I love downtown San Francisco during the holidays. I have such fond memories of coming to the city with my family as a kid – ice skating at Embarcadero Center, gazing at the tree at Union Square, then grabbing a bite to eat at The Rotunda at Neiman Marcus after a day of holiday shopping. Now that I call San Francisco my home, I find I am less amused by the large crowds of tourists and holiday shoppers; however, I still get a warm fuzzy feeling when I see the festive decorations downtown, so Jack and I try to make a visit at least once every December.
This year we started our downtown visit with a couple of seasonal cocktails at Clock Bar in the Westin St Francis at Union Square (be sure to use your Starwood card for double points!) There were a lot of tourists admiring the giant gingerbread houses in the lobby, but we had no trouble grabbing a table for two inside the bar. Afterward, we walked past Union Square to get a quick glimpse of the Christmas tree, then continued on to Embarcadero along a less crowded street. The four buildings that make up Embarcadero Center are outlined in white lights this time of year, and they look like Christmas presents. We walked past the ice skating rink at Justin Herman Plaza and admired the beautiful view of the Ferry Building and the Bay Bridge in the background.
After our walk through downtown, we had a delicious dinner at Coqueta. We’ve been to this restaurant a several times, and we’ve never had a bad meal. Coqueta, owned by celebrity chef Michael Chiarello, serves Spanish fare and incredible cocktails. The dishes are perfect for sharing, so I recommend trying a lot of different items with your dinner companion. It is a large restaurant with a warm open kitchen; I told Jack the decor kind of made me feel like I was on a pirate ship (in a good way). Keep in mind that you may be seated at the bar despite having a reservation; we were informed that the earlier you reserve, the higher the likelihood you will get a proper table.
I love the gin and tonics at Coqueta. I started with the Barça Gintonic (gin, fever tree tonic, grapefruit, pine) and Jack ordered the Tariff (Jamón Ibérico-infused gin, apricot tonic, orange, cava). I’ve ordered the Barça Gintonic several times before and it is always delicious and refreshing. Jack’s cocktail was salty with a hint of pork flavor; I preferred mine.
Our first course was the Salmón Ahumado, an open face sandwich with smoked salmon, queso fresco, and truffle honey. This is one of our go-to orders at Coqueta and it did not disappoint this time. This is essentially a dressed up bagel with lox, and the flavors, textures, and food temperatures work beautiful together. And I’m always a sucker for truffle!
Next we had the house cured Jamón Serrano and Manchego Crudo (raw farmstead sheep’s milk cheese). This came with nuts, jam, sweet crackers, and pan con tomate. There’s nothing like cheese and charcuterie at a Spanish restaurant. We passed on the Jamón Ibérico (made from the Black Iberian Pig which often feeds on a diet solely of acorns), though I would imagine it is delicious (and expensive!)
We then had the Pulpo a la Parilla, wood grilled Mediterranean octopus with freshly dug fingerling potato and pimentón olive oil. This is another don’t miss item at Coqueta. The fresh octopus is nicely charred on the outside, tender on the inside.
Next we had the Albóndigas a la Feria (duck and pork meatballs with tart cherry-tempranillo salsa and crispy shallot) and Verduras a la Catalana (curly mustard, green chard Catalan style with caper-raisin puree, pine nuts, raisins, and garlic). The meatballs were rich and tender, and the vegetables were flavorful. I would have preferred fewer raisins so that the dish wasn’t quite so sweet, but it was still delicious.
Perhaps my favorite dish at Coqueta is the “Sunny Side-Up” Huevo with shrimp, crispy potato, and chorizo dressing. It is comfort food at its best – crispy potatoes, spicy chorizo dressing, juicy shrimp, and warm gooey egg yolk. The chef recommends chopping up the egg and mixing all the ingredients together so that all the flavors can meld. We did just that and the crispy potatoes became slightly softened by the egg yolk – it was perfection.
We left Coqueta satisfied by our meal, as we often do. We were so pleased with our festive holiday outing – we got a dose of the downtown festivities, without being overwhelmed by the crowds. And we quickly escaped Union Square (which has very few decent restaurants) to the quieter area along Embarcadero where we enjoyed a comforting, tasty meal in a bustling, warm environment. I think we may make a tradition out of it!
Coqueta: www.coquetasf.com Address: Pier 5, The Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA 94111 Phone: (415) 704-8866. Accepts reservations by phone or on OpenTable (note: may be seated at the bar/counter with a reservation; request a table and reserve early if table seating preferred). Hours: Mon 4-10pm; Tues, Wed, Sun 11:30am-10pm; Thurs-Sat 11:30am-11pm.