If there are more architecturally compelling restaurants in the city than the troika assembled by the troika consisting of the Rosenthal brothers and Doug Washington, I don't know of them. The Rosenthal brothers are, Steven and Mitchell, who ran the kitchen at Postrio for years before leaving to open Town Hall, while Washington (who's worked at Postrio and Jardinière, among other places) has long been their front-of-the-house presence.
Town Hall was launched in 2003 on the ground floor of a handsome and historic brick building at the corner of Howard and Fremont streets. In 2006 the trio opened their second spot, Salt House, just a few blocks away, on Mission near First, in an old printing plant. And in April came Anchor and Hope, in a gorgeously made-over brick warehouse on Minna Street, more or less wedged between its older siblings.
Restaurant architecture is always relevant, but it's particularly relevant in SoMa in these days of massive construction projects: gigantic residential towers, buildings of bare concrete, plate glass, and squiggly rooflines, with planes of mesh at odd angles, like giant mosquito screens half-toppled by the wind all of it suggestive, somehow, of exhibitionism (by architects and occupants alike), an obsession with industrial materials instead of craft and technique, and a blithe attitude toward ugliness.
Too many of these buildings look garish and disposable, as if an artisanal human hand has never touched them, and I suspect they will look dated and cheap before it becomes necessary to tear them down and recycle them into lawn chairs or bidets. When they do come down, it might be that Anchor and Hope will still be standing, its patrons eating oysters and other delicacies from the sea while demolition dust swirls outside.
If there is something almost European in the troika's architectural sense an instinct to preserve old buildings and their memory of the past by polishing and refitting them to modern standards the Rosenthals' food continues to transcend categories. Town Hall serves a full-throated menu the brothers might have put together at Postrio, Salt House adds a hip-tavern note, and now Anchor and Hope gives us a version of that SF classic, the seafood house.
Step through the enormous plate-glass portal your first big clue that this isn't a rehash of Tadich Grill or Sam's and you find yourself in a huge open dining room under a peaked ceiling of exposed rafters. The chapel-of-industry effect is similar to that at Acquerello or Chez Spencer but much more imposing. A long bar occupies much of the east wall. Despite the hard flooring material, the noise level is well-managed. The high ceiling must help, while the brushed-steel chairs surprisingly don't hurt. They can be a little chilly, though, on wintry nights, and you might need a little something to warm your hands over.
How about a bowl of fabulous crab chowder ($10), thickened with parsnips (a flavorful relative of the potato) and some black-pepper cream and heavy with crab meat? Crab doesn't need much tinkering, in my experience, but in this simplest of soups, the crab flavor shone clearly.
We warmed our hands over a big bowl of clams ($10.50), steamed in a basil-wine broth that gave a teasing whiff of summer. Batter-fried smelts ($9) "fries with eyes" didn't give off any restorative steam, but they were crisp and tasty, and the rémoulade served on the side for dipping the little fish had a serious pepper kick. My only complaint about tiger prawns ($12.50) simmered Thai-style in coconut red curry (with a side of jasmine rice) was that one has seen versions of this dish before, not infrequently.
I was surprised, and perhaps slightly disappointed, to find the menu devoid of sustainability information.