Bridging the best of London and San Francisco

It can be hard to find refuge from the constant hustle and bustle of the city: somewhere you can sink into a banquette and cozy up for date night, catch up over a decadent brunch with longtime friends, or even saunter into and grab an apéritif after some solo retail therapy. Somehow, The Cavalier’s stylish yet inviting space is perfect for all that—and more.

Understated on the outside, quirky elegance on the inside, the London-leaning brasserie designed by interior design dynamo Ken Fulk is operated by the dream team of executive chef Jennifer Puccio and managing partner James Nicholas.

Tucked into a side street in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood and adjacent to Hotel Zetta, it’s a day-to-night dining space one can stop into for any occasion.

Following the pandemic shutdown, Nicholas has brought in industry veteran Andrew Fuentes as general manager. Fuentes most recently managed teams at Saison, Eight Table, and Ozumo. Nicholas also re-enlisted high powered event planner extraordinaire, Alisha Lamos, and inventive cocktailian, Ross Katzenberg, to concoct luxurious new refreshments—e.g., the Tzar Martini with Beluga vodka and caviar—for the drink menu. Previous favorites with a British bent, such as The White Lady, inspired by a recipe from the iconic American Bar at the Savoy Hotel, will still be shaken (or stirred).

Meanwhile, the menu of elevated, British-inspired pub fare has also been reinvigorated, with Puccio continuing to derive inspiration from California’s bounty of farm-fresh produce and her culinary expertise across cuisines. Her creativity can be credited to her extensive career—from working in the kitchens of James Beard Award winner Ana Sortun’s Oleana in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to honing her talent here in the Bay at Elisabeth Daniel, Cortez, and Ubuntu

New additions to The Cavalier’s menu include reimagined versions of the Dungeness crab soufflé with salad lyonnaise and steak tartare with Aleppo peppers and polenta crostini. Have no fear: Puccio’s signature Brussels sprout chips, dusted with smoky-sweet vadouvan, will remain on the menu, as will the timeless fish and chips served with malted vinegar aioli and minted peas—a personal favorite for its flavorful smack of spring flavors and a surprising standout for an accompaniment.

Another tip: upgrade the chips to the beef fat fries, which—if it’s not too forward to say—I’m head over heels for. As a potato aficionado, The Cavalier’s beef fat fries are the real deal: fluffy, yet perfectly fried with a golden-brown coating that gives just the right amount of crunch. Don’t miss the grilled ribeye either, served alongside these incredible frites with a ramekin of red wine porcini jus to boot, or the tuna crudo, a savory affair punctuated by the floral, briny flavor of capers and freshly grated horseradish that lends brightness to the palate. Comforting yet impressive, these thoughtfully balanced dishes by Puccio are ones that are crave-worthy anytime.

The Cavalier also happens to be a feast for the eyes. Divided into four unique spaces, Fulk merges the sensibilities of an English hunting lodge with London during the Swinging Sixties. The Blue Bar, aptly named for the powder blue-hued walls, offers a posh space for a Pimm’s Cup or G & T. Vintage cathedral lanterns dangle over a welcoming zinc-topped bar. Stuffed animal heads overlook the main dining room, light-filled with large arched windows to balance the ruby red walls. The Wine Stables offer a swanky, semi-private dining space outfitted with dark leather booths and hand-painted hunting scenes on the wall. A sliding barn door allows for complete isolation. Finally, the Rail Car room, tucked into the back of The Cavalier, evokes the luxury of the Orient Express with buttery soft leather banquettes and vintage brass luggage racks—convenient for stashing the spoils of a shopping spree in Union Square. Against the back wall sits a looming bookcase lined with various antiques and a taxidermy fox nicknamed “Floyd” that guards The Cavalier’s worst-kept secret. For all of its Old World elegance and expanded 135-person seating capacity, it’s an intimate space that feels novel and never pretentious.

Pitch-perfect design and flavorsome fare is a successful formula that has long been replicated by Nicholas, an investor and restaurateur who owns newly created Slow Lane LLC, a hospitality management company that also includes Marlowe and Park Tavern in its portfolio of award-winning establishments. “I have always loved San Francisco—its people, culture, and food,” said the fifth-generation San Franciscan who attended the London School of Economics after Brown University. “There were so many similarities between San Francisco and London that I always felt at home, with one exception: the way people dressed for dinner.”

When he opened The Cavalier with Puccio, Fulk, and previous partner Anna Weinberg, Nicholas wanted to bring his experience of living abroad back home and create a space where guests would feel comfortable “dressing up or down.” The team collaborated on a design plan and menu reflective of what drew Nicholas to London, with recent updates further weaving the cultural fabric of California into the menu. Although much has changed since he lived in London, you’ll still see the owner/operator of The Cavalier and the S&R Lounge (inside Hotel Zetta) around in his dapper, blue velvet blazer. Nicholas also runs Marianne’s, the clandestine boîte hidden behind The Cavalier’s bookcase.

Named after Marianne Faithfull, the queen of bohemian rock chic who palled around with the Rolling Stones in their heyday, this semi-exclusive speakeasy offers handcrafted cocktails, caviar service, elegant small plates, and desserts in an intimate setting. Rumor has it, Faithfull inspired hits such as “Sympathy for the Devil” from the Stones’ album Beggars Banquet, the cover of which was also the inspiration for Fulk in decorating this space. The album artwork itself, which has been enlarged and framed, hangs on one of the speakeasy’s deep purple walls across from a candlelit alcove furnished with a zebra print banquette. Oil paintings, beaded lampshades, and ornate chandeliers complete the vintage rock and roll-inspired space.

However, for all of the epicurean delights and picturesque trappings of The Cavalier, what makes it stand out as a local treasure is its consistently impeccable service. The staff is exceedingly attentive, polished, and professional, yet never aloof. Perhaps it’s just been so long since I’ve dined out regularly after this seemingly endless pandemic, but I can’t remember the last time I’ve received service as warm and genuine. Plus, if you’re a diner who swears by Yelp, you’ll find that Fuentes takes the time to personally respond to all reviews—good or bad, though there’s nary a negative one in sight. He even welcomes one 4-star reviewer to return and ask for him personally to see how they can exceed expectations and garnish that fifth star. Another diner writes: “If you want to be treated special, come here.” Case in point? That 4-star reviewer doesn’t even have a profile photo or name listed on their account yet is being treated like royalty—rock and roll or otherwise.

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