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Reinventing San Francisco

Catherine Ledner A view of the Ferry Building tower from the Embarcadero.

Photo: Catherine Ledner

When I tell Wagner that I'm off to interview hot chef Dennis Leary at his minuscule new restaurant, Canteen, in the Tendernob neighborhood (set between the Tenderloin and Nob Hill), she says, "Tendernob?That's new! Never heard of it." I'm taken aback for a moment, but realize that neighborhoods are springing up so quickly that even the most clued-in residents may have missed a newly minted moniker.

Dennis Leary, who looks like Steve McQueen during his Cincinnati Kid period, opened his 20-seat luncheonette in the former coffee shop of the Commodore, a fleabag recently brought back to life as a budget boutique hotel. When I enter, he's sitting on one of his counter stools, dressed in checked pants and white chef's jacket. Leary was the prize-winning chef at the famed Rubicon in the Financial District (co-owned by Robert De Niro) for six years, so he's the perfect person to ask about San Francisco's reverence for good food. We chat about the city's tradition of culinary appreciation. There's the fact that it was settled by Spanish, Italians, and Chinese (all from food-centric cultures); there's also the city's proximity to some of the best agricultural regions in the world. Then there's the theory that San Francisco has always been a boom-and-bust town, with the gold rush, then silver, then railroads, and, most recently, the dot-coms. ("Restaurants are an expression of good times," Leary explains.) And finally, there are the mavericks like Leary, chefs whose influence branches out across this small-town city.

Canteen, which receives a rave review in the Chronicle two days after we talk, reaffirms Leary's decision to leave behind big corporate jobs. "I wanted a stripped-down experience—no pretensions, good service, serious food," he says. "It's been fun not working for anybody."

Leary says his vision as a restaurateur is particularly suited to his city. "I want to do this with a sense of humor. San Francisco can't carry off something really fancy like New York. I get socialites, a lot of foodies, old bachelor guys who've lived alone for years, a lot of gay couples. It's a real mix."

Even as the city welcomes new ultramodern elements, some people cling to its vintage hallmarks. Surprisingly for such a forward-thinking chef, Leary turns out to be one of these old-fashioned souls. Just as he embraces retro décor and dishes like pot pie at Canteen, Leary loves the sentimental side of San Francisco: the camera obscura at the Cliff House, high on a bluff over the Pacific; the WPA murals in Coit Tower; and the old seal on the floor of the Ferry Building. He sighs. "There's a kind of quirkiness here that refuses to die. You see naked people running down the street all the time here! It's a freak show and I love it." (I think this is pure hyperbole, but the very next day I see three older guys, stark naked, riding bikes on the Embarcadero with FREE SPEECH scrawled across their backs. Certain things about this city will never change.)

After two nights in the dimly lit recesses of the Ian Schrager–owned, Philippe Starck-designed Clift hotel, where I spend my off-hours curled up on a mammoth ivory divan under a faux-mink throw, I move to the Hotel Vitale, a brand-new property on the Embarcadero. If the Clift is about smoldering glamour, the Vitale is about health and sunshine and relaxation: there are complimentary yoga classes and soaking tubs on the roof, the concierge can arrange a Rolfing session upon request, and a video of migrating birds plays in the elevator. Hotel Vitale also has startling 180-degree views that take in the Bay Bridge and the Ferry Building, a landmark so beloved that the legendary Chronicle columnist Herb Caen once observed, "The waterfront without the Ferry Tower would be like a birthday cake without a candle."


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