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Judging a book by its cover might be a sin, but how about judging a restaurant by its name? In most cases this is probably at least premature, if not quite a sin, though the name Mecca presents a strong temptation. Here we have a restaurant that opened a decade ago on a stretch of mid-Market that wasn't exactly Shangri-la; the neighbors included a Ford dealership, one of the tattier Safeways, and, a bit later, the sex club Eros. On the other hand, the location was about midway between Zuni and the Castro, and it is along that vector that Mecca — which became Mecca SF last fall under new ownership — has found its enduring identity.
When I first stepped into Mecca 10 years ago, I thought: Studio 54. There was the glam underground feel, the distinct homo vibe, the tall curtains of purple velvet hanging like regal robes and serving as partial screens while also soaking up, in grand fashion, some of the noise reverberating from the many hard surfaces, the concrete and stainless steel, that gave the space its urban edge. As it happened, I had visited Studio 54 in the early 1980s, when the place was senescent and overrun with bridge-and-tunnel folk but still recognizable as a onetime theater of some kind, with an extant stage and balcony — along with fabulous curtains. Mecca, it seemed to me then, wasn't a direct clone of but was definitely inspired by Studio 54; the drugs, sex, and exclusivity might not be as overt and intense, but in compensation there was food — good food — and a conspicuous valet service, which not only took care of patrons' fancy cars but also alerted passersby that happenings of note were occurring within.
On a recent visit, we arrived in a Prius — holy of holies for today's rich liberals, with plenty of rear legroom — and parked directly across the street. Inside, the layout seemed unchanged from my last tour, 3 years ago, or for that matter from 10 years ago. The gigantic, horseshoe-shaped bar still dominates; there is still a cluster of tables under the front windows (which are screened with steel mesh — a Jetsons touch) and another cluster in a curtain-screened alcove behind the host's station. The curtains did seem to me to be a different color now — camel or cappuccino rather than purple or claret — but that could be a trick or fault of memory.
The change of hands last fall has resulted in, among other things, a new chef, Sergio Santiago. He was born in Puerto Rico, and he describes his Mecca SF menu as incorporating "certain tones of New Latin cuisine." Maybe, but what most struck me was the richness of Santiago's cooking. In this sense he has more in common with his recent predecessors, Michael Fennelly and Stephen Barber, than with the restaurant's opening chef, Lynn Sheehan, whose style of well-polished Cal-Med rusticity was very much in the tradition of Zuni and Chez Panisse.
True, you can still find that sort of dish on Santiago's menu. The Mecca french fries ($6), served in a paper cone with a ramekin of homemade ketchup, leave nothing to be desired and are nicely sharable. Just as plainspoken is the whole artichoke ($9), baked with parsley and bread crumbs and served with a side of garlic butter for dipping — an important procedure, given the leatheriness of much of the flesh. (Artichokes steam much better than they roast, in my experience, unless they are baby artichokes.)
But it is impossible not to notice the infiltration of luxe onto the bill of fare. Caviar. Lobster. Foie gras. Very Campton Place and expense-accounty, and please have your statins ready. Oysters provide a balancing tonic and reaffirm the Zuni connection; they are available raw on the half shell or, as a quartet ($12), fried and doused with a mignonette. Crab cakes ($13) are good, if out of season — a beurre blanc emboldened by tasso (prosciutto's poor cousin) is a nice flourish — and they are also noticeably spherical, as opposed to the more typical patty. Among the simplest of the smaller choices is a salad of mixed baby greens, though $12 seems a little steep for what you get.
As is so often the case now, the main dishes seem to sag a bit when compared with the smaller but more glittering starters. It is like going to a play that sets up spectacularly in the first act, then doesn't quite make it up the mountain. At Mecca SF, this phenomenon has to do at least in part with the usualness of the offerings: There is chicken, beef, lamb, catfish, and duck breast. (No vegetarian choice.) I liked a pork tenderloin ($27), roasted to perfect succulence and presented with mashed sweet potatoes and a tangy chutney of Granny Smith apples; I liked too a roulade of salmon ($26), the disk of fish wearing a top hat of pickled cucumber and radish tissues. But these dishes seemed to be wanting some of the subtlety of the earlier courses.
Desserts (by pastry chef Mie Uchida) are mainly of the modern-art school: for example, a flange of chocolate bread pudding ($9) flanked by small globes of chocolate and peanut butter ice cream — the overall look that of a miniature public sculpture — and a trio of crèmes brûlées ($9), chocolate, coconut, and vanilla, lined up on a narrow platter that resembles a railroad cross tie. The F train, incidentally, stops just about at the front door. No valet needed. Wave as you pass. SFBG
Dinner: Tues.–Thurs., 5:30–10 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 5:30–11 p.m.; Sun., 5:30–9 p.m. Lunch: Sun., from 1 p.m.
2029 Market, SF