For decades, the sleepy Central Richmond’s culinary options have been of the casual, just-show-up kind. Like take-out dim sum and quiet-night Thai, gloppy Mexican and greasy burgers — and long, blanket-wrapped waits for one of seven tables at Pizzetta 211.
But now, next door, there’s Pearl: a refined, window-walled corner restaurant open until the oh-so-late hour of 10 p.m. And what it’s offering is very different out here: cocktails mixed with ingredients like pink peppercorn and grapefruit, a wood-fired oven, and — for better or worse — reservations. Given Pearl’s instant popularity, it’s wise to make one if you can. All that was left each time I tried were 5 p.m. or 9 p.m. slots.
When I rolled out of the restaurant after the feast that was my first visit, I realized that 9 p.m. on a school night was too late. And Pearl, I promise, is a feast. One that, like Thanksgiving, is better enjoyed earlier in the evening rather than just before bed. Not to mention, at the later hour the staff is deep into its close-out duties — folding stacks of napkins, funneling liquids into plastic vats — before it’s time for dessert. After all, as Hayes Valley-hip as Pearl may feel, this is still the avenues.
In late May, Jack Murphy, of Pizzetta 211’s treasured 20-year-old closet of thin-crust pizza, opened an ambitious, employee-owned, sister restaurant with a whopping 58 seats. Co-chefs Mel Lopez and Joyce Conway are at the helm. Early write-ups have called Pearl “seafood-centric” — and with oysters and gulf prawns and ample anchovies, it’s apt — but it also has handmade pastas and hefty pork chops and platters of beef big enough to feed the Brady Bunch.
On the evening we took the 5 p.m. reservation, I arrived a half-hour late, enraged by San Francisco traffic and the latest news on NPR. My friends, who walked no more than five, ten minutes from their respective homes to get here, were hunkered into a semi-circular, camel-colored, corner booth, beaming and sipping cocktails, with a dozen oysters on the way. “We’ve been wanting a place like this!” they exclaimed, like Pearl’s self-appointed cheering squad. “We’re so happy it’s here!”
Our server sets down my new favorite martini: “The Pearl Martini,” a briny-smooth Oakland-distilled “sea gin” with a splash of Italian vermouth, garnished with spindly pickled sea bean. A palette of mild Marin miyagi oysters follows, each splashed with horseradish and a fiery fermented hot sauce. Suddenly, I’m happy too.
It’s hard not to be at Pearl, really: a cheery-white and light-filled place, with a genuinely smiley staff. Here, food is cooked with something many new San Francisco restaurants — at the mercy of big investor backing and bottom lines — seem unable to afford lately: heart.
Without the help of outside investors, the owners — Murphy, the chefs, and a half-dozen other Pizzetta alums — transformed a former laundromat into a date-night-worthy destination. It’s the kind of low-key, lively, stylish spot that could make less-lively, less-stylish neighbors feel like they’ve trekked across town.
With its wainscotting and French stripe napkins, wraparound bar and second-floor balcony, Pearl’s vibe is like Hamptons beach house meets New Orleans meets...mid-Richmond. Unfortunately, that balcony is unabashedly used for storage as opposed to French Quarter-esque revelling or additional seating.
Unlike the city’s more happening neighborhoods, where the rowdy twenty-something crowd reigns, at Pearl, millennials are the minority. The place is packed with a rare multigenerational mix: gray-haired men in sneakers and sixty-something women in oversized sweaters settle into booths next to middle-aged mom friends and food-industry families. Everyone is dressed for a night out in the avenues, which means: comfortably.
The three-meals-a-day menu could be described as such, too: comfort food, but fit for 2018. It begins with wood-fired bagels and banana bread, morphs into toasted farro bowls and a nourishing berbere-spiced carrot soup, and ends with a quivering lemon verbena panna cotta.
Instead of mac-n-cheese, there is handkerchief pasta in a white Bolognese that erases any remaining angst of my day. A subtle creamy sauce with crumbled milk-braised pork and veal dress its silky, delicate folds. Thin peels of Grana Padano cheese, flecks of parsley, and a healthy grind of black pepper blanket it all. It’s hearty, but not heavy like a traditional Bolognese — and so good I think I might’ve said so repeatedly out loud several times, until our shared plate was scraped clean.
Same with the spaghetti: a slick, chewy tangle with spicy anchovies and smashed garlic, the crunch of chili-spiced breadcrumbs, and a confit of cherry tomatoes so sweet and juicy they puncture upon the slightest contact. A Sun Gold actually squirted across the table and onto my friend’s sweater, as if to make its mark: proof of a memorable meal.
The only problem with my pasta was that I wanted to savor the last of it. Instead it was a race to the finish due to the untimely arrival of our entrees. I liked the wood-fired pork chop with fried fingerling potatoes and sticky-sweet apricot cherry mostarda well enough; the chicken roulade with its crackling skin, too. Still, I couldn’t help but resent them both for taking my fork away from my most perfect pastas too soon. It was an expediting issue that occurred on two separate visits.
Not every dish evokes an “oh-my-god-this-is-so-good” response. Several spur more of an unimpressed meh. The chili-spiked ricotta, baked in the wood oven with artichokes, is more chalky than creamy and lacks the kick it promises. Likewise, the roasted cauliflower tasted more rubbery than roasted. Lukewarm, wallowing in a muddy puddle of black tahini hummus, it’s scattered with almonds and golden raisins and an earthy green chermoula. The dish made me wish they’d just charred the cauliflower — as restaurants are wont to do these days — and let it be.
But Pearl’s spin on a Caesar salad — a heap of chopped romaine and chicories shrouded with shaved Parmesan and shreds of crisped prosciutto, is a pleasurable deviation from the standard.
Pearl, too, is a welcome departure from what’s become the new normal. That is to say: It’s neither five-course tasting menu nor fast-casual, but a happy, homey place that offers something arguably better than both in these stressful, politically-charged times: a family supper.
It’s a complete, occasionally-changing, exceptionally balanced meal consisting of a meat, vegetable, and side dish that, according to the menu, “serves two-to-three people.” If you order anything else, though — and you will want to — consider it serving closer to four to six.
On one night, family supper is a Tomahawk chop. Thick, tender slices of charred, purple-hued beef fan across a platter with sweet, blistered Cipollini onion bulbs, fat asparagus spears, buttery bearnaise, and a boat of deliciously grainy, chili-dusted, cheesy polenta I could’ve sailed away on. At $120, it’s not the most affordable way to feed a family (or a friend-family), but it’s a revitalizing way.
Some neighborhood restaurants reflect their neighbors to a tee and serve them what they want. The best, though, like Pearl, give them what they didn’t even realize they needed: a warm, soothing space, sheltered from the Richmond’s fog, to drink sea gin martinis and slurp oysters and discuss the day, the world, and local issues, big and small.
Like the one brought up by a woman we met on our apres-supper walk around the block to work off that chop. She was outside, weeding her front yard. “Oh, I wanted to try that place,” she said, scrunching her face. “But I’m against the notion of having to make a dinner reservation at a restaurant in my own neighborhood.”
I get it, I nodded. Then I thought back to my recent midday visit. My bready tombo tuna salad sandwich wasn’t worth the special trip out to 23rd Avenue. And daytime’s quick counter service isn’t half as satisfying as Pearl’s sit-down supper. But if I lived down the street, it would be. Good news, I told her: There’s always lunch.