SF Bay Guardian | originally published: July 15, 2004

Where locals sometimes tread
Charmed by a thoughtful neighborhood restaurant celebrating seafood and spirits
By Paul Reidinger

LOMBARD AND CHESTNUT Streets, though only a block apart, lie on opposite sides of what amounts to a continental divide of culture in this city. The latter is all about city dwellers; its restaurants and shops cater largely to the people who live nearby, whether in the Marina or Cow Hollow. The former, on the other hand, is a multilane speedway lined with a disproportionate number of AAA-approved motels whose occupants tend to be tourists.

The urbanite, as a historical matter, is conflicted about tourists, deploring their poor taste in clothing and food and their inability to drive their rented white Pontiacs in any predictable sort of way while recognizing that they are an important source of revenue for a city whose core industries, from shipping to finance to technology, have been badly eroded in recent decades. San Francisco is, above all, a tourist destination, like Venice or Six Flags, so when the tourists stopped coming, as after Sept. 11, 2001, the economic effects here were profound and were hardly offset by the decline in automotive traffic, agreeable though that was.

Glancing at the Lombard Street traffic from the windows of Café Maritime would hardly give you the idea that gasoline costs well over $2 a gallon these days or that people are uneasy about traveling. Yes, tourists are back, and they're (loopily) behind the wheel; they're camping out at the Lombard Street motels, and they're hungry. If they're hungry for seafood, New England-style, they're bound to find recently opened Café Maritime sooner or later, and when they do, they'll find themselves, knowingly or not, cheek-to-cheek (or really table-to-table) with people who live just a few steps uphill, in the grand WASP precincts of Pacific Heights.

The restaurant's owner, Mark Mitcheltree, grew up in landlocked Illinois, and if he doesn't exactly have the sea in his blood, he does retain the democratic bonhomie of the Midwest, meeting and greeting his patrons with a tireless gusto before ushering them into the dining room. This is a typically narrow, deep storefront space that's been energetically dolled up with various ripples and curves. The most conspicuous of these is an undulating screen – made of countless lengths of plastic aquarium tubing – that separates the dining room from the kitchen. Simple and witty, and one cannot stop staring at it. Another is the grottolike arch behind the bar, lined with small shower tiles of blue and white, as if part of some beachfront changing room. For contrapuntal Yankee effect, the walls carry rather formal wainscoting.

The chef, Michael Selvera, has cooked at semi-nearby Yabbie's Coastal Kitchen, another smartly designed spot that continues a maritime city's tradition of neighborhood seafood houses. But while Yabbie's seems closer in its whimsical spirit to Farallon, the temper of Selvera's Café Maritime menu more nearly resembles those of Tadich Grill and Sam's, a pair of old-timers with food that emphasizes simplicity and straightforwardness of preparation.

There are some fairly spectacular exceptions to this rule, among them a pan of steamed PEI mussels ($8.50), served in a broth of Anchor Steam beer flecked with herbs, linguiça sausage, and oven-roasted cherry tomatoes. Grilled squid ($8.50), with chard, smoked tomato sauce, and lime crème fraîche, also shows a sophisticated-carnival style.

But more often the kitchen lets the ingredients speak in their own idiom, as with a filet of local – and wild – king salmon ($14.50), grilled and served with a simple and summery tangerine-and-mussel vinaigrette that's tasty enough but wouldn't be much missed if it wasn't there. And while our summers are often a chilly shock to tourists and locals alike, deep-fried soft-shell crab ($14) will likely evoke memories of balmy summers past on the Eastern Shore, if you have any. An accompanying dab of creamed corn might stir other memories, perhaps of childhood, while a pat of guac and a carpet of watercress proclaim that this is still California.

A more thoroughly West Coast-y dish might be the bowl of linguine ($12.50), tossed with tiny Oregon bay shrimp, basil, garlic, orange zest, and roasted cherry tomatoes. Utterly of the East Coast, by contrast, is the lobster roll ($15), a soft split bun butter-toasted on both sides and filled with chunks of lobster meat and celery in a tarragon mayonnaise. Beach food, really. The Kennebec fries on the side are exquisitely crisp, though so matchstick slender that they cool quite rapidly. (You can also get them as a side for $4, but though there are more of them, they still cool rapidly.) By the time you get down to the last scatterings, the fries are quite lifeless, like the remains of an abandoned campfire.

In keeping with the kitchen's disciplined resistance to overreaching, the dessert menu reflects an almost country aesthetic. A peach-and-blueberry cobbler ($5.50, served in a bowl the size of a halved cantaloupe, so plenty to share) is the sort of thing Grandma would have whipped up on a summertime evening, with crickets sounding their raspy chorus in the grass behind the white clapboard house – and the scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side just adds to the pleasantly nostalgic effect. Slightly more citified is a panna cotta ($5.50), enlivened with a few sprigs of mint. Not quite a tour de force, perhaps, but a sweet soft landing all the same. Café Maritime. 2417 Lombard (at Scott), S.F. (415) 885-2530. Daily, 5:30 p.m.-1 a.m. Full bar. American Express, Diners Club, Discover, MasterCard, Visa. Moderately loud. Wheelchair accessible.

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