1621 12th Ave, 388-0526
Open daily 7 am-11 pm.
The vintage heels were a mistake. Oh, they were cute: very Joan Crawford and very 1982 all at once. But I'd already been to lunch at Crave, and I knew how small the dining room was. I knew there would be a wait for dinner, that I'd be standing on the unrelenting floor of the Capitol Hill Arts Center lobby reading a Typing Explosion poster again and again. (I didn't know, at the time, that Crave took reservations.) Fetching or not, four-inch pumps were a mistake.
Crave is the kind of restaurant that seems to crop up in every district in San Francisco and Brooklyn. It is not a destination restaurant, but cultivates regulars with a slightly industrial space, medium prices, and a menu of homey dishes done up in noble ingredients. Restaurants like this should be a given. The morning after our Crave dinner, my friend Alex e-mailed me: "Now we just need a dozen more like it."
That dinner was my second visit. I knew Crave was a standup kind of place at a lunch where I tasted the beet and fennel soup ($5), which was sort of a wallflower shade of mauve, with no heavy hit of cream or truffle oil to sex it up, but was sweet, vegetal, and smooth--it tasted like health in a bowl. I ate it with a feathery salad of watercress with manchego cheese and tangerine oil ($6), surprised to find such a light-handed meal alongside menu offerings like Reuben sandwiches and crab melts.
Crave treats vegetables with as much (and sometimes more) care as the meaty centerpieces. At the dinner of my aching feet, another unlikely soup--this one made with chunks of eggplant ($6)--was delicate and a touch smoky; a beet salad with grilled croutons and arugula arrived well-dressed in a sherry vinaigrette ($7); and a sweet, roasty pile of parsnips played nicely against a darkly curried lamb shank ($14). Then there was the green-chili bread pudding that I tried not to like (non-dessert bread puddings always strike me as a little gimmicky) but found myself neatening up, chasing my husband's fork away from my plate over and over again. (It accompanied, by the way, a figgy confit of duck, $15).
It's too bad, then, about the overlooked details, the too-chewy gnocchi (albeit seasoned nicely with duck prosciutto and brown butter, $15), the over-roasted chicken breast ($14) that helped convince a Manhattan-bred friend yet again that we are living in a backwater. "But," I said, tapping into the Pollyanna deep within me, "the dark meat's okay!" He didn't seem convinced.
For dessert we had a frozen soufflé ($6), a sugary hyperbole that made the marshmallow lovers among us happy.
The thing that Crave has not worked out is service: Servers just seem overwhelmed. They are stuck in a warren of tiled tables and can't seem to get around to greeting new customers, refilling glasses, and taking orders, and at Crave, as at all restaurants, brunch aggravates this problem. (Everyone comes at once, lingers, and tips poorly on tabs uninflated by alcohol.) Still, the brunch food was nearly as reliable as at other times: poached eggs, which can signal a kitchen's stress like a canary in a coal mine, were perfectly cooked, then swaddled in gravlax and hollandaise ($8). Meaty rashers of bacon ($2.50) were the best I've tasted in a long time. And the blintzes ($8), fat with a rich ricotta filling, would be delicious if they weren't chilly inside. Despite the bumpy service, I like Crave best during the day, when light comes streaming in its big windows and car passengers stare into the restaurant with what I like to think is a hint of jealousy. Plus, I'm less likely to wear fancy shoes to brunch.