Hayes Valley may be the hotness right now, but Two Sisters Bar and Books angles for a quieter mood. It's a faded-toile-wallpaper, scuffed-furniture type of place, where the smart set (Lisa Loeb glasses and cardigans welcome) can snag cocktails and a meal with minimal pretense.
Case in point: Two Sisters' ATM cozies right up to the dishwashing station. While I recently waited to get money, the dishwasher tried to chat the awkward out. “That ATM sure does take awhile, huh? But hey, everything's good as long as you get paid, amIright? Gotta get that cash!” I smiled wanly through the steam.
With only an Oxford comma's worth of space, this literary bar-bistro makes do. Two Sisters is tight but functional – one slim row of tables against the wall, a short bar running parallel, and crowded bookshelves near the door. Besides the ATM/dish-space, there is no back of house.
So from whither (excuse my bookish frame of mind) comes the food?
From a tiny open kitchen, wedged near the bar. Chef Alex Smith's mise en place is laid bare to the world, but it lacks the precociousness of say, Slow Club. Two Sisters' exposed kitchen is function over form; there is simply nowhere else to put it.
But I mean no slight here. If anything, Smith wins my gold-spangled “You did it!” award (very prestigious). Her thoughtful, comforting cuisine is all the more impressive for its modest origins.
Deviled eggs were a rich start, three halves to the order. The creamy filling had a lemon tang, grounded by fried capers and a silken drizzle of truffle oil.
I'm sure – much like truffle oil – that you've been over mac and cheese since like, '07, but I predict Two Sisters could woo you back. A salty pretzel crisp topping and strong pilsner notes in the cheddar sauce spruced up this weary pub staple.
A seared yellowtail jack filet came daubed with arugula pesto on a bed of cranberry beans. The plump, butter-braised Rancho Gordos unexpectedly poached all my attention from the mild fish. Overheard: “I could eat a plate of these beans, straight-up.”
Lamb is never my go-to, but Two Sisters' lamb sandwich demands an open palate. The supple, thin-sliced meat was stacked tall with crispy fried onions on a Thorough Bread baguette. A bright mint-shallot salsa hipped up the time-worn lamb chop/mint jelly complement.
At brunch, skip the runny baked eggs with asparagus and the warm lentil salad, a slow way to start the day. The Madame Rarebit was more seductive, fried eggs served on sourdough with tart pickled onions and a cheddar ale sauce (Smith's love for beer and cheese is downright Midwestern). A nice little arugula/radish side salad balanced out this heavy fare.
The French toast bread pudding was springy and amaretto-tinged, with melted chocolate chips creating cartoon leopard spots. This one came with a mint/strawberry salad on the side.
Tender disks of brown sugar pork-and-bacon breakfast sausage were served with ancho-infused maple syrup. Fried potato latkes (they're like hash browns, gentiles) came alive with a ferocious spicy ketchup.
Yet despite Two Sisters' many charms, I scored easy seats on a Friday night and a Sunday morning. My fear: it could be very easy for a spot this tiny – 24 seats – to get overrun.
Let me take it all back, actually. What a terrible place. Please don't visit.
Two Sisters Bar and Books
Location: 579 Hayes St. (at Laguna Street), S.F.
Contact: (415) 863-3655, www.2sistersbarandbooks.com
Hours: 4 to 11 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 4 p.m. to midnight Fridays, 1 p.m. to midnight Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays
Price range: Brunch sides $4; mains $9-$11; dinner sides $4; mains $9-14
Recommended dishes: Mac and cheese ($9), roasted lamb sandwich ($12), Madame Rarebit ($10), french toast bread pudding ($11)
Credit cards: Cash only
Reservations: Not accepted