Town’s End: South Beach Gem
By Karen Solomon
Mary and David Sperber must never sleep. The chef-owners of Town's End Restaurant & Bakery (so named because it’s located at the foot of Townsend Street at the Embarcadero) have been orchestrating breakfast, lunch, dinner, weekend brunch, and every crust of bread and homemade scone to accompany each meal, for thirteen years. Despite their inevitable insomnia, their menu of gussied-up comfort and Mediterranean fare is served attentively and warmly.
Show up almost anytime – and you will be courteously shown to one of the cozy tables in the 70-seat, long and slender half-moon shaped dining room. Numerous windows look out onto the burgeoning scene on The Embarcadero, south of the fancy and more expensive eats of the Ferry Building. Here, under the radar of many diners, white tablecloths and a bold red wall lend the room a touch of elegance. But upon closer examination, the slightly tattered wicker chairs, visibly used serving plates, and white paper atop the table linen put diners at ease. Here, one could dribble food on their shirt and laugh, rather than slink away in embarrassment. The crowd and the din are casual, family-friendly, and neighborhood, as the area continues to bloom. And the staff, both in the open kitchen and out on the floor, are amicable and harmonious. Town's End is a wonderful alternative to what we traditionally think of as Downtown dining.
Once seated, a basket of house made baked goods arrives immediately. For lunch and dinner, it might be flaky parmesan breadsticks, tomato foccacia, or walnut scallion bread. Breakfast or brunch might conjure fresh blueberry and raspberry muffins and currant and milk scones, depending on the season.
Brunch is worth battling the crowds, particularly if the weather will allow seating at one of the coveted outdoor tables. Highly recommended is any permutation on Eggs Benedict, served with applewood-smoked ham or turkey, house-cured salmon (which is delightful and flavorful), or vegetarian-friendly spinach or Portobello mushrooms. Choose one, because any excuse to enjoy the Sperber's light and lemon-perfumed Hollandaise sauce absolutely will not disappoint. For a decadent and memorable brunch, the Crab Benedict – poached eggs on English muffins with Hollandaise paired with two of the stunning house made crab cakes – is a must. Or, wait for lunch or dinner to order the crab cakes standalone. Otherwise, you'll miss out on the outstanding remoulade that's lightly creamy but very tangy, edged with the pleasant bite of pickle and olive that perfectly balances the heavy, crispy fry and bold seasoning of the crab.
Other brunch options include plump, creative omelets and laid back egg scrambles served with the house's trademarked potato-carrot pancake, sumptuous apple compote, and sour cream. You'll find three kinds of French toast, three kinds of pancakes (including a chewy, textured Swedish oatmeal cake with pears and almonds). One of the reasons diners come and return so often is for the revolving carrousel of specials – including a seasonal hash and a frittata (on our visit, this meant a California Hash of potatoes, peppers, and onions with guacamole and poached eggs, and a complex frittata of artichoke hearts, fresh morels, goat cheese, and fresh basil).
The Sperbers feel that they've been pigeonholed as a weekend brunch spot only, and one that's more popular when a game is on at nearby SBC Park. Indeed, it is necessary to make a reservation for the weekend days or to expect a long wait. For simple dishes done well with casual character at a good price, Town's End's brunch is only the beginning. Weekends may be the restaurant's claim to fame, but served a scant two days a week, it should not overshadow all other meals.
In fact, dinner at Town's End was even better – the crowds are gone, the lights dim, and the menu gets serious. A steal of a prix fixe dinner menu is enough to lure anyone to the area – $13.50 buys soup or dinner salad, a hearty entree such as rich beef brisket or the seared cornmeal-crusted trout (though on Tuesdays, any menu entree is part of the special), and any generously-portioned item from the homemade dessert menu. For the quality, variety, and quantity, this is one of the best dinner bargains in the 415 area code.
The dinner menu broadens and goes deep, featuring a well-rounded selection of interesting salads, starters, seafood, meat, and pasta. Start with the gnocchi – larger than average specimens of pillowy potato dough stuffed with fresh ricotta, lemon zest, and sage, swaddled in a decadent melt of cream and blue cheese. The pasta dishes are extremely well done for such an unassuming neighborhood place. The ravioli is house made, and all other pastas are fresh from Italy. Seasonal offerings include a roast duck risotto, fettuccine with peas, artichoke hearts, corn, and asiago, and the marvelous pappardelle done simply with fresh prawns and scallops, the right amount of garlic and tomato to tie it all together, and fresh basil.
Meat dishes also take that uncomplicated and well-done approach. Find turkey meatloaf dressed to kill in a mushroom red wine sauce and Yukon Gold garlic mash. Or the popular and rich beef brisket. But not to be missed is the lamb stew, served mild and fragrant with a deep herb-y essence of thyme. Its rich gravy reduction matches perfectly with the grilled polenta – a ubiquitous menu item throughout the day that should not be missed for its creamy texture and smooth corn resilience.
Although Town’s End is a bakery, the desserts are not what you’d expect, and don’t live up to the high standards of the savory breads. A biscotti tasted of flour, the lemon meringue pie was grainy with sugar and overly sweet, and a seasonal hazelnut crème brulee, which had nice texture and cream, gave the impression that the hazelnut essence was synthetic. The bakery always uses fresh, seasonal fruits when available, so stick with the fruit crisp or galette (on our visit, Apple Rhubarb was on the menu).<
The wine list perfectly suits the food: Ample, well-rounded local selections, with almost all bottles under $30, and at least a dozen glasses to choose from under $6.
After an evening of having succumbed to the bargain, cozy plates of this neighborhood kitchen, a restful night’s sleep can be predicted.
Town’s End Restaurant & Bakery is located at 2 Townsend Street, SF, 415-512-0749. Breakfast is served 7:30-11:00am Tues-Fri, and lunch is 11:30-2:30pm. Dinner is served 5:30-9:00pm Tues-Thurs and until 9:30pm on Friday and Saturday. They’re open for brunch from 8:00am-2:30pm Saturday and Sunday only, and reservations are recommended.
Karen Solomon is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.