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Where's Gracie

Gracie's Under Pressure: The food's great, but the 'Auntie Mame'-ish concept still needs work.

Great food, not-quite-realized fantasy at the Maxwell Hotel

By Steve Bjerklie

The challenge for Gracie's, the Maxwell Hotel's new restaurant occupying the location of the much-beloved Mama's Cafe (back when the Maxwell was the Raphael), is obvious. Consider the clientele dining beneath its pink-kissed rose-bloom lamps a few nights ago. First, a tourist family with two rambunctious boys and a grimacing dad in a booth, then a pair of out-of-town conventioneers in windbreakers across at a table. Next to them, a lone middle-aged African-American woman fingering pearls, and one table over a pair of elegantly dressed young women--one chirping in a London accent--out on the town to celebrate a birthday, and back to back with the birthday pair a single fellow in jeans and cashmere ordering wine by the glass.

Out the windows across Mason, a Jack-in-the-Box blazes in wild fluorescence beside Biscuits & Blues. Across Geary, the Curran (Phantom of the Opera) and Geary (ACT) theaters engorge and disgorge with culterati. Union Square's a block down. A place called "The Hot Lemon," which did not appear to feature family entertainment, is a block up.

And there's Gracie. She's not real but she's everywhere in the place, a made-up version of legendary S.F. restaurateur Magnolia Thunderpussy. Well, she's almost everywhere. On occasion I lost her and that was a problem. More on that in a minute.

Gracie's location on the theater-district corner of Geary and Mason, its clientele like a reduction sauce of whoever's in the city at the moment, and its struggle with the history of the location don't provide an easy path. Indeed, the restaurant, since opening last April, has already made changes after receiving mixed reviews and less-than-full occupancy of the 135-seat space. At the beginning of June, the management changed with the recruitment of Vince Sanchez ("Mama" was his mother), and Maggie Pond, late of the China Moon Cafe, was promoted to head chef. The original menu's somewhat pricey but home-style fare was rewritten by Gracie's original general manager, Nancy Mootz (who remains a partner), to feature mid-range pricing while leaving the emphasis on comfort food. The oxblood-and-carpetbag decor got lightened a bit and the old show tunes and cornet jazz seemed to disappear from the sound system (I heard nothing but '70s R&B and acid-jazz for three hours). The new thinking is that Sanchez and his partners, with roots in the 'hood, understand the odd, unique qualities of the Geary-Mason location better than anyone.

The overhaul has paid off, mostly. The food is good--in some cases excellent--and is uniformly well-priced. A rewritten wine list offers several good options in the mid-range, a couple dozen of them sold by the glass. Service is thoughtful: My server successfully contended with the rambunctious boys, the windbreaker conventioneers, the lady with pearls, and me.

The kitchen emphasizes straight-ahead flavors and presentation. An oven-fried baby-artichoke appetizer, dusted with spiced bread crumbs and accompanied by a wondrous sundried tomato-garlic mayonnaise, stressed the fleshiness of the artichokes rather than the crispiness of the frying, which would kill the thistles' subtle flavor. Dungeness crab cakes, an acid-test appetizer, struck the right balance between soft and firm; they had no hint of the mushiness Dungeness meat can sometimes impart to such cakes. The Italian country salad, a mound of romaine hearts enlivened with pine nuts, bits of prosciutto, shreds of Reggiano cheese and bite-size pieces of thick, tender boneless roasted chicken, did not scrimp on the chicken, whose flavor, in combination with the Caesar-like dressing, was meant to dominate the dish.

The signature entree is chicken pot pie, and it is a volcanic thing. Chunks of chicken erupt from the crusty body amid a crowd of fresh peas and carrots and in a sea of mild gravy. To be honest, I found the pie to be a little on the bland side--but that's the way it's supposed to be. The cheddar-cheese pastry crust helped somewhat, and its crisp but not crunchy texture balanced the lavalike filling, so bigger fans of pot pies than I are going to like this dish a lot.

My head was turned, however, by the special of the evening, poached halibut with mussels topped with bits of andouille sausage, sliced peppers and fresh basil. The semi-salty andouille shot bolts of flavor into the mild halibut as if firing crossbows, while the peppers and basil called encouragement. And the tender mussels played Greek chorus to the drama. Theater across the street couldn't be any better. After that, the excellent homemade blueberry and nectarine pie, individually baked for each diner and topped with spiced ice cream--it really was quite fabulous--was a bit of a comedown.

But where was Gracie? She's supposed to be the personality of the place, an eccentric old aunt with a zillion memories of vaudeville and greasepaint. The rose-bloom lamps are hung with her necklaces; the color-scheme of her joint comes right from her old dressing rooms. The old San Francisco photos hanging on the walls near framed Hopper prints are of a long-gone city the way she best remembers it--a festival of white buildings beneath clouds Ansel Adams left behind. But still she's hard to find. Nothing in the menu hints at Gracie's back-story (which was entirely made up by Joie de Vivre Hotels, operator of the Maxwell), and I doubted Gracie would listen to hours of Kool & the Gang the way I had to in her own restaurant. To be fair, I learned later that a private party had called the tunes the evening I visited, and Gracie's own comments about the photos will soon appear beside them on the walls. The Joie de Vivre folks, who have mastered hotel fantasy (they also operate the rock & roll Phoenix and the bookish Hotel Rex), are still working on making one work in a restaurant.

The total bill for two appetizers, salad, two entrees, wine, dessert, coffee, tax and tip came to about $72, a very good deal considering the excellence of much of the food. It'll be even better when Gracie herself seems to be serving the food.


389 Geary Boulevard
All major credit cards accepted
Hours: Breakfast 7am-11am; lunch and dinner 11am-11pm; open seven days
Food: American brasserie
Service: Attentive
Ambiance: Art Deco and theateresque, Hopper prints on the walls
Price: Moderate
Wine list: Good selection of mostly midpriced California whites and reds; imports from Italy, France, Spain and Australia. Least expensive: a sauvignon blanc for $18; most expensive (not including champagne): a chardonnay and pinot noir each for $58.
Overall: Two and a half stars

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From the July 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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