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…and, most important, Fraternité, in San Francisco’s renowned French Quarter.
If you’re thinking it’s too early to make a reservation for Bastille Day at one of the cafés or bistros on Belden Place and the surrounding French-flavored areas— trust me, it’s not. This annual block party in honor of Marianne, the patroness of French liberty, is a major happening, when city streets in the neighborhood are shut down for one of the longest, most festive Bastille Day celebrations in the country. Fueled by the presence of the French Consulate, thousands of Francophiles, and your basic San Franciscan looking to party, this is the hottest ticket in town.
I’m a devout Francophile. One of my motivations in moving to San Francisco was its vibrant French Quarter, with cafés and bistros clustered in narrow alleyways, one running into another, their outdoor seating, under colorful umbrellas, tended by bustling waiters with irresistible Gallic accents. Of course, I looked forward to celebrating my first Bastille Day in San Francisco.
At about seven o’clock on July 14, my husband and I headed downtown without a reservation, thinking we’d choose the bistro that most appealed to us when we arrived, only to learn that every seat at every table in every French eatery had been spoken for —weeks in advance. The party was in full swing, and there was no room for us. But we got lucky. At our last stop, when we were just about to give up, the maitre d’ at Le Central offered to squeeze in two stools at the bar. This was our introduction to bar-dining in San Francisco, so much more fun than that table for two we thought we wanted. Thinking we’d just have a drink, we stayed to party. More about that later.
With that serendipitous introduction to the San Franciscan French community, and having since dined our way around the Quarter, we usually head to one of the following when we need a French fix, in any season.
CAFÉ de la PRESSE
Located opposite the Chinatown gate, a block from Belden Place, this home-away-from-home for French expatriates living in The City, is the cornerstone of the French Quarter, the café most like those you’ll find in the neighborhoods of the Left Bank. It’s also where I left my heart on previous visits to San Francisco, where I had brunched after Mass at Notre Dame des Victoires, where I had my first, and still favorite, croissant.
Actually a combination café, bistro, tabac, and international newsstand with an entire wall of multi-national titles, la Presse is where local and visiting French start their day, leisurely breakfasting on café au lait and croissants, while scanning Paris Match for news of home. American clients, on the other hand, are easy to spot. They’re the ones making quick work of their sunny-side-ups, and moving on.
The inviting horseshoe-shaped bar up front is surrounded by bistro tables and chairs and is always busy; breakfast is served here when the tables are filled. Café services extend to the outdoor terrace, where, when we get the weather right, tables are even more in demand. I always feel lucky to get one.
A few steps at the back of the café lead to the dining room—a more sedate ambience, featuring classic French bistro dishes. In the entrance is a table with a mammoth flower arrangement set amidst a mouthwatering array of desserts. At a recent dinner, I tried two of the menu’s staples, starting with Petachou, warm goat cheese spread over a gratin of fingerling potatoes, then progressing to Nevarin d’Agneau, a casserole of tender lamb, beans and vegetables in a wine-infused sauce. Both were winners. On French holidays, like Bastille Day, la Presse has special menus and prices. (415-398-2680)
It’s common knowledge that Café Claude has the best looking waiters in the Quarter. I never noticed—I go for the croque monsieur and plates of charcuterie, accompanied by inexpensive glasses of Beaujolais, topped off with a crisp tarte tatin—a heavenly lunch, on either side of the Atlantic.
This quintessentially Parisian café is situated on its own narrow alleyway, Claude Lane, and accentuates its authenticity with tables, chairs, mirrors, and the zinc-topped bar that once graced a brasserie in France. Located a short distance from Union Square, it‘s a convenient place to rewind midway through a shopping spree.
Food and location are not the only reasons for its popularity. Café Claude knows how to party, and doesn’t need a holiday to celebrate. Happy Hour, featuring $5 cocktails, is every day from 4 pm to 6 pm. Live Jazz music, with no cover, is presented every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night starting at 7:30. All the festivities come to a frenzied peak during the biggest bash of all—Bastille Day —when revelers cram the outdoor tables under an awning of twinkling lights and lift an elbow to French liberte. (415-392-3505)
I’ll end where I started—with Le Central, where every Friday at lunchtime, if you’re in the neighborhood, you can see Willie in the window—Willie Brown, that is, who holds court with friends at a window table in full view of the passing public. I’m told it’s okay to stare. Willie’s not the only political fixture here. Le Central, San Francisco’s first French bistro, has been a meeting place for movers and shakers for many of the 30 years it’s been open.
But I don’t go to stare. I’ll always be grateful to Le Central for the way they welcomed us on our first Bastille Day in San Francisco, how they made room for us where none existed, how warmly the people whose space we invaded embraced us.
The bar food is delicious. The escargots were the first I had in The City, and still the best, nestled in a buttery garlic sauce so luscious, I wiped every indentation on the plate clean, asking for more baguette to complete the job. Not a trace of sauce was sent back to the kitchen.
We still haven’t sampled the dining room fare—their slow-cooked cassoulet is a specialty—we keep going back to the bar, where we chat with people we never knew before, and most likely will never meet again, now a cherished part of our dining-out experiences. (415-391-2233)
None of these restaurants are haute cuisine, of course. There’s a time and many places in The City for exalted French dining—where the menus are heavy with sublime offerings, but leave the wallet a lot lighter than bistro fare. On Bastille Day, when the emphasis is more on drink than on gourmet dining, you might want to consider celebrating in the Belden area. That’s where you’ll find the sparkle, sizzle, and spirit of Paris, San Francisco’s Sister City.
But be forewarned: If you’re planning to storm the French Quarter on Bastille Day—the time to make that reservation is NOW!
Be sure to visit Cathy’s blog, A Tale of Three Cities