This location, the first Trader Vic’s, closed in 1972 – more info
For years when someone asked me what is my favorite steakhouse in San Francisco I’ve answered “Alfred’s”. There is no better combination of vintage atmosphere, a classic steakhouse menu of dry-aged steaks with traditional sides, and great service, all at reasonable prices. When I want to splurge on the best steak in the city I’ll go to Harris’ (look for it in a future post), but Alfred fills the bill for a great steakhouse experience without breaking the bank.
Alfred’s was opened in on Vallejo Street in 1928 by Alfredo Bacchini from Cattolica, Italy, who had worked his way up from a busboy to opening his own restaurant at 27 years old. He moved the restaurant to Broadway Street a year later, where it remained for seven decades, though it was moved a bit in 1952 for construction of the Broadway tunnel. Click on the following photo of Broadway looking west to see an enlarged view and see if you can spot Alfred’s next to the tunnel entrance. Jack Kerouac went there for dinner in his book On The Road.
In 1958 Alfred’s was remodeled from its original look with dark wood walls and booths, similar to how Tadich Grill looks now, into a “continental” style with tufted leather (or vinyl) booths, white linen tablecloths, mirrored walls, and three chandeliers, which are exact replicas of the ones in the Vienna Opera House (as Alfred was a big opera fan). In 1973 Arturo Petri, a North Beach native by Italian parents, purchased Alfred’s and ran it with his son Al.
In 1997 Alfred’s decided to relocate due to losing the lease on their valet parking lot. They moved into the world-famous Blue Fox restaurant’s space. The Blue Fox opened in 1920 (in a different location) and closed in 1993. Alfred’s booths, bar top, and chandeliers were all moved from the restaurant on Broadway into the new location. In 2010, Al Petri’s son Marco bought into the business and Al retired. The new generation of the Petri family thankfully has kept Alfred’s pretty much the same. The menu changed a little, but all of Alfred’s steakhouse classics remain and the decor and atmosphere have not changed.
When you enter the restaurant through the grand doors you enter the foyer (be sure to check out the vintage menus on display) and up a couple of steps to the host stand. Continuing to your right you pass the refrigerated cases where the meat is dry-aging and into the bar and lounge. There is a cocktail menu these days with some fine choices, but I usually order a martini or Manhattan with a premium spirit (they have an excellent liquor selection). The cocktails are very generous, which usually isn’t my preference because they can get warm before you finish, but here they give you the shaker so you can medicate at your leisure, so I approve.
Alfred’s has two dining rooms: the main dining room with the original booths and chandeliers…
…and the side dining room. As you can see in my photos, the lighting is dim, just how Le Continental likes it.
Alfred’s serves beef that is from the upper one-third of the USDA Choice grade. There is a lot of variation in the Choice grade and the “High Choice” grade can be practically as good as USDA Prime when it comes to flavor and tenderness. The menu offers about seven cuts of steak (some in two sizes), including a bone-in New York, Porterhouse, Ribeye (with or without the bone), and USDA Prime New York. All the above steaks are corn-finished and dry-aged 28 days. They also offer a grass-fed, wet-aged filet mignon. They have other entrees, such as lamb, chicken, and lobster. Entrees come with one side so, although the steaks are not inexpensive, they are a good value. Homemade sauces are only $1.50 extra. Excellent sourdough bread comes with your meal.
On my recent visit I tried the $55 School Night Supper (Sun-Thur), which comes with a salad or soup, a choice of one of three of their regular steaks (bone-in New York, ribeye, and filet mignon), any side, any sauce, and any dessert. Doing the math, this is a good deal if you want (and will have room for) dessert (which is basically free). But without dessert it is slightly cheaper to order the items separately. I miss their early-bird special 3-course prix-fixe dinner, which was under $40. But even at $55 the meal was wonderful, with a tasty salad, fresh vegetables, a flavorful steak that was cooked perfectly (medium rare, which I find, frustratingly, can vary a lot from steakhouse to steakhouse), and a delicious dessert.
Alfred’s adds an 18% gratuity to every check and distributes it among staff in both the front and back of the house, which is clearly stated on the menu (so don’t give them a bad review on Yelp because you didn’t know, OK?). But if you have good service (like I’ve always had) you can always (and should) give a few percent more.
659 Merchant St, San Francisco, CA 94111
Open for dinner daily 5:00pm – 9:00pm, lunch only on Thursday 11:30am – 2:00pm
Recently I heard a rumor on Facebook that one of the oldest Italian restaurants in North Beach, Capp’s Corner, is going to close on March 17th. I searched for more info and found out they simply can’t afford to stay in business after a huge rent increase. San Francisco, this is starting to get real old. Soon, I fear, much of the old charm in one of the most well-loved cities in the country will be gone, thanks to greedy landlords. I’m hoping Capp’s Corner can survive, but in any case I urge you to visit real soon.
Capp’s Corner was opened by Joe Capp (Caporale), a San Francisco native, boxing promoter, and bookie, and Frank Sarubei in 1963 on the corner of Green and Powell Streets. Joe tended bar and greeted customers at the door in his trademark fedora hat, black suit and tie, smoking his cigar. In the 1960s a dinner at Capp’s, served family style with soup, salad, bread, vegetable, and pasta, cost around $5. In the 1980s the restaurant was purchased by the current owner, Tom Ginella. Joe Capp passed away in 1996.
When you enter Capp’s you see the large carved-wood back bar, which appears to be over 100 years old (the restaurant was a Basque place before 1963). They still use the old manual cash registers at the bar.
The dining room is decorated with simple wooden furniture, checked table coverings, the original linoleum flooring, and many framed works of art and photographs on the walls, making for an interesting browse before or after your meal.
The dinners are served “family style” with a good, thick, house made minestrone soup, a green salad with house made creamy Italian dressing, and French bread (soup or salad at lunchtime). The menu includes several pasta dishes, which come with soup and salad, and many heartier entrees, which come with soup, salad, pasta marinara, and vegetables. The linguine with clams and mussels is very well-regarded (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of City Lights bookstore, is a fan). Also popular are chicken parmigiana, petrale sole, leg of lamb, osso buco, and the NY steak, which a friend ordered on my recent visit. I was impressed by the flavor and size of the steak (only $25 with all the extras is a true steak bargain). I had the osso buco, which was very tender and served with plenty of delicious sauce. And you can bet that I’ll be going back soon for a steak or some pasta with clams and mussels!
1600 Powell St, San Francisco, CA 94133
Open for Lunch Sun, Mon, Wed-Fri 11:30am-2:30pm, Sat 11:30am-4:00pm
Dinner served Mon, Wed, Thur 4:30pm-10:00pm, Fri 4:30pm-10:30pm, Sat 4:00pm-10:30pm, Sun 2:30pm-10:00pm
Bar is open Mon 11:00am-10:00pm, Wed-Sun 11:30am-2:00am
This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of my favorite seafood restaurants in San Francisco. I also love Tadich Grill, Sam’s Grill, and others, but for the most consistently fresh and well-prepared seafood, Scoma’s has been my place since I heard about it from “Gentleman” Jim Lange, long time Bay Area radio DJ and host of Dating Game, who in the 90s was on the wonderful “easy listening” pop and big band AM radio station KABL. Back then I drove a ’68 VW Fastback with the original AM radio and it was so nice to have an AM station with good 1940s/50s/60s music instead of talk or news. Sadly, the station, which started back in 1959, changed formats to “soft rock” (an oxymoron, right?) in 2000, but listeners complained so they went back to pop, only to gradually mix in more and more 70s and 80s soft rock until it eventually quit in 2004 (it came back as an online only station in 2007).
Scoma’s opened in 1965 when Al Scoma, one of the partners at Castangola’s on Fisherman’s Wharf, and his brother Joe bought a small 6-stool lunch counter on pier 47. They eventually expanded it into a large mutli-room restaurant that can now seat 350 people. In 1969 Al and Joe partnered with Victor and Rolando Gotti of Ernie’s restaurant in San Francisco to open the still-open Scoma’s Sausalito in a Victorian building that’s on the National Register of Historic Sites. In 1974 Joe Scoma left to open Joe Scoma’s in Emeryville (closed). There was even a Scoma’s in Alameda at one time (at the foot of Sherman Street before the Marina Village development was built).
In 2002 the city named the street the original Scoma’s is on ‘Al Scoma Way’ – that’s how much of a local institution it is. It’s almost always busy – in 2012 alone they served 450,000 diners – and it’s still owned by the Scoma extended family. In 2015, their 50th year, they plan “a few upgrades to the restaurant’s bar and dining room, though nothing major will change”, so I urge you to visit very soon to see it before anything changes (and to get some Dungeness crab while you still can).
Scoma’s has their own 46-foot fishing boat, which leaves early every morning to catch the freshest seafood off the coast, from salmon to Dungeness crab when it’s in season (generally Nov-Mar). Next to the dock is a fish processing station that has windows so people waiting for a table can look at the fresh fish being prepared for cooking. Scoma’s is a partner with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, so you can count on the freshest seafood, local when possible, and always sustainable (though it never hurts to ask your waiter for details on anything on the menu).
The restaurant has multiple levels, but every visit except one (when I was seated on the second floor in the rear building) I’ve been seated in the main first floor dining room overlooking the wharf (as seen in the photo above). The walls are wood-paneled with paintings of a nautical theme, but mostly it’s about the lovely views of Fisherman’s Wharf (next to the restaurant). There are some photos of celebrities and sports figures on some of the walls to the right of the host stand as you enter the restaurant, so take a look around while waiting.
The menu at Scoma’s is long, but some of their specialties are helpfully presented as Scoma’s Classics: shrimp and scallops alla Gannon, “Lazy Man’s” Cioppino (an excellent easier-to-eat cioppino with shelled crab meat), crab or shrimp Louis, mixed seafood grill featuring the day’s fresh catches, and shellfish sauté sec (mmm, I’m getting hungry). When it’s in season, I often get the garlic-roasted Dungeness crab. Other local specialties include petrale sole doré and grilled sand dabs, and they have classic lobster Newburg and Thermidor (at reasonable prices). I highly recommend halibut when it’s available. Each time I’ve had it at Scoma’s it’s been tender, juicy, and succulent, not dry and overcooked like I’ve had in some other restaurants. Meat lovers can get steak, ribs, or a hamburger.
To get to Scoma’s find your way to the corner of Jefferson and Jones and head down the pier (Al Scoma Way). Valet parking is complimentary.
Al Scoma Way
San Francisco, CA 94133
Open daily 11:30am – 10:30pm
Thank you from the bottom of my glass for being faithful readers of Le Continental. In 2015 I’ll be posting more about my recent Spain and Ireland trips, as well as about more vintage American restaurants (it seems I’m always remembering ones I still need to post about, especially in Los Angeles, which I’ve barely covered).
But today I would like to reflect on the past year or so. We’ve lost a lot of great classic time-travel restaurants in the past couple of years here in the Bay Area and around the country. In 2013 the greatest local loss, in my opinion, was the closure of Bella Vista, the last true great Continental restaurant in the Bay Area. They had excellent food and service up to the end of their 70 years in business, as well as wonderful vintage atmosphere at a stunning site among the redwoods south of San Francisco with amazing views. I still miss it all the time and there is no substitute in the area.
This year we lost so much (but thankfully got one back already). Closed in January alone: Trader Dick’s in Sparks, Nevada (became a Gilley’s), Joe’s of Westlake in Daly City, CA (sold by the owners to Original Joe’s, to reopen in 2015), and The Big 4 at the Huntington Hotel in San Francisco (closed for remodeling by the hotel’s new owners). Thank goodness the Big 4 reopened in May without much altered (mostly new carpets). I’ve recently dined there and can say without reservations that the atmosphere and service have not changed one bit (a good thing). I thought the food was overall a bit better before (a new chef took over this year), but some of their best dishes are still on the menu and as good as ever (the pork chop and lamb shank come highly recommended). But stick with the entrees because the puny appetizers seemed too pricey.
Chinatown has not fared well in the recent economic boom in San Francisco. As property values rise to astronomical levels old businesses can no longer afford to operate, or property owners sell while the getting is good. In 2012 divey Chinese restaurant Sam Wo closed after over 100 years of operation. And yesterday was the last day of business for the once-elegant, but sadly worn and almost forgotten in recent years, Empress of China. Faded royalty that closed for a condo development. Its closure got tons of media coverage (strangely, considering it never was very popular before) unlike Tommy Toy’s closure in 2013. Tommy Toy’s was newer (1985) but famous, also a celebrity hangout in its heyday, and was beautifully elegant with reportedly excellent food and service (sadly, I only went once for a cocktail but never dined there).
I loved hitting the Empress’s original 1968 bar for happy hour – too-sweet Mai Tais and greasy appetizers with amazing views of Coit Tower. But as a dining destination I thought the food was overpriced and mediocre, especially compared to so much great Chinese food around the city. And the service was always pretty cold, and sometimes downright rude. Which made it doubly sad to see it close. You could almost see the writing on the wall. Maybe if the food and service were better…. Remember when the Tonga Room almost closed about 5 years ago for a new Fairmont Hotel tower development? I would like to believe that Tiki aficionados, who rallied to save it, prevented its demise, but that wasn’t the case. Even a study of its historic value by the city didn’t save it. What saved it was a lucky break when the city rejected the new tower’s design as inappropriate for the neighborhood. The developer pulled out in the weak economy and the Tonga Room has since experienced a revival. Recently improving their food, cocktails, and service undoubtedly helped. But in today’s economy we may not have been so lucky.
Can increased regular business save these classic places? Perhaps. Maybe if the Empress had improved their food and service while retaining the atmosphere (with a cleaning) more people would have visited over the past 15 years. It seemed to mainly rely on walk-in tourist trade. In the case of Joe’s of Westlake, I don’t think improved food and service would have prevented the owners from selling the restaurant. They decided to sell because they chose to retire and needed the money. Besides, it was usually busy so it didn’t close from lack of business.
I do believe that increased business can help classic restaurants stay open. Maybe not in every case, but it certainly can’t hurt. And if the owner does decide to sell and the restaurant is doing well, the new owner may decide to continue to operate it (like what happened to Joe’s of Westlake), rather than it being torn down for a drug store or Starbucks.
So, my plea, dear readers, is for you to visit the restaurants and bars on these pages, often, before they are threatened. It may save them and certainly can’t hurt. Let’s all make a pledge to visit an old restaurant once a week in 2015. It’s fun to become a regular at places where a veteran waiter cares about the food, service, and its clientele (something lacking at chain restaurants). Why not start a small dining group (or two) that visits a classic, historic restaurant once-a-month or so? I’ve been in such a group for five years and I always look forward to our next adventure in dining.
Happy New Dining Year!