I am a rather nostalgic person, with a particular soft spot for most objets from the '20s-'40s; a little kid once said I was like an old lady with my collection of handbags, scarves, and Bakelite bracelets. Thanks kid--you now get nothing in my will. (Ha ha! Although he was totally right.)
Suffice to say, my inner old lady was eagerly awaiting the opening of ~PRESIDIO SOCIAL CLUB~ in historic Army barracks, one of only four remaining structures in the Army's East Cantonment, which at one time even housed the Buffalo Soldiers. (For you fellow history buffs, there's an old pic of the site here.)
I was pleased to see how restaurateurs Ray Tang and Shawn Kearney-Tang took the historical provenance seriously but still had fun with it, creating a retro Americana outpost full of vintage touches that never feel heavy handed. (No Johnny Rockets experience here.) The cherry red vintage drum set by the door is about as cheerful as the ladies at the host stand, but it was the long and gleaming marble bar that really vectored me in, with shining stainless steel cases behind the bar that are my kind of medicine cabinets. Hallelujah, there are lots of them. (Bottles, and cabinets.)
The bar gets pretty packed with folks swilling a good number of classics (French 75s, Sidecars, and the now-ubiquitous Aviation) plus some nouveau numbers (gimlet with mezcal, the Gunpowder cocktail with cayenne)--there are 16 or so cocktails total. Most clock in at about $7 (but don't expect fishbowl-sized martini glasses here--these are more old-school in size, as in petite). You can also get the house margarita for only $5.
The vibe is boisterous, fueled by margie- and meat-fueled lads at the tree-trunk communal table, or the tables of fillies drinking pinot noir, and the open layout encourages plenty of checking each other out. Banquettes are the color of a good ristretto, and the lighting is just the right level of dim. (Designer Olle Lundberg also did the Slanted Door.) There are tall palms and ferny plants (no, I am not much of a horticulturist) and lazily spinning overhead fans--the clapboard building and its interior look make it feel very USO-meets-Dirty Dancing. It will be gorgeous during lunchtime with all the light streaming in from the wall of windows.
The all-American menu looks like it was transported from San Francisco circa 1941, and the prices, while not offering abalone for $2 and Celery Victor for 40¢, are downright affordable. I couldn't resist the Cannibal Sandwich ($9), slices of carpaccio-esque beef topped with sweet Maui onion, capers, chives, and hard boiled egg--like a deconstructed steak tartare draped on marbled rye bread. Delish.
My inner (New Yorker) old lady couldn't pass up the Deli-Style Chopped Liver ($5), a hearty scoop of thick and creamy livery goodness studded with hard-boiled egg and served with rye bread (duh), plus a pile of cornichons that just weren't quite snappy enough. (Tang found his inspiration for this recipe from the Second Ave Deli in New York, which was an East Village institution.)
Folks seem to be enamored with the Gruyere Cheese Toasts ($8), which is basically a grilled cheese sandwich cut into four little triangles (yes, fancy style) with a side of tomato soup for dunking; I asked why it was called fondue tomato dip on the menu and it ends up it has loads of butter in it--sometimes ignorance is bliss. So all in all, it's like a gourmet take on a soup and sandwich special.
The meat-heavy menu has some classics on there, like Grilled Calf's Liver ($15) and Range Veal Paillard ($18)--I opted for the Roasted Sonoma Chicken ($16) which had nice flavor of garlic and herbs, and you get an entire half a chicken, but the breast arrived far too dry. Brine that puppy, perhaps? The Club Flat Iron Steak ($19) sat under a (yikes, too plentiful) scoop of peppercorn butter, and while ordered medium rare showed up pretty darned rare. I dig rare, so I was cool with it, but some folks would have had to send it back.
There are a couple fish dishes as well, but I didn't see anything overtly vegetarian, except the salads, sides, or mac & cheese. I'm sure you veggies could ask the kitchen to whip something up. Mains come with a choice of sides, like (yay!) tender horseradish spaeztle, spinach, or my inner (English) old lady's personal fave were the delicious mushy peas with mint.
I had to investigate the Kobe Beer Rib Sloppy Joe ($15), which is made with the rib meat between the back ribs--props for the clever use of the scraps. But not qualifying it as "American Kobe" was a small peeve. I have a feeling this dish will leave folks divided. It's darned rich, to be expected, and the sweet sauce infused with clove, cinnamon, and other spices might be too fragrant for some, while others will simply love its sloppy meaty Manwich-ness.
It's all homey fare, and designed to be approachable and satisfying. While nothing made me do total back flips, in the end, it's not really that style of food, in part because it's so familiar. As for the kinks, I imagine it's only going to get better as they hit their stride.
I will say dessert got me totally fired up. The baked-to order Chocolate Cupcakes (all desserts $7) with the crunchy croccante topping were très charmant, and the lemon meringue special with layers of curd and cake and cream was lemony bliss--no wonder it sells out. The Banana Cream Pie is more like a little tart instead of a big ole wedge of pie, with custard and cubes of banana covered in a fluffy hat of cream and a couple curls of hazelnut chocolate. One forkful and the whole things falls down, but it all ends up tasting delicious in your mouth. There are also $4 sides, like Chocolate Pudding, or Vanilla Parfait too.
I didn't expect to see so many European choices on the tight wine list, with about one choice for each varietal (except the biggies like chard, pinot and zin, which each had a couple wineries to choose from). The price range has something for everyone, including five whites and five reds available in a glass or half carafe size, plus there is a house white (chard) and red (cab).
Servers trot around in aprons that reminded me of striped railroad hats or coveralls, plus they sport a red tie and white shirt. Snappy. While friendly and fun, many don't quite have it all together yet--again, in time I believe it will be a tighter ship. While you are waiting for your dessert menu to arrive, or your bill, you can admire a number of thoughtful details, like the cute carafes, and the red and white tea towels instead of napkins. Or the purse hooks by the sinks in the ladies room (why thank you), the red and white floral dessert plates the Tangs actually kept from their first restaurant, groovy coasters, even the vintage postcard that arrives in the red embossed check holder at the end all point to a larger vision and foresight that I am confident knows where everything ought to be.
Coming attractions: weeknight suppers with dishes like brisket and suckling pig, lunch, and dining on the large outdoor patio in the back (plus clambakes and barbecues out there). Oh, and happy hour. A bonus that's in effect now is the ample free parking. Score. There is also a spacious private room for parties. I also heard of some folks doing total buyouts of the restaurant, which would make for one heck of a party space (if you're loaded like that).
Presidio Social Club
563 Ruger St.
Near Lombard Gate
San Francisco, CA 94129