The Palm Court $30 burger tastes like the death of San Francisco
Last Thursday, I walked into a different universe. A fountain gently poured streaming water over its marble edges at the center of a pristine restaurant. A chandelier twinkled above, shimmering gold light on the gleaming white tiled floors. Four miniature palm trees guarded the fountain like rooks on a chessboard. The opulent Beaux-Arts architecture of this joint screamed a different level of wealth than I was accustomed to.
And I was just there to eat a burger.
The Palm Court at RH, at 590 20th St. in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, is a luxurious restaurant that is strangely inside of a Restoration Hardware home-furnishings store (rebranded RH in 2012). The whole space feels more like Beverly Hills than the historic blue-collar neighborhood.
At the grand opening of the restaurant in March, celebrities such as Jessica Alba, Steve Kerr, Alexandra Daddario and others lined the grand staircase in the foyer for photo ops. It was a red carpet-style opening 383 miles north of where it should have been.
The gaudiness of wealth on full display as so many San Franciscans strugglethrough the hardest of times in the City by the Bay feels a little unnerving to this born and bred city kid. With each passing day, it feels like the city is less like the one I grew up in. It disheartens me that corporate and tech money is winning. I feel powerless to help change it.
The restaurant portion of RH sits on the first floor of the four-story “mansion,” which is divided into sections of mock living rooms, bedrooms and dining rooms to display the high-priced interior decor for sale. (Online, the cheapest item I found was a pack of pillow cases for $145. This was in the “Final Sale” section.)
When I first walked into the building, two men wearing black suits with bow ties opened the tall heavy doors so that I wouldn’t have to. The degree of service felt like that scene in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” when Ferris, Cameron and Sloane dine at a fancy restaurant in downtown Chicago.
In the movie, a snooty, stiff maitre d’ looks the characters up and down, scoffing at their less-than-satisfactory attire. Cameron, as one example, was wearing a Detroit Red Wings jersey. The arrogant host with a nasally voice threatens to call the police on the three friends as, by his estimation, they do not belong there.
I bring this anecdote up not to say that the staff at the Palm Court were snooty, they were more than welcoming and made my visit quite pleasant. I bring it up because walking into the marbled tiled room in my city, I felt like Cameron. I felt like I didn’t belong.
But again, I was just there on assignment to try a burger.
To my left, a burly, balding man in a navy blue suit sat across from a woman dressed in a silver dress. Not far from them, a group of older women were having what can only be described as a luncheon. They each wore amazing hats that seemed to be from different eras of the 20th century to match their exquisite ensemble of attire.
Some were cloche hats with feathers, others were as big as what you see at the Kentucky Derby. There were also many people wearing elegant jewelry such as pearl necklaces and gold earrings that dazzled the dining room. In my long-sleeve, navy blue shirt (in my defense, it did have buttons) and black jeans, I felt like I might as well have just worn Cameron’s Red Wings jersey.
Finally, I tried the burger.
The pictures of it on Yelp looked a little measly. The description on the menu didn’t make it seem much more interesting: Hearth Burger — slab of Monterey Jack, charred ciabatta, $30. My first thought was that I could make that at home for a fraction of the cost.
To my surprise, the burger actually came out with charred onions, arugula and an aioli slathered on the bottom ciabatta slice. The taste of the brick-shaped hamburger, cut in half bearing the pink center of a nicely cooked blend of chuck and rib eye, was perfectly salty and fatty. It certainly was not the best burger I have ever enjoyed, but it also wasn’t close to being the worst. My Art Deco period toque hat’s off to the chefs who made a fine hamburger.
All the while, though, I still felt off. At the Palm Court there’s always someone on hand to help a diner in distress. On my way to the bathroom, six employees asked me if I needed help finding the stairs to go down a level. On my way back, four of them asked me if I found everything OK. When SFGATE photography editor Charles’ napkin fell to the floor, someone was ready to give him a new one as if they could predict it was going to happen.
It was an experience where nothing was allowed to go wrong. If it did, it was fixed quickly with little kerfuffle. Everything had to be perfect with a bow on top, the humanity of making mistakes was alien here.
The whole thing felt almost comical to me. Do moneyed folks who live like this see the humor in a burger on a plate that was barely bigger than a plastic water bottle?
When I went up to the roof, which I was told had remarkable views by the same six employees who told me where the restroom was, the level of meticulous luxury here was exemplified in the strange task of one employee.
As I reached the top of the spiral staircase surrounding yet another sparkling chandelier, I saw a woman raking pebbles into pristine order with a specialized tool. I couldn’t help but stop and stare. I’m not from this universe.
Overlooking the roof onto the shipyards and warehouses belittled in the shadow of the RH building, there was such a dichotomy between the old San Francisco, a blue-collar city known for waterfront strikes and defying the status quo, and the new San Francisco, large tech companies given unfathomable tax breaks to stay in the city and rent prices pushing the lifelong San Franciscans out to the boonies. (San Francisco’s so-called Twitter tax break, incentivizing tech companies to set up shop in the city, only ended in 2019.)
Ironically, the building that RH is housed in used to be the headquarters for Bethlehem Steel, which supplied much of the building materials for the Golden Gate Bridge, according to our server at lunch. The neoclassical building of 56,000 square feet looks like it could be the younger cousin of the Mark Hopkins hotel on Nob Hill or a mansion in New York City’s Upper West Side.
Leaving the Palm Court, I made a promise to myself to eat the age-old burgers of this city as much as I can before they’re gone. Give me a Sam’s burger, give me a Red’s Java House burger, bring back the burgers from a tailgate party in the parking lot of Candlestick Park before a 49ers game.
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