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    A Little Slice of Paris in Hayes Valley: Absinthe Brasserie and Bar

    By David Landis–

    When I first moved to San Francisco to open Davies Symphony Hall in 1980, the surrounding neighborhood (now called Hayes Valley) was a scary proposition. There were basically three places to eat if, like me, you worked in the Civic Center: the Hayes Street Grill (the oldest establishment around, a seafood-focused eatery that is an oldie but still a goodie); Kimball’s (no longer there, but where the recently-closed Jardiniere held court for years); and Ivy’s (what we then called a “continental” restaurant at Hayes and Gough). The blocks around the symphony hall boasted lots of empty storefronts—and you didn’t dare walk further west than Gough St.

    Flash forward lo these many years and Hayes Valley is one of the most bustling, energetic and diverse neighborhoods in the city. One reason for that re-birth? The vision of restaurateur Bill Russell-Shapiro, who owns Absinthe Brasserie and Bar.

    In addition to his innate love of food, Bill had studied urban planning. He knew that after the 1989 earthquake, when the double-decker Central Freeway was slotted for demolition, there would be an opportunity to re-claim the neighborhood. By opening Absinthe in 1998 (where Ivy’s had been for years), he helped to re-ignite the renaissance for the neighborhood, which now feels like a mini SoHo or East Village.

    An homage to all things French, Absinthe is still one of my favorite places to eat in the city. Why? It’s a buzzy destination that feels glamorous and special, evoking a one-of-a-kind feeling of Belle Epoque-era Paris. It’s not just where I dine before the opera, symphony, ballet or SFJAZZ, but it is also where I always take out-of-towners, business associates, clients and staffers.

    What makes this brasserie so popular? “A culture of hospitality comes from the top down,” explains Absinthe General Manager Brian Gavin. “Bill (our owner) is very gracious and the tone he sets makes everyone feel welcome.” Walking into the restaurant at any given time, says Gavin, “you’ll encounter young techies at the bar, neighborhood people who stop in for a burger and a glass of wine in the café and operagoers in the dining room.” Or you might even see regulars with their dogs dining al fresco!

    The restaurant serves close to 400 meals on average a day, but the food is always handcrafted. A perfect meal at Absinthe would start with whatever fresh oysters that they are serving (my suggestion is the Beausoleils from the East Coast if they have them—their flavor profile is clean, sweet and light); or perhaps the Tsar Nicoulai White Sturgeon caviar, if you’re celebrating something special. For a great starter, I’d try their famous French onion soup. Highlighted in numerous magazines as one of the best in the country, it has a robust stock and plenty of gooey cheese.

    My go-to menu choices are the always-fresh potato-crusted salmon (cooked to a perfect medium rare), served with a radish-laden side salad that includes fennel, hard-cooked egg and Nicoise olives; or the famous Absinthe burger, which is grass fed with a corn finish (served with tasty house-made pickles and crispy fries). Since you’re wishing you were in the land of Gaul, I’d order the burger with gruyere cheese. For dessert, the chocolate pot-de-crème is dark and creamy, one of the finest and most satisfying in the city; or perhaps you want to opt for a make-your-own cheese plate, with a selection of artisanal California and French cheeses with house-made walnut bread.

    To accompany an Absinthe meal, “We have one of the biggest wine lists on the West Coast,” says Gavin, “with 7,000 selections.” What do I like about their wine list? It’s expansive and comprehensive, but you can still order a delicious glass of dry, Muscadet white wine from the Loire Valley for a reasonable $11; or a Cabernet Franc red wine from the same region for $13/glass; or a brut nature sparkling rosé from Burgundy for $13/glass.

    Why the name Absinthe? For those who don’t know, absinthe (the liquor) is (generally) a green-colored, anise-flavored spirit derived from botanicals. “When we opened in 1998,” remarks Gavin, “people only vaguely knew about absinthe; it evoked a time and place that was exotic. Our first bar manager, Marco Dionysos, developed a program that coincided with cocktail culture re-emerging in the U.S.” In fact, Absinthe’s cocktail program has spawned some major names in the business: besides Dionysos, that includes Jonny Raglin (who, with Jeff Hollinger, re-opened the historic Comstock Saloon—another great Absinthe group restaurant and bar in North Beach).

    What should an Absinthe cocktail newbie try? The “Green Beast,” which includes absinthe verte, lime, sugar, cucumber and water (served over ice); the “Lawhill,” a rye whiskey drink with dry vermouth, maraschino liqueur, absinthe verte and Angostura bitters, served up; “Death in the Afternoon,” consisting of sparkling wine and absinthe verte, served in a flute; or “The Secret Garden,” a Sea Gin drink with cucumber, dashes of absinthe, lime juice, sea salt and a splash of soda, served up.

    Absinthe also has one of the most elegant private dining rooms in the city. I recently attended a celebration of life for a good friend from the symphony there. I can attest: this space maintains the quality of the main restaurant with an intimacy that is seductive.

    Absinthe is part of a bigger restaurant group that, besides Comstock, includes several other local restaurants to put on your list. The group is opening a new concept in the former Arlequin space on Hayes Street (keeping the outdoor courtyard); they also own Barcino, around the corner, which serves delicious Spanish tapas in a convivial setting; and Bellota, one of the group’s most elegant restaurants (in the AirBnB building south of Market), is a modern Spanish-style restaurant worthy of a visit for a special occasion.


    And for the future of Absinthe? “We want to maintain our core values of hospitality and good food, but not become stagnant,” says Gavin. After more than 20 years, I’d say that’s a great roadmap.

    Absinthe Brasserie & Bar
    398 Hayes Street at Gough

    David Landis, aka “The Gay Gourmet,” is a foodie, a freelance writer and a PR executive. Follow him: @david_landis, email him at: or visit online at: