Bar Johnny

Pub date March 25, 2009


Until quite recently, you did not often see the word "bar" associated with food-serving establishments in this part of the world. Hungry people slipping into Bar X for a bite were most likely in Europe, or the pages of a Somerset Maugham novel, not on the streets of San Francisco. But in the past few years, "bar" has become a consequential rival to "bistro" and "café" as a restaurant signifier, and we have seen a profusion of Bars: Jules, Bambino, Tartine, and let’s not forget Johnny, which opened about a year and a half ago on the swank flank of Russian Hill.

Unlike a number of its Bar-designated siblings, Bar Johnny really does seem to have some flavor as a bar in the American sense. The space (previously home to Tablespoon) is narrow, deep, and rather dimly lit, and its front half is dominated by a big, mirror-backed bar, complete with a flat-screen television showing sports events. The crowd tends to be young and boisterous, although (given the endless stream of ESPN) surprisingly mixed in gender. I have never seen San Francisco as being a city of blondes, but there are pockets, and Bar Johnny appears to be near the center of one of them. A certain Marina-ish haze hovers.

I also caught a whiff of urinal cakes one fine evening. The scent, at the rear of the public space and quite near the flapping double doors that lead to the kitchen, added to the bar spell while implying a degree of tidiness, but did not quite whet the appetite. This might be thought a daring strategy in an establishment that makes money by serving food to people. Are they so confident in their food that they can afford to run this risk? I wondered. Or is everyone here just supposed to get blotto and not notice much of anything? Bar Johnny does bear a subtitle — drink kitchen — and "drink" could be listed first for alphabetical reasons or ideological ones.

Bar Johnny’s nearest conceptual relative might be the Alembic on upper Haight, by which I mean: if you want to treat it as an ordinary bar, with drinks and interesting nibbles, you can. Chef Roland Robles’ menu opens with what are called "bites"; these range from a bowl of smoked habañero potato chips ($3) — fabulous if slightly under-salted — or warm mixed nuts ($5) to a grilled pizza ($13) bearing actual grill marks on the bottom of the nicely blistered crust. Pie toppings vary but do include entrants from the bianca ("white," i.e. no tomato sauce) family, such as bacon and mushroom. We found this to be a smoky, richly autumnal combination, subtly amplified by the grill char. The nuts, mostly peanuts and pistachios, with a few almonds and dried currants thrown in, were less fragrant but nonetheless both gobbleable and shareable. And while I don’t see any Cheers-type crowd hankering after kale — ever, under any circumstances — I do think Bar Johnny’s garlic-braised kale ($8) is as appealing as any of the other bites, despite its shocking virtuousness. The greens are tender, tasty, and a beautiful deep green — what more can we ask of any kale?

Bar Johnny does part ways with the Alembic and other tapas or small-plates menus by offering bigger plates under the aegis "more … " More food doesn’t necessarily mean more money. For the most part, these main courses cost in the mid- to upper teens and, considering how good they are, offer a pretty strong value. We did have a mild difference of opinion about the seared tuna loin ($17), which had been rubbed with five-spice powder — which for me tends to taste predominantly of cinnamon — before hitting the pan, from which it emerged a beautiful, deep-purple rare inside. A hint of bitterness in the seasoning was detected by a set of lips across the gorgeously burnished gray marble of the tabletop. But the accompanying Thai salad, a mound of finely shredded green cabbage accented with mint and basil, won general acclaim.

Also roundly applauded was a flatiron steak ($17), cooked to the rare side of medium-rare, sliced, and arranged atop a cauliflower purée napped with jus. The flatiron steak is taken from the shoulder and is a near relation of the chuck roast, from which hamburger is typically ground. If our chief concern is tenderness, we would probably be looking elsewhere, beginning with filet mignon. But Bar Johnny’s flatiron, while not exactly buttery, was tender enough and — the usual compensation for a hint of toughness in meat — very tasty.

At a lot of bars, the vegetarian option would be vodka. But Bar Johnny offers a real one, and it’s a full plate of food, not a bite, nibble, or nosh. It’s called "beans and rice" ($13) and includes some combination of legumes and rice — chickpeas, say, plump and glistening and colored up like a bit of Christmas with diced red pepper and slivers of pistachio. It’s flavorful and satisfying while leaving room for dessert, which — again, atypically for a bar — Bar Johnny offers with some panache.

It’s hard to go wrong with a basket of chocolate-chip cookies ($9) warm from the oven. One small hitch is that, as with a soufflé, there’s a wait of 15 minutes; another is that the cookies can stick together. Still. Another worthy possibility is the fruit cobbler ($7), which late in the winter might take the form of a boldly spiced apple crisp, topped with several globs of vanilla gelato and served in a shallow cast-iron pail complete with a handle. Perfect for your next visit to your favorite sand bar!


Dinner: 6–11 p.m.

2209 Polk, SF

(415) 268-0140

Full bar


Can get noisy

Wheelchair accessible