Even before Matthew Straus left his wine director position in L.A. to move up to San Francisco, he had been plotting his perfect restaurant—a restaurant where the bottle comes first.
Once here, Straus landed at Jardinière, working as a sommelier while juggling a second job as a server at RN74— arguably the city’s most famous winecentric restaurant and part of the Michael Mina Group. But unlike the latter, Straus has kept Heirloom Cafe homespun, starting with the space. Located in a circa-1900, newly remodeled Victorian on a residential corner of the Inner Mission, the open, airy space was designed by Straus himself with the help of some friends. It’s outfitted with rustic communal tables and a wooden bench that substitutes for the usual padded banquette. What could be a little stark is helped by beautiful flower arrangements that take the edge off.
Straus is a romantic: Infused with the city’s prevailing DIY spirit, he’s doing it all—from cooking the dishes on the minimal menu to overseeing the wine program. The food is undemanding, what you might eat if you were to go to dinner at a friend’s house—a friend who was a pretty good cook. There are no big swoon moments, but everything is very pleasant, from the hamburger to onion soup with Gruyère to a tasty bowlful of mussels (oddly served shell-less).
But of course, Straus hopes you’re here for the wine, which is where oenophiles can geek out. Indeed, it’s likely you’ll see many of the city’s wine industry folks in the room, surrounded by bottles that they’ve brought in. Straus’ corkage fees speak to his dedication to older vintages: You get $15 off the $25 fee if you bring in a bottle with a 2002 vintage or older. In a proletarian gesture, wines that need it are decanted into empty Straus (no relation) milk bottles.
Heirloom opened with Straus’ own roughly 300-case wine cellar, which includes gems such as a 39-year-old Hanzell Pinot Noir (one of Straus’ most beloved bottles). Straus says, “The wine aficionados are into the Burgundies. But the screaming deals are the California wines.” As for pairings, he has a strong opinion: “The idea that there are perfect matches in the world of food and wine is a stupid construct.” Straus hopes his customers will realize that the best pairings are simply good times, good wine and good friends. “I hope it doesn’t sound cheeky,” he says, “but it’s true.”