The house that Pete built
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With the recent cashiering of Barry Bonds, the House that Barry Built goes into receivership, while the neighborhood pauses to reflect. Perhaps the foul odors that have gathered over AT&T Park in recent seasons bad-team and steroid-scandal stinks will now dissipate. Perhaps the park will be given a more euphonious name, one that actually has something to do with baseball, the team, and the city, and is not just a reference to the highest corporate bidder du jour.
Are people thinking these sorts of deep thoughts at Pete's Tavern, a new venture by the canny Peter Osborne, who opened MoMo's in the neighborhood before there was much of a neighborhood? I doubt it. For one thing, it is hard to think any sort of thought when you are a sodden sports nut in your Alabama sweatshirt, watching Crimson Tide football on one of the many flat-panel screens mounted high around the huge bar and bellowing like an agitated zoo gorilla at every first down and penalty flag sloshing beer on your sweatshirt too. Yes, Pete's is part sports bar, and while it happens to be across the street from a major sports temple, it would be what it is no matter where it was. Sports culture, like cyberspace, is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, and the people who plug into it tend to float free from the reality-based community.
But Pete's (which opened in August) isn't just a sports bar, a place where postcollegiate men sit with pitchers of beer and luxuriate in periodic outbursts of boorishness. It's also a restaurant, and it serves food I might be tempted to describe as "surprising" if MoMo's weren't so good. Osborne is obviously a savvy entrepreneur who understands the lure of sports in attracting crowds, but his restaurants (including, once upon a time, the Washington Square Bar and Grill) have been estimable despite their often raucous venues, and Pete's Tavern, in a Falstaffian way, adds to this legacy.
"Tavern" suggests dim lighting, at least to me, and Pete's can be very dim indeed. When we stepped into the place's large vestibule over a recent sunny noon hour, it was as if we'd gone blind.
"If it were any darker, there'd be a lawsuit," said my friend. We halted for a moment to let our eyes adjust and thoughts of litigation clear. Then we mounted the half-staircase to the main room, where an enormous bar stands at center court, with tables and chairs lining the sidewalls. The noise factor at Pete's is not inconsiderable; apart from the oft-madding crowd there is, even in moments of relative lassitude, a soundtrack of thumping music that reverberates off a world of hard surfaces, including handsome but rather chilly zinc-topped tables.
The mood, then, was distinctly unpromising in those first moments. Then the bruschetta ($9) arrived, and when I bit into a point of beautifully pillowy grilled garlic bread laden with chunks of fresh mozzarella, drippingly ripe slices of heirloom tomato, and julienne of basil the whole enlivened with a judicious flick or two of salt my spirits rose. Clearly the kitchen (under the direction of chef de cuisine Damon Hall) wasn't stinting on ingredients nor sending out plates of food that hadn't been properly seasoned.
The chili con carne ($5 for a bowl) was meaty as could be with what seemed to be high-quality, house-ground chuck, and it was nicely decorated with matchsticks of crisped tortilla. A tuna salad ($10), meanwhile, featured fresh tuna (mashed with mayonnaise and lightly browned so as to resemble a pat of goat cheese) nested in mixed greens, with cherry tomatoes, quartered hard-boiled eggs, and a creamy vinaigrette on the side.
Prices are not terrible for what you get and considering where you're getting it, but they do seem higher than the pubby average. Zucchini strings were a little dear at $7, though the pile was haystack huge. (This dish, consisting of batter-fried shreds, was the only one we found to be underseasoned. A side cup of ranch dressing, for dipping, helped.) And $12 for an open-faced turkey sandwich? Well, all right, especially since the gravy, flecked with green peas and carrots, was intensely flavorful and the flaps of meat were draped over tasty cheddar biscuits.
On the other hand, $13 for half a rotisserie chicken seemed fair enough, given the snap of the house-made sauce and the moist tenderness of the bird, which wasn't quite confitlike but was in the (sorry!) ballpark. By the time we were staggering toward the far end of this plate of food (which included quarters of roasted new potatoes, just to make sure), we were revisiting the wisdom of having opened with chicken and chorizo nachos ($10) in addition to the zucchini strings. The nachos plate was like many a nachos plate in many a sports bar: a great coming-together of tortilla chips under an oozy cap of melted cheese, with large mounds of sour cream, salsa, and guacamole on top, the last two house-made. The nachos, plus a pitcher or two of beer, would have been plenty to keep a couple of exfrat rats satisfied into extra innings.
But there were no extra innings that night, just another Giants loss, and an exodus of fans streaming forth into the mild evening as we stepped out of Pete's. We waved at old Barry, but he didn't see us, just as we hadn't seen him. *
Daily, 11 a.m.midnight
128 King, SF