~CAFÉ CLAUDE~ went through some ownership and kitchen changes about a year or so ago (the new owner is Franck Leclerc, who brought on ex-Chez Papa chef Philippe Chevalier), but it firmly remains one of my favorite places for an alfresco lunch, or an escapist dinner. Why escapist? Because you aren't in SF anymore, Dorothy. It's certainly one of the most authentically Parisian bistros in San Francisco, and there's a reason for it. The entire interior, from the zinc bar to the red-topped linoleum tables to the wooden bistro chairs, used to be in a Parisian café called Le Barbizon; Café Claude's original owner had everything shipped over in a container and then voilà! I'm not sure if the waiters came over in the container as well, but most of them are definitely the real deal.
Sit outside if you want some tranquil and atmospheric alley dining (or want to try to smoke a Gauloises in peace), but my personal favorite seat is inside, by the large windows. Here's my fail-proof recipe for a perfect lunch, whether it's a birthday lunch, ladies who lunch, or oooooh, a hot lunch (gotta love those): start with a bottle of their Cremant de Bourgogne, Louis Bouillot, France, NV ($39), a food-friendly rosé sparkler (unless, of course, you're with a big spender who wants to spring for the Laurent Perrier Rosé [$100] instead, lucky you), and start sipping as you peruse the menu. Take your pick from their array of charcuterie: I usually go for the rillette de canard ($5), or coax my dining partner into (i.e. order for them) the combo plate of three ($13) so you don't have to leave out the pâté de campagne and peppercorn mousse—they come rustically displayed on a wood plank, with cornichons, radishes, pickled onions, Niçoise olives, and all the other de rigueur charcuterie accompaniments. (And oui, I am going to continue inserting French words into this write-up wherever possible.)
Next, the betterave salad ($9)—I simply can't resist beets, especially when they come with snow peas, feta cheese, cherry tomatoes, and pistou (that would be French for pesto). Now, if you are going to be a lady who lunches, then the Niçoise salad ($10) is an obvious and wise choice: a mêlée of haricot verts, hard-boiled egg, fresh greens, wedges of tomato (mine was a little mealy on one visit, drat), and baby lettuce crowned with albacore tuna, or order up a version with ruby red slices of seared ahi tuna instead, that come topped with a cross of anchovy filets. The kicky caper dressing is savory, but you'll need to crack some salt and pepper over your egg and tomato and make sure to mix them in with bites of the salad—they came a little naked to the party.
The menu always has some daily specials, like seafood or pasta—but I find it hard to resist their steak tartare ($11.50), prepared tableside. It's an elegant presentation (I really wish more places did this) and one of my favorite beefy indulgences.
Did someone say indulgence? Okay, you chocoholics will probably tuck into the moelleux au chocolate ($6), a flourless chocolate cake served piping hot in a ramekin, with crème anglaise then poured on top. (Pour some on me.) Personally, I always veer toward the cake-like clafoutis ($6) with griotte cherries. Order up a macchiato over dessert (you really should be done with that bubbly by now) and you'll be properly revved to go do some tipsy shopping, or just sit in the window and watch people go by, maybe tossing out a couple flirty or even lewd comments, and start thinking about whether you should stay for dinner or not. But if you're making lewd comments, you might not be invited to stay for dinner.
About dinner: while lunch is lovely, dinner is also a delight: for evening, the tables are covered in white tablecloths, and the room exudes a cozy and romantic glow. Live jazz (like Marcus Shelby) and other
musical acts play Thursday through Saturday evenings, so consider if you would like live music with your dinner—it can sometimes get a little loud, but then again, I find it kind of sexy, and certainly unlike any other restaurant scene in San Francisco. The tables are tight, the mood is convivial, and the crowd is usually friendly and attractive; I sometimes swing by just for dessert—it's that kind of place. Salud, baby.
7 Claude Lane
Cross: Bush St.
San Francisco, CA 94108
Bar: Mon-Sat 11:30am-closing
Live Music: Thu-Sat 7:30pm-10:30pm