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The Upper Atmosphere

June 30, 2009

It has been suggested that I when I review restaurants, I only focus on the food and overlook the atmosphere and service.  I assure you that this is not the case.  It is just so seldom that the atmosphere or service at restaurants is special enough to mention.  But I will call a place on its service or atmosphere if it is noticeably deficient.

Although to be honest, incredible food can make up for a lot of lapses at a restaurant.

But I am able to judge these non-food factors on a sliding scale depending upon the presentation of the restaurant.  It’s not rocket science.  If it’s a palace of fine dining, with the requisite trimmings, I have very high expectations indeed.  Casual family-style restaurants elicit significantly lower expectations.  And there is an entirely different set of expectations for diners, hole-in-the-wall counter-service eateries, and food trucks.

When I think of high-end restaurants with truly exceptional atmosphere, one comes readily to mind above all others.

Postrio, in San Francisco.  This was a favorite place of mine for a few years in the late ‘90s and I was there so many times it would be difficult to count.  Officially it is within Wolfgang Puck’s empire of restaurants, but there have always been talented local executive chefs who have each put their own stamp on the food.

The dining room was designed by Pat Kuleto, who worked on many other fancy restaurants in town, and while I have been to many of them, Postrio was always my favorite.

Let me try to explain.  I’m doing this from memory, and it’s been some years since my last visit, so please forgive me if I miss or embellish a detail or two.

You are walking down Post Street, and you come to the Prescott Hotel.  You see a jet-black awning coming straight out from the building.  It is supported on the street side by two shining brass columns.  On the side of the awning is the name of the restaurant in polished brass script.

Approaching the door, it is onyx black, with swooping brass bars to pull it open.  The door is heavy, but opens smoothly.  You are in the foyer, which serves to protect the bar area from the cold San Francisco air.  Ten steps to your left is the maître d’.

You are walked from there to your table.

You walk through the bustling bar, which also serves as a gourmet pizza café.  The wood-fired pizza oven is clearly visible at the end of the bar.  The ceiling is low and from it hang small but beautiful lights.

On the far side of the bar is a first small set of stairs.  The stairs have the same polished brass railing, and take you down to a landing with a half-dozen small tables, that overlook the dining room below.  On the landing, the dining room is still not entirely in your line of sight.

But then you start to go down the main staircase.  The brass handrail appears again, and you may need it, because this is a grand staircase, and as you descend the dining room slowly reveals itself to you.  At first you only see a few square meters at the bottom of the staircase.  But every step down the stairs you see just a little bit more.  Until about half-way down, when you can finally take in the entire room.

Unlike the dark and cozy bar, the dining room is a massive open and well-lit space.  The most distinctive items in the dining room are the giant glass orbs floating 25 feet above the tables with flowing curls of what look like polished-brass ribbon.

On the left side of the dining room is the busy but calm open kitchen.

The booths and tables are plush and cozy.  The glassware is thin-rimmed with heavy bases.  The silver is heavy and fits comfortably in your hand.  Even the menus are heavy (and are changed weekly).  Every single thing about the ambiance of the restaurant let you know that this was a serious restaurant. And it was.

As of June 19 it is gone.

So I am curious.  Which restaurant has significantly impressed you with its atmosphere?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 30, 2009 11:00 am

    Ginger Man, all the way

  2. joni permalink
    June 30, 2009 2:05 pm

    marche at 74 State

  3. joni permalink
    June 30, 2009 2:05 pm

    did that work? marche at 74 state.

  4. June 30, 2009 4:19 pm

    Local 111 in Philmont and Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill in Chicago stand out the most on all fronts.

    Btw, I really enjoyed your little poem on TH.

  5. June 30, 2009 9:49 pm

    I have childhood memories of some place out on the Cape my parents used to take me to when we would do part of the summer out there. For the life of me can’t remember the name, but it was a high end seafood joint, very popular with the local gentry as it was kind of out of the way. It had these giant bay windows that opened up on this delightfully dreary and grey Cape Cod beach. I used to love going there on rainy nights for the smells and sounds of the ocean, and as I remember the food was kind of shite and overpriced. But god damn it, I would give you 500 bucks right now if I could go back there and sit with my parents (20 years younger) and shoot the shit. No food, just ambiance.

  6. July 1, 2009 10:36 am

    I just saw this fun bio on Wolfgang Puck amongst other exper chefs and restaurants
    – check it out at

  7. brownie permalink
    July 2, 2009 3:20 pm

    For me, Jeanty at Jack’s had a nice ambience. I’m a sucker for cozy spaces, and the old construction in that part of downtown SF fits the bill. The layout is confined, but makes for a warm and homey atmosphere if you’re not claustrophobic. It’s a shame it went tits-up, but I hope to see a reincarnated Jack’s of some sort the next time I visit.

  8. May 11, 2013 8:22 am

    Definitely Butter in NYC, one of the most attractive restaurants I have ever seen…and the food is excellent

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