Hayes Street Grill is a comfortable place with a simple neighborhood restaurant feel to it. The walls are whitewashed, adorned with black and white portraits, and festooned with hat and coat hooks. Simple white glass fixtures hang from the ceiling. It looks timeless, but gives the impression that it once was smart. A bar fills the front of the room allowing a view out the large windows overlooking Hayes Street.
The food continues the theme of honest simplicity. The ever-changing menu features a collection of fish entrees which owe their place on the sheet before you to whatever was most fresh when examined that morning. Along with the fish, you can order a sauce to accompany it take your pick from the list: Herb-Shallot Butter, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Tartar, Sichuan Peanut, Beurre Blanc, Fresh Tomato Salsa, and Lemon Caper Butter. The entrees come with a bowl of French fries. It is the essence of California cuisine, simple and fresh, and it has served Hayes Street Grill well for twenty-five years. But freshness and simplicity require skill and passion just the same as haut cuisine.
I ordered an appetizer of calamari with baby leeks, and an entrée of grilled steelhead salmon.
The appetizer was disappointedly ordinary. The calamari was under-seasoned and the leeks werent cleaned enough having tough fibrous sections. There was a bland sauce which may have been aioli and just as well could have been mayonnaise. Bits of raw garlic were strewn about. The salmon filet was bland, hadnt been completely de-boned, and was under-cooked. In addition to the fish, the plate featured a pile of raw and completely unadorned slightly bitter water cress. The American-cut French fries were hot, crispy and well seasoned. Unfortunately they were the best part of the meal.
I wanted to like Hayes Street Grill, as it is owned and run by serious food people who have done great things for eating out in San Francisco. But the truth showing through my meal there is that Hayes Street Grill has seen the snap of its food, the precision of its presentation, and the smartness of its room ebb away over the years. Details and execution count. Sometimes simple isnt perfect, sometimes simple is just lazy. With a glass of Pinot Noir, the meal was $44.50 plus a tip.
But there is hope. On Saturdays, Hayes Street Grill has a booth at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. There the food is simple and delicious. I have had many a delightful crab sandwich from the stand and it is my favorite hot food vendor at the market. The contrast with the restaurant is obvious and puzzling.