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A Whale of a Time

At Leo’s Oyster Bar, the drinks are strong, the mood is light, and the bivalves are served with a big helping of bygone glamour.

SLIDESHOW

Sampling the seafood spread at Leo’s.

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Leo’s dining room.

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The pan-seared salmon.

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Let’s bring back day drinking!” Anna Weinberg proclaimed in a press release for her latest project. “And day-into-night drinking!”

The restaurateur’s call to arms may have fallen on deaf ears: This is, after all, a city that prefers to wait until dark to imbibe fermented beverages other than kombucha. That’s not going to change; the liquid lunch is dead. But there’s no harm in pretending that the clock has spun back to an era when women wore white gloves, men sported irony-free fedoras, and Herb Caen trailed behind them in search of column fodder, lubricated by vitamin V. Particularly when that fantasy is executed as well as it is at Leo’s Oyster Bar, the smart, gloriously appointed little joint that Weinberg opened in the financial district in late January. Like Marlowe, the Cavalier, and Park Tavern, the three restaurants Weinberg owns with her husband, James Nicholas, and chef Jennifer Puccio, Leo’s is a stylized portal to another world, one that’s fun, frequently delicious, and—in contrast to its throwback milieu—priced to evoke 2016 San Francisco.

To walk into Leo’s is to walk onto a stage set-dressed for a retro cocktail party. Where Wexler’s barbecue restaurant once stood, ferns now dangle from a skylit ceiling, in a solarium of sorts draped in floral-patterned wallpaper and infused with an air of sun-washed wealth. Think Don Draper squinting poolside in Palm Springs.

A few paces farther in, the ceiling drops and the dining room narrows to a tight corridor framed by banquettes and a glowing onyx bar. Sidestep through this passage, beneath the mother-of-pearl chandeliers, then zigzag past the tiny kitchen, and you’ll find yourself at the Hideaway, a lushly decorated back room of speakeasy inspiration.

Leo’s also offers a full-blown, seafood-focused menu that’s probably more ambitious than it needs to be, spanning from soups and crudos to crab cakes, lobster rolls, and caviar bites. On the whole, the cooking more than holds up its end of the bargain. But Leo’s is an oyster bar in the truest sense; it’s fueled by bracing blasts of booze and briny boosts for your libido. Anything beyond that feels like a bonus. It’s nice, for instance, that the pan-seared salmon arrives perfectly prepared, sashimi pink at its center, crisscrossed with grilled asparagus, and brightened with smoked lemon sabayon. But even when the kitchen misses—as it does wildly with miso-broiled, roe-topped trout, a dish so salty it comes off as a prank—you wonder if anyone will notice, or care, after downing two martinis and a dozen bivalves splashed with malt vinegar mignonette.

Leo’s serves both lunch and dinner, so daytime drinking really is an option. But the place feels most indulgent after the whistle blows and the FiDi begins its post-work unwind. On my first visit, I arrived at happy hour as the bar was filling up with suits and settled on a cocktail called the Garden Party. The gin-based drink was as balanced and refreshing as it was photogenic, with sprigs of thyme and rosemary sprouting from its frothy egg-white top. Considering the context, dry white and bubbly wines are an even better choice, and Leo’s pours a lot of both, matching them with oysters from the East and West Coasts. You can get them straight up, with mignonette and vodka-spiked cocktail sauce. Or you can order them embellished. I opted that evening for the oysters Eloise, which I mention partly because they were superb, garnished with minced celery and melon, but also because they cost $5 each, the most I’ve ever laid out for raw oysters.

On the upside, you get more than just pretty wallpaper for your money. Puccio’s deviled eggs are lush one-bite wonders, crowned with shards of deep-fried oyster. New England–style clam chowder is light enough to pass as Californian, its velvety broth threaded with lemon and thyme. As for what’s billed as a New England lobster roll, it’s not the lobstah roll of my Massachusetts childhood. It’s much better, the sweet meat drizzled with cultured uni butter, the roll itself upgraded to a brioche bun.

In its weaker showings, the food suffers from a consistent problem. It’s apparent in your first taste of the rock shrimp toast, a potential celebration of rock shrimp’s lovely sweetness that turns out to be a burial in salt. It comes up again in the hamachi crudo, with scallions and charred avocado, which is served, like all of the kitchen’s crudos, on—wait for it—a giant slab of salt. And then there’s that miso-broiled trout. At times, you aren’t dining. You’re iodining.

But at least there’s no risk of going thirsty. The servers don’t stray far in the snug space, and their spirited embrace of Leo’s festive concept is a welcome part of the experience.

“I think of this as a Mad Men–meets–The Golden Girls kind of place,” a staffer told me one night, explaining the restaurant’s aesthetic while delivering a glass of moscato to accompany a dessert of featherweight lemon mousse with brown butter streusel cupped in a grandmotherly crystal chalice.

Maybe so. It’s also an emblem of today’s flush San Francisco, an old-money downtown hangout updated for the Instagram age. When I stepped outside, woozy and unfit to drive, I swiped my phone for an Uber. But in deference to the ghosts summoned by the evening, I really should have hailed a checkered yellow cab.


The Ticket: A recommended dinner for two at Leo’s Oyster Bar
Half dozen oysters Eloise..............................................$30
Two deviled eggs with
wing-fried oysters......................................................... $12
Clam chowder.............................................................. $15
Lobster roll................................................................... $32
Pan-seared salmon with
asparagus and lemon sabayon.....................................$27
Lemon mousse with
brown butter streusel.....................................................$7
Walnut cookie................................................................$2
Betty’s Morning Buzz (bitters, Cocchi, soda)................ $12
Garden Party (gin, egg white, fresh herbs)................... $13
TOTAL...........................................................................$150

Leo’s Oyster Bar
568 Sacramento St. (near Montgomery St.), 415-872-9982
Three Stars

 

Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco

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