Sometimes, walking down the street in Union Square, you seem to hear as much French spoken as English. Frenchies flock here to enjoy our shops, hotels, theatres and even restaurants, which isn’t that surprising considering all the nods to French culture around here. Francophiles and French people alike patronize Union Square’s collection of French restaurants, wine bars and shops. In fact, the French have had an influence on this area for well over a hundred years. French settlers first came to the Union Square area around Bush Street and Grant Avenue (then known as Dupont) in 1851 for the gold rush and have been influencing local cuisine, architecture and culture ever since. Remnants of San Francisco’s French past can be found throughout the neighborhood, such as the Notre Dame des Victoires on Bush Street, where one can still hear a French mass on Sundays and their affiliated school where children must speak French for at least 45 minutes a day, but the lasting impressions that the French left on San Francisco culture are perhaps most apparent in the food, wine, drinks and “bon vivant” attitude of many of the surrounding restaurants.
A walk down Claude Lane just outside of Union Square brings to mind the little alleyways of Montmartre, and if that puts you in the mood for a leisurely French meal, perhaps on an outdoor patio, you’re in luck. Café Claude offers classic French bites like soupe a l’oignon and croque monsieur as well as more decadent French-inspired meals such as their Porc au Miel (pork with honey cream sauce) and steak tartare alongside seasonal specials like a creamy cauliflower soup we tried recently that was perfection! If you stop here for lunch on a weekday you’ll find Financial District power lunchers alongside savvy tourists enjoying a true French déjeuner. Later in the evening Café Claude offers live music to go with your cuisine Française. Just down the street on Grant Avenue is another French Bistro, this one with a literary theme. In addition to French fare, Café de la Presse offers a selection of European magazines and newspapers to peruse while you enjoy your café crème and plat du jour. The host welcomes you in French and the décor couldn’t be more typical of a French bistro with its warm yellow walls and rich woods. Standouts on the menu include their crispy Tartes Flabées with a variety of intriguing toppings such as Serrano ham and artichoke hearts or tomatoes, basil and olives and the classic salade nicoise made with their house canned tuna confit.
Le Central is yet another French brasserie available to fulfill your Francophile needs. Located on bustling Grant Avenue for the past 37 years, this French country style eatery is apparently a favorite of former mayor Willie Brown and was once frequented by legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. The not to be missed item on their menu is the special Le Central Cassoulet made with white beans, duck confit and sausage. Other notable options include their scallops Provençale with cauliflower gratin and sautéed spinach, a goat cheese and leek tart with poached pears and paté de campagne – a country style pork paté with aspic and cornichons. Bartender Dave Gabine is known for his well-executed classic drinks and wine knowledge. Another option for an elegant French meal is the Grand Café in the Hotel Monaco. The Grand Café is housed in the former grand ballroom of the hotel and features regional French cuisine with a California twist. The brasserie offers a great happy hour special with $1 oysters and $3 bubbly as well as late night specials and live jazz. For a big, rich traditional French meal, try their Canard à l’Orange or Boeuf Bourguignon. For those who prefer something on the lighter side, they also offer gnocchi with goat cheese, fava beans and tomatoes as well as a variety of fresh salads.
If you want to get your French fix on the go, we have some lovely options here in the Square. For delicious pressed sandwiches, salads, quiches and French confections like macaroons and madeleines Café Madeleine is the perfect stop. Their hot tomato mozzarella sandwich with creamy pesto sauce makes for a tasty lunch. Also ideal for the French food lover on the go is Crêpe O Chocolate just down the street on O’Farrell. Mysteriously, they do not serve their namesake crêpes. However, they do serve delicious baguette sandwiches, omelets, quiches and salads. The baguette sandwiches rotate daily and include a prosciutto, goat cheese and house jam version as well as a fresh green bean, egg and gruyere option. Most items are organic and made by the owner herself. Soon, we’ll be swimming in little French cafés, since La Boulange, a local chain with several storefronts, will be moving in on both Sutter Street and in the Westfield San Francisco Centre on Market Street. La Boulange makes killer baguettes, open-faced sandwiches like a yummy hummus and veggies on whole grain bread and specials particular to each location. It’s rumored that the Westfield location will make a Bordelaise specialty – mini caramelized round cakes called cannelès, and it remains to be seen what the Sutter Street location will offer.
To enjoy these restaurants and cafés is to understand why so many joyous phrases come from the French language – “Bon vivant,” “Joie de vivre,” “La vie en Rose.” San Francisco is often said to be a European city with its large public squares (including, of course, Union Square), walkable neighborhoods and love for food and wine, making these little slices of French life right at home here. So, go ahead, put on some Edith Piaf, don your beret and striped shirt et bon appetite!