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Meat and Potatoes 

Straightforward but satisfying meat and sides in the Marina

Wednesday, Jan 26 2005
After hearing me rave about my meal at C&L, a well-meaning friend inquired if I was sure that it was, as I called it, "the best little steakhouse in San Francisco." "I always hear good things about Izzy's," she said, and I had to admit that I hadn't eaten there.

Which is an omission I rectified in the new year. I learned a long time ago not to make New Year's resolutions that will either be broken or ignored. (Top of the list, for me and so many others: "lose weight" and/or "get in better shape," followed closely by "get rid of clutter and become better organized." Instead I watch episodes of The Biggest Loser and Clean Sweep, occupying time that could be spent exercising or throwing out old magazines.) This year I vowed only to eat more fruits and vegetables and to get in touch with people I hadn't seen in a while, which leads me to call Aline to invite her, her husband Gary, and her 10-year-old son, Cyrus, out to dinner.

Aline reminds me that Cyrus, a delightful and exuberant kid who loves acting and has sophisticated taste in movies, is a little less experimental when it comes to eating: "not so good on exotic -- he loves Italian and any meat dishes of most cultures." I tell her that I plan to take them to Izzy's Steak and Chop House in the Marina, and she's pleased. "It's been a while since we've had a big steak," she says.

When the night comes, we drop Gary and Cyrus off in front of the eatery, which looks from the street like an old-fashioned saloon, to claim our 7 p.m. reservation while we hunt for parking. It takes only two turns around the block before we slide into a space, but when we walk into Izzy's we join a mob scene standing at the bar and clustered around the hostess, who's busy on the phone. We fight our way through to find Gary, who says, "They wouldn't seat us until all of our party was here." Which is fair, but it takes us a while to attract the attention of the hostess, distracted by the ravenous hordes without a reservation clamoring to add their names to the list. When we do connect, we're immediately led to a table in the back of the room. Aline is mildly disappointed that we haven't scored one of the wooden booths lined up along the side of the room; I understand the attraction, but point out that the restaurant's straight, unupholstered walls force you to sit uncomfortably upright in the booths, while we can loll about in our chairs. We admire the frieze of condiments and jellies that rings the room on top of the wainscoting -- within reach of us, in case we feel the need of Pickapeppa Sauce, jalapeño mint jelly, or exotic mustards. The bottles are immaculate, but Aline wonders if they're taken down and refrigerated every night.

The place is designed to look as venerable as one of the old restaurants pictured in the framed vintage photographs that plaster the walls, but in truth Izzy's (the first of a small local chain) was opened on Feb. 9, 1987, a date chosen because Feb. 9 was the birthday of Izzy Gomez, a legendary San Francisco saloonkeeper of the '30s. (A photo of him standing at the stove and insouciantly stirring a saucepan while wearing a hat is on the front page of the menu.) Both Gary and Cyrus are wearing cool fedoras, and they seem right in step. Gomez's speakeasy was downtown, "not far from the old Montgomery block, across from the firehouse at First and Pacific," as patron William Saroyan writes in his journals. He goes on to say, "Izzy Gomez's was something else. Unique. Sui generis. It really was as portrayed in The Time of Your Life [Saroyan's play], except that it was also a hangout for hard-boiled, sophisticated newspapermen. ... They gave the place a rowdy, slightly underworld character of half-suppressed brawl. ... For meals, Izzy served thick, luscious steaks, french fries, and salads. He gave a considerable number of meals and liquor out free, not just to starving artists, but to people he liked."

The one-page, straightforward, and easy-to-read menu eschews most adjectives and offers steak (more than half a dozen kinds), french fries (here called shoe string potatoes), and salad (Izzy's house, Caesar, and hearts of romaine with blue cheese), as well as a few other starters (including prawn cocktail, sautéed mushrooms, and Cajun fried oysters), several chops (veal, pork, or lamb), and a number of seafood and chicken dishes. Aline asks why a steakhouse offers these, and I joke that they're for the meat-averse dates of the he-men who bring them here. "I should really try one of them," I say (the fish, not the he-men), whereupon Aline promptly changes her mind about trying the New York sirloin ("dry aged 21 days") and says she really wants the peppered swordfish with lime chive sauce.

But when she tries to order it, our friendly server (who has already won my heart by saying "That'll be plenty," after we order three starters, instead of upselling) says, cheerfully, "No swordfish tonight. It'll have to be the grilled salmon." Aline switches instead to the Cajun-style blackened filet, and we are left seafoodless.

Except for the excellent version of fried calamari we begin with, accompanied by a bowl of red cocktail sauce heavy with horseradish. We also get a plateful of thin, lightly cooked asparagus spears dabbed with a slightly mustardy mayonnaise. These starters are both just what they should be, so we're even more unhappy with the sad, so-called Caesar we get, a bowl of chopped romaine in a tasteless, watery dressing topped with sandy Parmesan. I am also not very impressed with the special garlic cheese bread, halved and toasted rolls spread with a commercial-tasting preparation; you're better off with the sourdough and foil-wrapped butter pats that come gratis.

Huge plates come bearing the main event, reminding me of M.F.K. Fisher's description of "a great plate of steaks, with potatoes heaped like swollen hay at each end." At Izzy's, a choice of two sides from a list of six is included in the price of your entree, and we've managed to try them all. My thick New York sirloin comes with a mountain of Izzy's own potatoes -- a rich au gratin preparation with onions, cream, and cheese -- and creamed spinach instead of the steamed broccoli I'd ordered, but a plate of the broccoli swiftly appears when I point this out. Both the sirloin and the two thick pork chops that Cyrus ordered (I tease him that I think his appetite was piqued by its accompanying cinnamon apples, and he agrees) are sturdy-fleshed meats that demand the use of the oversized steak knives we are given. Gary's and Aline's filets are much more tender -- his medallions au poivre covered in a tasty, well-prepared classic cream and brandy sauce full of cracked pepper, and her blackened filet crusty with the Cajun spice mix (heavy on the onion and garlic powder and cayenne). The big baked potato comes with a generous bowl of sour cream dusted with chives, the shoe string potatoes seem to be hand-cut, and we also get big chunks of carrots that seem boiled or steamed, rather than roasted, as advertised. "Why do you only get creamed spinach in steakhouses?" Aline wonders. I am happy to have some extra vegetables alongside the massive quantities of meat, which remind me of one of my favorite essays, Joseph Mitchell's account of the vanished New York political fund-raiser known as the Beefsteak, noisy revels at which appetizers of lamb chops were called "elephant's wrists" on the menu, after which you ate all the steak you could hold, paused, and then ate some more. The Beefsteak is close in spirit to the slightly raffish, somewhat raucous Izzy's, with its generous portions and respectable but not stellar steaks (nothing like the superb cornfed beef of the ambitious C&L).

Not that we need to (we're toting home containers filled with leftovers, and I'm looking forward to cold sliced steak for breakfast), but we try all the available desserts: a classic creamy New York cheesecake; a pale Key lime pie with a graham cracker crust and a nice, lightly browned meringue topping (the general favorite); a chocolate mousse cake that's more like a dense ganache than a mousse; and a crème brûlée that is sadly lacking the glassy crust that Aline had looked forward to breaking. ("It's just a custard," she says.) The ghost of Izzy does not come forward to comp our meals (Gary, a figurative painter currently preparing a one-man show for a gallery in Los Angeles, isn't exactly starving, especially tonight), but his shade is honored by our jovial waiter. Cyrus has complimented him on his bright-green Krusty the Klown watch, which results in a lively interchange about Burger King collectibles and recent movies, including SpongeBob SquarePants, which Cyrus has seen twice (he liked it almost as much as The Aviator). And just before we get up to leave, he gifts Cyrus with a Squidworth watch, still in its metal tin. Somewhere Izzy is pleased.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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