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Old dog, new tricks

Josh Sens | November 21, 2011 | Food & Drink Story Eat and Drink

A crosstown venture from the duo behind South of Market’s Marlowe, Park Tavern sits on the edge of Washington Square Park in a historic space that was most recently a red-sauce Italian joint. Yet to San Franciscans of a certain vintage, the address will always mark the place that once housed Moose’s, a power brokers’
redoubt overseen by the late impresario Ed Moose.
Like the famous San Francisco Chronicle scribe Herb Caen, who ranked among its regulars, Moose’s embodied what is now an all-but-vanished San Francisco, a city where locals still read three-dot news columns in the paper and wobbled back to work after a three-martini lunch. Moose himself was the Negroniloving lord of the neighborhood. Afternoon and evening, his restaurant echoed with backslaps and guffaws, and glowed with enough red noses to light a fleet of Santa’s sleighs.
There is, in other words, some history here. The question is how to capitalize on the nostalgia factor without falling captive to it. Joey & Eddie’s, Joseph Manzare’s short-lived Italian outpost, which shuttered last year, ignored the friendly ghosts of Moose’s. Park Tavern’s owner, Anna Weinberg, and chef, Jennifer Puccio, have chosen to embrace them, offering a contemporary menu in a context that pays homage to the past.
To a Moose’s loyalist returning to his watering hole like a defrosted mastodon, not everything will look familiar. The marble-top bar is new, as is the white-tiled
floor, which lends much-needed illumination to a dining room that is darker than it was in Moose’s day. The floor seating has been tweaked: Reupholstered
banquettes frame the room, ringing a cluster of round and straight-edged tables, some of them covered, some of them not. A vintage chandelier twinkles above. An
upgraded open kitchen guards the back.
Marlowe, Weinberg and Puccio’s restaurant by the ballpark, does a brisk burger business, and the Marlowe burger—crowned with caramelized onions, cheddar
cheese, bacon, and horseradish aioli—has migrated here. So have Puccio’s addictive brussels sprout chips, which you pop compulsively, like a couch potato on a
health kick.
But Park Tavern is bigger, and the options are much broader. The ample list of openers offers bar snacks in three categories—raw, fried, and smoked. Fried green
tomatoes are tart little numbers, flashing their flavors from inside their cornmeal coat; deviled eggs, crunchy from bacon and punchy from pickled jalapeƱo peppers,
are like savory bonbons; orange tongues of uni, laid out on butter lettuce, with chili-and-avocado oil to cut the urchin’s sweetness, are delightful seafood sliders that
you bolt back in one bite. It’s hard to miss with any of these cocktail-friendly starters, which represent the kitchen’s most reliable strength.
With greater size, however, comes greater responsibility, and greater opportunity to go astray. On my first visit, my enthusiastic server introduced a dish as “one of the best wild mushroom–and–caramelized onion soups I’ve ever had.” Having tried no other examples, I may be a bad judge, but to me, the broth was direly oversalted, reducing the chanterelles that floated in the bowl to so much briny flotsam. A grilled pork chop suffered the same problem, which grew even more intense the deeper I dug into the accompaniments: dinosaur kale, flecked with chili flakes and toasted garlic, and butter bean pistou. A few tastes, and I’d surpassed my recommended dose of sodium for the day.
Back in 1992, when Moose launched his name-sake restaurant (after running the nearby Washington Square Bar & Grill for decades), the local dining culture was markedly different, all the more so among Moose’s old-school crowd. At Moose’s, you got chicken. At Park Tavern, you get a petit poulet rouge, a game hen heated with a chili marinade, set upright on a cast-iron spike, and served in the cast-iron pan it was cooked in. You won’t be disappointed in the cheeky presentation, or in the bird itself, which is appropriately tender, its meat infused with the right amount of fire. But try the spinach and peewee potatoes that surround it: You won’t ask anyone to pass the salt.
Puccio is a better chef than that. And it’s likely that Park Tavern’s early hiccups are the symptoms of a new place trying to catch its breath. What’s more, it also
seems a good bet that the restaurant’s future will depend as much on scene as on cuisine. On one of my visits, I enjoyed dessert—every month, a different birthday
cake is served in honor of a staffer, and this one was a moist wedge of coconut cream cake with a tangy spread of cream cheese in its interstice—while engaged
in the happy task of people watching. A young pair in trendy jeans sat nearby, staring starry-eyed at one another. Meanwhile, former San Francisco supervisor
Aaron Peskin was holding forth before a gathering of grayhairs in the amplifi ed tones of a man whose hearing aid had died. By the time I’d paid my check, Peskin and his coterie were gone, but the young couple remained, and the room was filling up with diners of their generation.
That seemed like a good sign. Aging power brokers are a nice ambient touch, but if you want to be the “it” place in the post-Moose’s era, the old guard isn’t going
to make or break you. What you need are patrons who have fewer candles on their birthday cakes.


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