F. State professor, historian, and daughter of one of the artists whose work is on view inside as well as at Coit Tower (call 285-0495 for reservations). She leads you from the monumental Ralph Stackpole sculptures outside on Pine Street, through the building's lobby (with its modernistic ceiling inspired by a Berlin nightclub), and up to the City Club itself. Without her aid, I never would have seen that the bas-relief I thought was Mayan actually depicts the Stanford football team (with wide Mayan cheekbones), or that the determinedly moderne chrome staircase isn't abstract, as it appears at first glance, but repeats silhouettes of a man-about-town in business dress, golf togs, and evening clothes. And that one could command an excellent luncheon in such extraordinary surroundings ... I never felt the need to be a clubwoman until now.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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