The San Francisco chef is showing off new dishes but a decidedly Rat Pack vibe.
After a fire closed it down in April, Alfred's Steakhouse in San Francisco thankfully reopened this June.
"The fire was really a blessing in disguise," says chef/restaurateur Daniel Patterson, who took over the historic restaurant in 2016. "I was able to hit the pause button. I needed to completely redo the menu."
Patterson (who's quick to note that Alfred's was originally opened by an Italian immigrant nearly 90 years ago) has added housemade pastas, such as strozzapretti with spicy vodka sauce as well as a vegetarian gnocchetti. His new appetizers include oxtail-foie gras croquettes, smoked black cod and tater tots with crème fraîche and smoked trout roe.
He's got a riff on celery Victor, a dish first served by chef Victor Hirtzler at San Francisco's St. Francis hotel in 1910. Patterson's version at Alfred's is based on the poached celery with mustard dressing that's in his new cookbook, The Art of Flavor.
Instead of using chicken stock like Hirtzler did, Patterson's vegetarian dish involves poaching the celery in salted water. He serves the celery with a vinaigrette of mustard, anchovy, garlic and vinegar. There's a lot of grated parmesan on top.
"It's umami on umami," Patterson says. "There's a lot of acidity. There are fresh leaves, shaved raw pieces for crunch."
But part of changing the menu was also reining in some of the dishes he created last year.
"There was a double baked potato that was really really delicious, but what people wanted was just a baked potato with sour cream," Patterson says.
Lesson learned: When you run a classic steakhouse, you need to serve the classics. Patterson admits that taking over Alfred's has been more difficult than he anticipated.
"Man, it's a steakhouse, how hard could it be?" Patterson says and laughs. "The answer is actually really hard. The old customers wanted everything exactly the way it was."
Patterson got pushback about all kinds of changes, including switching from Midwestern corn-fed beef to the local grass-fed, grain-finished beef he gets from Flannery Beef in San Rafael.
And while Patterson is committed to the Flannery steaks, he knows that it's important to maintain the overall essence of Alfred's.
"We freshened and cleaned up the space but kept the soul intact," Patterson says. "So the feeling of it is the same as it's always been."
Patterson restored furniture while keeping the red-leather decor, high-backed booths and crystal chandeliers.
He also kept the flaming cocktails and oversized pours of Martinis and Manhattans that leave you a little something in the shaker. Steaks are still grilled over mesquite. The bananas Foster is still finished tableside.
"I always loved Alfred's and I wanted to preserve and sustain something that seemed really important to San Francisco's culinary history," Patterson says. "There's something to be said for the continuity of institutions within a community and what that says about our respect for the people who came before and what they contributed. That part of it was very appealing. And the place is fucking amazing. You walk into it, and you feel like Frank Sinatra's going to pop up around the corner."
In fact, Alfred's is in the space that formerly housed The Blue Fox, a glamorous restaurant frequented by Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe and Bing Crosby.
In many ways, Alfred's takes you back in time, to a moment when the term "large-format" wasn't used in restaurants. Sharing a lot of meat and a bunch of sides was just how people ate when they let loose. There was always a sense of occasion when you went to a steakhouse.
"What I love about steakhouses is it's like a dinner party," Patterson says. "It's a place to spend time talking with friends. It's always about celebration, a social place.
At Alfred's, servers are dressed in black and white. Managers wear suits. But Patterson stresses that this is about being "old-school" without being "stuffy."
In fact, uniformed waiters offering elaborate tableside presentations of classic dishes provide a dose of fun for chefs with Michelin bona fides and tasting-menu cred. In Los Angeles, Ludo Lefebvre is getting ready to open a Petit Trois in Sherman Oaks, where he's thinking about carving stations, dover sole filleted tableside and uniformed waiters pushing around a "big cart with cake." Mario Carbone's The Grill in New York, with its pasta a la presse, prime rib and fruit desserts that are lit on fire, is a restaurant where there can be an elaborate tableside presentation for every course you order. Patterson also points out that his friend Claude Bosi’s new London restaurant in the storied Bibendum space is devoted to a similarly classic experience.
Patterson says that this from-another-era dining can provide comfort "right at this exact moment in our world with all of the shit's that's going on."
Patterson understands that there are restaurant customers who "share a nostalgic fondness, in a way, for a simpler world, a more clearly defined world."
But Patterson, who thinks deeply about social issues, knows that "a simpler world" can also mean "a less multicultural world."
So as he's done at his other restaurants like Alta and LocoL, he's hiring from a diverse pool of candidates.
"I don't know how to put it exactly, except it's not a bunch of old white guys," says Patterson, always willing to push boundaries and consider the future while simultaneously honoring the past.