Since the symphony strike of the mid-1990s, the west side of the Civic Center has seen more than its share of high-profile destination restaurants open their doors. From Jardinière (born 1997) to Essencia (2007), the tone of the restaurants in the neighborhood (whose epicenter is the corner of Gough and Hayes) has become considerably ... tonier.
Much of the upscale-ishness doubtless has to do with the demolition of the Central Freeway viaduct and the reemergence of Hayes Valley as a nice place to live. A fresh bloom of boutique shops tends to confirm this. But east of Gough, the song remains largely the same: opera, symphony, ballet, with the occasional "in conversation with" at Herbst Auditorium thrown in. Yes, we are talking performances of one kind or another, and performance audiences often want something to eat in a civilized setting beforehand and aren't always eager to cash out their 401(k)s or Google stock options to pay for it. Does the west Civic Center, with its new wealth of destination spots, have anything to offer these people? Ivy's was the archetype of this sort of value restaurant, but it closed more than a decade ago.
On a recent weekend evening, mild and clear after weeks of stultifying rain, we slipped into Breezy's at about 7:30 and found both large dining rooms full. A half hour later, as the clock struck eight, the restaurant was nearly empty; we were like the two forlorn members of a school of tasty fish who didn't get the memo about the approaching great white shark. As curtains grandly rose in grand buildings on the other side of Gough, we made do with a chocolate tart.
Bawer Tekin and Dawn Wiggins opened Breezy's last fall in a space long occupied by the Blue Muse, whose fanatical devotees will be relieved to know their restaurant has reappeared a block away, in a space that adjoins the performing-arts parking garage. The old space, meanwhile, looks little-changed and is still rather cavernous, with the front room still dominated by the big bar and the rear dining room faintly secret, like a cell in a medieval cloister. A creamy color scheme brings some warmth to this brutal roominess, and the iridescent tiles on the support pillars exert a certain hypnotic appeal, as Rubik's Cube did a generation ago.
But forget about Breezy's pleasantly unobtrusive décor and its friendly, efficient service, which holds up well even at the heart of the pre-performance rush. You're there to eat, and the food is good. Quite good! Interesting without calling undue attention to itself, and reasonably priced in a fat-cat city where the word affordable often seems as if it's been read right out of the language.
Chef Rodney Baca's menu offers, according to the restaurant's Web site, "the fresh tastes of the Mediterranean, with a swirl of Asian flair." Nicely put. The food, in other words, is that by-now familiar amalgam of CaliforniaNew American cuisine, with touches of local and sustainable, along with a few blatant violations of these tenets. I love stuffed tomatoes, and Baca's version ($9) is excellent a baseball-size, reasonably ripe (for February) fruit, opened at the top like a Halloween pumpkin for a lively filling of prosciutto, cheese, and basil but ... a tomato in February? With basil? Everything is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds, Voltaire wrote in Candide, except (and I choose to believe this is implicit in the Voltairean text) winter tomatoes.
An arugula and watercress salad ($6) is a little more like it. The greens reached the table still practically glistening with rain, and instead of walnuts (those usual suspects), Baca used spicy peanuts to add crunch while making, possibly, a sly Super Bowl reference.