Woodward's Garden has long been an ace up the sleeve for San Francisco's resident chowhounds. You won't find it in one of the touristy shopping districts. It doesn't boast a million dollar interior designed by Pat Kuleto. And it's never acquired the recognition that many other, flashier restaurants in this city have. As bay area residents my husband and I relied on this cozy bistro-style place to provide a quiet ambiance in which to enjoy superlative meals whenever we had something to celebrate. So it was high on our list of places to reacquaint ourselves with on our most recent visit to the city.
A little background on Woodward's Garden
Located at the odd intersection of Mission and Duboce, underneath the truncated Highway 101 freeway exit, Woodward's Garden restaurant is easy to miss. If you've arrived at the doors expecting a garden, this gritty urban site will leave you feeling out of place and perhaps wanting to recheck your map. Never fear. All that will change once you step through the doors of this topnotch San Francisco eatery.
Once upon a time there were just a few fixed seatings per night at Woodward's Garden. But when I called to reserve a table for the later seating during my last visit in late April, I was told they'd done away with that format. I could now book for whatever time best suited our plans.
Seating in Woodward's Garden used to be tight, tight, tight! The original dining room was tiny, narrow and cramped. So narrow that it could only accommodate a single row of two-tops jammed up against the long window and one four-top wedged into the corner near the door. Well, that row of two-tops is still there flanking the lacy curtained window. But they've now expanded into the adjacent store front as well, so there are some round dinner tables in the new room that can seat parties of six.
Woodward's Garden's ambiance is a little difficult to pin down. Homely but also oddly classy, the dining room maintains a low profile but holds up well when one thinks to scrutinize it. The fact that the open kitchen is mere feet away from almost every table in the restaurant doesn't cause any undue noise or distraction. Simple table linens and votive candles on each table set the tone well for the meal to come. The noise level has always been moderate when I've eaten here. The tight spacing of the tables usually means that you have the chance to peruse both your neighbor's menu choices and conversation. Somehow this has never bothered me though.
The Menu and the Food
The food at Woodward's Garden gets a fine introduction with the basket of good bread and sweet cream butter set out at each table just after the orders are taken.
The menu here changes regularly, though I've never eaten here often enough to say with exactly what frequency. The chef offers a limited number of starters and main courses while placing an emphasis on organic fare. You will find the sources of many ingredients named on the menu. One familiar name is Niman Ranch, the supplier for most of the high quality, antibiotic- and hormone-free meats used in the kitchen. The chef generally follows the one pork, one fish, one chicken, one veggie, etc. school of menu creation. What the menu lacks in breadth is more than made up for by the superior quality and flavors of each dish. And the diverse accompaniments for each main course are always extremely well done and interesting too.
For his appetizer, my husband chose the butter lettuce salad with blue cheese and roasted beets, which he enjoyed. The greens were immaculately fresh and not over dressed with a light and simple vinaigrette. Roasted beets seem to be a favorite of the chef at Woodward's Garden, as they've accompanied one of the salads every time we've dined here. They are served at room temperature and tender-firm, lightly seasoned with a citrus juice or some other mild flavor. Grilled jumbo asparagus are another appetizer staple that we'd come to expect, but they made no appearance on the menu this time around.
I chose the chevre fritter for my appetizer, served with watercress and a mixture of diced tomato, basil and scallions. The delicious flavors complimented each other very well. The crisp outside of the fritter contrasted nicely with the soft and creamy inside. How they accomplished this without making the fritter too greasy, I don't know, but I certainly admired the results.
After our modestly sized appetizers, our main courses seemed quite generous. My husband ordered the grilled salmon with green garlic relish, mashed fingerling potatoes, fresh fava beans and stewed onions. He enjoyed everything and remarked on the especially nice texture of the mashed potatoes. I asked for the grilled pork chop, which turned out to be a double thick, enormous portion of meat. It came garnished with caramelized onions and accompanied by whole baby carrots, chard sautéed with smoked bacon and a crumbly cornmeal stuffing. The enormous pork chop defeated my appetite, its buttery texture and superb flavor notwithstanding. It was simply too large a serving for me. (Not that I'm complaining.) The chard and carrots were very good, but I didn't care for the cornmeal stuffing. I've never been a big fan of cornmeal anything, so that's no reflection on the chef's skills.
To wash down all our food we each drank a glass of some California chardonnay, a novelty after our exile to Europe. I've forgotten what the vint was, but it reminded me of why those big, round, vulgar chardonnays became so mindlessly popular for a time.
My husband ordered a cappuccino after dinner, but full as we were, we had to pass on the prospect of dessert.
On our most recent visit (April of this year), the menu offered seven appetizers priced at $6.75 to $14 and six main courses for between $17.50 and $23. Our tab for two appetizers, two mains, two glasses of wine and a cappuccino came to just about $100, including a slightly generous tip. That's not your everyday night on the town, at least not on our budget. But it certainly was an excellent meal, and the quality to price ratio is such that we've returned to this restaurant several times over the years for special occasions.
The single waitress at Woodward's Garden is the sister of the chef. So the service was conscientious and professional, with an air of assurance and ease. She knew the menu intimately, and offered details on the dishes when asked, without attempting to influence our choices. Our needs were met promptly without any unnecessary hovering. The little details like crumbing the table were performed without any ostentation. When we asked if they could call us a cab when we were done with our meal the request was graciously met. The waitress even ran out the door to wave down the cabbie, who couldn't quite tell where the restaurant was. She earned her tip well.
I would recommend this restaurant for a romantic date, or for when you want to have a celebratory but quiet meal in a subdued atmosphere.
Looking for other San Francisco restaurants of this caliber? I've also reviewed:
Boulevard, which I think is even better than Woodward's Garden
Betelnut - highly recommended for a fun night with a group
Suppenkuche - unpretentious German bierhaus charm in Hayes Valley
Helmand - little known but excellent Afghan place and a great value
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Kid Friendliness: No
Vegetarian Friendly: No
Best Suited For: Romantic Evening