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Taverna Aventine

Cocktails with a Splash of History

Often the key to dining satisfaction is knowing where a particular institution resides in the complex ecology of the San Francisco dining scene. In other words, it's good to know what detail, dish, or drink makes a spot worth the trip.

Drinks and a clubby, pirate-y ambiance are the thing at Aventine (especially in the downstairs bar flanked by the old 1800's waterfront wharf wall, which runs rough and exposed along one side) However, those thirsty for a beer will be disappointed by the ho-hum selection. The cocktails are tasty, but they don't rival places like Alembic, Bourbon & Branch, or Beretta, lacking the hand-pressed, house-infused ingredients.

Like many FiDi establishments, Taverna Aventine's kitchen is predictably geared towards hungry officeworkers, many of whom descend from the TransAmerica building across the street when they feel the urge to plunk down $10 for an upscale sandwich served up with a starched white napkin. Aventine offers several well-constructed ones, including an olive oil poached chicken version with crispy rings of pancetta, piquant goat cheese and roasted peppers on a toothsome roll.

Lunch items also include starters and salads, such as a lightly-dressed microgreen salad topped with roasted pumpkin slices and wide, chewy ribbons of speck ($9), and a daily special ($12). The special is usually a hot item, such as sweetbreads and tender-crisp pears on bed of roasted brussels sprout leaves with balsamic dressing. The sweetbreads on a recent visit were pillowy on the inside and crispy on the outside, just as they should be, but the coating was reminiscent of Shake-and-Bake (original pork flavor) -- a bit disturbing even as it invoked warm feelings of childhood nostalgia.

Chef Dave Faro, previously the lunchtime chef at Campton Place, changes the menu seasonally, which during the winter can be bacon-heavy and rich (although nobody forced us to order the pan-fried chicken wings deliciously drizzled with warm anchovy-flecked olive oil, $9). But the heaviness can be easily cut with good wine, and Aventine offers plenty of attractive, albeit slightly expensive, selections by the glass ($8-15; or around $6 during happy hour).

But the pre-Prohibition era cocktails ($10) are the beverage of choice here. Topping the list is the pisco punch, which was invented right just down the street when the neighborhood was known as the infamous Barbary Coast.

Indeed, Aventine goes to great and elegant lengths to pay homage to ye olde days. The co-owners (Vintage 415, the guys behind Mamacita and Umami; and Gian Paolo Veronese, who also owns the Acqua di Roma spa down the street) painstakingly renovated this 150-year old former opium den into a mixture of half-history, half-gorgeous. The espresso-hued floors and bar are made from onsite reclaimed wood, and the exposed brick walls of the downstairs bar are stained with water marks from when the San Francisco waterfront came right up to Washington St.

Knowing what to expect from Taverna Aventine, and when, is key to enjoying the place. The vibe can be completely different depending on the day: most times it's a chill place to catch up with friends, but on Thursdays and Fridays it's a deafening, standing-room crush of suits. And don't let the "taverna" appellation mislead; although the bar serves lunch and upscale bar noshes ($9-14), it's not really a dinner destination (kitchen open M-F until 8). Same goes for the "Aventine" moniker; the Aventine neighborhood of Rome is reflected more in the giant etching-like motif the wall, rather than on the menu.

The service is amiable, although sometimes ill-informed. Forgetting the name of Kumamoto oysters ($8 for six nicely presented ones) is understandable, but describing Veev (an açai spirit) as "similar to vodka, although without the saturated fat" is just plain perplexing.

That said, Aventine certainly has its draws. Aside from the swank and storied surroundings, the happy hour (M-F, 4-7pm) offers substantially discounted libations, and for a touch of exclusivity, devotees can rent a private booze locker. By collecting Aventine's leather coins (a practice borrowed from Gold Rush saloons) with each round, patrons will find that every fifth happy hour drink is free -- a welcome bonus for those who enjoy imbibing drinks infused with history.

Financial district

Reservations Essential? No.