At the risk of insulting a fair number of restaurants, I'm gonna just come out and say it: if you're not looking to spend a small fortune on a meal (think tasting menu at Michael Mina), the dining options around Union Square suck. How many places can you name that go beyond the tourist-trap fare and serve thoughtful, well-executed cuisine without also coming with an intimidating price tag? If you can think of more than one or two, please contact me, as I need to know about such magical places. However, after eight years of shopping my way through the mean streets of Union Square, there's only one restaurant that I believe fits the bill - a little French bistro known as Cafe Claude.
Over the years, Cafe Claude has become the only restaurant I go to for lunch when I'm in the Union Square area. It's almost pathetic. I can't even count the number of times that I've been here, or the number of different people that have accompanied me. Why has it garnered my unwavering affection? Well first of all, as we all know, it's frankly difficult to find a restaurant serving food that really stands out from the mediocre tourist fare dominating the area. Secondly, after living in France, it was challenging to find solid bistro food similar to the kind that I was used to eating in Paris, and in that regard, Cafe Claude is the closest I've found.
As far as the menu is concerned, I've ordered the Croque Monsieur/Madame far too many times and I've always been thoroughly satisfied; it comes with a side salad and an ample amount of delicious french fries (seasoned so well that I don't even need ketchup! It's so un-American of me!). This is a very filling lunch to say the least, and I usually feel somewhat guilty for finishing the whole thing.
Other stand-outs have been the Quiche Lorraine, the Mousse au Sauternes, les Epinards (sauteed spinach), your mom, the Potato Gratin, and the Steak Tartare. The last item in that list is consistently my favorite (apologies to your mom), especially as I've found it very hard to find steak tartare of that quality for such a decent price (i.e. not Kobe beef). I hate to admit it, but I've actually started to crave it! Doesn't that sound arrogant? "Ohhhh dawwwling how I just crave steak tartare! I simply can't stand to go without it!" Sad, but true.
The best part is that the menu is amazingly cheap for this type of cuisine, the quality of the food, and the portion sizes you are getting. How can you pass up a great $10 lunch!?
Also, if you venture over for dinner Thursday - Saturday, you'll be welcomed with the smooth sounds of live jazz - the perfect place to whip out your foldable jazz flute and break it down in front of a first date.
The staff, while not memorable, has been very good on all occasions, and are especially friendly when you start speaking French! The only downside is that it is in an alley, so there isn't much sunlight and the people-watching is limited. But on the flip side, because of this location there's plenty of outdoor seating, making it a great destination on one of those rare, warm San Francisco nights.
In my opinion, Cafe Claude is one of San Francisco's best-kept secrets. Because it's located in the alley across from Gitane, its much-publicized sister restaurant whose swanky decor and specialty cocktails attract more attention, it stays underneath the radar...right where I like it. Over the last eight years, Cafe Claude has turned into one of my all-time stand-by restaurants, and the one that I always recommend to anyone exploring the Union Square area.
7 Claude Lane
San Francisco, CA 94108