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Double Your Pleasure

It's an old school SF dining address with modern lacquer; it's novel and casual Cal-American cuisine with a silver-haired clientele. It's Two, the latest incarnation of Hawthorne Lane, and it's two restaurants in one.

After 22 Hawthorne Lane's namesake reign of over twelve years, this reinvented eatery has received a youthful makeover. Imagine linen trousers traded in for low-slung jeans -- tall, skinny banquettes in subdued hues, crisp, tasteful wood paneling, just-licking-kitschy coconut husk lamps, and clandestine sculptures of trees and animals in post-modern wood and metal. The bar, as always, dominates the dining hall, but this time around the cocktails are as noticeable as the wine list.

The restaurant is smaller than it once was; the front dining room sports the warm, chic renovations, while the brighter, tasteful rear dining room with its exhibition kitchen remains in the 90s. A full remodel is planned, but in the meantime the back room will be used only for private events.

Service is casual enough to sport t-shirts with the house logo. The menu is bold and still familiar, featuring all-day dining for bargain bucks. The only ghosts in the machine are the geriatric spirits filling the seats. Despite Two's attempts at low attitude -- big small plates (or is that small big plates?) and cutting-edge cocktails -- the 60-something loyalists still show up in jacket and tie.

But it's far from the restaurant's fault that all those young hipsters stuck in the throngs of Belden Alley have no idea what they're missing. From aperitif onward, Two sheds its old skin. In the ho-hum world of the tired Lemon Drop, this menu is an entirely refreshing panoply. Take, for example, the remarkably cooling galanga gimlet, or the piquant bite of the cilantro martini. A fruitful global wine list, ripe with a section entitled "Fifty Under Fifty" (and rife with many under $30), helps set a playful, youthful tone.

But the food, of course, is the house keystone, and though it's a bit Sybil in its approach, it is one of the great bargains in fine dining at the moment, featuring bistro classics -- salads, sandwiches, pizza, pasta, a fantastic burger, and mains -- with its shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbow. Take, for example, the chopped salad ($8), which is as well-composed and as well-dressed as any fast fashion fashionista.

The warm house made head cheese ($8) is alert and gamey, offset by a well-heeled, kick-in-the-gums vinegary onion relish. The absolutely plump, succulent duck and fruit sausage sandwich ($9) will be my lunch again in the future. Chef David Gingrass has an active imagination for charcuterie left over from his Postrio days, and it remains the epicenter of one of the most memorable condiments to memory -- a spicy fruit mustard that strikes a perfect chord, plump with raisins and just enough burn to cut through the fatty meat.

One sub par specimen was the roasted marrow bones ($11). The marrow was more liquid than gelatin, undersalted and lacking gumption. It was paired with a tomato "fondue" of chunky marinara whose acidity overrode the already-challenged marrow with all the subtlety of a bulldozer.

A house specialty, the bacon and egg raviolo ($9), is a singular stuffed pasta with spinach and brown butter, and one should not let its demure purse deceive. Drenched in bacon fat, it was almost too rich, but entirely delicious, and it will be the subject of many brunch fantasies.

We were pleased to find that the main dishes were just as serious as the starters. Another house specialty, the cast iron pan chicken ($16), featured crisped, heat-seared nuggets of boneless bird, skin stuffed with garlic and parsley, and made tangy and more enticing by a refreshingly citrusy quinoa salad good enough to let us overlook the somewhat dry white meat. Similarly, the pork schnitzel ($18) lay upon a bed of braised escarole, a robust bitter green that breathed life into the well-coated, homespun slab of pork -- tough to cut, but a flavorful chew on the tongue.

Foodie friends have reported that the burger ($10), often a solid measure of a fancy restaurant kitchen, ranks up there with those from Zuni Café, Bacar, NoPa, and Napa's Angele restaurant. The fries are hearty shoestrings served in a paper cone, succulent and crispy like they should be.

Dessert was a campy lot, and the most playful player at this not-so-new kid on the block. The menu is a toy box full of cupcakes, sundaes, and root beer floats ($5-$7.50). We settled on the three mini housemade ice cream sandwiches, which were good, but not spectacular. The tri-color popsicle of Meyer lemon, pear, pineapple, and passion fruit, was the most fun I've had on a stick in ages. But we were the only ones eating it all night -- proof again that a change in attitude is more difficult than a change in name.


Reservations Essential? No