The Castro District is not known for quiet evenings. The bars hum beneath the rainbow flags proliferating in the area, and at night boisterous crowds spill out on the sidewalks. But an unpretentious yet ambitious restaurant, tucked away around a corner, is perfect and unexpected spot for an intimate dinner.
In October of 2011, I traveled to Beijing for business and planned a two-day layover in San Francisco for my 45th birthday.
Jet lagged and sick of the smog and the uniformly unpleasant disposition of the Chinese capital, I landed in the morning and skipped down gloriously sunny Market Street (full disclosure: Chamber of Commerce weather, results may vary) to the Ferry Building for a proper lunch at The Slanted Door.
While dining at the bar, I met a flame-haired Texas transplant. She directed me to try dinner later at Chaya, the sushi bar across the street. I went, and made a few fast friends. And I met Teddy, the man I would later marry.
Before that happened, we had to go on our first date.
I’d taken the advice of a local I know to make a birthday dinner reservation three months in advance at France’s, a 46-seat treasure on an improbably quiet residential street only a few blocks from the revelry of the Castro District.
My table for one thus became one for two when he asked me out. A little thrill went through me when he, a San Francisco resident, seemed genuinely impressed.
When Melissa Perello opened France’s in 2009, she had a vision for a neighborhood spot. The food and the special atmosphere–it’s a bit like a thoughtfully executed party at your coolest friends’ house–quickly made it a favorite in the city at large and later a destination for food people from all over.
On our first visit, we were both a little flustered. I had no idea about the traffic, and called the restaurant from a cab to advise I might be five minutes late. I described Teddy to the maitre’d. “He’s tall, has beautiful white hair, and a serious moustache.”
The response was pure Castro: “Ooooh, honey! I’ll keep him company until you get here.” In the event, my date arrived after me, having finally found a parking spot.
We split a steak and a good bottle of wine and eventually shut the place down, the staff discreet as we talked and talked, oblivous to the hour. The restaurant was such a comfortable place that we forgot ourselves.
Eight years later and married to me for a year, Teddy had a business trip taking him to San Francisco from my (and now his) home in Fort Worth, and we decided to tack on a little tour of the early days of our love affair, including a cozy dinner at Frances.
All I could score a month in advance was a 9:15 table. We were greeted as though we were the evening’s first patrons. Throughout the meal, our server was warm and friendly while thoroughly professional.
The space is compact yet welcoming. Diners sit close together and the atmosphere is convivial. There is a tiny bar. A few seats at storefront windows overlook 17th Street. We’d been back one other time and sat at two of these when we tried to worm our way in without a booking.
It was during our working-out-the-kinks phase.
The meal included a rare argument. Neither of us can recall what it was about, but we both have a memory of rather a silent visit that followed, and another of feeling rather squished into our spots.
Our anniversary evening proved quite happy. We were able to get a table for two away from the main wall, right next to the spot of our inaugural meal. The menu changes daily with a few mainstays. The lumberjack cake was just as delicious as we remembered it.
The wine service was, for us, novel and charming: the server fills a carafe marked in ounces with the house blend (the white was excellent) and customers pay $1.80 for each ounce they drink. I’ll decline you a tally of ours, but it was not an outrageous bill.
By the time we left, it was nearly midnight, and the city was just getting warmed up. Castro Street was teeming with life and young love.
3870 17th Street, +1 415.621.3870, www.frances-sf.com
Tuesday-Thursday & Sunday, 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Closed Mondays.