The world keeps turning at this pared-down, purposeful standby
DINE When Globe opened nearly a decade and a half ago, it almost instantly developed a reputation as the place where you could find chefs having dinner at 1 a.m., after their own places had closed. The heart of the Barbary Coast restaurant (opened by Joseph Manzare and Mary Klingbell and still run by them) was a wood-burning oven that glared out over the dining room like the Eye of Sauron, and there was a wonderful perfume of woodsmoke in the air. (I think smokiness should be added as a flavor, incidentally, to make six. For years we were stuck with sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, and than umami, or meatiness, was added. Smokiness is distinct from those five, and also quite real.)
The march of time is often cruel to restaurants, and, as someone who last stepped into Globe before Bill Clinton got himself impeached, I wondered what I would find in these later days. An insider friend, discussing a famous San Francisco restaurant with me recently at a dinner party, ended up gently dismissing it by saying, "Well, it is a 30-year-old restaurant," as if to say that loss of freshness is inevitable. But restaurants aren't heads of iceberg lettuce in a refrigerator, de-freshening with every tick of the clock, and Globe isn't even 15 yet.
My first impression, on stepping inside recently, was that the place is still recognizable. The walls are of exposed brick, the floors are simple wood plank stained dark; the stairs to the private dining room and restrooms downstairs are made from plain, workmanlike steel; and the dangling light fixtures over the small bar, of glass in several colors and elongated shapes, are mildly ornamental but not garish. The look is spare, muscular, and elegant, like that of an athlete in an ancient Olympic Games, clad only in a loincloth. (Actually such an athlete would probably have been naked, but put such thoughts from your mind.)
The menu is as pared-down and purposeful as the décor. I am heartened by brief menus, even though brevity is a kind of heresy in this gassy culture, where more is always better and is preferred without question or argument. Brief means: these are the dishes the kitchen believes in. And Globe's kitchen obviously believes in its succinct list.
The restaurant's wood-burning oven made it an important precursor of the current pizza chic, and pizza remains a significant element of the menu. The crusts, though thin, retain a distinctive elasticity and chewiness — which means that once you get some into your mouth, it's a complex, satisfying experience. The downsides are that such crusts can be more difficult to cut, with slices sticking together, and the points can suffer from droopiness. Drooping pizza points remind me of the ears of a dog who's just been chastised for some offense he doesn't quite understand. We found the gambori mushroom pie ($16), boosted by white truffle oil, to be powerfully earthy, although the tomato sauce could have used a bit more salt.
Tuna tartare ($15) combined coarsely chopped fish with scallions, wonderfully peppery Genovese basil, and olive oil. The tartare was served with oily levain toasts and an Easter egg of black-olive tapenade, which provided a necessary correction of salt (and umami). We did think the macaroni and cheese ($8), made with Tillamook cheese — is that a selling point? — was good but not up to snuff, the bar having been raised sharply in the past few years. The best versions of mac 'n' cheese now use unusual pasta shapes, more intricate blends of cheeses, additions of fortifying and flavor-enhancing ingredients, and often a bread-crumb gratin. A gratin alone here would have made a big difference.