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Town Hall Debuts Downtown

When San Francisco restaurant industry veterans open a restaurant, the buzz is audible. Town Hall is new to the scene as of late Fall 2003, possessing a restaurateur pedigree that would make a foodie blush with curiosity. But is this posh, casual-chic hotspot worth the hype?

Yes. Town Hall offers that relaxed yet all-grown-up glamour that San Francisco does so well, and the price point isn't too mind-numbing either. Doug Washington, former GM at Postrio and ex-managing partner of Vertigo and Jardiniere, is that guy you've heard of, the one who ran down the street unsolicited to get a Wall Street Journal for a solo diner just because he thought the guy might want something to do while he waited for his meal. Restaurant managers cite Doug as the model for exemplary service in San Francisco.

Now, insisting on a telephone system that has no answering machine, and *almost* going with handwritten tickets and a paper reservation book (he went with a POS and computerized reservations in the end), he's partnered with thoroughbred Postrio chefs Mitchell and Steven Rosenthal to open a charming, tall space at Howard and Fremont that combines the feel of a New England fishing village pub, the country estate of a literati game hunter, and a trendy SOMA art patron's second loft.

The high, long room, strapped with exposed beams and modern paintings, is furnished with sturdy, sizable wood tables bedecked with pewter-look salt and pepper grinders. The odd check presenter -- each an aged hardback book - signals an available table for the huge bar crowd that assembles at the long, well-stocked front bar for happy hour during the week.

My dinner companion was dubious when we showed up one Tuesday night a couple of weeks after Town Hall's soft opening. Her boyfriend, an industry veteran himself, had gone in the week prior and experienced spotty service and unremarkable cuisine. Armed with cynicism, we were pleased to find that on our visit, the service was gracious and certainly en route to greatness, the food was hearty yet refined (and very interesting, actually), and the atmosphere was pure San Francisco.

The table adjacent to ours? Harry Denton's birthday party. He received monogrammed toilet paper and looked to be enjoying himself. The table on the other side of the huge, dark wood china cupboard that serves as a waiter's station? Delfina owners Annie and Craig Stoll. At the bar? My favorite City Lights bookmonger, a fellow named Scott who likes to dine at the bar of restaurants with a bit of "scene" to them.

Scott said he thought the "smoked chicken gumbo ya ya" ($8), a signature starter, was not as hearty or spicy as his soul food hankerings required. However, my date and I thought it was incredible. Light in texture but deep-dark in flavor and color, with crunchy pieces of crispy smoked chicken, not too much rice, and Paul Prudhomme's own sausage, it's a soup for which I'll return (maybe for lunch, which does brisk business apparently).

We tried the baby spinach salad with cornmeal-fried oysters, thick-cut bacon bits, and a super-creamy dressing flavored lightly with licorice-y Herbsaint ($13). It's small in appearance but big on flavor; my date loved it with a passion, but I thought it was good- not stunning. I was totally impressed, however, by the steamed mussels with a spicy Old Bay tomato broth and teensy-tiny shoestring potatoes ($9). Large enough for an entree, the dish was perfectly addictive. Old Bay pulls at my heartstrings; it's the official seafood seasoning of the South and imparts a bright, celeriac, gaminess to seafood.

Old Bay also makes a showing in an entree of roasted Wolf Ranch quail with cornbread stuffing, braised greens, shrimp, and shrimp bordelaise ($19). Ever had quail and shrimp together? Me neither. It was de-lish. My date preferred the slow-roasted duck with toasted wild rice, pecans, spiced dates and gingersnap gravy ($21), which was crispy and rich like duck confit. So good. The cedar planked salmon with fennel and shoestrings ($19) comes recommended, as does the Cioppino ($23) although my date's beau had commented on how very ungood the stew was on his visit.

The wine list is short and sophisticated, heavy on new world reds and old world whites. Wine pairings, if you request them, are spot on and stylish.

By the time we tried pastry chef Janet Rikala Dalton's warm pineapple upside down cake a la mode, butterscotch and chocolate pot de crème, and "San Francisco's best cup of hot chocolate" (all $7), we were fit to pop. Indeed, it's a fine cup of creamy, chocolatey cocoa, with a mystery blend of 13 types of cocoa. The best? I say "Possibly/maybe"; my date says "Definitely!"

Reservations recommended but not required.