Breeders' Banquet: Dining Out with Kids in SF

A fine site


on June 7, 2013

At any given time, there are at least three blue IKEA bags filled with clean, unfolded laundry sitting on the floor in our living room. Now, by San Francisco rental house standards, our place is fairly large; however, the floor occupied by laundry represents a sizable chunk of real estate. Every once in a while— when the planets align, the Doctor is out for a business dinner or soccer game, the kids are asleep, and the laundry bags form a barrier that I can no longer step over with confidence in reaching the other side upright— I sit down in front of three month-old episodes of “Project Runway” and watch bitter queens claw and bitchslap their ways to fashion glory while I fold and sort what must be 20,00 pairs of underwear and desperately try to match socks into mostly-wearable pairs.

The life of a stay-at-home-mom is SO glamorous, yes?

All this is to emphasize the incredible gift bestowed upon our family by the Doctor’s parents, who visited us last week. Some people don’t like their in-laws, or find them difficult houseguests. Not me. I have the best in-laws in the world. They are lovely, highly intelligent human beings who enjoy playing with my children while I shower or blog. They find their own breakfasts. They cheerfully read “The Dollhouse Fairy” time and time again. They change diapers without complaint. They helped make the Doctor into the person I fell in love with and married.

And, as if all that weren’t enough, they do laundry. OUR laundry. They did so much laundry that I actually had more clean clothes folded than I had space to put them (note to self: time to give away the oh-so-comfy-yet-highly-unflattering-maternity-pants). I nearly wept with joy when I saw the towering piles stacked at the foot of our bed. That will buy me a week without having to drag 500 lbs. of damp smelly clothes down to the basement!

The OTHER great thing about Avou and Avoa is that they are enthusiastic, adventurous eaters. As thanks for all of their kindnesses, we decided on the last day of their visit to take them out for a “nice dinner.” MIL is a professor of early childhood development, so they are quite conscious of and accommodating of the limitations placed upon the concept of a “nice dinner” when a preschooler and infant are involved. I have a theory that all restaurants are open game for families as long as they are seated and eating before 6:00 pm, so we made a 5:30 reservation over the phone at Absinthe (note: they do not accept OpenTable reservations for parties larger than 4, but will accept them over the phone).

Before we were encumbered blessed with children, the Doctor and I had several transcendent meals at Absinthe. Actually, the food might have been totally mediocre but the cocktails were so deliciously potent that we didn’t notice. I thought a cocktail might not be unwelcome to both the grandparents and the Doctor. So we packed up everyone into the minivan and headed to Hayes Valley.



Possibly because it was so early, we found parking within a block of the restaurant; later on parking becomes quite difficult in this area so be prepared. The Doctor had arrived a couple of minutes before us and was already seated at a round table in the window of the dining area. Absinthe is split into a bar with seating on one side and a quieter, dining-only area on the other side of a wood-paneled wall. Presumably they put us on the dining-only side so as not to scare away the childless Beautiful People who were rapidly filling the bar with their lithe, high-heeled, perfectly-coiffed bodies and unstained-with-spit-up clothes.

A busser saw me heading toward the table with the Bitz strapped to my chest and stopped to offer me a high chair, which I gratefully accepted. The server filled our water glasses as soon as we sat down to peruse the menus.

photo (4)

We only had about five minutes to decide on cocktails, but that’s all we needed. Manhattan, martini, Pimm’s Cup, and a rye thingy for the doctor; the Jaybird ordered a Betty Boop.

Everything on the menu sounded good, so we quickly agreed to share everything and order a lot. The Jaybird asked for the garlic pretzels with cheese sauce as an appetizer and the macaroni and cheese side dish as her entree. Remember what I said about the carbs last week? Yeah. We should probably work on that.

Service was very— French. As I recall, the servers in Paris were efficient, courteous, and responsive; they were not, however, particularly friendly. I have no problem with that. As long as there is mutual respect between the server and the patrons I see no reason for my waiter to become my BFF for the duration of dinner. I’m pretty sure the “friendly server” is an American invention, much like encumbering them with pieces of flair. In any case, the service at Absinthe was brisk, unobtrusive, and skilled but not, again, particularly friendly. I mention this not as a criticism but merely as a warning to others who might be expecting more “American-style service.”

Fresh sliced pain au levain and butter arrived shortly after the drinks. We had just annihilated the bread when the garlic pretzels arrived. The Jaybird, who usually abhors anything remotely garlicky, ate them quite happily doused in the warm cheese sauce. The small piece she deigned to give me was more “Parker House roll” than “pretzel”  in flavor and texture, but quite tasty nonetheless.

Pretzels (with empty beet & kale salad plate in the background. Oops!)

Pretzels (with empty beet & kale salad plate in the background. Oops!)

The adults overwhelmingly preferred the kale and beet salad with radicchio, speck ham, and whipped fromage blanc. I personally thought the macadamia nuts provided just the right salty crunch to the salad to elevate it above the usual.

Here’s a quick overview of what we ate and my impressions thereof:

  • Beef tartare: Oh, how I love beef tartare, especially with just the right amount of capers, parsley, and a delicate little raw quail egg perched on top. Perfection.
  • Tuna tartare: Tuna tartare gets a bad rap for being “ubiquitous” on menus, but you know what? It’s ubiquitous because it’s fucking GOOD. Well, at least at Absinthe  it is. It’s served with plantain chips rather than bread, which I can’t support given my loathing of all things banana-related, but eaten plain with a fork was just fine. Even the Bitz consumed it with relish. Not literal relish. He liked it, I mean.
  • Lamb Shank: fall-apart tender and artfully plated, but SALTY. I love salt. When I say something is salty, it’s salty. I think it was actually the gremolata that was salty, because some bites were less salty than others. It didn’t stop us from eating it all, however. The Bitz really enjoyed the fried polenta cubes and asparagus that came with it dipped in the juices.
  • Potato-crusted Arctic Char: this was my favorite. You could crust a twenty-year-old Goodyear tire in potatoes and I’d probably eat it if it was nicely plated. If I had a criticism (and don’t mind sounding like that douchebag Tom Colicchio on Top Chef moaning about “respecting the protein”) I’d say it was ever-so-slightly overcooked. It wasn’t dry, per se. It was just that it wasn’t as moist as it could have been.

Throughout this feast the Jaybird was happily occupied with her macaroni and cheese, which unfortunately for us came topped with breadcrumbs, which are OK in her book, and parsley leaves, which are adamantly NOT. I scraped most of them off with my fork– “accidentally” scooping up some pasta and cheese in the process, which I was then FORCED to eat— and that was good enough for her.

Almost done!

Almost done!

The bussers were beginning to remove the plates when the Bitz hit his limit. Despite the excellent pacing of the meal, a little guy can only last for so long (in this case, about 90 minutes from sit-down to get-up) in one place before he starts rubbing his greasy hands all over the crystal-clear window next to his head. Also, his butt kind of smelled. At this point I gathered him up and headed for the bathrooms, where I was chagrined but not surprised that there was no changing table. I decided I’d change him when we got to the car. (In my defense, with the grandparents around it’s not like the dirty onesie would be sitting in a hamper for two weeks as usual!)  We took a little walk up Hayes St. while the Doctor, Jaybird, Avou, and Avoa finished up with the bill, where I happened upon this:

Bread pudding parlour!

Bread pudding parlour!

Instead of ice cream, they serve scoops of bread pudding. GENIUS. We will be back. Stay tuned for that review.

After leaving Absinthe we pushed our luck and fulfilled an earlier bribe made to the Jaybird by heading down Octavia St. to Smitten for ice cream. Parents should know that there is a little park with a climbing structure and grass about a block from Absinthe, which would make a great pre- or (in our case) post-dinner activity for kids. If you are lucky, you might get to enjoy the musical stylings of the Brass Liberation Orchestra. Who doesn’t like to end their meal with a little tuba?

Brass Band

Brass Liberation Orchestra

In summary, I would highly recommend Absinthe for the food and ambiance, especially if you go early and have an extra pair or two of grandparental hands to help out with the kids. I firmly believe in teaching kids how to comport themselves in a fine dining atmosphere, and Absinthe is a fine introduction to that experience without being too daunting for parents. The menu offers plenty of kid-amiable options (there’s a hamburger that’s widely considered to be one of the best in town) while simultaneously providing discerning adults with a variety of well-executed French brasserie-style food with a distinctly California accent.


Rating: 8 out of 10

  • Changing Table: NO
  • Kids’ menu: NO
  • High Chairs: YES, standard restaurant plastic high chairs

Absinthe Brasserie and Bar

398 Hayes St. 

San Francisco, CA 94102



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