Kids goods

A kid-friendly restaurant in SF with Michelin credibility? This nostalgic American kitchen attracts diners of all ages

A hundred years ago, a vending machine was a technological and culinary marvel: a collection of vending machines freshly stocked with products such as ham and cheese sandwiches and pies. According to filmmaker and fan Mel Brooks, “there was no such thing as automaton coffee,” which flowed from a silver spout like black lava. It was the heyday of fast food long before the dominance of drive-thru and delivery apps.

While the automatons of yesteryear are gone, the devotion to fast food remains – but there has been a change.

Automat, an all-day cafe and restaurant in San Francisco, sums up this change. It focuses less on quick convenience and instead slows things down. So save your shiny nickels: There are no vending machines, though the spirit of the classic automat lives on here.

The restaurant is best when it breathes new life into traditional American comfort food with revisited classics and exceptional pastries. But nostalgia is a volatile thing, and sometimes taking a dish out of its usual context means losing some of the magic.

Marty Gray takes the orders while Emily Hall prepares the dishes in a packed house at Automat in San Francisco.

Don Feria / Special at La Chronique

Chef Matthew Kirk launched Automat as a pop-up in 2016, showcasing a flair for creative breads and fried chicken sandwiches. Last December, he opened the restaurant version of Automat in a mostly residential area of ​​NoPa with his partner David Barzelay, the chef-owner of Michelin-starred fine-dining restaurant Lazy Bear, where Kirk was previously sous-chef. He hired Casey Wentworth, formerly of Ad Astra Bread Co. and Tartine, as head baker.

Automat exists in a dichotomy. During the day, he focuses on pastries, sandwiches and coffee. In the evening, it becomes a sit-down restaurant with more conceptual dishes for dinner, but still tinged with nostalgia. There may be few kids in San Francisco, but there’s a dedicated kids’ menu, with dishes like a burger ($16) and crispy beef tacos ($4), which pay homage to tacos. cheap from Jack in the Box. Following the form, each is filled with ground beef, lettuce and a slice of American cheese and comes with taco seasoning and hot sauce.

The crispy beef tacos show Automat's love for nostalgic fast food.

The crispy beef tacos show Automat’s love for nostalgic fast food.

Don Feria / Special for The Chronicle

The pandemic has caused a lot of self-reflection among chefs, and we’re seeing those results in new restaurants. For Kirk, that meant creating a laid-back vibe and an accessible menu that even his kids could enjoy.

To borrow from Mr. Brooks, there’s nothing like the breads at Automat, which are all baked on site. The carbohydrate-heavy daily menu is where the restaurant excels.

Garlic Pretzel Focaccia is glazed with garlic butter – available as an appetizer for dinner or on bread to go.

Garlic Pretzel Focaccia is glazed with garlic butter – available as an appetizer for dinner or on bread to go.

Don Feria / Special at La Chronique

The breakfast sandwich ($13) is a collection of squares: extra-toasted “wondermat” white bread, a square-shaped omelet with the moisture of a Korean steamed egg, and a quadrangle slice of breakfast sausage. As if it wasn’t already rich enough, it’s also overflowing with chili cheese and herbs. It’s unlike any breakfast product you’ll find in a fast food chain – the textures and flavors are crafted with finesse.

For something a little less indulgent, try the Smoked Trout Toast ($15), which is like a sourdough bread version of a loaded bagel. The bread’s high hydration looks like a glutinous distant cousin of the Vietnamese bánh bò – a spongy platform for smoked trout, dill and fried shallots.

Dried trout roe complements the smoked trout toast at Automat, a San Francisco restaurant that excels with bread.

Dried trout roe complements the smoked trout toast at Automat, a San Francisco restaurant that excels with bread.

Don Feria / Special at La Chronique

The carb carnage continues with wonderful pastries like donuts ($5) filled with flavors like white chocolate cherry cream and sourdough chocolate cookies ($3). The latter is also on the dinner menu, served hot and gooey. But there’s one dessert that’s the obvious cool kid at the table: brick toast ($5-$7). An inch and a half thick slice of toast, like you’d find at a boba shop, topped with candy mushrooms and vanilla bean whipped cream. The mushroom gives the treat a sneaky umami layer, the flavor of mushrooms mixed with its weird maple syrup flavor. It’s a feat the world hasn’t seen since the ingenuity of automatons.

A century later, this Automat is not a luncheonette filled with cigarette smoke and mashed potatoes. Instead, customers slam laptop keyboards while nursing a latte; families sit with children whose eyes are glued to smartphones as they munch on a grilled cheese sandwich. To match the kid-friendly setting, a playlist of dad music jams wafts from the speakers. Trigger warning: Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” could trigger your own dad issues.

During the day, the soft natural light creates a calm setting for sipping coffee, and the Wi-Fi access attracts telecommuters. A mural on the back wall depicts an abstract scene of pastel-colored shapes and black cubes – one looks like a galactic river receding into a mountainous landscape. When dinner service begins, laptops disappear as families arrive to share large plates of food.

While the dinner menu is also eclectic, it doesn’t stick to the landing as well as the daily fare.

Ricotta gnudi are topped with crispy shallots at Automat in San Francisco.

Ricotta gnudi are topped with crispy shallots at Automat in San Francisco.

Don Feria / Special at La Chronique

Small dishes are the stars, like the soft pretzel focaccia ($5) topped with garlic and a Caesar salad with seasonal asparagus ($15) with a jammy egg yolk. Some fun riffs are promising but aren’t mind-blowing, like Ricotta Gnudi ($18), Cheese Balls with a Slightly Tangy Lime Leaf Taste, and Browned Butter Cabbage ($17) smothered in gravy. “carrot A1”. The highlighter-orange sauce is certainly interesting but confusing, like a cross between barbecue sauce and a French dressing.

The other dishes are totally missed. The baked cod “fish stick” ($29) doesn’t live up to the nostalgic homage its name suggests, while the smoked pork belly ($26) tastes like ham. The grilled duck breast ($33) comes with a mole of rhubarb white chocolate reminiscent of the oily sweetness of a churro. Maybe it’s secretly a dessert.

Tucked away in SF's Western Addition, Automat attracts a family-friendly clientele for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Tucked away in SF’s Western Addition, Automat attracts a family-friendly clientele for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Don Feria / Special at La Chronique

Avoid the larger plates and opt for the “Big and Small Kids” portion of the menu. A crispy beef taco is more ingrained in American culture than Mexican, but it’s satisfying nonetheless. Just like the burger, a smashed version with dill pickled onions, but it could use more condiments and real cucumber pickles.

Automat shows an aptitude for making food people actually want to eat, especially on its breakfast and lunch menu. While the evening offerings don’t reach the same heights, there’s enough to enjoy and promise for the future. The restaurant is best when inspired by Americana, then adapted to modern tastes. Even without the vending machines of its classic namesake, there’s plenty to be excited about at Automat.

1801 McAllister Street, San Francisco. https://automatsf.com

Hours: 8am-3.30pm, 5pm-9pm from Tuesday to Saturday; 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Sunday.

Accessibility: All floors are on one level.

Noise level: Mild to moderate.

Meal for two, excluding drinks: $30-$60.

What to order: Breakfast sandwich ($13), smoked trout toast ($15), cheezy buddy ($16), crispy beef taco ($4).

Meatless options: Brick toast ($5), “pepperoni peppers” ($10), pretzel focaccia ($5), sourdough chocolate chip cookie ($3), Caesar salad with asparagus ($15), ricotta gnudi ( $18).

Drinks: Beer and wine.

Transportation: 5 Fulton and 31 Balboa Muni bus lines nearby. Street parking.

Best Practices: Opt for the day service and try the breakfast sandwich.



Cesar Hernandez is the associate food critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]