I've lived in San Francisco since 1994 (and yes, my favorite sound system will always be the one that was at Townsend). I remember restaurants back then that used to feel authentically hip and even a touch handmade, maybe not the slickest but definitely cool and fun in their own crafty little way. Miss Pearl's Jam House was always a good time with their poolside gospel brunches (did you know Joey Altman used to cook there?). Everyone went to Firefly for a date. Lulu's was so hot. Slow Club was so cool. Ditto for Universal Café. Cypress Club was like returning to the womb—I loved getting tipsy at that bar. And no, we are not going to forget the forever-missed Flying Saucer that sadly zipped away to another galaxy. And really, would anyone ever create a bar like Noc Noc now?
So when my pal and I were dining at ~farmerbrown~ this past week, we were definitely grooving on a feeling we haven't had for some time. It smacked of real SF cool, the way it did "back in the day" before the detour of dot-bomb. No slick Miami/L.A. imported style, no LED, no Kartell chairs, no "sun kissed" house music. I gotta say, it just felt relaxed. It was evening cool, without a "scene" of chicks (still) baring their midriffs, no pushy guys. The vibe was energetic, the lights were dim, with folks cocktailing and B-Love the DJ was playing tight hitz from the glory days of hip hop, tossing in some soul, and then a blues band came on for a bit. Like, good blues. Huh. Yeah, cool.
Perhaps one of the most compelling things I noticed was the crowd. This is what was so refreshing: it had probably one of the most diverse crowds I've seen in some time. From the hip sistahs at the bar to the enclave of gay boys tucked into a corner table to a hot Indian couple sharing some fried chicken… like, wow. We really can all hang out together. More of that, please.
The man behind SF's latest outpost of authentic cool is Jay Foster, formerly of Blue Jay Café and Emmy's Spaghetti Shack, along with Deanna Sison and Gwen Ledet. He and some of his staff did everything in the space by hand, and I mean everything, from the panels of galvanized steel they oxidized on their friend's roof for four months, to the bistro chairs they refinished by hand, to the floor that is actually made of plywood stained a deep oxblood color and then covered in layers of polyurethane and cut into tiles, to the lights above the bar made out of burlap and suspended from the grass green ceiling. (I believe the cracked windows were already there. They are initially a little visually arresting, but it works.) There are rivets and bevels and copper, and booths upholstered in toothy corduroy. Groovy art on the wall from their pal, Keba Konte. Everywhere you look there's a little personal touch of something. (Except the bathroom. I think the bathroom was totally forgotten. I felt like I had walked into the bathroom of a random Thai restaurant in the avenues somewhere.) Even the carafe of water that arrives with mint and lime inside is partnered with Mason jars to drink out of. Details details. I liked the tea towels instead of napkins as well. Homey.
Foster is really committed to supporting local and African American farmers, and using organic/sustainable/biodynamic ingredients whenever he can. We grazed through some apps, like the thick apple-cut style wedges of Kennebec fries ($4.50) that came with a tart green garlic aioli, and the gumbo of the day (a.q./$6), which that night featured chicken, shrimp, andouille sausage and a mound of rice plunked in the middle. It has a nice rich flavor, but needed to be served a touch warmer. Loved the fiery hot jalapeño and vinegar sauce that came on the side. Hoo-weee. Hotsie totsie. (Sidebar: the gumbo is served until the bar closes at 2am.)
Also tried the wedge salad ($6.50), which would be spot-on if a heavier hand was pouring the delicious Point Reyes blue cheese dressing on top, and if it was served ice cold on an even colder plate. I dug the extra touch of thinly sliced radish on the side. There are some other apps, like an old-school baked crab imperial ($9), and I had a taste of the poached prawn with roasted jalapeño cocktail sauce ($8)—I'll be back for more of that. Totally refreshing. Besides the three salads offered, fries, or most of the sides, vegetarians will also be able to tuck into the vegetable jambalaya ($11).
Didn't make it to the po' boy of the day (cornmeal-fried catfish with remoulade)—gonna save that for a late night, or a happy hour. Of course we tried the Fulton Valley fried chicken ($12.50), which was so juicy (yes, even the breast meat) and sported a "like grandma would make it" crunchy crust. Yeah, fried chicken you can almost feel good about eating–it's free range and without any hormones or antibiotics for crissakes. I was way into the delicate coleslaw made with cucumber, cream and sour cream. One of the few coleslaws I ever wanted seconds of. Nibbled on the home-style mac 'n' cheese, with tiny macaroni that weren't drowning in cream and five kinds of cheese with an artery-clogging crust for a change—it had just the right amount of Tillamook cheddar cheese, simple, done.
The roasted trout ($17) came stuffed with an herby layer with crumbled peanuts inside, topped with a thick-cut piece of smoky bacon which my friend said reminded him of Burning Man when he smelled it. I agree—I eat more bacon out there then any other week of my life. (Okay, I'll stop with the digression right there.) I actually wanted a little more bacon for the other half of the fish, partly because the saltiness helped elevate the flavor of the trout, but it's also partly because my car's license plate should read "BACNLVR". Mister fishka was accompanied with some asparagus and sugar snap peas that were cooked perfectly—just the right amount of crispness. A pungent grilled half of a Meyer lemon to squeeze on the fish was thoughtful.
To do a chicken comparison/extravaganza, we also tried the brick-oven roasted version ($17), which was more of a poussin. Also totally juicy, on a bed of sautéed greens, which were a bit salty, but it made up for the slightly under-salted chicken. With one bite together, it was the perfect balance. I practically stuffed myself on the pecan and cornbread stuffing—it was studded with currants, and with the sweetness of the pecans it somehow reminded me a little bit of a tasty Moroccan couscous—it was a touch exotic. The whole thing was one juicy pile of chicken love. Here's the thing—you're gonna want to bring the rest of that poussin home with you so you can seriously pick it apart. Nothing quite like attacking a chicken carcass in the privacy of your own home. The next day I became such a little animal eating it for lunch that I practically saw fur grow on my hands. Rawr.
The side of pork and beans ($4) were too cloyingly sweet for me, but some folks like 'em that way. But here's what totally made my night: the mile-high wedge of chocolate cake ($5) that arrived for dessert. It was like a Duncan Hines ad. With crème fraîche drizzled on top. Moist. Chocolatey. Purr. When was the last time you had a big ole slice of chocolate cake for dessert? Exactly. (The ubiquitous crème brûlée on every restaurant menu can take a long walk off a short pier in my book, and no, I don't care if it features bergamot or yuzu or any other exotic ingredient infusion. Basta!) The bourbon pecan pie was also a treat because you could really taste the pecans—big hunks of 'em, they weren't all broken into mush. It was almost like eating pecan brittle in a thick flaky crust.
Have you heard about the cocktails they're doing? The watermelon margarita ($7) comes with a rim of cayenne salt, genius. Reminded me of the walk-around bags of melon sprinkled with chili powder I love to eat when I'm in the Mission, or in Mexico. The mint julep ($7) is beginning to pop up more and more on menus around town. Yay for me, since I'm a total bourbon drinker. It's a grown-up mojito. Delish. Almost all of the vodkas are local. They have some house-infused rums and vodkas if you feel like downing a shooter ($4). There's a happy hour Monday–Friday 5pm-7pm, when specialty cocktails, draft beers, and homemade infusions shooters are half off and some apps are available too, so you don't get too hammered.
The wine list features an almost entirely organic line-up of local vinos. Including a luscious '02 Esterlina Cole Ranch Cabernet ($9), from a boutique winery that is African American-owned, one of very few African American-owned wineries in the U.S. Six beers on tap, plus a house-made ginger beer and a hibiscus drink.
So while I wouldn't necessarily bring my great aunt and uncle visiting from Danville to this part of town, I would totally meet a pal for a drink at the bar, or have dinner with friends, or even come for a cool date. The food is ultimately more homey than perfect (and the same can be said for the service), but my friend and I had a really enjoyable evening; our pleasure did not hinge solely on having perfect food—it's about the whole experience.
farmerbrown is not like going to a Range or a Zuni—it offers a different sort of urban dining experience, and it's not just due to its super-gritty address in the Tenderloin. Yeah, you'll get hustled a little on the street (well, I was wearing my gold Studio 54 heels that night) so for those who don't feel like strutting around Turk Street, you can park next door at the Hotel Metropolis and get $2 off the fee, which is something like $10.
I say get some pals together and come check it out for a fun night out, and reaffirm your pledge to be a cool San Franciscan. This place has some real style, some good eats and beats, some nice people, and some serious soul. Oh yeah, and chocolate cake, baby.
Brunch and lunch will be happening in the near future, and starting in July, farmerbrown will be open Sundays nights too.
25 Mason St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Dinner Mon-Sat 5pm-12am
Bar until 2am