Universal Cafe, San Francisco

Every weekend morning, dozens of local and visiting patrons stand outside the popular Universal Cafe. The wait is usually long but people don’t seem to mind. Instead, they gather in small groups on the quiet street in between Mission and Potrero Hill. Like a morning happy hour.

Some stand with Pomegranate Bellinis and Sake Bloody Maries; some claim their space on the curb. Whatever your drink of choice may be, the restaurant is very accommodating in serving those waiting outside.

The small dining room features a line up of white marble tables and a few seats at the bar.

The d├ęcor contrasts the industrial, modern aluminum and light wood furniture with a quaint floor to ceiling white wainscoting. The atmosphere is lively and fun. The only drawback is the unfortunate strobe light effect produced by the ceiling fan inattentively installed under a skylight.

Mix and match vintage silverware and paper napkins continue the play on contrasts. And unlike some patrons that sport the just-got-out-of-bed look, the wait staff is efficient and always in good spirit.

A few minutes after we sat at our table, my not so subtle camera caught the attention of the couple to my right. The man (we’ll call him Joe, to preserve his anonymity) asked if I was a food critic. “Aren’t we all?” I thought to myself. I tried to dodge the question with a smile but he was determined to knowing if I’d be writing about his favorite San Francisco brunch spot. He seemed enthusiastic about it, even offering his food to be photographed.

The menu

Universal Cafe’s menu is described as “Richly Organic”. Brunch selections are very appetizing and change every weekend. They range from classic breakfast fare like French toast and scrambled eggs to more filling options like a Moroccan-marinated leg of lamb. During weekdays, the restaurant opens for lunch and dinner, except Mondays when it is closed.

The meal

Drip coffee is brewed from Equator Coffees beans, the same brand used by Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. Equator is a local artisan roaster focused on quality and sustainability.

In addition to orange juice, house-made ginger lemonade and blended to order fresh fruit shakes are also available.

The kitchen is always busy putting out order after order of doughnuts–what seems to be one of the most popular items on the menu.

Doughnut preparations vary every week. But they are guaranteed to be served warm, from the deep fryer to the table. Pictured is Fresh huckleberry doughnuts with meyer lemon curd cream. I also tried Pumpkin doughnuts with brandied fruit mascarpone. Both were delicious, crunchy outside, fluffy inside. The best morning sweet north of Prune’s merveilles.

A great dish is the Poached eggs and buttermilk biscuits with maple sugared-sausage gravy, heirloom peppers and rucola. Tasty and rich, it combines complementing flavors and textures.

Also good is the Soft scrambled eggs with cherry tomatoes, arugula pesto and mozzarella; mixed greens and toast. The eggs are prepared moist and the pesto that tops it brings a nice flavor surprise. The green salad though would benefit from a more prominent dressing.

For a hearty option, try the Fried eggs & willis farm country-style pork chop braised in peperonata, goat cheese fritters, cilantro sauce. The braised pork is flavorful and fork tender. The fritters, like the doughnuts, are crunchy and fluffy.

By the end of our meal, Joe approached me with some hesitation and said “Can I ask you a favor?” He then continued, “Don’t give it a good review. We don’t want the waiting time to get any longer” He finished the sentence with a smile, as if joking, but not really.

In short

The standing crowd outside may intimidate at first sight but the brunch at Universal Cafe is well worth the wait. Just put your name on the list and start mingling outside (or, if you can stomach it, get there before 9:30am when the locals are still asleep). For those who appreciate inventive brunch menus and carefully prepared dishes, this will most likely become a favorite. To me, it’s definitely one of the best brunches in San Francisco. Sorry, Joe.

Universal Cafe is at 2814 19th street
For dinner reservations only, call 415-821-4608


Sweet Bird said...

I love, love, love huckleberries! I used to pick them on our land when I was a little girl - now I can't find them anywhere. And those goat cheese fritters? I'm weak in the knees!

Chef Ben said...

Nice to hear that the food is still good at Universal. I used to love going to this place years ago. Now it just seems a bit out of the way over there in Potrero land. I don't miss the crowds, though! (Great shots, as usual!)

foodhoe said...

ooh, chef ben pointed your site out and I love this post! what beautiful pictures and interesting characters. The image of the people sitting on the sidewalk with the teapots is the best.

Jake Barlow said...

it seems nearly impossible to find a review of Universal Cafe that is NOT about their brunch, which is a shame given how good their dinner service is.