April 24, 2002


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Hotel Californian

By Paul Reidinger

THERE ARE WAYS , apparently, to make money even in a collapsing stock market – "selling short" is the phrase one hears, though one has no idea what it means, having no knack for money and nothing, really, to sell, short or otherwise. Still, it is striking to see some similar mechanism at work in the restaurant business, as the paragons of the haute try their hand at downmarketing – or, as vintners might say, second-labeling. Lots of examples lately. There's Cozmo's Corner Café, an offshoot of the fairly snazzy Cosmopolitan Grill in Rincon Center. There's Acme Chophouse, the new venture from Jardinière's Traci des Jardins. And – joy – there's the Hotel Utah Saloon, the 94-year-old indie music venue whose new impresario in the kitchen is none other than Joanna Karlinsky, one of the co-owners of the incomparable Meetinghouse in Pacific Heights.

A saloon! I love a saloon: six-shooters, 10-gallon hats, swinging doors. All right, you won't find any of those things at the Hotel Utah. But you will find – apart from lots of live music – plenty of rustic western wood, a long bar, and a casual friendliness that invites you to squander a few hours nibbling and drinking. (Karlinsky is strongly drawn to fanciful settings; the Meetinghouse occupies an old apothecary shop.) Best of all, you'll find Karlinsky's eminently nibblable – all right, scarfable – California-ish food. If 19th-century saloons had been as ambitious and conscientious as Karlinsky's kitchen about making their vittles from scratch, the East Coast would be uninhabited now. And wouldn't that be a pity.

Of course, you expect some things to be housemade: soups, for instance, such as a fine curried carrot ($2.50) that nicely balances the acrid heat of the curry with the sweetness of the carrots. But a dish as mundane-sounding as guacamole and chips ($4)? The chips are fresh-fried, the guac and salsa both freshly made; our only complaint was that there wasn't enough of either condiment, but then, how could there have been?

If you begin with the guac and chips, you'll want to end with the Meetinghouse mint-chocolate ice-cream sandwich with hot fudge ($5). Everything is made in-house, from the powerfully minty ice cream (unlike any commercially made competitor) to the chocolate cookies that make up the sandwich to the lewdly oozy hot fudge pooled on the plate. And the whole thing is plenty for two people.

But what about the middle of the meal, the main event, as it were? The theme here seems to be lovability; these are the dishes (burgers, Reubens, mac and cheese, among others) as essential to American identity as Chevrolet – but much better made than any Chevy. There is the occasional Cal-Euro twist, such as niçoise salad ($6.50), a huge platter of greens (well dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette), bounded by two heaps of tuna and scattered with quartered new potatoes, pitted black olives, green beans, cherry tomatoes, and slices of hard-boiled egg.

But the lighter, sleeker items are the exception. More typical is the Reuben ($6.50), a gut-busting amassment of pastrami and sauerkraut on thick, soft rye bread with Russian dressing. I would have preferred darker rye (sliced thinner), but perhaps that's just a habituated response. Excellent fries; they recurred with the cheeseburger ($7.75), made with Niman Ranch beef, which for once seemed to make a good burger. No doubt the "Utah special sauce" – a chipotle mayonnaise – helped.

The baked pastas cannot be improved upon. Macaroni and cheese ($6), served in a round crock, is subtly zipped up with Gruyère (our guess) or some combination of cheeses with enough grown-up bite to cut through the creaminess. And the meat lasagna ($7; there's a roasted-vegetable version at the same price) is quite simply the best lasagna I've ever eaten – the ground beef richly spiced, the thick layer of cheese broiled to a gorgeous bronze, and the side salad bathed in a vinaigrette that carries the bewitching licorice breath of tarragon.

After all that, maybe the Meetinghouse ice-cream sandwich is just too much. If so, but you still want a sweet, you might consider one of the fresh, house-baked cookies stacked on a platter at the bar. Caveat: They aren't as big as Frisbees, but almost. And on our first visit they were being given away – as a kind of chaser, I guess, to the ice-cream sandwich. It is very difficult to say no to a free thing you actually want, even if you know to a moral certainty that 20 minutes later you will be standing on the sidewalk in dazzling sunlight feeling distinctly woozy.

Of course, there's nothing unusual, as a historical matter, about a man reeling out of a saloon, in the middle of the day or the middle of the night or any other time. But ... a man stunned by a one-two punch of housemade chocolate-chip cookies and a housemade ice-cream sandwich? Well, that's something else, a new kind of sensual decadence for a new millennium.

Hotel Utah Saloon. 500 Fourth St. (at Bryant), S.F. (415) 546-6300. Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-late; dinner: Sat.-Sun., 6 p.m.-late. MasterCard, Visa. Full bar. Noisy when there's music. Wheelchair accessible.