The Bell Tower is a fantastic bar/restaurant in San Francisco. Located at the corner of Jackson and Polk, in the stretch of Polk Gulch that bridges Russian Hill and Nob Hill, the BT is one of those places that quickly becomes a favorite -- great staff, great food, and serving dinner until 10pm, snacks until midnight.
On approaching the front door, there's a 25% chance of encountering Ashka. She's a enormous, super-smart (but a little slobbery) mastiff owned by the proprietor, Barbie Tice. Don't be afraid of Ashka, she doeesn't bite. She likes to be scratched, so go ahead.
Once inside, you'll be in the restaurant area. There are only ten tables, and only 4 of those are bigger than a table for two. If you have a big group or you want a window seat, come early. To your left you'll see the railing bar, and the main bar. Straight ahead is the upper dining area, with another half-dozen tables, adjoining the kitchen. It's much warmer up there, especially in the summer, but on the plus side, there's a six foot high purple easy chair and the big screen TV. Behind you is a smaller window bar, great for when you want a little separation from the frenzy of the main bar.
If you want to sit at a table, wait for the hostess to seat you, else saunter up to the bar and grab a stool. The menus are the same, bar or sit-down. At the main bar, most of the seats have a view of 2 TVs. In the summer, one will be Giants and the other A's. On an NFL Sunday, one will be Vikings, the other Niners/Raiders, whatever is available. (Barbie is from Minnesota, so don't even bother asking to change the channel on that TV)
At this point, the bartender will ask you what you'd like to drink, unless it's completely crazy inside. There's only ever one bartender, and he/she has to handle the bar and the restaurant drinks, so sometimes it can be a madhouse.
When your drink gets made, they'll do a good job, so don't worry about the crowds. On tap, they have Tennent's, Full Sail, Sierra Nevada, Beamish, Pyramid Hefeweizen, and Bud. There are lots of bottle choices too (ranging from Pacifico to Chimay). Of course, there's a full bar, with several nice single malts. Probably the best mixed drink is the margarita, made with a splash of Odwalla orange juice, it has just the right sweet-and-sour-ness. Last but not least, are the two house liquors: Chartreuse and Frenet Branca -- The Bell Tower is one of the top-ten consumers of Chartreuse in the US.
You may wonder who these people are that are making your drinks:
- Eric is ex-Navy, a huge Steelers fan, and might play chess with you if it's a quiet evening.
- Kate is from Wisconsin, a professional photographer and very well-read
- Shar is the hippie Jewish version of your mom. She picks all the wine on the wine list, and also works the bar down at The Warfield. She can tell you which bands put on good shows, and who has a nice Pinot Noir.
- Barbie also tends bar twice a week. She's a total nutcase, and a big gambler. She can dish it out as well as she can take it, so feel free to tease her when she does something silly, or challenge her to some Liar's Dice.
If you're hungry, ask for both menus and the specials sheet -- there are a lot of choices. One menu is the dinner menu, good until 10pm, the other is the bar menu, until midnight.
On the dinner menu, I recommend:
- Grilled lamb loin, get it medium, not gamy at all. Served with wonderful creamed spinach and a sort of potato pancake. The flavors blend well.
- Giant pork chop -- it's safe to order this medium as well, making it very juicy. Peach chutney, fresh green beans, and au gratin potatoes complement the dish.
- Chicken stuffed with a blend of three cheeses, served with sweet snap peas.
- French onion soup, you know it, you love it.
From the bar menu:
- Pulled pork sandwich topped with coleslaw. Sweet and tangy, served with fries.
- Grilled chicken sandwich, with brie, spinach and caramelized onions. Also served with fries.
- Spinach salad with crumbled bacon and bleu cheese is lighter fare.
- Tuna taco tower uses sashimi grade tuna, seared outside and raw in the center. Fantastic on a warm evening.
Once you've got your order in, feel free to jump into a conversation at the bar. Some of the people you'll probably run into (the regulars):
- Bob, Barbie's boyfriend, attorney, loves sports bets
- Dylan, works the door at House of Prime Rib -- a great guy to know!
- Kamal, works in the kitchen over at Harris Steakhouse
- Bert, laptop in tow and a pitcher of iced tea, working on his wireless business plan
- Paulina, die-hard Red Sox fan and bartender at The Cortez Hotel
- Just about anyone/everyone who works at Shanghai Kelly's down the street
- John, harbor pilot for the San Francisco Bay can tell you amazing stories about driving oil tankers and container ships through crazy swells
If you show up a second time, Barbie will remember you. You may find yourself stopping in quite regularly. Don't say I didn't warn you...