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All the Pretty Horses
Josh Sens | Photo: Eva Kolenko | October 11, 2013
Ready to feed booming mid-Market, the Cavalier is a new stomping ground for both upstarts and socialites.
Though united by wealth, the aristocrats and tech brats of San Francisco have rarely supped together. But these days, they’re starting to commingle. And one place where their analog-digital marriage is being consummated is the Cavalier, a marquee restaurant in the grudgingly resurgent mid-Market neighborhood. The main players behind the Cavalier are proprietor Anna Weinberg, chef Jennifer Puccio, and Weinberg’s tech-investor husband, James Nicholas, a co-owner himself who nevertheless describes his partners’ collaboration as a “fempire.” The women are best known for Marlowe, a relaxed SoMa bistro with a beloved burger, and Park Tavern, a cocktail-happy hot spot in—fittingly—the old Moose location in North Beach. The latter is where Weinberg fell into the role that her predecessor Ed Moose once played: impresario to the power brokers of her age. The Cavalier represents a doubling-down of her status.
That’s not to say that the restaurant’s setting is in any way traditional. The Cavalier operates in tandem with Hotel Zetta, a gimmick-filled boutique hotel that targets the tech money swelling all around. It has a Plinko game on its mezzanine level, along with owners who pitch it proudly as the ideal redoubt for the “work hard, play hard” set.
Ick. An aside: Is anyone else fed up with this tech-era conceit and its implication that today’s vested youth have found life’s secret while the rest of us are merely marking time? Mercifully, the Cavalier is more mature than that.
Although still in its early days, the restaurant has attracted an interesting mix, not just Kevin Systrom and the Winklevoss twins, but also mayors Ed Lee and Willie Brown; representatives of the Fisher, Getty, Goldman, and Traina clans; and visiting celebrities like Jessica Szohr and Kobe Bryant—a Land of the Lost tableau of dinosaurs and superhumans.
The backdrop they’ve been given is a beautiful one. Conceived by Ken Fulk, design darling of socialites and startup kings alike, the interior is an homage to high-end England. The space is a hybrid, divided into four parts: There’s a stately bar where the kids can get their Pimm’s cups; a clubby dining room overhung with billiard lamps; a stablelike space with a sliding barn door; and another room styled as a throwback train compartment, with brass luggage racks to underscore the point. A teal blue banquette runs throughout, taxidermied hunting trophies stick out their necks from on high, and framed sketches on the walls create a countryside tableau of foxhounds, horses, and knicker-clad golfers. It’s a posh and pretty place—the England of Prince William, not Oliver Twist.
Though the restaurant, like Marlowe and Park Tavern, sells a burger (here, topped with cheddar and tomato chutney), the bulk of the menu embellishes English classics, offering polished versions of dishes that you’ve likely washed down with a pint in the past.
Fried lamb scrumpets—were these the days of yore, you’d be making do with mutton— show up as sizzling skewers with a piquant dipping sauce of pickled mint and chilies. Welsh rarebit, that old vessel of cheddar-andale flavors, takes shape as a soufflé rather than a gooey fondue, accompanied by a tangle of arugula for brightness between bites.
This being California, there are slight nods to the seasons. But don’t look to this menu to confirm what month you’re in: Rich, buttery year-rounders are the main attractions. Think roast half-chicken, bathed in a mustard-bacon jus that lends the otherwise dull bird an alluring smoky accent. Or contemplate a steak-and-oyster pie in a modern presentation—its beautifully braised beef cheeks, rib eye, and hangar steak encased in a cast iron pot, partially covered by a tilted pastry top and an oyster on the half shell. You can slurp the oyster separately or drop it in the pot and let its briny essence blend into the wine-spiked stew.
Not all the British takes improve on the originals. The batter on the fish and chips is too bland to merit the deep-frying. And not to bash the satisfying pork-and-beef sausages, but it takes gall to serve them and then ask you to pay extra for the mash.
Mostly, though, the Cavalier delivers on its promise of hale, hearty cooking in an upscale British setting without the British stiff upper lip. The menu stays on message through dessert, which works largely in the pudding and pie genre, including a standout lemon posset, a citrusy standard (think pot de crème’s stunt double in a pastry shell) whose tartness is balanced by sweet prunes.
The Cavalier isn’t out to break new culinary ground. But the service is sharp, and the intentions are impressive. (The kitchen also handles banquets and room service for the Zetta.)
To my surprise, the fresh-faced tech set was in fairly short supply during my visits to the Cavalier, outnumbered by a demographic raised on rotary phones. Maybe the kids were holed up in Marianne’s, another room within a room at the Cavalier—a private bar, in fact, named for rock-and-roll muse Marianne Faithfull—unwinding from an arduous day at the office, sipping nifty cocktails, and enjoying life more deeply than I could imagine. Fine by me. I was in the dining room, my own kids were at home, and I was enjoying an evening out with the adults.
A recommended dinner for two people (before tax and tip) at the Cavalier.
Welsh rarebit soufflé .......................$13
Lamb scrumpets ............................$15
Steak-and-oyster pie ......................$21
Sunday Roast chicken .....................$26
Minted peas and beans ...................$8
Lemon posset ................................$8
Steamed pudding ...........................$9
Two bottles of Old Golden Hen ale .....$12
260 Jessie St. (at 5th St.)
Two and a Half stars
Originally published in the November 2013 issue of San Francisco