At Places Like Brazen Head, It’s All About the People
Well, the moment has come for me to write about Brazen Head.
And now, I’m realizing that I’m quite conflicted. Of course, I want to pen the most earnest words about a restaurant I’ve come to love over the years, singing its deserved praises. I feel a sense of duty to capture the simple beauty and potentially gout-inducing coziness of the place.
But it doesn’t need or seem to want my praise. It existed well before I did, and hopefully will well after. I want to celebrate it, but also make sure it stays the same. Selfishly, I want to still be able to get a table and run back my last time there, per the script.
The most striking thing is the pride everyone takes in everything. This grace makes Brazen Head a second home. Once you go a few times, very quickly the staff remembers you and what you typically order (that aforementioned script). And for me it’s pretty much always this:
Caesar salad with extra, way-better-than-expected anchovies.
Too-hot and too-buttery escargot.
And prime rib with creamed spinach, and a baked potato with all the accoutrements.
As you look around the room, you quickly understand it’s unironically a vintage affair. They’ve been around since 1980 (cue mirrored bathroom), but other decor and touches and especially the menus point to a time earlier than that.
The list of cocktails is direct, not part of a “program” and certainly not concerned with trends: a Negroni, a Sazerac, a Rusty Nail. But for me, it’s always a Dirty Martini. Here, it’s made in a way I’ve seen no other place. A squeeze of olive brine, my pick of Beefeater gin, bargain vermouth, and a crash of ice quickly assemble in a pint glass. The drink is covered with a hand and through the gap between thumb and index, a bar spoon is bluntly stabbed at an angle rather enthusiastically until the drink is chilled. I’m convinced it may be the best method to make a martini, though I haven’t tried it at home for the legitimate fear that I’ll be sweeping up wet glass.
As for the food, well, it’s great: straightforward, rich, comforting, well-seasoned, and made with far more care than you’d expect, reading the book by the cover.
Brazen Head is a place that is not only greater than the sum of its parts, but it’s about the people. Yourself, the bartender, your neighbor to the left, and your neighbor to your right. It forces you into conversation. I’ve met people there, and had long conversations with others, from an older couple celebrating a wedding anniversary there as they’ve been doing for decades to a lively, young group of first timers there for a friend’s birthday. It appeals to so many different people.
Service is facilitated by uncommonly friendly staff serving with no judgement about anyone. There is such a mix of people from different places and, depending on the night, widely or wildly different points in their evenings and levels of intoxication. The most intoxicating thing — OK, almost the most — is the feeling of being there, being part of the scene.
In restaurants, and especially in restaurant reviews, the focus is sometimes too heavily put on the goods: the food, the wine, the cocktails and how they inform the beverage “program,” the sourcing, the flavor combinations, blah blah.
We too often forget the people, especially those that are just other patrons. We discount the way the place makes us feel, the intangibles. It’s hard to describe and deeply personal. I expect a lot from a restaurant, a place that transports us away from our daily stressors — or in this case, also from the present decade. It is about something that takes so much time, persistence, and care to create hospitality and a sense of feeling welcome. Decades of a completed mission.
This, to me, is the essence of Brazen Head. I am waiting, with shortening patience, for my next chance to go back and be welcomed, and start with a frigid martini. Maybe I’ll see ya.
Geoff Davis is the chef at San Francisco’s upcoming Penny Roma. Follow him on Instagram at @geonate88.