By David Nelson | SDUN Restaurant Critic
Anyone who remembers the California-style “fern bars” (airy places hung with masses of potted ferns and similar greenery) that were cornerstones of boomer social life in the 1970s may be too long in the tooth to make a habit of hanging at Hillcrest’s new Local Habit. But a few fern tendrils in its woodsy, high-ceilinged room, with its bare wooden tables and vast windows offering views of 5th Avenue, create the same cozy feeling as those now quaint venues, encouraging patrons to make a habit of visiting their “local,” as Brits frequently refer to pubs.
“The décor just came together; it kind of chose us,” says co-owner and manager Adam Hiner, who evidently shares a talent for scavenging with partner/chef Nicholas Brune and partner/occasional bartender Barry Braden. “We found all this reclaimed wood and figured out what to do with as we brought it in.”
If the décor to some degree designed itself, the menu and bar lists show a careful, deliberate approach to hospitality. Local Habit is in fact a successor to and continuation of the previous occupant, Pizza Fusion, which apparently needed a little more pizzazz—and more than high-quality pizzas—to make it. First at bat on the Local Habit menu: a list of imaginative, appealing pizzas built on guests’ choice of traditional Naples-style dough, or whole wheat or gluten-free crusts. “There must be a genuine sensitivity to gluten on the part of management, in fact, since almost every item bears the logo “gf” encased in a red circle.” Exceptions include a savory bread pudding enriched with Gouda cheese and roasted tomatoes and peppers, and a bread salad with grilled seasonal vegetables, arugula and tomato vinaigrette. If these items show an eye to pleasing vegetarians, they should, since Local Habit also offers substantial vegetarian plates, such as sandwich of grilled veggies, house aioli and mixed greens assembled on a whole wheat baguette that is, of course, gluten-free.
The counterpoints to Local Habit’s carefully composed but easy-going menu are highly selective lists of bottled craft beers, California wines, superb ciders and home-made sodas. The beers are choice and often seem on the pricey side, but most are bottled in quite large portions, of 22 ounces (for example Port Brewing Shark Attack and Eel River 2009 Climax Noel, both $10) or even, in the case of the $17-a-pop AleSmith Speedway Stout, 750 milliliters, which is one big brewski. Hiner notes that his restaurant is “the only craft beer place in Hillcrest,” and that customers who used to head to foamier neighborhoods now make Local Habit a regular port of call.
The wine list misses a baker’s dozen by two, but offers boutique choices such as Terra Savia Chardonnay and Keenan Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon ($6 to $12 by the glass, $24 to $38 the bottle). Cider was a mainstay of American life until the Temperance movement commenced striking in the 1830s, when entire orchards of apple, pears and cherries were chopped down. Local Habit revives a fine old tradition by offering Julian Hard Apple Cider, and Fox Barrel pear and black currant ciders. Priced at $2.50, the rich-tasting root beer and ginger ale cost no more than do diet colas at dozens of nearby restaurants, while they clearly offer much more in the way of flavor. Unsurprisingly, servers pour water into canning jars from large beer “growler” flasks (growlers typically contain 64 ounces), which have become another local habit since Stone Brewing Co. introduced them several years ago.
A written-daily blackboard supplements the printed menu and offers some pretty zingy options, such as a pizza with anchovies, tomato, shaved onions and Spring Hill Cheese Co. Firehouse Jack that instantly won the vote of one guest who exclaimed, “I like little fishies on dough!” When the pie arrived, it was greeted by a robust appetite and disappeared with impressive speed. Another irresistible choice, which shared perfectly, was a salad of top-grade blue cheese, assorted greens and quite wonderful organic almonds from SMIT Orchards, an artisan grower in Northern California. It was, in fact, a terrific salad. Local Habit also uses stone fruit from the same excellent grower.
The pizzas are said to be individually sized, but depending with what you preface the main course with (if anything), you might well share one with another guests. They are notably thin-crusted and, while “delicate” seems an unlikely concept at Local Habit, the pizzas fit this description. They’re delicious, too. Although one a purist insisted on a pie topped simply with Petaluma Jack cheese and house-made beef pepperoni (the flavor is different and rather assertive), he could have ordered imaginative choices decorated with house-smoked pork loin, shaved red onions and two cheeses, a Hawaiian-style combo of braised pork shoulder, pineapple, onion and cheese, or sunny side-up eggs, crisp bacon lardons and pesto made by hand in a mortar, just like they do in Genoa.
The creativity continues with sandwiches, notably rustic Italian bread stuffed with cured-on-premises pepper bacon, local farm tomatoes and frisee lettuce in cider vinaigrette, and such salads as grilled Romaine tossed with cucumber, tomato, pungent garlic croutons and a creamy buttermilk dressing. Optional side dishes include sauteed greens with julienned onions and garlic (certainly not fare you would have found at ’70s fern bars) and roasted Brussels sprouts with house-made mustard and chives (ditto). The cheese boards are deluxe, and definitely make fit companions for Local Habit’s carefully selected reds. When the server suggests dessert, just say “yes” and look forward to treats like the seasonal bread pudding, which may feature whiskey-marinated Santa Rosa plums and a sublime vanilla-whiskey sauce, and the remarkable fudge brownie with SMIT Farms pecans and raw coconut caramel. Topped with a chiffonade (a fine julienne) of basil, the gluten-free triumph comes close to fudge. A first bite caused one guest to say, “Oh, wow!”—and just might do the same to you.