Biscuit Power – Town Hall, San Francisco

My Bay Area connection, Jason Russell, is a big time iron chef in his own personal kitchen stadium, and quite the man out on the Bay area dining scene. He doesn’t have a blog, so he sent me his Bar Fly experience, at Town Hall, via email. He is hilarious and made me laugh laugh laugh all the way the end. Who knew a boy from Tennessee could write?
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My office in downtown SF sits on the near rail to the “wrong side of the tracks”. Turning left out of the lobby puts you in the midst of i-bankers, advertising executives, and attorneys heading to trial with their notes shoved into one of those oversized “Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman” valises. Turning right out of the lobby puts you instantly in an economically-depressed area prominently featuring the Transbay Bus Terminal. Instead of being paved with gold, the streets are paved with remnants of an al fresco life–shopping carts, discarded food, LOTS of Mad Dog bottles.

So it was with some amusement that I crossed the bus station border to sample Town Hall, one of the newest see-and-be-seen eateries South of Market. It’s in an old brick building with a genuine sense of history. Sitting in that main dining room under these gi-normous brass chandeliers stolen from Spain makes me want to start sentences with phrases like “When in the course of human events. . . ” and sign receipts with quill pens. The first time I went there I sat at a table next to Robin Williams and his family. This time, however, it was a spur of the moment decision to meet my friend J. The popularity of Town Hall now is such that whimsical dining decisions are strongly discouraged, and we braced ourselves for eating at the bar instead.

I actually like eating at bars, particularly if I’m dining alone. The bartender/server has only slightly more room to wander away from me than would a veal calf, there are people clustered on both sides, and I can nosily see what the drink of the hour is. The bar at Town Hall does tend to violate my rule to avoid the It place of the moment. I don’t want to be anywhere that Ashton/Topher/Sarah Jessica/Beyonce might be. But it was J’s pick, so I kept my mouth shut and hoped for the best. Plus, Town Hall has the added bonus of having biscuits on its menu. I’m from Tennessee, and I appreciate few things more than a properly executed biscuit. West of the Rockies, though, they’re a scarce delicacy, dismissed haughtily as “redneck carbs.” Cue the Deliverance music then, honeychild, because I don’t really care what you call them. I call them Home.

This night, the scene did not disappoint. Our local Kennedy-esque mayor himself was working the bar and the dining room. Lots of fawning was occurring. That fortunately left J. and I the strategic opportunity to annex two end barstools. The biscuits were ordered, as well as the tuna tartare. Fear not, at Town Hall the tuna comes on a bed of lovingly fried green tomatoes, so the Southern theme was by no means abandoned. The biscuits, tiny cream things they are, come piping hot with a side of Smithfield ham (read: proscuitto) and tiny jars of hot pepper jelly and room temperature butter. At $11 for 3, my mother would have a heart attack at the cost, but even she’d agree they’re better than either of us can make. I tell myself the tuna tartare leeches all the grease and bad calories out of the tomatoes, and they also are much better than what I can typically find when I go home to Memphis.

The one downer is usually the quality of bartender chatter. They’re surprisingly aloof considering they’re 2 feet away. Happens every time I’m there. I’m not expecting to be on their Christmas card list, but considering my per person tab is usually $60-70, they could at least pretend, right? Particularly considering I order either wine by the glass (not memorable) or nothing more exotic than Stoli Vanil and Diet Coke, I’m not taxing their labor to beverage ratio. I haven’t asked for mint to be crushed, blenders to be procured, or more than 3 liquors to converge in one glass. So I’m always mystified when they’re so aloof.

Luckily, our right angle diner (we were on the end, remember) filled in the gaps. He was an Acura dealer from Los Gatos (40 miles away!), and he drove up specifically to eat at that bar. That shot my eyebrows into my hairline–Town Hall is good, but not that good. However, once he started doing the mating dance toward my friend J., I understood. Los Gatos is filled with families in minivans and divorcees with the tiniest whiff of desperation. SF is far more of a challenge. He started putting the full court press on J., which I found hysterical. I’ve never witnessed that with her before (I’m really good at tuning out every single person around me except the one that I’m with), but she’d had one too many wines by the glass to be cognizant of what was going on as quickly as she should have. Being the perfect wingman, I moved the transaction forward on her behalf, chatting politely with the car dealer until he was done with dinner. At one point he asked what we did for fun, and while it was tempting to say I held the camera for my aspiring Paris Hilton-esque friends, I said (truthfully) that I go hear a lot of live music. Oh really, he asked, do you play? Only my Visa card, I replied. And what about you, he asked J? What, she said? Do you play an instrument, he repeated? Oh no, J. said. Well, that’s too bad, he said. Not even the meat whistle?, he asked (winking at me).

Fortunately, J missed that, as it would have called time on her evening. I could hardly breathe I was laughing so hard. At that point the tractor beam between the two of them got really strong, although they weren’t saying a whole lot. I kept their banter going a little longer and then made my exit, leaving them to enjoy a nightcap and the possibility of a lurid fleshy symphony.

Town Hall
342 Howard Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
415.908.3900

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  • Sam

    I am in love with townhall’s biscuits too.
    I even tried to make them myself at home
    I actually have liked the barstaff too on the occasions I have been there.

  • sarah j. gim

    i think town hall may now be on my hit list for my august trip up to sf! biscuits…yeah, i fell you, jason. one of the things i miss about texas (along with the riverwalk and the alamo in san antonio) are enormous, falling apart tender biscuits.

    kfc and popeye’s are all i have here in l.a. eek!

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