travel: the city by the bay… (san francisco; 2018)

– According to the year-end travel summaries and stats issued annually by my airline of choice, San Francisco has been my most-frequent destination for the past four years.  And yet, I rarely mention the city on this blog. I’ve written about eating in cities like New York, Copenhagen, Paris, Kansas City (where I get my mail), […]


According to the year-end travel summaries and stats issued annually by my airline of choice, San Francisco has been my most-frequent destination for the past four years.  And yet, I rarely mention the city on this blog.

I’ve written about eating in cities like New York, Copenhagen, Paris, Kansas City (where I get my mail), Tokyo, San Sebastian, among many other far-flung destinations around the globe, like the Laplands of Sweden, the Auvergne of France, and the ever-exotic and alluring Bentonville, Arkansas.  But I’ve never dedicated a post to the city where I have spent the majority of my time recently.  And, just off the heels of editing the latest  issues of Drift Magazine (vol. 7) and Ambrosia Magazine (vol. 5), in which we explore the coffee and food cultures, respectively, of the San Francisco Bay Area, I think it’s time I do.

Is anyone else getting panicky about the restaurant scene in San Francisco?

From personal observations mixed with conversations I’ve had with chefs, cooks, and restaurateurs, it seems the market is oversaturated.  In the last half decade, San Francisco has seen a spike in restaurant openings, especially in the mid-tier.  The city now crowds with so many options that I can’t help but wonder whether the talent pool can keep apace.

The problem isn’t attracting cooks to kitchens in the city.  The eagerness and mobility among the rising generation of young cooks may be the industry’s one saving grace. And if there’s a culinary beacon in America to which they should flock right now, it’s San Francisco.

Rather, the issue is whether these restaurants can afford to pay cooks enough to live in San Francisco, which has now displaced New York as the city with the highest cost of living in the country.  To a Midwesterner, who is accustomed to sprawling lawns, multiple-car garages, and square footage to spare, San Francisco is breathtakingly expensive.  I can’t imagine living there on a respectable salary, let along on a cook’s wages.

And yet, restaurants keep opening.  It doesn’t help that the Michelin Guide has started doling out stars like it’s the Oprah Winfrey Christmas giveaway. Who wouldn’t want a part of the action?  (Even the State of Utah has been awarded three stars by the once-prestigious guide.)  One hundred seventy years ago, it was the great California Gold Rush, now, it’s the great restaurant rush.

As you can probably guess, I think a lot of it is senseless noise.

Before going further, let me disabuse you of a myth. While it’s true that I photograph for Saison, and have a handful of meals there every year – which, I am well-aware, amounts to more times than the average person will eat at Saison in their lifetime – Saison is not an everyday experience for me.  Neither is Saison the only restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area with which I work and have worked.  There are many, stretching from Aubergine down in Carmel-by-the-Sea all the way up to The Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley.

In my relatively narrow field of work (as a photographer), proximity often translates to frequency.  So, it may appear that I prefer to spend my time at the handful of restaurants with which I am professionally associated – or worse: that I actively promote them for financial benefit.  The latter I flatly deny and find insulting.

Of course, there is no way for me to completely dispel the skepticism that, understandably, arises from the blurred lines of professional coziness.  And even if I could, I’m not sure I would.  As someone who advocates for mindful consumption, I hope my followers continue to question my motives and integrity.

As to the former – the perception that I prefer to spend my time and resources with the chefs for whom I photograph (and their restaurants) – I not only admit it, but do so enthusiastically. Proximity and frequency are, undoubtedly, the best perquisites of choosing to work with those who I believe to be the very best at what they do. And I am so very lucky to have the opportunity to do so.

That being said, social media is a distortion of reality.  And while I don’t deny preferring certain restaurants over others, the few to which I find myself increasingly attached professionally hardly represent the much wider range of restaurants that I not only visit, but like very much.

So, I leave aside the multi-starred restaurants with which I’m often associated (rightfully or not) for a moment to focus on the the middle market, where I spend most of my time eating.  There are a lot of options in this tier right now.  Unfortunately, there’s a lot of overlap nowadays too; restaurants and the food they serve are so similar – in tenor, theme, and quality – that they’ve begun to blur together.  That’s not to say they’re worthless. To the contrary, San Franciscans have more and better dining options now than ever before, and arguably better dining options than any other city in the U.S.  However, very few restaurants, in my experience, merit serious discussion.  Most of them have been mentioned on this blog before, scattered throughout countless posts. And many of them you’re likely to know already.  This post gathers some of my favorites together; a particularly useful link for the stream of inquiries I receive from those wanting recommendations.

My best mornings are spent at Boulette’s Larder in the Ferry Terminal Building (Embarcadero).  Amaryll Schwertner is one of the unsung chefs of San Francisco.  She is as fastidious in her cooking as she is in her demand for quality.  Once, after a longish wait for my breakfast, a server informed me that, unfortunately, I’d have to wait a little longer. Schwertner wasn’t happy with the way my eggs turned out. As I turned to the open kitchen, I saw her scrape my failed plate of eggs into the trash bin.  Calmly, she set a new pan on the stove and started anew.

I first started going to Boulette’s Larder years ago for the canelé.  Schwertner bakes two dozen of these caramelized cakes every day, and I’d swing by for one (or three) of them, still warm, at the end of my morning run along the Embarcadero.  They really are some of the best canelés I’ve ever had.

It wasn’t long before I started staying for breakfast.

While the weekly breakfast menu is short, the Sunday brunch menu offers a more robust selection of egg and meat dishes.  Schwertner cooks seasonally. This is unsurprising, given that farmers from all over the San Francisco Bay Area bring a spectacular rainbow of produce to sell at the Ferry Terminal Market right outside her restaurant at least twice a week. But what I particularly like about her cooking is that it’s far from the mainstream Americana you’ll likely find everywhere else.  And yet it’s not weird food either.  Her menu often traces the rim of the Mediterranean, using spices and flavors of North Africa and the Middle East.  Sometimes, there are noticeable Asian influences – I once had steak-fried rice with my scrambled eggs (hot sauce, of course); I’ve also had beignets dusted with matcha sugar.  And at other times, she can be blissfully traditional – a strawberry and rhubarb fool, for example, under a cloud of whipped cream.

You’ll pay for the quality at Boulette’s Larder. I understand that most Americans aren’t accustomed to seeing breakfast and brunch prices like these.  But Schwertner is one of the few chefs who I trust implicitly.  She is as confident as she is capable and I never doubt the quality or value of what she offers.  And I gladly pay for it.  [While Boulette’s Larder is only open for breakfast and brunch, its sister restaurant next door, Bouli Bar, is open for lunch.]

Here’s an important question I wish people would ask more often these days: is the food well-made and delicious?  That’s the threshold criterion for me. And it’s the simple and straightforward common denominator among the restaurants that I frequent.

Respected as a doyenne of home cookery for years (among her many other talents), Pim Techamuanvivit turned her passion for cooking into Kin Khao, a Thai restaurant that she opened in 2014 in an oddly shaped, back-corner space of the Parc 55 Hotel (wedged between the Tenderloin and Union Square neighborhoods).

I know woefully little about Thai cuisine, so I won’t venture into the tangled territory of authenticity (if you want to know Pim’s thoughts about it, I’m sure they’re floating about on the internet; surely someone has posed the question to her). And I can’t keep track of who is appropriating what from whom anymore (Pim is Thai, by the way).  What I can tell you is that a great deal of research goes into the food at Kin Khao, and that Pim – who isn’t the day-to-day chef, rather more of a restaurateur – doesn’t coddle her guests with cultural platitudes.  She serves Thai food the way she thinks it should be served rather than what guests might want or expect.  And it’s terrific.

Increasingly, accessibility also determines where and how I eat.  My years of effort and enthusiasm have passed, tempered by age and boredom.  I’ve eaten just about everywhere I care to eat. And quite frankly, the past few years haven’t been terribly encouraging – as I suggested above, there is a lot of shiny and new without much substance.  So, in cities to which I am regular, like San Francisco, I tend to gravitate towards the tried and true.

Cotogna (Jackson Square) is always high on my list, for lunch or dinner.  It’s best to have a reservation, but I often go alone, and rarely have to wait for a seat at the counter.  So terrific are chef Michael Tusk’s pastas, I fear that the rest of his menu gets overlooked.  I hope not, because the salads and pizzas are equally terrific, as are the roast meats, which the restaurant also serves in large-format, family-style at the “chefs table” (must be reserved ahead).

You’ll find me just as often at Zuni Café on Market Street in Hayes Valley.  When Judy Rodgers, who became chef of this iconic San Francisco restaurant in 1987, died in 2013, the New York Times called her a “Chef of Refined Simplicity.”  In that obituary, chef and author Joyce Goldstein said of Rodgers, “She didn’t have a huge menu, she didn’t need to be fashionable, she didn’t feel she had to invent new things; she just worked on every dish until it was perfect.”  In the years since Rodgers’s death, Zuni Café has held true to her ethos.

The Cæsar salad, roast chicken (for two), and the espresso granita are de rigueur. But, on the rare occasion that I veer off script, I’m never disappointed. As Goldstein observed, the menu is short and the cooking is good.

I’ve never had a problem getting into Zuni Café at lunchtime, although dinner reservations require some forethought, especially for the weekend tables. But if you go alone, or in a small party, the wait is usually pretty short for the tables in the bar area, which are reserved for walk-ins. I prefer sitting in the bar area anyway. The warren of rooms upstairs can get too cozy, and sometimes loud.

A Frog Hollow Farm Flavor King Pluot and Sebastopol Berry Farm Blackberries

It has been more than a decade since I ate in the dining room (downstairs) at Chez Panisse in Berkeley.  But I’ve returned to the café upstairs many times since. Open lunch and dinner, it’s one of my favorite places to eat in the East Bay.  Like Zuni Café, this pioneer in the California cuisine movement offers a concise and dependable fare. The ingredients are always fresh and the cooking is simple and straightforward. It’s the type of place (along with Boulette’s Larder and Zuni Café) that offers fruit on its dessert menu –  whatever’s in season, ripe and perfect.  Some think it’s lazy, or ridiculous.  I have a hard time arguing against ripe and perfect.

Also in Berkeley is Great China, which is now in its second generation of ownership by the Yu family.  I was first introduced to this restaurant by my friends Marty and Alex – both wine professionals.  They were attracted by the restaurant’s incredible wine list, about which the San Francisco Chronicle has written. But the food here is pretty great too. This is a lazy Susan kind of place, where all the dishes are meant to be shared.  And the quality of cooking is fairly impressive for the size of the menu.  I’ve mentioned my favorite dish here before – a phenomenal version of the very Chinese-American honey walnut shrimp. But the roast duck (Peking-style, with the skin and meat carved and served with wrappers, scallions, and hoisin), and other Chinese-inspired dishes are terrific too.

Spicy Beef Tendon

I know there are a lot of great Asian restaurants in San Francisco, especially down-bay, towards San Jose (in vol. 5 of Ambrosia, we mini-dive into the Vietnamese community and restaurants in San Jose).  Sadly, I haven’t explored nearly as much as I’d like. And most of the Asian restaurants I have visited have been disappointing; the rest, I haven’t visited enough times to feel confident recommending (Izakaya Rintaro is a good example; it’s been years since I’ve eaten there, even though I consistently hear positive things from trusted sources). The few places in the city to which I return tend to be over-subscribed, like Kin Khao (mentioned above) or Z&Y in Chinatown. Part of the problem with Z&Y is that it doesn’t take reservations (unless you have a party of 6 or more).  But that’s because it doesn’t need to – people will line up for an hour or more for this spicy, Szechuan cooking.  And it’s easy to understand why – everything I’ve had has been terrific, especially the shaved beef tendons, soured green beans, and wontons in chili oil. I’ve also found chive pockets on the menu; one of my favorite Chinese dishes. If you like scallion pancakes (Z&Y’s are particularly great), you’ll like these thin pastry pockets filled with chopped Chinese chives (my favorite versions include scrambled eggs and dried shrimp).

Sean Ehland

I haven’t been to the “manufactory” yet, but Tartine Bakery (Mission) is great. Although it’s most well-known for its bread, pastries, and sweets, I particularly like the hearty, hot-pressed sandwiches there.  And just down the street is Bi-Rite Creamery, where you’ll find fantastic burnt caramel ice cream.

If you’re looking for golden-brown flakes, you might also consider trekking to Arsicault in the Inner Richmond (or is it in Presidio Heights?) for its sheeted dough pastries.  I’ve written about it before on this blog.  Further out in the Outer Richmond is Marla Bakery, which has pretty great bread and a short but strong menu (it serves breakfast, lunch, and brunch.)

I’ll admit that I go to Blue Bottle Coffee mostly for proximity – there are three within walking distance of where I usually stay in San Francisco.  The wait can be infuriating, especially when there’s a line out the door and only one person working the register.  But, I suppose, that can be an argument for quality – slowing the orders helps baristas focus on each drink.  If St. Frank weren’t so far (it’s on Russian Hill), I’d be there more often.  Not only do the baristas there know what a smile is, there’s also wifi. Having both of those amenities makes St. Frank a unicorn among San Francisco coffee shops.

Antipasti and cannoli on the counter.

There are a few places in San Francisco that I appreciate for specific reasons.  Tosca Café, for example, I keep in my back pocket for a late-night option. It’s open until 0200 every day of the week.

If I want food delivery, Rooster and Rice is usually at the top of my list.  It’s one of the few, Bay Area fast-casual concepts that I like.  It serves variations of khao mun gai, or Thai chicken and rice. It’s such a simple concept, I don’t know why there aren’t more of them across the country.

And because there are so few options in SoMa near the ballpark, where I spend a lot of my mornings, Cento gets a lot of my coffee money. This small, alleyway walk-up is the sort of unaccommodating, San Francisco coffee shop I would normally avoid – grumpy baristas who refuse to make gibraltars (a.k.a. cortado) to-go, because they insist on serving it in a gibraltar glass onsite.  And until recently, it was cash-only – in a tech city that operates on a cashless basis.  But, they do a decent job, and I admire the spunk – a little patch of analog in an increasingly digital city.

Of course, there are many places up and down the Bay Area coast where I will make a point of stopping when I’m in those corners, like Duarte’s Tavern in Pescadero (for its fruit pies), or Verve Coffee in Santa Cruz, where I can get pastries from Manresa Bread (Los Gatos).  In this latest issue of Ambrosia, we tell readers about Dad’s Luncheonette in the sleepy surf town of Half Moon Bay, where Scott Clark is serving some simple but tasty burgers and salads out of a caboose (literally).  In that same issue, you’ll also find my love letter to Napa and Sonoma, where I’ve spent quite a lot of time exploring, and, over the years, have settled into routines at familiar places, like Hog Island Oyster on Tomales Bay; Model Bakery in St. Helena (English muffins!); and El Molino Central in Boyes Hot Springs; among others.

Coffee, Bostock

So reliable and satisfying is my cast of favorite restaurants that I’ve become reluctant to deviate. And it doesn’t help that when I have, I’ve been consistently unmoved, and in many cases disappointed.

But I am always hopeful of finding something new and good.  I know that there are a lot of places I’ve yet to discover (if you have recommendations, please send them).  My friends Maggie Spicer and Michael Molesky have opened Douglas, a corner market and café in Noe Valley.  Knowing them, it will be lovely.  And there are a few openings on the horizon to which I look excitedly, like Michael Tusks’s cave á vin Verjus (Jackson Square), which is expected open this fall, and Joshua Skenes’s Angler on the Embarcadero, which I will be photographing shortly.

Photos: Crab and egg buns at Great China; Michael Tusk at Quince; Christopher Kostow in the kitchen at The Restaurant at Meadowood; Joshua Skenes, chef of Saison, with grouse in Idaho; Justin Cogley, chef of Aubergine among the tidal pools in Carmel-By-The-Sea; poached eggs with creamed spinach and cardoons at Boulette’s Larder; sheeps milk yoghurt with coffee-poached dates at Boulette’s Larder; Khun Yai’s rabbit green curry at Kin Khao; squeezing lime at Kin Khao; quail on the counter at Cotogna; roast chicken for two at Zuni Café; pluot and blackberries at Chez Panisse Café; spicy shaved beef tendons; Sean Ehland preparing loaves at Marla Bakery; antipasti on the counter at Tosca Café; coffee and Manresa Bread bostock at Verve Coffee in Santa Cruz.

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