891 Beach Street at Polk Street
Across from the Maritime Museum
Cuisine: French/Vietnamese fusion (redundant, yes)
sampled in 1999 and February 4, 2005
Honestly, I rarely visit an upscale restaurant more than once, even if I find it really fantastic. The reason isn’t as simple as money (I have enough to indulge myself in the love that is food), but rather a complex mixture of the desire to sample all that is out there before settling on one restaurant as my favorite, to return over and over again.
Having said that, there are only 3 upscale/trendy/expensive restaurants I can recall that I have visited more than once: Roy’s (once in San Francisco, twice in New York- both those latter times for Restaurant Week, so it hardly counts), Morimoto (twice in Philadelphia, and soon once in New York), and Ana Mandara.
The first time was during my first trip to San Francisco; my cousin, who lived in the area, took us here and duly impressed upon me the importance of good food. (I wrote down everything I ate on this trip in a notebook because I so thoroughly enjoyed everything I ate on this trip.) Within minutes of being seated, my cousin’s girlfriend got up and walked over to another table to say hi to a few people. My cousin casually remarked, “Oh, that’s the mayor.” Excuse me? Though I was born and raised in NYC, I rarely come into contact with famous people, and at 18, I’d never recognized anyone that I may have walked by in Manhattan. This was a Big Deal, capital B, capital D.
The second time was during a return trip to the Bay Area; I went out of my way and though the timing was tight, I managed to swing an early dinner reservation, though we’d have to rush at the end to get me down to San Jose for a flight back to NYC.
Ana Mandara sits at the foot of the hill that is home to Ghirardelli Square. Standing with your back to the ocean and the Maritime Museum, you may think that the giant sign that reads GHIRARDELLI SQUARE might overshadow the restaurant, and you’d be right- the outside of the restaurant remains fairly nondescript. But there is no overshadowing such excellent decor, cuisine, location, and service.
The restaurant itself is a pleasant walk from the touristy Fisherman’s Wharf; along the way, you’d see the Bushman- or be frightened by him, a lot of jewelry stores, art galleries, and as you got further, street artists, including one who blares techno from a boombox and spray paints amazing landscapes in a matter of minutes (we speculated that he was on acid, e, or a combination) using only spray cans, various styrofoam shapes, and a spatula thing; plus the Maritime Museum.
Once you walk inside, however, you forget all this as you take in the beautiful decor. There’s a fountain, of course; the hostess is dressed in a beautiful traditional Vietnamese dress, and the whole of the restaurant is done in a dark wood, with a bridge spanning a stream and wooden …. well, you almost feel like you’re in a beautiful Vietnamese village.
Upstairs is a lounge with a few couches scattered about, a well stocked bar and an extremely knowledgeable and friendly bartender. Comfy stools to sit on, sip and chat while you wait for your table to be ready, make this the perfect bar. Since we’d arrived so early, the live music talent hadn’t yet set up, but I think it was perfect without that much noise.
On my last visit: we were led downstairs to sit at a cozy, but not too small nor too close to the table adjacent, two person table nestled into the wall. Our waitress- an authentic blonde- admitted that she hadn’t worked here long, but she was extremely helpful and friendly as well. She pointed out her favorite dishes that she’d tried so far, and when we told her I was trying to catch a 7:30 flight in San Jose, she nodded and told us that she would do her best, and would put in our dessert orders as soon as our entrees were half finished, so we could be on our way quickly.
Irony strikes here in that, while I thoroughly enjoyed my experience both times, I cannot recall what I ate a year ago there, but what I ate in 1999 remains with me- I suppose since I wrote it down. I delighted in a Chilean sea bass with miso sauce steamed in banana leaves. It was absolutely perfect, though, again ironically, I hadn’t the appreciation for food then that I do now.
Either way, I recall that everything I’ve eaten here was absolutely delicious, and I would certainly not hesitate to recommend this place nor return, if I happen to venture to SF once more. The overall experience is definitely worth more than the sum of its parts.
Yvo says: If you go nowhere else fancy in San Francisco, go here. This place is an absolute must-try; fantastic food, breathtaking decor and great service with a smile. You can’t ask for more.