Straw Can Make You Feel Grifted

Categories: Pop Review

Mona C./Yelp
For all the buzz, the carny-themed restaurant in Hayes Valley looks pretty much like every other budget bistro in town.
​Like a carnival barker's patter, Straw has been hard to resist. Long before it opened late last month, the blogosphere was atwitter with anticipation about this heavily stylized carny bistro. It seemed like carefully chosen hints were dropped every few days (Jenga-stacked French toast! Sangria slushies! Midway-style games!) In the roar of such buzz, even the most jaded scenester had to be at least a bit curious.

It was a crafty pitch, the already popular comfort-food-with-a-twist genre done up in clown paint and the promise of fun. Straw's twentysomething target demographic craves its childhood carnival fantasies, even as it wants to dunk its fries in cheddar béchamel, not Velveeta (except for the junk-food purists who eat here).

SFoodie recently dropped in on Straw with some friends visiting from New England. We thought they'd be impressed by the razzle-dazzle. Clearly, we forgot about their natural Puritan skepticism.

Jesse Hirsch
Sadly, all the appetizers fell short.
​It's hard to say what we were expecting, décor-wise, but whatever it was, Straw missed the mark. Sure, the old-timey photos of Coney Island and other vintage bric-a-brac are tasteful, and the vaunted Tilt-a-Whirl booth is an interesting touch. But for a carnival restaurant to look pretty much like every other homey, low-lit bistro was kind of a letdown. We felt like rubes who'd paid two bits for the Haunted Funhouse, only to find a high school gym tricked out with streamers and a smoke machine.

Since everything on the menu reads like an addiction in the making, we ordered a wide variety of appetizers. Sadly, everything fell short. Truffle popcorn ($4.50) was underwarm and undertruffled. House-fried potato chip nachos with cheddar béchamel ($6.75) were too similar to their bland, goopy cousins at the county fair. The Parmesan-cayenne corn fritters ($6.50) tasted like deep-fried anything. And crab beignets ($12), technically an entrée but shared as an app, had only the faintest hint of crab squirreled away between heavy layers of fried dough.

For entrees we ordered a sandwich smorgasbord that included the Bearded Lady (pulled pork, blackberry coulis, chipotle bbq, $9.50) and Boxcar Children (peanut butter satay, jalapeno jam, pork belly, $9.75). They suffered the same flaw as the beignets, an excessive bread-to-filling ratio yielding forgettable results. In the case of the fried chicken-'n'-waffle Monte Cristo ($9.75), huge gobs of raspberry jam masked wee, desiccated pieces of chicken. The only standout was the ground chuck burger between two Krispy Kreme donuts (known in some circles as a Luther burger). The Niman Ranch patty was well cooked and the sweet-and-savory combo worked, but it was one decent item among a dozen fails.

Maybe our expectations were too high. Just like a real carnival, Straw's promises far exceeded what it could deliver. We wanted an over-the-top showstopper, upscale midway fare that transcended its genre (is carny food a genre?). Instead, we walked away feeling bloated and underwhelmed. One of the New Englanders had a different issue: "Where were the corn dogs?"

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This review is a perfect example of what makes San Francisco's food scene so annoying sometimes. I mean does every single restaurant/food item/meal, have to be the very best of all of its possible incarnations? I'm guessing people wanted this place to look like an actual carnival inside, have the food taste like it was cooked by the ex-chef of Per Se, garnished by a line cook who works nights at Absinthe, and still cost $9. Our expectations are so annoying sometimes. Can't a little restaurant have its chance at being themselves, without peoples exceptions and desires farting up the whole damn thing?


Ari here - one of the owners of Straw. It is fair to post this review, specifically if the food was not where it should have been. I am actually excited to work harder so that if you ever come back you will have a more positive experience. That said, the post seems to suggest that Straw has a PR machine meticulously crafting messaging and building hype. The reality is that we did not make initial contact with anyone in the press prior to opening and when press contacted us, we answered honestly about what we were up to. While we are extremely grateful for the attention, the hype and super high expectations described in the above post were not really set by us - they were set by people who have been writing, tweeting, Yelping, Blogging, Facebooking, etc. about us. We never claimed to be the second coming - just a great neighborhood restaurant inspired by the American traveling carnival. For those who read this blog, and want to know what to actually expect... I am pretty confident that if you come by and spend a meal with us at Straw, you will have a blast. If not, there's always Yelp.

Anne Sauer
Anne Sauer

This review came off as unnecessarily mean (in the interest of being clever). We've been to Straw twice, once for brunch and once for dinner, and while I have the impression that they're still ironing out a few kinks, we enjoyed the food and the service.

As for the decor, what *were* you expecting? I like the whimsical touches; I feel like anything more would be over-the-top, maybe fun for novelty's sake but not someplace I would be comfortable going all the time. For a neighborhood restaurant, I think they got things right.

Julia Graham
Julia Graham

That's disappointing to hear... the menu looks amazing!

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