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Time's arrow flies in only one direction, pace Martin Amis and Captain Kirk, and with this verity in mind we should probably be more careful than we are about distinguishing between a progression and actual progress. The former is inevitable and constant, the ticks and tocks of the clock; the latter is neither. "The world does not only get worse," says the mordant narrator of John Updike's 1997 novel Toward the End of Time — but it often does, and it often does so under the thrilling guise of progress.
If you go out to eat with any frequency in the city, you will understand what I am talking about here. There isn't much new about the mindless celebration of newness, but there does appear to be a definite tonal shift in newer restaurants now, away from graciousness and enveloping warmth and toward harder surfaces, louder music, more noise, and an overall severeness of look that owes, perhaps, too large a debt to loft design.
If places like Hayes Street Grill and Restaurant LuLu opened today, we might well wonder whether either of them would get off the ground. In the Age of the iPod, both are dramatically short on glitz. Hayes Street Grill (opened by Pat Unterman in 1979 and still run by her) is a faithful reinterpretation of such old-line seafood houses as Tadich Grill and Sam's; there is a lot of wood and brass, and a wealth of booths and half walls that suggest a friendly maze. LuLu meanwhile (opened by Reed Hearon in 1993), despite being located in an old building in what was once a warehouse district, has something of the feel of an amphitheater; the main dining room is a huge open space with a sunken floor. There is also the bewitching scent of smoke from the wood-burning oven, which glows and flickers in plain sight at the rear of the room, as if in the great hall of some medieval king. Both restaurants offer highly professional, practiced service and food of unfussy elegance that is one of the central and best characteristics of the local style. Both are easy places to have conversations in.
Progress beyond these discreetly exalted points, in other words — those points being among the main reasons we have restaurants in the first place — might not be progress at all, although it is a little late in the day to be sounding this cautionary note. At the same time, the state of exaltedness must not be taken for granted, lest staleness set in. Age can bring refinement and confidence or a plague of debilitations on the downward road to closure. It is no small tribute to say of this pair of contemporary San Francisco institutions that they have never been better.
Of the two, Hayes Street Grill would seem to have enjoyed the less bumpy passage, for it has remained in the hands of its founder for more than a quarter century, and its basic scheme — of grilled fish with a choice of sauce, along with french fries — remains at the heart of the menu. The bill of fare dwells more now on the provenance of the seafood (Pacific swordfish, for instance, is taken "long-line, circle hook" — this is reassuring), but the Sichuan peanut sauce is still peppery-rich and a nice match to the mild white flesh of the California sea bass ($22.75). A voluptuous shrimp-avocado louie ($16.50), with Mariquita beets, features prawns from Morro Bay, while a plate of pan-fried Hama Hama oysters ($16.75), with coleslaw, tartar sauce, and fries, reminds us that (1) oysters are pretty good cooked as well as raw and (2) HSG's fries remain competitive with the best. They are somewhat thicker than matchsticks, but this means they retain heat better, and they achieve the ideal balance between crisp and tender. Of course they also go well with the cheeseburger ($13.50), a straightforward presentation of Niman Ranch ground beef and Grafton cheddar on a bun, without distracting frou-frou beyond the fries.
At LuLu, the agent of ubiquity is not the french fry but the wood-burning oven, whose smoky perfume casts a spell of enchantment even in the middle of the day. You find yourself thinking of the mountains, winter, a horse-drawn sleigh, mulled wine. Or: pizza, which has been a LuLu specialty from the beginning and through the large changes in the kitchen — the handoff from Hearon to Jody Denton in 1995, and from Denton to Jared Doob in 2003. If most of us probably don't associate pizza with brunch, it might be because we've never had LuLu's egg pizza ($16.50), a kind of deconstructed omelet, of caramelized onion, parmesan cheese, pancetta — and of course a whole egg, over-easy-ish — on a thin crust. It doesn't sound like it would work, but it does. Also sounding unworkable, but working, is the venerable, if less brunchy, calamari pizza ($17.25), the slices of squid glisteningly tender and accompanied by a scattering of arugula leaves, chili flakes, and aioli. Simple, potent, proven.
One of the pleasures of brunch is archaeological: examining certain sorts of jumbled dishes, such as oven-baked eggs ($13.50), for leftovers from the day or two before. We found shreds of duck confit in one batch (with spinach and braised spring onion), but the next week it was roast pork — could this have been left over from sandwich production? Doesn't seem likely, for the roast-pork sandwich ($11.95) is a colossus, with mozzarella, romesco, and baby spinach on a raft of pillow-soft red-onion focaccia. Our progress through it was slow but determined and, in the end, satisfactory. SFBG
HAYES STREET GRILL
Lunch: Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m. Dinner: Mon.–Thurs., 5–9:30 p.m.; Fri., 5–10:30 p.m.; Sat., 5:30–10:30 p.m.; Sun., 5–8:30 p.m.
320 Hayes, SF. (415) 863-5545
Not quiet, but reasonable
Sun.–Thurs., 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 11:30 a.m.–11 p.m.
816 Folsom, SF. (415) 495-5775
Can get noisy, but bearable