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Extreme Restaurant Makeovers: The Recession's Blessing

I started writing about SF’s food scene during the height of the dot-com boom, but that means I also saw it through the bust, when South of Market looked like a ghost town and restaurants like Azie, which really represented that era to me (cutting-edge $30-plus entrees) closed, and not surprisingly.

Still, I’ve witnessed nothing ravage the city’s restaurant landscape like this current recession. It’s been like a wild fire. But right now, I’m happy to report that there’s new growth: The wildflowers are emerging from the forest floor. (Nothing a writer likes more than an extended metaphor.)

A few restaurants closed at the end of 2009 to reopen this year with a new concept. Laiola become Tacolicious (my husband’s restaurant). Then South recently reopened as Marlowe; and Acme Chophouse just reopened as not one, but two restaurants, Public House and a second Mijita.

I finally got to Marlowe last week and while I liked South’s Australian concept, I was surprised to find I loved our dinner at Marlowe. The space, across from the Caltrans station, is one of the more challenging spots in town (there’s an awkward wheelchair ramp that keeps the window from looking directly onto the street), but what owner Anna Weinberg has done with it on a shoestring has maxed its potential. Now it’s gone from what felt like a living room to a cool urban place accented in black and white. The bistro-style food cooked by Jennifer Puccio made for one of the best meals I’ve had in a while. We had a Little Gem market salad that raised the salad bar; a plate made of slivers of different varieties of radish with creamy burrata; a beautiful black cod in brothy bunch of spring vegetables; not to mention some great steak frites. The mood there is perfectly convivial and neighborhoody. While the closing of Cortez (where Puccio cooked last), has been a loss for the city, Puccio is Weinberg’s gain.

Then, last week I got a peak at the new and improved former Acme Chophouse, still owned and overseen by chef Traci Des Jardins. Now, three-quarters Public House and about one-fourth Mijita it's much more energetic. In fact, it’s so huge it’s hard to imagine that it ever encompassed one restaurant; the use of real estate is so much smarter. I have yet to try PH's talented chef Thom Fox’s food, but the extensive beer list is going to be an exciting one for suds-lovers (i.e. sports’ fans). And although the Mijita in the Ferry Building has long sold margaritas under the radar, this second location now has a full bar and later hours, not to mention a lot of outdoor seating. I have no doubt both of these places are going to be absolutely packed not just during baseball season.

The recession’s reckoning day seems to have forced restaurateurs to let go of ego and really consider who they’re cooking for again, as well as use their spaces to their ultimate potential. (In other words, if baseball lovers want a sea of flat-screen TVs, by god, give it to them.) The result might be that this city becomes more a more dynamic dining town than ever. I’m feeling its potential.

Next up: Elizabeth’s Falkner’s new fangled Citizen Cake in Pac Heights. Stay tuned.