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Getting Its Dues 

Retro meets modern at the Presidio Social Club

Wednesday, Mar 7 2007
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Even though the Presidio has been open to noncombatants for some time now, I still feel a thrill when I glide through its gates, unchallenged by the MPs who used to man them. Until a few years ago, the pleasures of visiting the enclave were mostly voyeuristic: eying the buildings, largely utilitarian, that housed the Army staff at work and play. The only real gastronomic destination was the tiny, late-lamented Desiree Café, where Annie Gingrass turned out exquisite breakfasts and lunches for the happy few who knew where to find her.

But in the last few months several places have opened, including Pres a Vi, offering international small plates, and La Terrasse, with bistro French fare during the day, and a pricier prix fixe at dinner.

A new addition, open just a couple of months, is the Presidio Social Club, which occupies a deceptively nondescript and plain-looking white wooden building, long and low, set on its own little hillock just inside the Presidio's Lombard Gate. The place looks like a child's drawing of a house: Its most distinctive architectural feature is a continuous band of windows across its front, invitingly lit at night. When you walk up a short flight of stairs to the porchlike entrance and read the plaque outside, it's a surprise to learn that it was built in the late 1800s, and first served as a barracks for soldiers en route to the Spanish-American War.

We're delighted, at our first dinner, to find that the Presidio Social Club is set in its own little parking lot. There's no mention of a previous incarnation as a club, per se (though it once housed the encampment's thrift store). But just inside the door there's a bright-red vintage drum kit, emblazoned with the Presidio Social Club logo in seductive and convincing period typefaces, duplicated on the menu, coasters, and business cards.

Set within the clean bones of the barracks is a comfortable modern dining room. It's dominated by a long and wide white marble counter, which, with its tall swiveling stools, looks like a classic soda fountain until you spy the many bottles of spirits lined up behind it in sophisticated glass-fronted metal cabinets interspersed with long vertical mirrors. Bare incandescent bulbs glow at the ends of long cords, illuminating dark wood tables, with seating divided among cane-bottomed armchairs, tall armless gray woven chairs, and black leather banquettes. Ceiling fans circulate lazily above, barely stirring the leaves of a few potted palms in dark terra-cotta pots. The interior design is as deceptively artless as the simple building: Even the dish-towel napkins are striped in the same brick red as the printing on the menu.

The rain-swept view, of lawns, hedges, and headlights sweeping by below us, is not quite fairy-tale-Tavern-on-the-Green-in-Central-Park-worthy, but still feels distinctly apart from the city. The one-page menu is as well styled and easy to read as the room. Down one side runs a list of half a dozen hors d'oeuvres, a soup of the day, and five vegetable sides; alongside it are offered three salads, three "club specialties," seven entrees under seafood, chops and fowl, and mac & cheese, in its own little box. On the back is the interesting wine list, which usefully offers half-carafes as well as wines by the glass and bottle.

We're three adults and a 12-year-old child tonight, and we're hungry. Aline starts with the Dungeness crab "cupcakes," indeed presented in paper baking cups, but sized more like big marble shooters, each delicious ball of lump crabmeat — there are three — sautéed lightly to a crisp, and thatched with a few sprouts. Gary chooses the Gruyère cheese toasts with fondue tomato dip, which turns out to be a witty take on the classic school lunch: a crustless grilled cheese sandwich, carefully cut into four perfect triangles, sided with a glass cup of tomato soup. I expected Cyrus' cream of mushroom soup to taste like cream and mushrooms, but despite a silky texture and slices of mushrooms bobbing about, the dominant flavor is that of celery, from the soup's vegetable stock base. I enjoy my "cannibal sandwich," even though I expected steak tartare and what I get is more like thin-sliced carpaccio on grilled sourdough, topped with onions, capers, fennel slivers, and a drizzle of good olive oil.

I'm impressed that all the main courses are under $20 (save the "cowboy-style" bone-in rib-eye steak for two, at $28 a person), and include your choice of one vegetable side. Gary gets a nice juicy little flat iron steak, about 6 ounces, topped with a disc of butter impregnated with cracked pepper; the mingled juices flow into fluffy whipped potatoes. My roasted Sonoma half-chicken is mildly scented with garlic, cooked just a little too long, and not quite the roast chicken of my dreams. But we are all besotted with the seasonal vegetable of the evening, mashed peas with mint butter: exciting and novel in texture and flavor, they disappear quickly under dueling forks. Cyrus' mac & cheese, a hefty square, is made with Parmesan, Gruyère, and goat cheese, a mild and comforting combination (a previous, tangier version featured blue cheese); he especially likes its baked golden crust. The only loser is the dish Aline chose from the club specialties, called "Broadway & Columbus" and described as Chinatown roast duck over North Beach egg noodles. It's exactly that: chunks of roast duck, faintly five-spiced, with rather flabby skin, over wide egg noodles that were boiled and drained, with nothing added to unite the two, no sauce, no chopped cilantro, even. It's like an uninspired snack thrown together out of leftovers.

The dessert menu offers four dishes called desserts and another four identified as sides, although they all sound like desserts to me. We get a beautiful individual banana cream pie, the fruit layered with custard and whipped cream on a flaky pastry disc; a small glass cup of dark, deep-flavored chocolate pudding, with whipped cream and a crisp wafer; a cookie plate with house-made chocolate-chip cookies, coconut macaroons, chocolate truffles, and a caramel; and a lovely Meyer lemon tart. We're told that the pastry chef came from Fifth Floor. When Cyrus asks for hot chocolate, we're told they don't offer it, but magically our server appears with a cup; "they melted chocolate in the kitchen and steamed some milk," he offers. And, magically, it doesn't appear on our check, either: two sweet and thoughtful gestures that make the slogan "All the comforts of a club, without the dues," seem true.

The setting continues to charm me on my second visit, but the meal not quite as much. I choose the shrimp and crab combo for the "Mission Taqueria style" PSC seafood cocktail, but the tomato juice sauce is bland, evincing little of the advertised chilis and lime juice, and none of the avocado, and though the shrimp are sweet and tender, the crab is limp and the amount of both seems meager at $11. The server remembers to tell us that the mixed grill seafood starter is $12.50, not too much for two large and meaty sardines, some squid, and grilled asparagus, but again the dish seems underspiced. And I'd like to have been told that the fish of the day, a meaty swordfish steak with both fresh-chopped salsa and a mild Romesco sauce, and thin crisp fries, was $23 before I read it on the check. My generous portion of lightly grilled liver with bacon and onions seems a snip at $15.

The baked-to-order chocolate cupcakes are worth waiting for: three tender little cakes, topped with what seems like miniature Cocoa Pebbles, called croquillants, and sided with a cup of unusually thick whipped cream. I'm also taken with the four freshly made log-shaped brioche beignets, with a honeyed dipping sauce. Indeed, I'm quite taken with the Presidio Social Club, even if it is willing to have me as a member.

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Meredith Brody

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