Incredible burgers in a bowling alley, SF’s deaf community gathering over Neopolitan pizzas, brothers serving food from their hometown of Nice in a tiny restaurant, dining around a U-shaped counter off a FiDi alley… each of these restaurants opened within the last 6 months providing a unique communal experience (and most importantly, fine food to go with) that makes one feel like actually engaging with, rather than ignoring, fellow diners.
MISSION BOWLING CLUB, Mission (3176 17th St. between Shotwell & Van Ness, 415-863-2695)
Mission Bowling Club (MBC) is one badass bowling alley. Hipster all the way, there’s no funky smell or dated dinginess in this brand new space. Open and industrial, there’s a front patio, separate dining room downstairs and one upstairs overseeing six lanes and a wood-lined bar area. Cheer on bowlers from comfy couches while sipping a cocktail (solid, though not noteworthy drinks) and filling up on French onion casserole. Essentially, it’s got all you could dream of in a bowling alley in what is already a “seen and be seen” hang-out.
As soon as we heard chef Anthony Myint, Mission Chinese Food and Mission St. Food wunderkind, would oversee the menu, it was easy to guess MBC was going to boast exceptional food. The beloved Mission Burger ($15; $10 during happy hour) is back. I missed the rich, granulated patty, lathered in caper aioli.
An avowed carnivore, I was shocked to find the vegan burger ($10) is almost as exciting. A fried chickpea, kale, shitake fritter is brightened up with sambal (Indian chili sauce), guacamole, and fennel slaw. A juicy sausage corn dog ($7) arrives upright in molecular fashion, standing watch over a dollop of habanero crema. Only a hard, small “everything pretzel” ($5) disappointed.
Break up the fat with a taco “salad” ($9), a colorful mix of lettuce wraps, fried tortilla strips, salsa verde and queso fresco. Not bad for a bowling alley.
CASTAGNA, Marina (2015 Chestnut St. at Fillmore, 415-440-4290)
Brothers Jerome and Stephane Meloni from Nice infuse their Italian heritage and French upbringing in Italian and niçoise dishes.
I enjoyed Stephane’s cooking at their former Restaurant Cassis, a far roomier Pac Heights space, but their tiny, new Castagna lends itself to connection. Stephane cooks within full view, Jerome interacts with diners, and I found myself in conversation with tables next to me. On a good night, it exudes that neighborhood conviviality found in similar-sized restaurants around Europe. Decor isn’t particularly memorable, though red walls always bring a space to life, here accented by the ubiquitous vintage Taittinger champagne ad.
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Sticking closer to tradition is the best way to navigate Castagna’s menu. Stephane’s classic Niçoise caramelized onion tart ($7.50) is the best dish, silky with caramelized onions in a flaky crust, with (the good stuff) white anchovies on the side, which they explained neighborhood diners weren’t quite ready for – I say place them on top and let diners sort it out. I found the steak in my steak frites ($18) too well done (medium rare, please) despite a lush green peppercorn sauce. I’d opt instead for linguine (not house made as they have so little kitchen space, but made fresh for them using their pasta recipe), in sauces from pistou (pine nut, basil, garlic) to bolognaise. Also of note: French-style campagnarde pizza ($15), in the spirit of flammkuchen (Alsatian flatbread), covered in potato sauce, bacon, crème fraîche and raclette cheese.
MOZZERIA, Mission (3228 16th St. between Guerrero & Spencer)
Communal award could easily go to the Mission’s Mozzeria. Maybe we didn’t need the umpteenth Neapolitan pizza place, but there’s none quite like this, run by a deaf couple and staff. San Francisco’s deaf community gathers en masse at a hang-out where speaking with your eyes and hands is as important as speaking verbally. Of course, verbal processors are welcome, too.
The dining bar is my preferred perch, particularly to engage with chef Russell Stein (who co-owns the place with his wife Melody). He’s hilarious and reads lips like a master, joking with diners as he spreads ingredients over wheels of dough before popping them into a wood-burning oven. His heartwarming Neopolitan pizzas ($12-18) are topped with the likes of caramelized onion, pancetta, mozzerella or goat cheese and eggplant. I must admit, my favorite item, the Mozzeria bar ($8), isn’t the most gourmet, but hearkens back to my Jersey youth. Let’s just call it what it is: a fried mozzerella cheese log doused in pomodoro sauce and basil. Sheer comfort.
CLAUDINE, Financial District (8 Claude Lane at Bush, 415-362-1988)
Claudine’s chic cafe charms. Big picture windows and corner space on an alley up a half flight of stairs appeal, while a u-shaped front bar creates a convivial dining experience as the bar is so small so you can’t help but exchange good will with neighboring patrons. You can dine at a table, but the bar is far more fun, and works for a quick, casual meal all day.
Much has been made of their meatball, kale and fregola soup ($7/10), and rightly so. It is an unexpected culinary delight in an olive oil-laced brodo (broth) laden with Parmesan, onions, carrots. I can be bored by broth soups at times, but this one holds my interest with plump veal-pork-beef meatballs and pleasantly soggy kale.
Roasted mussels ($12/17) arrive aromatic with fennel sausage in lemon and white wine, while even avocado toast ($12) delights topped with dill gravlax, Spanish black radish, and lemon. Leave room at the end for Claudine favorite, smores ($7) baked in a glass bowl with layers of marshmallow and chocolate on graham cracker crust.
My meals at dinner have been more satisfying than at lunch but it seems to improve with each visit.