I’m sure I’m not alone in mourning the 2019 closure of Michelin-starred Commonwealth in San Francisco due to a rent dispute. With its laid-back vibe, skillful ingredient-driven cooking, and a tasting menu with a price that didn’t leave you shell-shocked, Commonwealth was the kind of place every city would be glad to have.
Its chef-owner Jason Fox moved on — in a big way. He went from overseeing one restaurant to three when he was scooped up by The Proper Hotel in downtown San Francisco. As its executive chef, he now oversees Villon restaurant, the trendy Charmaine’s rooftop bar, and La Bande, formerly a coffee shop that he’s since turned into a tapas place.
Fox’s arrival was to have been heralded with a big splash. But because it occurred in January 2020 — two months before all restaurants would be forced to shut down due to a worldwide pandemic — that never really came to fruition. Instead, he was left to deal with navigating an ever-changing roster of health mandates.
With the Bay Area in a much better place than it was last year, Fox has now been able to roll out the plans he had all along.
A couple weeks ago, I was invited in as a guest to enjoy an overnight stay at the hotel, as well as dinner at the newly revamped La Bande, a compact yet cozy space resembling a Spanish mercado with a few indoor seats, as well as tables outside, which is where my husband and I dined.
Housed in a historic Beaux-Arts flatiron building, the hotel is super stylish. With soaring ceilings and cornice columns, the lobby is a true focal point, done up with plush vintage-style sofas upholstered in candy colors, plus gallery-like walls of eclectic framed art.
It reminds me of a Manhattan hotel with compact rooms, artfully done up with three different black-white-gray wallpaper prints and sophisticated black accents. The bathroom also sports equally dark tile and fixtures.
The hotel is on Market Street at Jones Street, a spot that’s in the heart of Mid-Market. It’s a bustling, rather rough-and-tumble location that — let’s face it — has only gotten grittier in the pandemic, unfortunately. You’ll need your electronic key card to access any of the doors leading into the hotel, as they are kept locked.
While Villon restaurant is connected to The Proper’s lobby, La Bande is not. You actually have to exit the hotel on Market Street to walk a few feet to the restaurant’s entrance. When you leave the quiet confines of the hotel, you’ll immediately be in the din of honking cars and the rumble of Muni, and have to make your way past homeless folks.
When you reach the entrance to La Bande, though, much of that starts to fade into the background whether you take a seat inside or outside. Big planters with plexiglass walls have been erected around the space, blocking some of the street noise, and creating a little oasis in the middle of the pandemonium that is always Market Street.
It’s a great place to grab a quick bite before heading to a production at the nearby Orpheum or Warfield theaters, as several diners around us were doing.
The black and white umbrellas, and metal cafe tables and chairs add a European feel to the outdoor space. A plate of grilled bread with house-made hot sauce and aioli is brought out immediately to nibble on, as are a couple of classic Gilda pintxos, toothpick-speared green olives, anchovies and pickled green peppers that wake up the taste buds with salt and acidity.
A White Negroni ($15), a blend of gin, Luxardo Bitter Bianco and Dolin Blanc, is so deceptive. In the glass, it looks like water with an orange slice propped inside. But one sip and you feel the alcohol, and get the wonderful edge of bitter orange.
I love making Spanish pan con tomate at home. Here, the toast ($8) gets a good glug of olive oil, plus a soaking of tomato juice along with some of its pulpy flesh to really let the tomato taste sing.
You can enjoy a range of conservas, too, tinned seafood served with lemon slices and grilled bread. The tuna belly ($20) is meaty, dense, and a little dry, so you’ll want to add some of that reserved olive oil in the tin and a slather of aioli. The mussels ($12) are plump little morsels, and the sardines ($12) wonderfully rich and tender. Enjoy them alongside bites of house-made pickled veggies ($5) that include cauliflower, green beans and radishes.
With sweet mortadella, spicty chorizo, and fabulous house-made, coarse-textured rabbit terrine studded with pistachios, the charcuterie sampler ($24) is ideal to share.
Salt cod croquettes ($9) are perfection — golden crisp balls with a creamy potato-salt cod center that arrive hot on a slick of aioli. The crispy potatoes ($10) are a lot like home fries — thick wedges that are golden, though, not as crunchy as expected.
Garlic shrimp ($14) are tender-crisp, just the way they should be, in a pool of garlic-olive oil that you’ll want to mop up with some bread.
The unsung hero dish is something simply listed as “Spinach, Chickpeas & Blood Sausage” ($14) on the menu. Admittedly, I glossed right over it on first read. But Fox brought it out for us to try because it’s one of his favorites. I can see why. One taste, and I couldn’t stop eating it. It arrives in its own hot pan, a jumble of nutty chickpeas, cubes of rich blood sausage, tender spinach, sweet raisins, and toasty pine nuts. It’s a mouthful of nutty, sweet, creamy, and savoriness.
From the plancha side of the menu, we tried the halibut cheeks ($14), which were supple in a creamy sauce. Alongside were sweet roasted carrots ($9).
For dessert, it’s hard to pass up the simple yet wonderfully satisfying, moist Spanish almond cake ($11) dusted with powdered sugar.
After an afternoon of shopping downtown or a long day of work, La Bande is a great option. In the weeks to come, Fox is hoping to introduce a Commonwealth-like tasting menu at the hotel’s other restaurant, Villon.
For even more reason to check out The Proper, consider that Arsicault’s second, larger location is half a block away, where you can pick up items such as baguettes and apple turnovers that aren’t available at the original location on Arguello Boulevard. Load up on some incredible pastries before it closes at 3:30 p.m. or first thing in the morning if you stay overnight at the hotel, where coffee is provided in the lobby. What a way to start the day — or to end a fine staycation in San Francisco.