Let them eat pancakesi

Toast
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paulr@sfbg.com

Not too many years ago, the intersection of Church and 30th streets had a distinctly end-of-the-line, Hooterville flavor. It was there that Muni's J-Church streetcars ran out of track and had to turn themselves around for the voyage back to Market Street. The restaurants were a motley crew too, a helter-skelter bouquet of old, dimly lit places — Italian, Burmese — and a few brash arrivistes, such as Valentine's and Café J.

Nowadays the southbound J takes a left and disappears for hours, like that model train Monty Burns once gave Bart, briefly his heir, on The Simpsons. ("Where does it go?" Millhouse asks in awe as the toy train chugs into a tunnel, and Bart replies, "I don't know, but it'll be gone for three hours, and yesterday it came back with snow on it!") The expansion of public transport is doubtless a good thing, especially in times like these, but the growth of the J line has certainly helped end the backwater days at Church and 30th. In the past few years there has been a tremendous efflorescence of upmarket restaurants south of 26th Street, including Incanto, Bistro 1689, La Ciccia, Pomelo, and Pescheria (from Joseph Manzare of Globe).

A small lacuna in this splendid list — but a striking one, considering Noe Valley's reputation as the city's baby belt — has been a place families could eat with small children. Outer Church's resurgent restaurant row is very much tilted toward hip young adults with money. The baby-stroller set does most of its prowling along 24th Street, with Savor serving as a kind of Grand Central Station for people with little ones. Of course there was Hungry Joe's, an old-time, greasy-spoon hamburger joint — yet the nearest relation to Hungry Joe's wasn't Savor but Herb's, a place where I've never seen many baby strollers or children.

But now that the Naser brothers (Eddie, Anis, and Kamal) have reinvented Hungry Joe's as Toast — complete with fresh paint the color of sunshine, brilliant new windows, and a shiny redo of the lunch counter — the outer Noe neighbors need no longer herd their tykes, tots, nippers, and other small folk up the long blocks to 24th Street. Toast, launched early in September, is much snugger than Savor, and although it doesn't serve crepes, the menu does offer pancakes from dawn to dusk and beyond.

If the place also lacks Savor's rear terrace, where fantasies of being in Nice can plausibly be entertained, it offers plenty of sidewalk seating by way of compensation. This small amenity is already attracting a big brunch crowd on warm weekend afternoons. And lovers of toast will not come away disappointed. Toasted bread, a simple pleasure that really can't be improved upon, is standard issue for many of the restaurant's broad array of sandwiches, and while this might seem like a minor detail, minor details have a way of making the difference between good and merely mediocre cooking.

The only untoasted bread we came across was the little loaf of sliced baguette that appeared shortly after we were seated one evening. It was butterable, of course, but it also made nice chunks for dipping into a surprisingly excellent lentil soup ($4.75) dotted with diced carrots and celery and shreds of tomato but also bewitchingly perfumed with an eastern Mediterranean, perhaps Turkish, bouquet of spices. I definitely detected paprika (we associate paprika with Hungary, but the spice was brought there by Ottoman invaders) and possibly sumac. Another small detail that made a noticeable difference.

And yet another: pepper jack cheese, with its agreeable fruity sharpness, along with cheddar in the grilled cheese sandwich ($7.25), whose slices of white bread had assumed pale golden sheen, sign of a quick turn in oil rather than a toaster.

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