09/13/2011 04:23 pm ET Updated Nov 13, 2011

Restaurant Review: Cafe de La Presse, San Francisco

I live in San Francisco and, so, would hope that this lovely city is a haven for fine cafés. You would think so, given San Francisco's famously European look, its reputation for artfulness, its sophisticated population and renegade, colorful politics.

But that's not so. There are more individually owned cafés per capita here than in the usual American city. (Corporate-owned cafés are never fine cafés, and Starbucks is just as ubiquitous here as elsewhere.) But even the privately owned cafes here are for the most part run-down, although there often appears to be a precise marketing choice in this tattered look, as though you have to be poor and beat up to enjoy a proper cup of coffee.

One of those here that does qualify as a fine café, though, is the Café de La Presse. When I'm at lunch in this place, I remember the bistros in which I dined in Paris when I lived there... the long rooms with a marble or dark wood bar, high ceilings, many small tables lining long windows with white cotton curtains that looked out on the descending rue Moufftard or the summery rue Saint-Louis-en-l'Isle. These bistros are noted for the simplicity of their menus and the care with which the food is prepared, and very often they have a superb wine list. There is a festive manner about the way things are done in such cafés, so that you feel elegantly entertained and fed in an informal fashion that simply engenders well-being.

So it is at the Café de La Presse. The menu (lunch and dinner) is small, but features dishes of great complexity and taste. The wine list is large, mostly French, all excellent. The ambiance is simply intended for conversation. You do not have to shout to be heard at this café, and the waiters and waitresses seem to wish that you'd stay on for a while and enjoy the talk you're having with your friend.

But none of these is the actual reason that I go to the Café de La Presse.

The importance of a café is often determined by factors other than food, wine or comfort, although all of these are required for a café to be truly fine. But the telling factor may lie in who owns the café... or who owned it. What conflict-ending pact was agreed upon there? What was that short story... the one by Katherine Anne Porter... that was written here? Isn't this the place where Gore Vidal was seen in an embrace with Tennessee?

I imagine that some notable people have dined at the Café de La Presse, or had a glass of wine. But I don't know that for sure. It could be that the clientele has always and ever been the European tourists who, on any given day, celebrate the café's obvious debt to the Parisian bistros, or the local business people and itinerant voluptuaries such as myself who come here all the time.

But ideas and art swirl around this café nonetheless. During a recent visit, I found pronouncements by some very fine writers, examples of graphic prowess by some of the most well-known artists, photographers and film makers in the world, and a certain precipitous level of discussion from world leaders the likes of whom seldom gather together in a single place.

I saw Mick Jagger here!, although it was on the cover of Zoom magazine. His right hand was on his chest. He was looking pensively into the café, a bit sadly actually, as though all those drugs had not amounted in the end to much. His hair was good, though. Elton John, natty in a red jacket with a gold lame collar and green-plastic-rimmed sunglasses seemed, as always, ready for yet a worse outfit. He was here with the much more elegantly and conservatively dressed editor of L'Uomo. Barack Obama appeared a little miffed on the front of Paris-Match, as though he were being forced to explain -- again -- to a clueless Republican House of Representatives that resolving the U.S.'s economic difficulties is more than just a matter of murmuring pious Tea Party nostrums. There was even a conversation... well, an exchange of murky economic theories over what to do about poor cousins like Ireland... between Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel. The King of Spain was there, too, and that is something one doesn't get in every café. The best for me, though, was a conversation I had with Moliere, looking stylish in the manner of a Sofia Coppola movie, on the subject of his cover shoot for the French magazine Lire.

All these voices and hundreds more could be heard in the comings and goings of the conversation in the place because this café is renowned in San Francisco for its magazines and newspapers. In many different languages, they serve the tourist community as well as the crowd of locals who speak all those languages and have lived in San Francisco for years. The café is a trove of contemporary European culture, not all of it refined, but certainly worth looking at. The management seems unperturbed by people looking through the magazines, so that there are many copies slightly dog-eared. But this is a sign of good, thoughtful management, and you can always get a pristine copy of the journal you want simply by looking toward the rear of each display bin.

The moment that defines the real value of this café is when you sit down at one of the tables that look out on Grant Avenue, take up on your fork the first morsel of the superb croque monsieur (or the croque madame if you want an egg on top), or maybe the cabillaud grenobloise (a pan-seared ling cod with lemon condiment and wilted spinach), perhaps a salade d'asperge with egg and Serrano ham, or sip from a glass of Tannat cabernet... and turn the page that opens the magazine before you.

Café de La Presse, 352 Grant Avenue, San Francisco, California