There’s something about a pub, a real pub, that is honest and heartwarming and somehow necessary for my soul to rightfully flourish in this world.
But a good one is hard to find.
The atmosphere should be casual, fun and conducive to all-day drinking, and the food should be affordable and deliciously unhealthy. At most places, at least one of these things is lacking.
At The Willows, it all comes together.
There are piles of board games. Pinball machines. Lots of craft beers on tap. Simple but potent cocktails. Genuinely friendly bartenders. And the food?
Most pubs throw fried snacks in front of patrons as an afterthought, as merely a way of greasing people’s bellies to keep them drinking longer. You know what I mean: the sad basket of flavorless fries, the onion rings that came straight out of a freezer bag. Not so at The Willows. There’s love soaked into their deep-fried concoctions.
Take, for example, the mac and cheese balls. These golf ball-sized orbs of golden goodness are way more exciting than they have any right to be. A crackly bread-crumb crust gives way to an interior of tender macaroni pasta swimming in oozy cheese sauce. It sounds simple, but each element is done well — everything’s nicely seasoned, cooked just right. And the housemade jalapeño ranch served on the side for dipping adds a cool, herbaceous bite.
Being the red-blooded American that I am, few things make me happier than fried foods, but one of those things is pork. Enter the bliss that is The Willows’ pork belly “doughnut” (also on offer at its sister location, The Sycamore): a savory, tender hunk of pork belly lovingly encased in a golden shell of Monte Cristo-esque batter, glazed with a sweet maple and Maker’s Mark syrup, and sprinkled with a flourish of salt.
This trendy-sounding item could have easily gone the way of a blasé novelty, but the right interplay of textures — crispy, creamy, meaty — and the yin-yang play of savory and sweet make it a craveable classic. I have yet to visit The Willows and not order pork belly doughnuts. Their pull on me is strong.
The Willows keeps history alive with its Big Ass Burgers menu, an homage to the building’s original iteration as Hamburger Mary’s flagship location. The burgers are classic American, with thick, beefy patties each sporting a crunchy iceberg leaf, a thick slice of tomato and plenty of mayo. The topping combinations don’t stray far from the usual, but they’re tried and true and comfortingly old-school.
My favorite, the Juicy Floozy, is stuffed with goops of melty American cheese and slathered with jalapeño aioli. It satisfies every craving I have for a big, messy, beautifully disgusting hamburger that creates a glorious sheen of grease all over my face and hands.
I can’t resist the salt-and-pepper fries with an accompanying aioli flight, as I’ve always been an anti-ketchup, pro-mayonnaise fry eater. The fries themselves are decent, but the stars here are the flavored aiolis — silky roasted garlic and punchy romesco are standouts.
Any potential suitors out there now know the way to my heart: good beer, a big sloppy burger and a game of Big Buck. What can I say? I’m a simple girl and The Willows is my kind of place.
Location: 1582 Folsom St., S.F.
Contact: (415) 529-2039, thewillowssf.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to midnight Mondays-Thursdays; 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays; noon to 2 a.m. Saturdays; noon to midnight Sundays
Price range: $3.25 to $12.75
Recommended dishes: Pork belly “dougnuts” ($6.25), fried mac and cheese balls ($7.75), The Wedge ($7.75), Juicy Floozy ($12.75), salt-and-pepper fries ($5.75) with a flight of aioli ($1.75)
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Not accepted