I should have known better than to try to go to District on opening night after seeing it featured in the Daily Candy Newsletter. I couldn't get within ten feet of the front door, let alone get inside to check out the newest and largest wine bar in San Francisco. Subsequent visits have allowed me to inspect it as a patron, but the crowds have not dwindled. This is clearly one of SOMA's new hot spots.
Occupying a converted brick industrial space just two blocks from the baseball stadium and the massive new residential and commercial buildings springing up in China Basin, District is a triumph of renovation. The cavernous space is beautifully done, with a huge central bar and a combination of high tables and lounge like seating. Excellent lighting, beautiful exposed wood beams, and quirky art round out an excellent interior. When I was last there the plasma screen on the left wall was playing Dr. Strangelove, which made me secretly very happy.
Unfortunately the only time you get to really experience the charms of the space are in the first hour of business during the week. After that you'll have to contend with the tidal wave of twenty-somethings that seem to descend starting at happy hour every day. It really takes a lot for me to feel out of place in San Francisco, but I gotta say I'm not nearly cool enough or beautiful enough to hang out at District very often. Unfortunately this sort of crowd brings with it a bit of a meat-market atmosphere in which I have a hard time relaxing. But that's a purely personal thing -- I have no doubt that many people will simply find District today's version of cool.
Certainly the wine list alone makes the bar worth considering. Nearly 50 excellent wines are available by the glass, as well as by the reasonably priced bottle (usually 4x the glass price). Scandalously the bar does not offer wine by the half glass, violating one of my requirements for consideration as a genuine wine bar. I flirted with the idea of passing over District for a review altogether, but as they are not really a full bar (they only serve wine and beer), and they are not really a full restaurant (no reservations, no tablecloths) I decided to shoehorn them into the category of wine bar, mostly based on the merits of their wine list.
Thanks to wine director Caterina Mirabelli, the selection of wines is globally wide ranging, eclectic, and completely free of crap. Grouped into thematic groups from which patrons can order in flights or singly, it offers tasting notes for each wine. The bar also offers a reserve bottle list which is a work in progress -- apparently the goal is to have several thousand bottles on offer -- it currently comes off as something hurriedly cobbled together and heavily California weighted.
My biggest beef with District (apart from the lack of tasting-sized pours) has to do with its service, which ranges from chaotic to incompetent to passable. Because there are no reservations taken, there is no host or hostess to greet you at the front of the cavernous space. Many people take several minutes to figure out that it is everyone for themselves -- you must simply dive in and try to carve out a space from the bar, the lounge seating, the high tables, or the front counter, a task that gets more impossible the later in the week and the closer to 8:00 PM you get. Getting a server to notice you is the next challenge, difficult in direct proportion to the amount of effort you had to expend to find a seat. When it's really crowded, this is next to impossible.
The servers' general wine knowledge, and knowledge of the list seems to be average to very poor, though there is apparently a sommelier on staff that is available to answer questions or to decant your reserve bottle if you purchase one. The bar has decent stemware, but frustratingly the policy seems to be to only give it to people who order wine by the bottle, or those like me that specifically ask for their wine to be served in a larger glass. Do yourself a favor and ask for a big kid's glass.
When it first opened, the bar offered a few small, cold appetizer plates, but now a full menu is available including an excellent artisanal cheese plate and a fantastic salumi plate (also available for larger parties), as well as numerous small and entree sized plates of hot food that range from mediocre to quite good. Avoid the cardboard-like pizzettas, but by all means, tuck into the red wine braised short ribs or the warm baby spinach salad with pancetta and goat cheese.
Diners wishing to take their time and actually make a meal of it would be better off ordering food in stages, lest every dish, appetizer and main, all arrive within one minute of each other (as ours did last week). Chances are it won't all fit in the small space you've managed to eke out of the crowd even if you were able to eat it all simultaneously.
Going to a wine bar for me has always been about relaxing or unwinding a bit, which is why I want my wine bars to be less like bars and more like the living room of someone who has a great wine cellar that they're doling out by the glass. I don't mind if there actually is a bar -- I quite enjoy sitting at them, but I have to be able to walk up to it, get the attention of a knowledgeable server, and actually order something, a task which is frustratingly difficult at District. Of course, with all the beautiful people around, there's at least a distraction while you wait.
Until the crowd thins out and they start offering wine by the taste or half-glass I won't be spending much time at District.
216 Townsend Street @ 3rd
San Francisco, CA 94107
Open Tuesday through Sunday starting at 4:00 PM.
Parking in this neighborhood is a nightmare in general, and I seriously recommend checking the baseball schedule before venturing out for an evening at District as both parking and traffic become completly untenable on game nights.
Dress is casual but heavily weighted towards hip.
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