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Café Desiree

Family-Style Dining in the Presidio

On a late summer evening, a friend and I ventured into the Presidio with a cab driver who had no more idea where he was going than we did. In my almost four years in the city, it's a world I've only ventured into once before. On this typically foggy night, we were about to experience a not-so-typical dinner.

After walking down a narrow street that reminded my companion of her days in Mendocino, we entered a long building that was part art gallery, part schoolhouse: the new San Francisco Film Centre, part of the large-scale development driven by filmmaker George Lucas in mid-2005. An understated, hand-painted sign marked the not-so-obvious entrance down the hallway.

Desiree, a café that normally serves only breakfast and lunch, is the current passion of Chef Anne Gingrass, formerly of Hawthorne Lane. She stepped out of the limelight a few years ago and has since opened this back-to-basics café, known for its fabulous baked goods and boxed lunches. The brief daytime menu includes a miso-glazed pork and poached pear sandwich, sweet pepper and carrot soup with cilantro and pumpkin seeds, and not only a salad but also a sandwich featuring some form of chopped egg. Brunch includes eggs, bagels, smoked salmon, oatmeal, Niman Ranch bacon, and yogurt with fruit and granola.

For tonight's dinner, part of a series of evening "family dinners," the space that normally seats 32 had been arranged into four larger tables. Our characteristically late arrival made our two open chairs quite obvious. Two of the tables were larger groups that had clearly come together. Behind us two couples were quickly making friends over a glass of wine and the tasty eggplant puree that started us off.

We were greeted with a glass of champagne that had been kindly purchased for the table by one generous guest. A small selection of beer and wine is available, but I would suggest bringing your own and paying the $15 corkage. So far, prices for a 3-course meal at Desiree Café hover at $45 or $50 per person, excluding beverages.

From the warmth of the yellow-tinged dining room we watched as bands of fog slid around the Golden Gate Bridge. We made acquaintance with the gentleman next to us who peppered the evening with stories of a life in Hawaii, lessons learned, and how good it was to live in the Presidio having the government as your landlord. The couple at the other end of the table was more focused on each other, but I gathered they also lived nearby and frequented the café during the earlier hours of the day.

It is exactly this mingling that Chef Gingrass is seeking to achieve, that is, under the auspices of enjoying a fabulous meal. While seating arrangements will push diners to meet their neighbors, the family style dinners will attempt to push culinary experiences as well. Admittedly, the first dinner was a bit tame, but delectable nonetheless. After sharing a starter of garlic bread and eggplant puree that was surprisingly rich in texture, a wonderfully light and creamy onion and zucchini soup was set before us. More stories were swapped and a glance out the window showed no more sign of the bridge.

The main course arrived family style: lemon roast chicken, sliced and laid on serving platters, with bowls of caramelized peppers with mint, and casserole dishes of indulgent potato soufflé. Chicken being something I almost never order, I was surprised by how moist and flavorful this was. "It's all in the quality of the product," I was told later. And that's one of the reasons for these monthly dinners. As a chef, Anne is looking to share her passion for food in a manner that suits her style and in doing so take a step back toward the limelight.

For her second dinner, Anne paired with Mariquita Farm to prepare a Mediterranean-inspired dinner of roasted goat. Proceeds went to help Taylor's Happy Oaks farm in New Orleans to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. November's dinner on Friday the 18th will be a joint effort between Anne and long-time friend Ray Tang with roasted suckling pig as the main course. The menu for December 16th will be announced a few weeks prior. Go to to see the menu and claim your spot.

While the trek into the Presidio's winding streets may seem daunting, once you're nestled into your seats, you'll realize there were no parking hassles, no wait lists, and no jostling for space at a crowded bar because the host pushed back your reservation. You'll quickly forget it's Friday night just minutes from the bustle of downtown.

California Cuisine
The Presidio