Restaurant News & Reviews

Counter Culture: Catch lunch on Union Square at the holiday season

The crab and prawn Louie is a star at the Rotunda.
The crab and prawn Louie is a star at the Rotunda.

Recently, we journeyed to San Francisco to partake in what has long been a holiday tradition for generations of Sacramentans – dining, sightseeing and shopping, mostly around 2.6-acre Union Square, “the heartbeat of San Francisco” (partly undergoing a years-long construction project).

We camped at the amusingly quirky Hotel G in a building that went up in 1908. The owners made a point of maintaining the property’s retro charm and original aesthetic, polishing the original cracked-concrete floors in many of the rooms and refinishing the wood floors in others, instead of smothering everything in carpeting. The tiles in the lobby are original, but modern designer touches are everywhere. ($150-$350; 386 Geary St., 415-986-2000;

Given that San Francisco is a global destination that hosts 17 million visitors a year, it’s remarkable that one of the hottest dining spots in town is a restaurant in a department store – the elegant Rotunda restaurant on the fourth floor of the ultra-ritzy Neiman Marcus. It gets jammed, but management encourages customers to walk in and take their chances (the best time to snag a table is 11 a.m., when it opens). Sometimes you can get lucky, but first check availability at

The food, service and views are attractions, but the star is the 80-foot-tall Christmas tree with a top that rises above the diners in the Rotunda. The oval-shaped rotunda itself is a dome created from more than 2,500 sections of colored glass. It’s the 1909 artwork that once graced the City of Paris department store, where Neiman Marcus now stands (the building is a California Historical Landmark).

We started lunch with the two house openers: an amuse-bouche (“mouth amuser”) of intense chicken stock, and the signature four-star popovers, hollow rolls made from egg batter and served with strawberry-infused butter. Don’t be shy about asking for seconds.

Along the way we enjoyed crisp lobster egg rolls, a two-handed chicken Parmesan sandwich, and a stunning Dungeness crab and giant prawn Louie with romaine and iceberg lettuces, boiled egg, avocado, tomato, cucumber and tangy dressing. The classic salad dates to 1914 in San Francisco, and had its heyday in the 1950s. You won’t find a better one, if you can find one at all.

Other dining options abound around the Union Square area. For instance, Lefty O’Doul’s is known for its hand-carved heavyweight sandwiches (corned beef, pastrami, turkey, roast beef), boisterous bar scene and baseball memorabilia (333 Geary St., 415-982-8900,

The Oak Room at the grande dame St. Francis Hotel serves an elegant lunch, with spicy pork cheeks and crab chowder good choices. On display in the Landmark Lobby is the 1,300-pound, 12-foot-tall Enchanted Castle. Nearby is the pop-up Sweet Shoppe, selling house-made gingerbread people, orange shortbread, macarons and hot chocolate (335 Powell St., 800-937-8461,

Emporio Rulli, near the ice-skating rink and across the plaza from the 80-foot-tall Christmas tree, is a respite with a bonus: Italian pastries, panettone, panini and cups of steaming cappuccino (333 Post St., 415-433-1122,

The ahi tuna wrap or the hand-formed half-pound Angus burger are solid choices at the handsomely appointed Daily Grill, but the main attraction is the display of 150 vintage black-and-white photos. Most were sourced from the San Francisco Library archives, and are restaurant-centric (347 Geary St., 415-616-5000,

In a more casual vein, grab a steamed frank at one of the hot dog carts along the square. That’s a tradition, too.

For more on Union Square during the holidays, visit

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe