The oldest steakhouse restaurant in San Francisco is a star reborn. Now you can replicate their classic recipes at home
– August 3, 2017
How Do You Compete with Nostalgia?
That’s the challenge chef Daniel Patterson faced when his restaurant group began updating Alfred’s Steakhouse in San Francisco in 2015. Founded in 1928 by an Italian immigrant named Alfred Bacchini, the restaurant was beloved for its grandeur, genteel hospitality, and old-school cuisine.
Taking on a classic restaurant—particularly the iconic American steakhouse—wasn’t immediately easy for Patterson, who is renowned for sophisticated modernist techniques at his flagship restaurant, Coi. “It took us an entire year to figure out what Alfred’s should be,” he says. The first attempt at a baked potato, for instance: Flavored with bay leaf, cheddar, and smoked scallions, it was delicious but wasn’t what people wanted. It was too chef-y, too creative. “We realized that we were competing with everyone’s memories of a baked potato, and we weren’t making people happy enough,” says Patterson. “We had to bring the restaurant as close as possible to tradition, and give people exactly what they were hoping for, but fresher, more vivid.”
High-quality, locally raised ingredients instantly made the food better. Instead of industrial feedlot cattle—“bad for the environment and bad for the animals,” Patterson says—Alfred’s serves grass-fed, grain-finished California beef from Flannery Beef, a third-generation Bay Area butcher. The creamed spinach looks like it’s from 1960 but tastes exactly right for today.“We don’t use canned spinach; we use nice fresh organic spinach,” says Patterson. Cooking talent, but judiciously applied, makes a difference too. “There’s no room for creativity here, except how do you make it better?” For the spinach, that means bacon in the béchamel and a flicker of fennel and chile—hidden touches that “give the dish a little lift.”
His team took the same thoughtful approach to the decor. “We did a lot to make it look like a better version of what was already there,” he says. The deep red paint on the walls was ever so slightly brightened. The mismatched woods behind the glorious old bar now match, and the enormous golden chandeliers—replicas of ones from the Vienna opera house—have been cleaned.
So now, when you go to Alfred’s for dinner, you’ll walk through its etched-glass doors, settle into a banquette, and get exactly what you’ve been craving ever since you made your reservation: stiff cocktails. Mesquite-grilled, dry-aged steaks 2 inches thick. That baked potato—now with butter, sour cream, and chives, but finished on the grill to give it a crackling-crisp skin. Bananas Foster, flambéed tableside while Sinatra croons invisibly from somewhere. And you’re happy.
A sweet (but not cloying) precursor to the martini, this cocktail dates back to the 1880s. Alfred’s bar manager, Aaron Paul, scales up the booze and chills it ahead of time, so it’s simpler to serve a crowd.
Poaching big, plump shrimp in a seasoned broth gives them lots of flavor—but if you’re pressed for time, you could get away with buying cooked (don’t skip the final seasoning of oil, lemon, chile, and chives, though). At Alfred’s, the shrimp are set on crushed ice for individual servings, but for a group, put them in a bowl nested in a larger bowl of ice.
Daniel Patterson’s suggestion for grilling steaks at home is one to engrave in your memory: Sear them all over, then—rather than grilling them over indirect heat, like his restaurants' cooks do—roast them in the oven while you have your first course. It’s like hiring a babysitter, but for beef. When you’re ready to eat, throw the steaks back on the grill to build up the crunchy crusts. Also helpful for creating a good crust: Unwrap the steaks a day before, pat dry, and chill them uncovered. Dry-aging makes steaks crustier too, because they aren’t as moist to begin with.
Steak is served with Whipped Horseradish (pictured) and Brown Butter Béarnaise sauces.
Cooks at Alfred’s prepare horseradish by whirring small chunks of peeled horseradish root in a food processor with just enough Champagne vinegar to moisten. Store-bought prepared horseradish is fine, but isn’t as fluffy and fresh-tasting.
Brown butter gives this Béarnaise sauce a nutty, roasted flavor, a big leap forward from standard white béarnaise. Alfred’s cooks use a whipped-cream siphon to turn the sauce into a velvety cloud.
The humble title and appearance of this time-honored dish conceals a lot of ingenuity and flavor: The sauce is made with a smoky bacon-fat roux, plus fennel pollen and chile for spark. It’s labor-intensive but worth it.
When the waiters at Alfred’s make this tableside*, heads turn. Do it yourself and you’ll see why: Flames shoot up from the pan, glittering with sparks from dashes of cinnamon. Rather than the traditional pecans, Alfred’s adds crunchy cubes of toasted cinnamon brioche to the dish. For safety, use a butane lighter, a long-handled metal spatula, and a trivet on which to set the pan. (Use regular-proof rum if you want less flame.) Have all your ingredients and tools set before you start, since the cooking will go fast.