"One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well." Virginia Woolf
Maybe. But sometimes it's more important to have fun. When it is, Presidio Social Club is the place to go. It offers revamped American classics, most of which don't merit more than a shrug, but the atmosphere makes it a winner anyway.
From the outside, PSC -- its self-assigned urban moniker -- looks like the old clapboard barracks that it is. An old-fashioned mailbox from Mayberry days hangs on the porch, and just inside the doorway stands a drum set painted Technicolor red. The entire place is a nostalgia-lover's fantasy of the giddy pre-war years when woman wore their hair in elaborate pin curls, men said things like, "Aw, shucks," and Big Band was king. Ceiling fans resembling airplane propellers whir slowly overhead, mimicking lazy, sweat-soaked summer days, and potted palms sweep the floor with wide green leaves.
I walked into this carefree atmosphere a few weeks ago, roughly four months after opening. The crowd was only partially anachronistic, with just as many white-haired ladies and gents "dressed for dinner" as young LucasArts employees in flats and skinny jeans swarming the marble-topped bar. Even the communal table, reserved for walk-ins, was full. The hostess escorted my friend and me to a roomy two-top in the side room, and it was a great table -- close enough to ride the buzz of the main room without having to endure its noise.
One look at the cocktail list got my feet tapping. I was tempted by the French 75 ($9) with cognac, champagne and lemon juice, as well as the Pisco Punch ($8) with Pisco (a South American brandy), pineapple, and bitters, but settled on the lip-smacking Presidio Pink Lemonade ($8). Vodka infused with Buddha's hand, the Edward Scissorhands of the citrus world, was blended with limoncello, simple syrup, and a splash of Campari. It was sweet-tart, just like the ghost of a girl I saw flirting with the dashing officer in my mind's eye.
From the "hors d'oeuvres" section of the menu -- the name another quaint touch -- we ordered PSC Seafood Cocktail with shrimp ($7.95). I grew up in the South and in our family, shrimp cocktail was considered terribly posh. My grandmother even had special dishes for the occasion. I loved PSC's presentation -- a pile of oyster crackers and fork-speared limes on the side -- but what was described as "Mission taqueria-style" tomato juice with chilies was really a barely seasoned swimming pool for baby shrimp.
Gruyere cheese toast ($8.50) was a grilled cheese sandwich, plain and simple. The bread was so buttery, it overpowered the Gruyere's nutty flavor. The fondue tomato dip livened things up, even if that combination can be found on roughly 99% of San Francisco menus right now.
The PSCaesar ($9.50) looked like a Caesar salad but the creamy dressing tasted more like Ranch. It didn't make it any less good, just a bit of false advertising.
Next up was the "Broadway & Columbus" ($13.95), an homage to two of the City's most iconic neighborhoods, Chinatown and North Beach. Unfortunately, it looked and tasted like a poor attempt at using up leftovers. Wide egg noodles in a bowl of orange zest-dotted broth were topped with chunks of fatty duck. The pasta was okay on its own in a soothing, I'm-not-feeling-well kind of way, but one bite of bland, greasy duck was plenty. The dish simply never came together.
Now ask me if I care? The drinks were tasty, the fun-loving atmosphere infectious and the prices hard to beat. By this time I was enjoying an Alamos 2005 Malbec ($6) by the glass. When our waiter recommended it, I admitted I was wary of ordering the cheapest wine on the menu. (Am I the only one?) He convinced me to order it anyway, and I loved it for its raspberry flavors layered with spice and long, velvety finish.
All I can say is that PSC saved the best for last. Like Pres a Vi, they've hopped on the dessert tasting bandwagon -- a trend I'd like to see more of -- with four full-sized desserts ($7), four dessert "sides" ($5), and a mix-and-match approach with one of each ($10). We shared three chocolate cupcakes whose barely cooked insides were a dead giveaway for their inspiration -- molten chocolate cake -- but you can't go wrong with something that's fresh from the oven. The top looked like decorative beads on a cut glass serving dish and added a wonderful crunch, while the shot glass of hand-whipped cream was a cool foil.
Service was a mix. Our waiter had the wink and swagger of a good ole boy, and I had to wonder if he was flirting or stealing nips from the bar since we rarely saw him, but the food runner and busboys were both on top of their game.
At meal's end, the critic in me may have shrugged, but the rest of me had fallen in love.
Presidio Social Club
Building 563 Ruger Street in the Presidio
Open Monday - Saturday for dinner