Not long ago Tyler Florence opened his first restaurant, Wayfare Tavern, in San Francisco's Financial District. It had previously been Rubicon, a Drew Nieporent endeavor with Francis Ford Coppola, Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, launched back in the mid-90s when that was innovative. It launched some great culinary careers but definitely got tired and lost its luster, closing about two years ago.
Tyler Florence took over the space, committed to recreating/resurrecting/retaining some classic, old-time San Francisco dishes and also creating new ones with a solid commitment to sourcing great local/season/organic ingredients. I was a little skeptical at first, wondering if he would cash in on his celebrity and be stretched too thin with his franchise to really pay attention and participate. But lo, it opened to not just great fanfare, but darned good reviews.
Since I no longer work in the city and am not very likely to head to the Financial District for dinner, it's remained in the wasteland of my "to try" list, with very little probability of my ever actually going. On this quiet and grey and drizzly Friday I was "working from home", though in fact I've just come down from months of madness and have a little breathing space, so not that much work to take care of before a 3:00 dental appointment downtown. So I called on my friend previously known here as DBF and met him at his office for a leisurely Friday lunch - no specific destination. As we were about to pass Wafare Tavern, I said, "Have you been here? I really want to go." - not expecting any chance of a table at 12:30 on a Friday. The place was full-up. But we ducked in to take our chances, and I was immediately struck by what a wonderful job they'd done with the remodel - still the exposed brick walls, but so warm and inviting and cozy. Looked like just the place for a grey Friday. But of course the hostess looked at her list and frowned. And then said, "Oh, wait! A new cancellation! I can seat you right away." She took us to the back of the room that didn't feel like a "back of the room" table, but was right near a fireplace with a view on the small, open kitchen (not the entire kitchen - just where they were finishing dishes) so I was looking out to the entrance and the street and my "date" was looking at the fireplace with its big mantle and seasonal, harvest-inspired decorations. The warm wood tables, large, almost lodge-like booths, and sturdy-yet-elegant pewter tableware gave the room an intimate and inviting atmosphere while being neither formal nor casual.
The menu was as promised: some true San Francisco classics (the most true classic being Hangtown Fry) and some great Modern American dishes featuring the best, seasonal ingredients available or classics made from locally sourced ingredients. One great SF item is Green Goddess salad dressing, created at the nearby Palace Hotel in the 1920s. I have only one recipe - and I love it - but I think there are many travesties of Green Goddess out there, so I was delighted to read this snippet about the granddaughter of its creator giving the original recipe to Tyler Florence so it can live on at Wayfare Tavern.
In the current fashion, water is filtered and carbonated from our excellent local tap water and provided (flat or fizzy) in refilled bottles at no cost to the patron. I would love to have had a starter, but that can add a good bit of time to a business day lunch so I reluctantly demurred. Fortunately, warm, flakey popovers with a fluffy honey butter are brought out at the start of the meal, so you're already getting a little something special.
I chose the seared wild Alaska salmon with mustard-braised Brussels sprouts and chanterelle mushrooms. Really lovely for the cozy, fall day: the salmon was cooked medium-rare, crisp on the outside and moist and tender on the inside, and the mustard and chanterelles (oh, I think there was some pork in there) paired perfectly with the Brussels sprouts for a warm and comforting dish. My "associate diner" had a wonderful looking plate of buttermilk fried chicken with lemon and crisp sprigs of rosemary and thyme as well as a side of golden, shoe-string french fries served in a paper-lined cone, with small dishes of both catsup and aioli.
The service was perfect. Our server was cheerful and friendly without being saccharine or trying to sell a single thing. She showed up when appropriate, but was never intrusive. Water glasses were filled, water bottle replaced with a full one. She glanced our way, making eye contact, and moving on if not indicated.
Yay for having time for coffee! We each ordered it after our meal, and were each delivered an individual pewter pot of Peet's made in a French press: good, strong, hot, fresh coffee on a rainy day in front of the fireplace!
The desserts all looked inviting (a rarity in SF, which seems chronically pastry-challenged) but we went simple and shared a "fried apple pie" with orange caramel, sage ice-cream, and fried sugar-sprinkled sage leaves. Perfect for the "grey fall Friday" theme and not at all heavy, but full of warm autumn flavor, and the perfect note on which to end our meal and wrap up the scarf, button up the coat, and face the falling rain.
PS: As a funny aside to the TF fans, one of the items on the dessert menu includes "honey from Tyler's backyard" or such. I was informed, "Tyler is the chef."
"Yea, I know."
"Yea, he's kinda famous."
"Last time I was here it was late in the afternoon and he sat down and talked with us for almost half an hour."
"Yea, he sat right there at our table and told us all about the design and the logistics and the kitchen and how they move everything from the kitchen upstairs. He's a nice guy."