How green was my valley?
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On a warm late summer afternoon a few weeks ago, a friend and I stood in front of a shuttered market on Hayes Street, marveling at the shutters themselves. These really weren't shutters but a kind of corrugated-steel fortification, the sort of thing people in hurricane country buy at Sears so high winds don't blow out all the windows. Here the danger would not have been hurricanes but vandalism and perhaps an occasional touch of civil unrest but during our momentary vigil we saw nothing of the kind, not a possibility nor even a hint. Just a dowdy old market that had come to seem out of place, slightly scruffy and paranoid, on what has become, in the past 15 years or so, one of the city's most transformed stretches of culture and commerce.
Although Hayes Street's darkest days probably fell in the mid-1990s when a long symphony strike turned the western precincts of the Civic Center into a ghost town the neighborhood's prospects were already brightening even then. True, the idling of the symphony meant that the area's restaurants had fewer people to serve preperformance dinners or postperformance desserts to, and things were already bad enough with the earthquake-related closures of government buildings near City Hall and the dislocation of the people who worked in them and made up a reliable lunch crowd. But the elevated Central Freeway, the malignant tendril of concrete that cut the neighborhood in two, was succumbing, bit by bit, to ballot initiatives, and removal of that blight meant that there was nowhere to go but up.
When the sun shines in Hayes Valley these days, it's difficult to remember that dank structure and its scary shadows, or how unsettling it could be to walk along Hayes west of Gough in the evening. Today the scene is one of quirky, pricey boutiques, the wonderful village green, which is full of lunchtime people and romping dogs and whizzing bicycles and of course restaurants.
There are some excellent restaurants in the vicinity: Jardinière, Hayes Street Grill, Indigo, Absinthe. Although Essencia is too new to put firmly in this category, its bona fides are impressive. But all these places are east of or on Gough. West of Gough, there's still surprisingly little beyond various sorts of cantinas that cater to the lunch folk.
Suppenküche, with its au courant German cooking, is interesting and worthy in an oddball sort of way, but it's held down its far corner for more than a decade. Modern Tea, across the street, is also interesting and worthy, but its food service, while estimable, is circumscribed. Frjtz has fabulous frites and sandwiches, Patxi some excellent pizzas, but you're in and out of those places.
For a time there seemed the possibility of something notable opening in the glassy new building at the corner of Octavia. The restaurant space was large and commanded views of the green, but the first occupant was Café Grillades, which was essentially a creperie. Some months ago the place reopened as Stacks' as in stacks of pancakes, as in we deal in breakfast and lunch and, like West Coast stockbrokers, are done by midafternoon.
The restricted hours appear to have heightened the restaurant's allure. Grillades served dinner but was often emptyish in the after-dark hours. Stacks', by contrast, actually seems to have people waiting at the host's station for tables. I would like to say the public's renewed enthusiasm has to do with the food, but Stacks' menu doesn't seem too different from Grillades' and even includes a wide selection of crepes, along with Belgian waffles, omelets, soups, and sandwiches.
The food is good rather than memorable, except for the prices, which reflect the chichification of Hayes Street. Soup and sandwich (the combination changes daily) will run you $8.69. For that you get a pretty-good-size bowl of, say, chicken noodle soup (with plenty of wide, fettucelike noodles) and a turkey and cheese sandwich on soft whole wheat bread. This is just the sort of lunch your nutrition-involved mother would make you eat, if she could still make you do anything.
A plaudit too for the turkey burger ($8.89), which was cooked through as is essential with poultry but not dry. Turkey burgers need a secret ingredient; I use an egg yolk, which helps keep the meat moist and also provides a binding effect. Could this be the Stacks' technique? I couldn't tell, but the kitchen knows what it's doing here.
For years a noontime stalwart was Sage, one of those Chinese restaurants that seemed as if it had always been there and always would be. Then, one day last fall, it wasn't. Now it is a Middle Eastern place called Hayes and Kebab. Not much has changed except the cuisine, and the fact that there is no longer full table service: you order at the counter, take a numbered placard, and wait for the food to be brought to you.
The falafel ($5.95) is served burrito-style, wrapped in lavash instead of the usual pita bread, and this is an improvement. There is also, squirting gently from the cylinder, a tasty sauce of yogurt spiked with paprika a nice touch, since falafel can be dry. We liked the charcoal-grilled chicken shish kebab ($9.95), in part because the marinated meat remained juicy and because it was presented with tasty little salads of bulgur wheat and rice pilaf dotted with green peas, raisins, and slivered almonds.
Hayes and Kebab serves dinner, if you can't get into Essencia next door or you overlooked Stacks' daylight-only policy. Said King Théoden as he led the Rohirrim into battle before the walls of Minas Tirith, "Fear no darkness!"
HAYES AND KEBAB
Mon.Thurs. and Sun., 11 a.m.10 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 11 a.m.11 p.m.
406 Hayes, SF
Beer and wine
Daily, 7 a.m.2:30 p.m.
501 Hayes, SF
Beer and wine