This SF hotspot is coming up on three years in business, and it's still roaring like a popular newcomer on the scene. Some of my favorite mid-level restaurants execute a continuity of concept in almost every detail, a quality that is more common at higher-end restaurants; it's something I acutely feel at Range, and Quince, and most definitely at ~TOWN HALL~. Everything feels considered, from the embossed menu upon your arrival to the check arriving in a book at the end of your meal.
The space has a rich Arts and Crafts-meets-East Coast vibe, with classic wainscoting, dark-stained wood floors, exposed brick walls, and wood tables that forgo the white tablecloth (or even butcher paper) treatment. Town Hall, true to its name, feels historic and classic in a way very few restaurants in San Francisco do. It's a narrow shotgun space instead of a large square room—the stunning vintage light fixtures (salvaged from an old Spanish Harlem movie theater and later restored) run the length of the room and cast a flattering glow.
A quick note: as soon as you walk in, you'll notice the buzz. Like I said above, it roars. The place is definitely alive. But you can totally hear your dining partner at the table—it's just not exactly an atmosphere I'd call romantic. Unless getting sloshed on potent cocktails and speaking at a higher volume and stuffing yourself on hearty dishes with jalapeño cream dribbling down your chin is your idea of a romantic time, which it very well might be. I say it's better for group dinners, double dates, friends out on the town, business dining, and certainly ladies night out. It's also a great place for folks visiting the City—I think it offers an authentic taste of urban SF.
Don't miss a cocktail at the bar. If you have to wait a few minutes for your table, you'll almost say thanks. They make one of my favorite Sazeracs in the City, if not the best. Yeah, it'll put you back some bills ($13) but it's made with 18-year-old Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey that will literally wet your whistle; most of the other cocktails are actually around $9—leave it to me to love the expensive one. For the record, if you're having dinner here, you better not be on a tight boo-jay because the bill won't be much fun, whether its presented in a vintage book or not. You can always share apps and dessert, but just in case you think the prices are like NOPA's, they're not.
Chefs Mitchell and Steven Rosenthal originally hail from Postrio. (Now it's only Mitchell holding it down at Postrio, after twelve years of the brothers working there together.) Although the cuisine at Town Hall is certainly much more down-home and comfort-oriented, it exhibits an elegance and confidence that showcases their training and deep food knowledge. The menu at Town Hall changes often, so don't get your heart too set on something because you might not see it again. (I still pine for the rabbit three ways, with one of those executions sporting a coffee rub.)
There are a few signatures that hold it down, like the appetizer of Faith's Cheese Toast ($12.50), an irresistible combination of Smithfield ham and a poached egg perched on a thick slice of buttery cheese toast, topped with a dousing of jalapeño cream and little crispy bits of cornmeal-crusted okra. No, you can't order an angioplasty on the side. But you can take your pick of fantastic whites by the glass (there are, like, nine) and celebrate this new American version of a croque madame.
I have had a few readers and friends comment that the food at Town Hall feels too heavy or rich to them. Well, if you order dishes like the wicked cheese toast, why yes, that statement is partly true. And there is a Southern and New Orleans slant to their cooking, which can give birth to appearances of ingredients like crab butter, or hello, gingersnap gravy. But then again, you need dishes like this to exist in this world, and especially for difficult moments in our lives like break-ups, lay-offs, and not scoring the last pair of gold lame Louboutins at the Neiman Marcus "Last Call" sale. Or perhaps you just need a good night out on the town with some soul-satisfying eats. I strongly encourage regular indulgence—but that's not too surprising, is it.
For those craving something more on the "refreshing" spectrum, a recent addition is the seafood ceviche ($14.50), a generous portion of calamari, shrimp, and scallops with avocado, melon, cucumber, lime, cilantro, and mint—a punchy jumble of sweet, heat, and tang.
But the app that really bowled me over was the platter of sweet and perfectly ripe heirloom melon ($12.50), with thin slices of Smithfield ham (clever American option to prosciutto, very clever), little dollops of goat cheese, and, are you ready? You sure? Okay: a drizzle of truffle honey. (You can find this little minx of a honey at sabatinotartufi.com.) Now, I am quite fatigued with the cheap thrills of truffle all over most menus in town—truffle oil is like a little hooker who somehow keeps appearing, leaving her corner for every corner restaurant instead. Come wintertime, it's completely unavoidable—you'll see truffle with her little rabbit fur coat and bright lipstick sitting in every freaking restaurant, sneaking into salads and soups and pasta and meat and fries and even mac 'n' cheese. But this combo with the truffle honey had me change my tune. A whole different kid of "lady." You go girl.
Now, while most mains hover around $25, unlike some places in town, you'll definitely get more than your money's worth. The portions are hearty, the flavors are big and gutsy, and you'll have a hard time deciding, seriously; on a recent visit, there were no less than ten entrées to choose from. But decide I did. A juicy Wolfe Ranch quail ($24.50) came with a scrumptious crust (was that pimentón I detected?), resting on a coarse potato and corn hash (plus scallions and mushrooms), with a pleasingly salty jus from the chunks and ribbons of ham hock. The side of carrot puree was sweet and helped counterbalance the saltiness—once you take a few bites of everything, you realize how the whole combination on the plate is designed to fit together. Your mouth says thanks, yo.
A succulent peanut and Tasso-crusted Niman Ranch pork chop ($24.50) had that delightful porky flavor that can sometimes prove elusive. Perfectly cooked, with a nicely pink interior. (I believe it's another signature dish—I certainly remember it from past visits.) And Tasso—find me a menu in SF that has Tasso on it. (Anyone?) The side of sweet white corn was the essence of summer. Good luck finishing that chop, seriously—it's a beast.
Fried chicken fans should definitely try the buttermilk fried chicken ($19.50), which is quite the deal on the menu. You get a pile of some of the juiciest fried chicken I've tasted, with a flaky, blistered, and bubbly skin. There's a kitchen secret behind its juice and slight kick you'll detect… it's chicken mastery. A side of white corn made another appearance, this time with cherry tomatoes, along with a side of biscuits and gravy. The biscuits weren't exactly the flakiest—they fell a bit more on the doughier side in my opinion. Now that we're on bread, some folks can't resist a side of the warm jalapeño cornbread ($5) and I am with them. In fact, the entire list of sides is hard to resist.
Many San Franciscans have eaten at Town Hall by now, some numerous times. So the double-decker butterscotch and chocolate pot de crème ($8) is not really news, per se, but it sure is hard to pass up. And, fortunately, it's one heck of a portion since everyone at your table is going to want at least one bite, but probably two.
There is also a secret recipe hot chocolate for dessert, "San Francisco's Best Cup of Hot Chocolate," ($8) which has a variety of different kinds of premium chocolate in it, and some cocoa, and coffee. What boyfriend you were crying over? Exactly. Meet your new and rather hulking lover, Mister Warm Bowl of Rich Chocolate. There will probably be some other seasonally inspired numbers on the list, like apricot Melba pound cake—and yes, they very well might make you fat. Viva desserts. Eat up.
Now, because I care about you, I'll give you a little pointer. After a couple cocktails or a bottle of wine off their engaging list (it's seriously a fun one to navigate, and you'll be pleased at the nice array of bottles, many hovering in the thirties), you might wonder where the heck is the restroom? You'll need to head all the way back into the front room, where the communal table is (which is great for just dropping in to dine, by the way) and look for a simple door (NOT the one to outside, silly). You'll climb up a flight of stairs or two (follow the signs) and voila, the facilities. Now you can look like you knew what you were doing the whole time. While you're up there, you might want to take a peek at their private dining room, which is great for any big shebangs you need to host. The artwork is pretty hot too.
Town Hall is a friendly place, from the attractive and attentive servers, to the swift and talented bartenders to the quintessential front-of-house man, Doug Washington, who will always look out for you, and it's not just because he's one of the owners. It's always a good time there, so eat, drink, and be merry. There's also a little patio for lunches alfresco or for warm evenings (it's heated). Sit tight for the opening of their upcoming venture, the Salt House, hopefully opening mid-September at 545 Mission St.
342 Howard St.
Cross: Fremont St.
San Francisco, CA 94105
Lunch Mon-Fri 11:30am-2:30pm
Dinner Sun-Thu 5:30pm-10pm, Fri-Sat 5:30pm-11pm