San Francisco’s romantic Jackson Square hides in plain sight. Bordered by the Financial District, lower North Beach’s Italian/Chinese bustle, the Embarcadero’s shopping, and the strip clubs of Broadway St., this small district’s narrow streets, charming alleyways, and historic architecture tend to get overlooked, especially after 6 pm. That, however, is changing. New and renewed restaurants are enlivening the neighborhood in the evening with destination dining experiences.
And it is about time.
Once part of the city’s notorious late 19th century Barbary Coast, where miners traded their gold nuggets for drinks and other less reputable distractions, the area retains many of the three- story red brick buildings and ornate Italianate cast iron facades of pre-1906 earthquake San Francisco. But now those buildings house boutique design firms, antiques, fine rugs and textiles dealers, and specialty retailers (including Thomas E. Cara, which sells hard-to-find, high-end espresso machines.) Once those small businesses lock up for the day, the area’s atmosphere goes from genteel to mostly dark (save for the soft street lighting) and turns into one the quietest non-residential areas in the city.
Jackson Square has acquired an entirely different character from its past history, as if it has been balancing out its neighborhood karma. That cycle may now be over, however, thanks to increased restaurant activity. Jackson Square serves as an island of European-style refinement. A little evening action in the form of exciting, quality restaurants only adds to its appeal and provides an alternative to the city’s more crowded dining mecca neighborhoods.
Here are three Jackson Square restaurants worth knowing about.
Roka Akor mustered the courage to open in what had been a previously ‘cursed’ location. Several restaurants had tried to make it on this somewhat obscure street just off of busy Columbus Ave. and failed. Roka Akor, on the other hand, came in with a new design concept, raising the floor and opening the kitchen so diners could see the chefs in action at their robata grills. With an environment that is warm yet modern, the restaurant and its Chef Roman Petry launched a menu of inventive Japanese-based cuisine that nicely fills a void in the area’s dining scene.
Started in London, Jackson Square’s Roka Akor is actually the restaurant’s fourth location in the U.S. While the San Francisco version appears to retain several of the more popular menu items from Chicago and Scottsdale, this location’s offerings differ from the others, appealing to local tastes and using local providers when possible. To ensure freshness, the restaurant flies in fish from Japan four times a week. Many of the beef dishes, tender and distinctly flavored, are Wagyu. Meanwhile, the food’s presentation ranks among the most artful in the city.
The omakase, a large prix fix luxury chef-selection of dishes for $128, embodies the restaurant’s core concept: “I try to take people on a culinary journey,” European-born and educated chef Petry told us. “Meanwhile, the open robata kitchen raises the energy of the room.”
Roka Akor’s bar menu is equally as inventive as its food, with seasonal combinations such as the Drunken Monk, with winter-spiced pear Shochu, Green Chartreuse, muddled grilled asian pear, orange, and lemon. Or something with a more oomph like the Isle of Despair with Botanist Gin, Elijah Craig, Grand Poppy Liqueur and Nocino Walnut Liqueur.
“We stay true to the basic concept,” added bar manager Jason Hoffman, who presides over the separate downstairs bar lounge. “But we also give a nod to our location and its history of the Barbary Coast.” Secret: Roka Akor’s happy hour offers a two hour window Monday through Friday where you can get great prices on some of the best- selling drinks, $3 off any glass of wine and dishes discounted from the regular menu. With the restaurant within walking distance of the Financial District’s offices, the bar fills up fast.
Upon walking into Quince, the environs of understated elegance telegraph the message: “You have just entered a restaurant recently upgraded to two Michelin stars.” What is surprising is the warmth of the staff, their willingness to accommodate, and the reasonable cost of the prix fixe menu (at least compared to many of the other two star Michelin restaurants in San Francisco).
Quince is the Grand Dame of Jackson Square, but without the expected ostentation. I’ve seen venture capitalists dressed in Brioni talking the latest in technology trends while dining on black truffle tortellini and cote de boeuf with social media start up founders hauling backpacks. All are welcome. The food? Sumptuous. Chef Michael Tusk (an alumni of Chez Panisse and Oliveto) recently added three distinct local ingredient-focused tasting menus, including a five course seasonal ($118/person), a nine-course “Quince Menu” and a nine-course “Garden Menu” of dishes composed from vegetables harvested from the rooftop garden. The seasonal cocktails also draw upon ingredients from local purveyors. The restaurant’s selection of 850 wines-- focused on Northern Italy, French, and California wineries—features smaller, artisan producers unavailable elsewhere in the city.
Quince epitomizes Jackson Square’s quiet quality while drawing people to the area with its first rate dining and its rustic Italian offshoot restaurant next door, Cotogna, a bonafide hotspot.
Secret: Quince’s lounge. It offers its own menu, the same great cocktail and wine list, and the same attentive service. It does not require reservations and it is far easier to get into than Cotogna, which is less expensive but always full. The only time I could get into Cotogna without a reservation was on a Saturday afternoon at 2:30 pm. And I still had to sit at the bar.
For decades, this legendary spot on Columbus Ave. did not have a kitchen. It had a decades-long history. It had staunch supporters. It had a famous back room where celebrities hung out (especially Sean Penn). It even had a full-scale staged theatrical presentation based on its illustrious past as a San Francisco institution. What it lacked in recent years were customers that could fill the house on a regular basis. That has changed since New York restaurateurs Ken Friedman and chef April Bloomfield (TheSpotted Pig, The Breslin) took over. Beyond revitalizing the environment -- without losing Tosca’s vintage vibe -- they added a kitchen and an Italian-inspired menu. Now you can cozy up in one of the red leather semi-circular banquettes in the back of the room and order good food at decent prices, such as the mushroom polenta and chicken liver spedini.
Secret: Keep in mind that Tosca Cafe is still primarily a bar. The front of the house is packed most nights. However, you can dine at the bar and the booths in the back are dedicated for most of the evening to diners. No reservations are taken.
Technically, Tosca Café is located in North Beach, across from one of the best bookstores in America, City Lights. But it is literally one half block from Jackson Square and it is bringing diners to the general area and re-introducing them to its allures.