Nice guys finish first
Photo by Rory McNamara

In the Big Book of Troubled Restaurant Spaces, there will have to be a long chapter (with footnotes!) devoted to 2101 Sutter. Since the mid-1990s this unassuming but hardly forbidding site has been home to Nightshade, Laghi, Julia, Winterland, and now Cassis, and I might be forgetting a few. The comings and goings have been many and hasty. Why the address's occupants should have such a nomadic bent, one after the other, isn't obvious when considering the physical particulars. 2101 is a perfectly nice setting, a sort of fat reverse L with the entryway, bar, and small dining area on one axis and, on the other (beyond a psychedelic screen that resembles strips of vinyl studded with disks of glass, like a hippie's belt collection), a larger dining area with an exhibition kitchen. The kitchen had been covered over during the brief Winterland era, the picture-window opening plugged with drywall, but now the view is back, and we notice a pizza oven among the other handsome implements.

Yes, pizza, though Cassis (as the name suggests) is a French restaurant. But the cooking isn't generic French; the street signage advises us that the restaurant serves "cuisine niçoise," and Nice is a French Riviera town quite near Italy. The city's most famous contribution to culinary annals is probably the salade niçoise, that likable jumble of tuna, red peppers, quarters of hard-boiled egg, and black olives, but the city is nearly as pizza crazy as Rome, and that's saying something. To sit at an outdoor table at one of the many cafés along Nice's pedestrian promenade, drinking chilled rosé and eating thin-crust pizza, could be the ultimate experience niçoise.

Cassis can't match these plein air atmospherics, of course. For one thing, it's in San Francisco, which is not an alfresco town, and for another, it sits in a remarkably nondescript building in a neighborhood filled with nondescript buildings. Even if you could sit at a sidewalk table, you almost surely wouldn't want to, since Sutter and Steiner are not, to say the least, charming pedestrian promenades, while nearby Geary Boulevard is a roaring sluice of automobile traffic. So, inside! The big horseshoe bar is welcoming, the outer dining area relaxed — but you like to see your chefs in action, and that means a table in the main dining area, beyond the hippie-belt screen.

The screen is a Winterland holdover, but subtle changes to the sleek chill of that restaurant's design have brought some cheering warmth to Cassis. The return of the open kitchen is one; another is the faux brickwork on the support pillars. The rise in ambient temperature has, like global warming, caused a palpable shift in the mammalian population; gone are Winterland's droves of 30-year-old, gelled-hair, tech billionaires in black mock turtlenecks, and in is an older contingent, rather Pacific Heights–looking. These are people who might not have responded too enthusiastically to Winterland's sea urchin foams but are perfectly happy with Cassis's simple but intense lobster bisque (a steal at $6.25), enriched with cognac, or the pissaladière ($7.50), the classic tart of caramelized onion that's like a solid version of French onion soup.

The master of the kitchen is Stephane Meloni, who opened the restaurant last year with his brother, Jerome. Jerome runs the front of the house. The brothers grew up in Nice, which among its other winning attributes is not far along the coast from Cassis, a picturesque, cliff-hanging village. Hence the restaurant's name. Those with total recall might remember that there was another Cassis in the city in the mid-1990s, a bistro in Cow Hollow. But there is no other connection between the two places.

I would have dispensed with the coil of fried onion atop the pissaladière.

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