(1 out of 5 stars)
If you were to draw-up a list of the saddest fashions, affectations, ill-placed culinary passions, and grande cooking mistakes of the last few years, I think Al’s Place would solidly tick Every. Single. Box. This place is a living, breathing, performative satire of what fine dining should be.
First the place has no air conditioning and a single, beleaguered bathroom. I stood in line waiting to wash my hands, sweating from the warm San Francisco evening, and swapped places with a pregnant woman behind me who was certainly in more dire straits.
Clearly someone has pretenses of being a DJ, since they blare music so loudly that I could not hear anyone at my table a couple feet away. This was the recurring leitmotif of our dinner, and the main reason every one of us was hurrying through our mains and skipping dessert to just get out. Our first server was replaced by someone manager-ish, but they nonetheless misheard part of our order and just straight-up missed one of our wine requests. Each time we caught the attention of a new server, food runner, or host, we adulted and asked that the music be turned down. Call me crazy, but sometimes I go to a restaurant to get to know my companions better, as well as eat some neckbeard / topknot’s confusion cuisine. One of the servers eventually said the loud music was just the “vibe” of the restaurant, and we literally laughed out loud. At one point the woman at the table next to me leaned over, closely, to commiserate about the music. Most of the people in my row of table seats were physically leaning forward to yell. The place was so loud that when we asked for bowls for our shared soup, we were told they had heard us say we did not want them. And so on. The music itself? The usual quirky and dated garbage from the 90s, with a whiff of the post-ironic.
Their menu is a complete mess. First of all, they are too lazy to time the meal correctly and plate their dishes. Al’s Place calls this “family-style” or something, but its just cynical. Compounding this, neither of our two servers could actually tell us how much food to order for our party size, because there was no relationship between the section of the menu and the amount of food that ends up in front of you. There was some myth-making about “chef” wanting to treat proteins as a side, because they think this a comment on steak houses. But note that a real steak house can serve a plate of hot food umm, hot. Eventually we were able to map which lines on the menu were tastes, starters, mains, and sides, but to get this done meant literally taking out a piece of paper and a pen. I wish I was kidding: While negotiating with our servers about Lana Del Lame in background, we wrote our own translation of the Al’s Place menu, from hipsteraunt to English. After delivering an incorrect item with no explanation of what it was, they told us we should not have taken a bite before telling them it was wrong. How else were we supposed to find out what it was?!
The food is… fine. Their french fries were undercooked and soggy, but boy were they salty! Or should I say “brined.” The smoky mayonnaise alongside was too sweet and tasted like a dessert. Marlowe’s fries were better a decade ago. The Al’s Place lettuces were meant to be eaten by hand — see my queuing up for the bathroom sink, above — and for some reason had a bland avocado mousse streaked underneath. Can we please stop putting sauces under the food, to trick wraithy Instagrammers from LA into actually eating a sauce? The Progress does the reversed-salad-thing better. The chickpeas and harissa had some refrigerator burn to the legumes. The cold chickpea salad at Hey Day is better. The Al’s Place bean soup was overseasoned and was a bad seasonal choice to have on the menu during hot weather. But hey, they’ll put kimchee in it so you can think it’s exotic. Or something. The minestrone at any one of a dozen Italian joints in North Beach is better. The Al’s smoked brisket needed to have its fat better trimmed, and ended up tasting more lukewarm St. Patrick’s Day-corned-beef than cozy passover seder.
We only passed on one of our tastes of wine, so an actual professional was involved in their wine list at some point. They had no beers on draught, which is weak in a drinking town like SF. Also there is no hard liquor license, so your cocktails will be those sweet sherry & vermouth-heavy shims instead of a before-dinner classic like a Manhattan.
Al’s Place joins Hakkasan and The Progress as the two dinners that have me doubting the Michelin guide’s star ratings. The Michelin guide used to be insulated from silly trends and dopey culinary tricks, but they are clearly lowering their standards to appeal to teh youths. Al’s Place is also in that rarified competition of least bang for the buck, alongside the stunningly overrated and overpriced Hashiri.
Avoid Al’s Place like the plague. There are many San Francisco restaurants that do the quirky, opinionated, idiosyncratic faux-casual thing better.