Kitsch and Tell
I fancy myself a sophisticated girl who can smoothly assimilate into almost any culture. On a recent trip to Paris I found myself spending my days at sidewalk cafés, sipping on rosé, eating Camembert and pâté while chain-smoking cigarettes. At first I thought, I’m never going back. But whenever I’m away from the US of A for an extended amount of time, it becomes blaringly obvious how American I really am. I will always crave a big slice of Americana: country music, a rodeo, a small town parade, and a good old-fashioned American steak house.
The oldest steak house , called The Palm, was opened in 1926 by two Italian immigrants in New York City. It has since become an American staple. In the 1950s the steak house gained popularity and established both the cuisine and décor that still gloriously exist today: large padded booths, dim mood lighting, strong martinis, expansive wine lists, and menu options of both steak and seafood with all the sides.
There is something so glamorous and old school about the experience of dining in a steak house. Despite my love for all the new and trendy San Francisco restaurants, I always do my celebrating at one of the traditional standards. For those of us who love steak, we live in a great city with many options. There are contemporary upscale versions such as 5A5, and Alexander’s Steakhouse, which has an updated Japanese twist, but I prefer to keep it old school. I like a little kitsch with my red meat.
It’s not surprising that Italians opened the first steak house. When walking into one I often feel like I’m in that scene in Goodfellas, where the camera pans past the deep red vinyl booths and introduces all the local gangsters. House of Prime Rib has this feel more than any other restaurant and is one of my local haunts. But I felt it was time I broke out of my norm and tried some of the other famed classics.
I had always wanted to try Bobo's on Lombard. I headed there on a recent Friday night and was pleasantly greeted with free valet (to a girl who always wears high heels this is an absolute selling point). From the outside, Bobo's looks more like a circus than a steak house. I was intrigued.
I entered through a small foyer into a tiny lounge with a U-shaped bar connected to a maze of intimate dining rooms. I sat down, ordered a martini, and soaked in the décor. There are ominous looking clowns hanging throughout, which turned out to be boboquivaris – court jesters. Some of the dining rooms are red with dim lighting, while others are less decadent with stand-alone tables and 1960s Keane-style paintings of clowns; tacky, but in the best possible sense.
When my party arrived, we headed to another small dining room upstairs. We were seated in a nook with a beaded curtain and red lantern lamps near a large window with a nondescript view. Luckily, the kitsch was rich enough to keep me entertained.
I ordered the New York bone-in steak and the classic twice-baked potato. My companions ordered the filet, mac and cheese, the baked yam with brown sugar butter, and the heirloom toy box tomato salad. The sides are what you would expect from an old-fashioned style restaurant: too much butter, too much dressing, but completely delectable.
The steak, on the other hand, was the most spectacular cut of beef I’ve ever had. Most places dry-age the beef for only four weeks, and I have to say, the extra two weeks make a huge difference. The steak cut like butter, with beautiful marbling, and it literally just melted in my mouth. Paired with a lovely and surprisingly affordable La Crema Pinot, the perfect char and light buttery taste mixed perfectly.
Surprisingly, the food is what won me over at Bobo's. I got a kick out of the wacky décor, but I usually prefer my steak house a bit more classic. That New York bone-in steak will beckon me back again soon, though. I’m also dying to try the roasted crab in garlic sauce!
Harris' The San Francisco Steakhouse has been open only since 1984 but it has the charm and warmth of an older upscale joint. I arrived with my dining companion hoping to find free valet again, but wasn’t turned off by the $10 fee.
As we walked in, we were greeted by low lighting, a beautiful mahogany bar, and the sound of a lounge-y piano. To the left of the bar, leather tufted booths sat nestled below a landscape mural and brass chandeliers. Harris' has the appeal of a dark, cozy den. I half expected to see rich Texans in suits and 10-gallon hats sitting at the tables. I was automatically relaxed and ready for good conversation.
The maitre d’hôtel seated us in the main dining room in a beige leather booth surrounded by leafy palms. My friend and I promptly ordered martinis that were served in a cruet surrounded by crushed ice.
The traditional menu includes steaks, roasts, and seafood served with baked potatoes and veggies. Classic starters include oysters, foie gras, and prawn cocktails.
I started off with the iceberg lettuce salad, dressed Crab Louis-style, and it was perfect: crisp, cold lettuce drowned in a Thousand Island dressing with a generous serving of fresh crab. Having recently enjoyed such a perfect steak at Bobo’s, I decided to mix things up and try the prime rib as my main. Served with creamed spinach and a baked potato, it was a timeless combination. My friend ordered the New York bone-in steak. We both were excited about the server stopping by to offer us all the fixins for the potato. Sour cream, butter, chives? Yes please, we will have all three.
Here the meat is aged for only four weeks. I was happy with my entrée, but I think on my next trip I will stick with the actual steaks, and go back to my favorite House of Prime Rib for my roast. The creamed spinach had just the right amount of cream to spinach ratio. I woke up the next morning thinking about that dish, rather than the prime rib.
After we finished dinner, we headed back to the lounge for a nightcap. Next time I go to Harris' I will definitely request a seat in one of the lounge booths. The energy is moodier and it’s interesting to sit near the band. We both had another perfect martini and took in the scene. I spied a large painting at the end of the lounge and thought it was John Wayne, but the bartender helpfully explained it was Mr. Harris, the original founder of Harris Ranch. That guy had great style! Make sure you check him out when you visit Harris'.
On occasion I want the steak house experience without dropping over $40 dollars on the main course. There are a few options for lowbrow dining with good atmosphere but sadly, all of my old favorites have been given modern makeovers. So hallelujah and praise the Excelsior! My neighborhood has Geneva Steak, just what the butcher ordered. Red vinyl booths, faux wood paneling, old brick walls lined with plastic green plants, and a T-bone for $14.99? This is my new fave, and just a few blocks from my house!
I grabbed lunch there on a Tuesday afternoon and was greeted by super friendly staff. I sat in my booth, which sunk down about eight inches. The place has a faint musky smell mixed with roasting meats and butter. Geneva Steak doesn’t look like it’s been updated since it opened and I’m not complaining. It had just the faded charm I was looking for.
I ordered mine medium rare but received it well done instead. It still tasted really hearty and satisfied my desire for red meat. The steak was in no way high-end or melt-y and marble-y, but instead more like dinner my grandma would serve on a Sunday night. It was accompanied by a baked potato, a surprisingly crisp iceberg salad smothered in blue cheese dressing, and super flat and crispy French garlic bread.
After finding my new favorite neighborhood steak house I walked around the Excelsior looking for other hidden treasures. With a full belly of red meat, I thought about how much I love being not only American, but also a San Francisco girl!
Want to dine at an old-school steak house? Head over to Bobo's and experience both free valet and the best dry-aged steak in town. Or class it up over at Harris' by getting super dressed up and hanging out in its amazing lounge. Make sure to order the martini. Craving steak on a budget? Hit up Geneva Steakhouse in the Excelsior. It’s a hidden gem!