Hayes Valley has quietly enjoyed a rebirth in recent years. In this quaint ‘hood, you can find some of the most hip restaurants and cool shops in the city, most of them locally owned. You can easily spend a lazy afternoon or evening strolling and eating from one end to the other, delightfully over-the-top and delicious.
Chef owner Jessica Boncutter—who worked at Zuni and Hog Island Oyster Company—opened Bar Jules in 2007. This tiny café at 609 Hayes Street serves Mediterranean-inspired plates based on organic ingredients sourced mostly from local farms. The menu is small and changes daily via two large blackboards hanging inside the dining room. The open kitchen, intimate space, and charming décor create a warm, homey atmosphere. The place is named after the owner’s dog, after all. This is a great first stop on your Hayes Valley tour for lunch (Wednesday through Saturday) or dinner (Tuesday through Sunday). Here you can feast on delectable plates such as black trumpet mushroom toasts or wood-grilled quail with flageolet beans, baby carrots, wild mushrooms, and thyme. It’s easy to become a regular here and have confidence that almost any dish you order will be seasonal and pristine.
From there, wander down Hayes Street across the Octavia Street tree-lined promenade to Linden Street and order a shot of Hayes Valley espresso from the funky Blue Bottle storefront kiosk. It comes with a shot glass of sparkling water just like in Italia—what a nice touch!
If you are craving something sweet, turn to the left and walk to the corner of Hayes and Gough (401 Hayes Street) to Christopher Elbow Chocolates. This artisan chocolatier crafts innovative and beautiful chocolates in flavors such as rosemary caramel or tequila lime.
Just around the corner at 320 Fell Street is the Fatted Calf Charcuterie Shop offering a gorgeous array of meats, salami, pates, sausages, prosciutti, confits, and cheese. If you feel like cooking—or throwing a dinner party—take home a ready-to-roast porchetta (Heritage pork belly rolled around the loin and tied up) stuffed with herbs and breadcrumbs. Or, ask the friendly staff to slice you an extra thick piece of Piemontese New York steak from hormone-free Montana cattle. The hand-made sausages (spicy Calabrian, French Toulouse, lamb Merguez, and Italian fennel) and crepinettes (small disc-shaped sausages wrapped in caul fat) are succulent, full of flavor, and prepared with the best ingredients available. Every Wednesday starting at 5 p.m., the butchers at Fatted Calf break down a whole hog for their “Pork Happy Hour.” Complimentary beer and wine is available as long as you buy a cut of the hog!
For an afternoon cocktail or an American-influenced French supper, stroll over to Absinthe at 398 Hayes Street. Absinthe has established a reputation as a Hayes Valley institution with a bustling bar scene and restaurant catering to the pre-theatre and late night crowds (the kitchen is open until midnight). The food today is better than ever, thanks to executive chef Adam Keough, who took over the helm last August (he’s worked with Joshua Skenes, now chef/owner of Saison, at Chez TJ in Los Gatos and for the Michael Mina Restaurant Group). You cannot go wrong with the California lamb shank (Mediterranean spiced, mascarpone polenta, salsify, parsnips, Sherry-lamb jus) or the Fulton Valley chicken (artichoke-spätzle gratin, speck ham, mountain spinach, sweet onion jus). For something fun, order a starter of the house-made soft garlic pretzels served with a Vermont cheddar Mornay sauce (think béchamel, but with cheese). They are insanely delicious and pair beautifully with the artisan cocktails.
Another good option for dinner (not open for lunch) is the sushi restaurant Sebo located at 519 Hayes Street that serves high quality, responsibly sourced fish. To create the most authentic taste possible, Chef Nao Hashimoto uses koshihikari rice seasoned with yusen-su, dry vinegar made from sake lees (the solids that remain after fermenting sake). On Sunday evenings, Sebo forgoes its customary menu and transforms into an “izakaya,” a Japanese drinking establishment that serves substantial food to accompany cocktails. You can enjoy an assortment of always-changing small plates traditional in pubs across Japan. The mood is relaxed and you can tell that the chefs are enjoying the opportunity to mix it up. Some of the dishes on the latest izakaya menu included Nanbanzuke (fried little fish chilled in vinegar marinade), Nikudango (beef meatballs with tomato dashi sauce), Karaage (curry marinated and fried chicken), and Sokibuni (Okinawan simmered spareribs). Order a bottle of artisan sake or soju and raise a toast to the chefs.
The izakaya might be the next restaurant trend, as Nojo recently opened nearby at 231 Franklin Street.
Asparagus burst into season recently and is highlighted in dishes served at Bar Jules and Absinthe. For a simple and delicious recipe for “risotto congli asparagi,” visit my website: http://cookwithjames.com/asparagus/
James Stolich launched CookWithJames in 2002 as an “underground supper club.” Today, CWJ is a full-time business, offering private cooking and catering services, including private dinners and classes. James has been featured in UrbanDaddy, AgencySpy, and Jenn Garbee’s intriguing book, Secret Suppers, about rogue chefs and their little known culinary life.