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The Many Faces of Bruno's 


Wednesday, Aug 9 2000
Consider for a moment the various avatars of Bruno's. You have the Bruno's you can read about: the legendary Bruno's that opened in the late 1930s, a hangout for politicians and bigwigs back when ladies wore gloves, the Mission was Irish-Italian, and BART was still a glimmer in civic leaders' eyes. That Bruno's was followed by a more downscale incarnation, a fixture-type Bruno's, a Bruno's that, I'm guessing, people loved like a musty uncle right up until the day Uncle Bruno finally died. And then, a year later, in 1995, a swank, blistering-hot new Bruno's hit the scene, a Bruno's lauded as the hub of all things jazzy and swinging and stylishly retro but later reviled as an icon of gentrification, a visionary Bruno's, but also a Bruno's that revealed things about people's attitudes toward the changes creeping through the Mission, which made for an interesting Bruno's, to say the least.

To me, Bruno's is the place where I held an aspiring photojournalist's hand but got no further; the place where I saw a writer I knew, apparently also a singer, crooning as sweet and luscious as anything I'd ever heard. I never got too looped at Bruno's, but never stayed too sober, either, and then once, I dropped by Bruno's on a weekend, a jostling, bump-into-someone-every-which-way-you-turn kind of Bruno's, and maybe I just wasn't feeling it that night, or maybe Bruno's had changed, but I said to myself, "Fuck Bruno's," and went somewhere else. After that, I lost track of Bruno's, which closed last year, and now, of course, Bruno's is back -- a brand-new Bruno's for a brand-new millennium, still permeated by the ghosts of all the Bruno's past.

This new Bruno's is a gorgeous one, not too different from the last -- spiffier, perhaps a few shades more luminous, a place where candles line the bar and a tremendous fish tank exudes neon pastels and bartenders shake cocktails with deftness and aplomb. Jazz flows unendingly through the new, new Bruno's, and in the dining room underlit lilies look sweet and deadly and sleek hostesses in cocktail dresses pass tuxedo-clad waiters. The place is dark -- so dark we could barely read the wine list -- and back in the smoking room it smelled like something died about six months ago. But still, this new Bruno's ached with promise as we slid into a deep, voluptuous, red leather booth that made me want to indulge in all sorts of naughty behavior, and my friends Michelle and Chloe -- well, they were looking hungry, and, I imagine, so was I.

As it turned out, this new Bruno's is the place where we suffered through an entree so terrible a bowl of warmed-over hog maws sounds appetizing by comparison. But before we go there, let's stop by the bar for a few cocktails. The drink list offers 72 of them, a nice touch for those of us who can't always recall the countless thousands of recipes for achieving inebriation -- the Frisco Sour, the Bronx, the Americano, the Presbyterian, the Bocce Ball, the Moscow Mule, the Apple Car, the Hurricane, the Gimlet, the Dark and Stormy -- not to mention the drinks we tried. These included a decent Cosmopolitan, a perfect, bitter-crisp Negroni, a piercing little Lemon Drop ringed with super-fine sugar, a disappointing Bellini made with peach schnapps instead of fresh peaches, a crisp, light Mojito, the best I've ever had, and, even better, the Blood Orange: Stolichnaya orange vodka, cointreau, lemon, and orange juice, braced quite splendidly with bitter Campari.

Unfortunately, the dining room didn't hold up its end of the bargain. We liked our first two appetizers -- silky, tinglingly pungent white anchovies and al dente asparagus ringed with a sweet, tangy port vinaigrette, and a cool, crisp salad of yellow beets and shaved artichokes, touched with lemon and fennel -- while the third, a shellfish salad with lobster, mussels, clams, octopus, baby squid, white beans, olives, and arugula -- had some problems. I never did find any lobster, the other seafood was cut into itty-bitty nubs, the beans tasted starchy, and, worst of all, a mysterious, vaguely astringent flavor clung to every ingredient. Oddly enough, we couldn't tell where the flavor was coming from, though I continued eating in the hope that I might discover its source for future reference. Funky arugula? A diseased olive? Eventually, the taste became so overwhelming I had to stop, and my face wrinkled into a sort of a ... actually, I couldn't identify that, either.

So I asked Chloe, who knows all sorts of nifty words: "What kind of expression is this?"

"A grimace?" she guessed.

Ah yes, a grimace -- one that cost me 12 bucks.

Our primi treated us better. We adored the gnocchi with arugula, garlic, sage, and butter -- tender, meltingly light pillows of potato sautéed until they took on a subtle blush of crispness -- then discovered the true meaning of risotto in Bruno's version, served with morel mushrooms, asparagus, and bacon. Here, the rich tastes of bacon and earthy morels seemed to have been welcomed into each and every grain of rice, like houseguests, which made for a creamy, blessedly savory dish that throbbed with flavor and life.

In fact, the risotto seduced us so thoroughly we could have stopped there, and probably should have. After the plates were cleared, we waited a good 20 minutes for our entrees, and only one -- chicken in a sweet, tangy fig-balsamic vinegar sauce -- exuded the magic one comes to expect at these prices. Though the oxtail with leeks, carrots, juniper berries, and champagne vinegar seemed promising at first -- the meat was tender, and lightly sweet -- the sweetness became cloying after a few bites. What's more, the bits of oxtail were so tiny I couldn't help but recall the hulking medallions of oxtail I ate at Caffe Macaroni a month earlier, or the equally hulking oxtails I ate at Red Herring last year. Perhaps these were calf tails instead.

Ever been on one of those dates that makes you say, "Man, I just can't relate to people anymore?" It's a hollow, defeated feeling, captured quite perfectly on the face of Michelle, who doesn't eat meat, when she tried our lone fish entree, a whole, cartoccio-baked sea bass. As our waitress deboned the fish, I had to wonder if she'd be able to locate all the bones in such a dimly lit restaurant. She didn't: I got four or five in my first bite of mushy, slimy, unfresh fish, fish so far past its prime none of us could stand more than a few bites, which meant that same fish stank up my kitchen when I took it home.

As Chloe said later, this was a deal-breaker of a fish -- as in tear up the contracts, all bets are off, please don't call here anymore -- a fish so utterly unappealing it could sour a person against a restaurant forever.

Then, the music from the bar became so loud it sounded like the band was playing in the next booth. And then, a man gave us a basket of bread for some reason, which was whisked away by someone else just in time for dessert. We tore into the bombolini -- crisp, chewy, sugar-dusted little doughnuts filled with chocolate, vanilla cream, and raspberry jam -- but had to stop and contemplate the tiramisu encased in a light, creamy Kahlúa anglaise. Again, something strange was happening -- a caustic, almost spiteful flavor seemed to permeate the tiramisu, the result, I guessed, of the accompanying espresso reduction. I spooned some, just for the hell of it, and was overwhelmed by what might best be described as the taste of purified wrath -- a bitter, pitiless sensation that triggered a frown, or perhaps a scowl, or even something worse.

Again, I couldn't tell, so I asked Chloe, who began edging toward Michelle's side of the booth.

"I don't know what that face is," she said. "But don't ever make it again."

One can only hope.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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