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What's Eating the Twitter Building?

There’s a lot to digest on the ground floor of a certain mid-Market tech HQ. And it's not just the food.

 SLIDESHOW

Bon Marché’s dining room

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Plum clafoutis from Bon Marché

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Azalina’s offerings

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The crowd at Azalina’s

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Dirty Water’s bar

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One of Dirty Water’s myriad cocktails.

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In its fleshed-out incarnation as a high-end public food hall, the Twitter building lobby has been hailed as San Francisco’s answer to Eataly, Mario Batali’s steroidal Manhattan gourmet mecca. It’s also been criticized as an emblem of our swelling class divide. Both depictions seem reasonable to me.

A universe removed from the check-cashing stores and dingy corner shops that crowd surrounding mid-Market blocks like grim set pieces in a dog-eared diorama, this ground-floor food emporium holds forth the gleaming promise of technology itself: Here, you can get almost anything, easily, at once. But as a destination, the Twitter lobby’s appeal is pretty dim. It feels like a place for those who find themselves living in the city but aren’t fully at ease with city life. 

Upstairs, Twitter employees have their own cafeteria—three of them, to be precise. Downstairs, they can load up their micro-apartment’s pantry at the Market, a grocery store–cum–wonderland of ready-made meals and artisanal products ranging from kale chips and organic ketchup to tapas and sushi. The world is their kumamoto oyster—and can be yours, too, for $42 a dozen. 

Set against the backdrop of a neighborhood teeming with people bereft of options, such upscale abundance is striking—and unsettling. But this is a food column, so let’s set aside the matter of social inequity to consider a narrower question: What’s it like to eat in the Twitter building? Is it worth a visit? Or is its convenience, as is so often the case, the enemy of interesting cuisine? 

The only way to find out is to venture past the security guards flanking the main entrance. Behind them, concrete art deco columns reach toward the ceiling of a soaring lobby that opens on one side to Dirty Water, a restaurant and bar with a lushly furnished lounge. When you arrive, the hostess hands you two menus: One is paper, listing roasts and braises, charcuterie and salads; the other is an iPad that contains a booze selection broader than my local BevMo’s. Its roster of 100-plus wines by the glass tops out at a Napa cab that commands $300 per five-ounce pour.

Cocktails turn out to be a strength here, chief among them a Green Bloody Mary that’s made with tomatillos and tastes appealingly of pickle juice. The charcuterie, for its part, is standard issue: Starring the pork world’s more familiar actors (prosciutto, soppressata, mortadella), the platters top a menu that its creators bill as “paleo-friendly.” The kitchen rounds up many of the usual meaty suspects—grilled hangar steak, roasted bone-in pork chop—and prepares them competently without taking much in the way of risk. Given the context, venison tartare sounds exotic—yet even heated with horseradish and mixed with a smoked egg, the deer meat is so mild that it amounts to little more than a study in silken texture. A better outlier is the guinea hen potpie: Perfumed with tarragon and stocked with chanterelles and carrots, it’s a hearty Sunday supper in a pastry toque.

Deciding what to pair it with may burn up some brain matter. On top of its cocktails and wine selection, Dirty Water taps into 50-plus craft beers—a quantity that, depending on your viewpoint, is either impressive or paralyzing. In my chilly interactions with the iPad, I couldn’t help thinking of the restaurant as reflective of our ascendant culture: Lacking sharp perspective, it compensates with a preponderance of choice.

Choice—the Market’s essential promise—is a literal promise as well: Until recently, a sign hanging outside proclaimed, “From Italy to Malaysia in 20 seconds.” Malaysia is represented by Azalina’s, a street-food vendor tucked amid the Market’s counter-service outposts. Based on the descriptions that embellished its chalkboard menu, I had high hopes. But a seven-spice-rubbed roast chicken arrived bone-dry, and a turmeric noodle dish called hokkien mee, studded with charred shrimp, was a greasy muddle. Only the pineapple and tea salad, with its plucky mix of fresh and fermented flavors, turned out to be as vibrant as it was made to sound.

If you spend your free time tracking culinary trends, you know that food halls are enjoying a moment. The spawn of arranged marriages between real estate interests and restaurateurs, they’re catnip to cities like San Francisco, where high rents ride alongside culinary fashions. As the press releases tell it, such food-driven developments create vital stitches in our fraying social fabric. It’s a touching story, sure, and it may be partly true. But it’s a tough narrative to swallow at the Twitter building, whose price points—and security guards—seal it off hermetically from its surroundings.

It’s easier to grasp why the lobby food hall, filled as it is with easygoing spots for the happy hour unwind, appeals to those who work above the lobby. Consider the Cadillac Bar & Grill, a relocated South of Market institution that is nominally a Mexican restaurant with decent-enough tacos and fajitas—though given how thoroughly its well-lubricated atmosphere surpasses its culinary ambitions, it’s also fair to think of it as Margaritaville. 

Of all the lobby restaurants, the only one that merits a detour is Bon Marché, a French bistro from the AQ team. Nothing about its interior is subtle. Done up in a manner that invokes Paris—meaning the one on the Las Vegas Strip—with globe lights and yellow-striped awnings above its kitchen, it strives so hard to look transportive that it winds up reminding you of where you are. The cooking is more successful at simulating dislocation: Executed by chef Matthew Sieger, it draws richly from the Gallic canon, serving satisfying standards like steak frites, salt cod brandade, and a frisée aux lardons salad that’s slicked with a runny egg and the smoky trace of bacon fat.

Unlike Azalina’s and Dirty Water, which are buried well within the building, Bon Marché has a bar that runs along Market Street, its windows overlooking the neighborhood. It’s where I spent time one recent evening, sipping a bubbly rosé and spooning up the balanced broth of a dill-scented seafood soup stocked with halibut, clams, and shrimp. On my way in, I’d sidestepped two panhandlers. He was screaming. She was swinging a skateboard at him. But now I was inside, privileged, enjoying a delicate pairing. Like the other patrons, I sat with my back to the sidewalk, a posture that seemed less coincidental than emblematic.

The Ticket: Recommended meals for two

Bon Marché
Frisée aux lardons...............................$11
Soupe de poisson.............................. $18
Steak frites ........................................ $29
Chicken grand-mère .......................... $21
Total................................................... $79

Dirty Water
Charcuterie plate (three items)................. $18
Duck confit salad with kale and dates ..... $16
Guinea hen potpie.................................... $20
Total ........................................................ $54

Azalina’s
Roasted chicken with saffron rice...... $12.75
Pineapple and tea salad.................... $9.75
Total .................................................. $22.50

Dirty Water 1½ stars
Azalina’s 1½ stars
Bon Marché 2 stars
1355 Market St. (near 10th st.), 415-767-5130

 

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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