From zeitgeist-shaping bakers and molecular wizards to comfort-food gurus, San Francisco's restaurant scene has never been more dynamic.

By Adam Sachs
November 19, 2012
Credit: Alex Farnum

See the T+L Insider Video: Where to Eat in San Francisco

Chad Robertson is the wheat whisperer. The earnestly obsessive surfer dude, widely regarded as one of the best bakers in the country, knows stuff about bread that others just don’t. Like how to make boring old flour sound interesting.

“Kamut is an ancient durum, golden, sweet, and super high in protein,” he says of the antediluvian origins of some bread he wants me to try at his rebooted restaurant, Bar Tartine. We’re talking about a piece of toast but, as usual when talking with Robertson, I feel as if I’m being inducted into some beautiful, bountiful California dream where everything tastes better and we’re all going to live forever.

“It’s much easier to digest than modern wheats. And it’s just so delicious.”

Robertson and his wife, the pastry chef Elisabeth Prueitt, are known for delicious. The couple opened Tartine Bakery nearby at Guerrero and 18th a decade ago and there’s been a line out the door at all hours ever since. San Franciscans should brace themselves for an Occupy-style street protest if the duo were ever to mess with their stable of legendary baked goods. (I will be at the front of the mob, looting trays of gooey, buttery, irreplaceable morning buns.)

Bar Tartine is a different story. Robertson sees the restaurant, which opened a few years after the bakery, as less a static institution and more an evolving theater for showcasing the creativity of his staff, visiting chefs, and his own restless enthusiasms. Last year he brought in chef Nicolaus Balla—born in Michigan, schooled in Budapest, trained in Japan—and together they changed everything about the place but the name. In August they expanded, adding shiny, Italian-built bread ovens and a lunch business based on Danish smørrebrød (open-faced sandwiches) and puffy Hungarian fried flatbreads called lángos.

“It’s all a little uncategorizable,” Robertson says of the collaboration between baker and chef. “When people ask me what kind of food we’re doing, I say, ‘Can I write an essay?’”

I’d read it. Especially for the excitable Robertsonian digressions: “We serve a beer from Oakland that’s brewed from our bread starter, then the spent grain is brought here and we use it to make Japanese-style pickles….”

Balla once created a menu around the affinity (as he pictured it) between the cuisines of northern Scandinavia and northern Japan—Lapland meets Hokkaido on Valencia Street. The night after I visited, the crew was planning to tackle a nine-course Vietnamese feast. The thing is, right now, in San Francisco, it is utterly conventional for a restaurant with a bustling Danish-Hungarian lunch trade to reinvent itself as Vietnamese for a night.

T+L Insider Video: Where to Eat in San Francisco

What’s persuasive about the Bar Tartine approach isn’t merely a menu that keeps you guessing, that resists easy classification. All this eclecticism comes down to one central tenet (so often, so maddeningly forgotten by chefs tripped up by misguided notions of novelty): it’s gotta be, like that mythical, magic Kamut, just delicious.

About that toast. It’s grilled to a chewy crunch, adorned with golden petals of bottarga (cured by Balla from the roe of fish caught by an uncle in Florida) and thrown into umami overdrive by an intense butter flavored with pulverized powders of dried mushrooms and dulse seaweed. What is it? I don’t really know. How does it taste? Deeply, saltily, happy-makingly good.

Bar Tartine is, in conception and execution, conspicuously sui generis. But it’s also typical— in its funkily atypical way—of a new breed of genre-busting restaurant spreading through the Mission District and reinvigorating the San Francisco dining landscape. The Bay Area is, for anyone who cares about the pleasures of the table, hallowed and fertile ground, cradle of a local-seasonal movement that, however tired we become of hearing those words, really did help change the way a whole country eats.

But in recent years, San Francisco’s restaurants have also been, if we’re being honest here, kind of a boring scene. Not bad, but predictable, tepid. A few too many chefs swearing too much fealty to the Alice Waters gospel of do-no-harm California cooking. A Groundhog Day of conscientiously curated salads and competent pizzas.

Walk in any direction on Valencia Street these days and it’s clear something has come unglued. The post-puritanical phase of San Francisco restaurants has happily arrived. And it is marked by a loosening of strictures, an increased improvisational eagerness to defy expectations, and a renewed license to get a little weird.

At Abbot’s Cellar, a beer-focused restaurant with a mesmerizing wall display of glasses of every imaginable shape and size and an equally expansive menu of draft and bottled brews to fill them, you can pair black lager with your grilled bison loin. Sharing the same building—a high-ceilinged brick structure that was until recently an auto-body shop—is Dandelion Chocolate, a “bean-to-bar” factory and shop, as well as Craftsman & Wolves, an haute patisserie.

Craftsman & Wolves is about as far away, spiritually and aesthetically, from Tartine Bakery (and other folksy Mission sweets spots like Bi-Rite Creamery) as you can get while still occupying the same zip code. My friend Dennis Leary, who owns San Francisco restaurants Canteen, the Sentinel, and the revamped old-man bar House of Shields, dismisses this new breed as “those ampersand places.” But Craftsman & Wolves distinguishes itself from the pack by its Scandinavianesque design and the refined, unapologetically uppity pastries, savory and sweet, tidily arranged, jewel-like, in glass cases. Tacked up on a wall are inspirational quotes from chefs, writers, and architects. One, from Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson, instructs: Respect. Control. Selection. Concentration. Presentation.

The sign might as well read Listen up, hippies, this is not a cupcake shop!

What cuts through the cold is the personality of pastry chef/owner William Werner, which shines in the product itself. The croissants glazed with passion fruit and sesame seeds; a finger of semolina cake studded with candied corn nuts; a very good brownie sandwiched solidly together with caramel; a chocolate-toffee confection that conceals a foie gras torchon (or it did until California’s idiotic foie gras ban outlawed it this past summer).

I ate my bagful of pastries first and returned to the counter to round things out with a bit of savory lunch. A jar of pork rillettes was incongruously paired with corn madeleines and two shades of pickled cauliflower. The rillettes were a bit too cold and the madeleines too crumbly, but all the elements stood on their own, and as I sat crunching on Day-Glo purple and yellow cauliflower florets and nibbling potted pork off the tip of a knife, I found myself thinking for the hundredth time since I got to town: here is something I wouldn’t be eating anywhere else.

The Mission is the kind of neighborhood that can sustain two varieties of street accordionist. There is the hipster accordionist, stationed across from Freemans Sporting Club, wearing a tiny fedora and a beatific smile. And there is the older, wandering, cowboy-hatted Mexican accordionist, looking as though he’s not quite sure what’s happened to his neighborhood. These blocks have always been a destination for some of the city’s best old-school, no-frills taquerias, but what wasn’t here until last year was a brightly tiled, sceney spot like Tacolicious (and Mosto, its tequila-bar annex), where you can get pitchers of margaritas made with blackberry and tarragon and perfect little tacos of succulent prickly pear and melted queso oaxaca.

“I’d describe the San Francisco scene as more ‘warm and fuzzy’ than ‘center of the universe,’ ” says David Lynch, every wine nerd’s favorite sommelier and an East Coast émigré. The onetime Babbo general manager left New York to work at sibling Italian restaurants Quince and Cotogna before striking out on his own at St. Vincent, his just-opened tavern on Valencia near 24th Street.

The joint is named for Saint Vincent of Saragossa, patron saint of wine- and vinegar-makers, but it’s the fuzzy-faced grump Lynch who looks after the thirsty and hungry here—and their needs are well met. Want to start with some grower champagne, head into a cult white from Lazio, and end the night with some funky Catalan red (all for less than a $100 a bottle)? Lynch can take you there. Feel like a pork-rib riff on Kentucky burgoo or a bar snack of beet-purple pickled egg that tastes like a bite of horseradishy borscht? Chef Bill Niles’s Southern-inflected, nonconformist menu has your moods covered.

“Sometimes I do miss the edge of New York, but honestly I can’t imagine being anywhere else,” Lynch says. “We can be a little self-righteous about it, but the fact is San Francisco is just a fount of good shit right now. What we lack in coolness we make up for in kindness.”

And the city continues to atone for its fallow period of culinary dullness by fostering niche outlets to meet every curious craving, even the ones you didn’t know you had. The Mission in particular feels like it’s been laid out by some kind of WPA agency established to stamp out the munchies. Feel like more pickled eggs? Try Pig & Pie, artisanal sausage makers working out of an old record store (the neon marquee still reads discolandia). To get there, leave St. Vincent and walk east down the hill on 24th. Cross Mission Street to the shady side and stay on 24th past the vendor selling Mexican wrestling masks, past the “fresh Kombucha bar,” past Philz Coffee, where the Palestinian owner grinds beans fresh for every cup, and past the tour groups gathered around murals of Aztec gods and giant flowers. Carry on by the Salvadoran pupusería and the Nicaraguan café and the Chinese doughnut shop and the other Chinese doughnut shop, past the clothing boutique advertising $2 mini golf and past Humphry Slocombe, where the line snakes out the door for scoops of its “secret breakfast” ice cream (spiked with bourbon and cornflakes). Take a matzoh brei breather at Wise Sons Delicatessen, a post-ironic Jewish deli where they brine their own pastrami and the walls are papered with fading Yiddish newsprint. In large type over the door as you exit back onto 24th Street there’s a motto that reads like a promise: in America you can eat challah everyday.

“Did you see Alice Waters buying tomatoes?”

Saturday morning at the farmers’ market behind the Ferry Building. The entire city has turned up as usual. Everyone is wondering if everyone else just witnessed the affirming spectacle of Alice Waters buying tomatoes.

I’m distractedly eating cheeseburgers for breakfast with Daniel Patterson, chef and owner of the Michelin-two-starred restaurant Coi. Patterson is a thoughtful guy, known for the cerebral naturalism of his food. Maybe it’s better that we missed Waters, as Patterson is also known for an essay he wrote in the New York Times entitled “To the Moon, Alice?” In it, he challenged his colleagues in Bay Area kitchens to be more original and chided them for relying too heavily on a “dogma” of sustainable ingredients and menus that amounted to little more than “comfortable home cooking with no particular point of view.” Though he expressed his abiding simpatico admiration for Waters and the rightness of her mission, Patterson’s plea struck many as an affront and, seven years later, the story still rankles. David Chang, of the Momofuku mini-empire, waded into the same waters with more epigrammatic bluntness: “F—kin’ every restaurant in San Francisco is just serving figs on a plate. Do something with your food.” It didn’t really matter that Chang was mostly joking and his quote was taken out of context. The result was predictable. Hurt feelings, recriminations, strained East Coast–West Coast relations. If the food world were international diplomacy, ambassadors would have been recalled. If it were hip-hop, there’d have been a brawl at the Beard Awards.

“It’s funny, but this is a very conservative city,” Patterson says. “Things have loosened up, and there’s a new energy here that’s exciting. Customers are open to a greater variety of experiences.”

After our cheeseburgers at the 4505 Meats stall, I move on to a post-breakfast snack of their cereal bar with chicharrones—basically a Rice Krispies treat crammed with fried pork skin. A great sunny blueness breaks through the dishwater-gray sky. We drink a lot of Blue Bottle coffee. Patterson’s kids eat a crate’s worth of beautiful Yerena Farms berries and are now darting through the dense forest of adult legs.

“The cooking is mutating now and there’s this spirit of experimentation and openness I haven’t seen here before,” Patterson says.

“People are playing around more. They’re taking risks, making very personal food. We’re even exporting to New York now!” he says, a nod to local hero Danny Bowien, whose Mission Chinese Food recently opened an outpost on the Lower East Side.

He doesn’t sound vindicated. Just pleased things turned out this way and eager for a night off to see what this new wave of restaurateurs (many of them former Coi employees) is getting up to.

San Francisco is a constellation of unlike parts, microclimates of sun and fog and hill and valley, held together by a mutual preoccupation with where to park and what’s for lunch. Any attempt to complete a survey of the city’s latest openings is as famously futile as repainting that big bridge—as soon as you’re done, you have to start again.

One afternoon I boarded an outbound Muni tram at the Embarcadero and rode it west until it reached the misty dunes of Ocean Beach. High-rise condos disappeared, replaced by low stucco houses in 1970’s-leisure-suit shades of tan and teal. A few blocks from the Pacific, across the street from a shuttered service station and down the road from a tattoo shop with a window display of a plump sea lion wearing a fisherman’s sweater, there’s an unassuming restaurant-café called Outerlands. The walls are hung with gray-brown planks of weathered wood, plants dangle from nautical ropes, and at lunch there’s a little menu of simple good things: a sandwich of ripe tomatoes and roasted eggplant; melted cheese with two runny eggs on top; a bourbon-laced apple cider to guard against the sea-breeze chill of a summer afternoon.

Brett Cooper, the chef, arrived here via the more rarefied kitchens of Coi and Saison. The restaurant’s website is full of the kind of twee twaddle that makes you want to lay your head on the Muni tracks (“Outerlands is a gathering place for sea goers who seek warmth, shelter, food, and fellowship.”) But then you go and that California thing happens. The vibe is indeed homey, the organic levain bread is delicious, and you sort of do want to stay all day.

In another part of town—it could be another planet, really—Anna Weinberg runs Park Tavern, at the edge of North Beach’s Washington Square Park. Petite and peculiar may be the order of the day, but San Francisco is comfortable with success, too, and right now this large, handsome brasserie with its coffered ceiling, slate-gray tiles, and tufted black banquettes is the place to celebrate it. Tech money comes out to play, the girls put on their nice shoes, and everybody looks good in the low, golden light of the bar. Michael Bauer, the Chronicle’s long-serving restaurant critic, has likened the place to Jeremiah Tower’s legendary Stars. Which is to say, it’s the scene everyone wants to be a part of and the food is actually good. Anna’s a friend, too, so maybe I’m biased. But the week I’m in town San Francisco magazine names her Restaurateur of the Year and, judging by the packed house both times I visit, it seems people agree. Jennifer Puccio’s expansive menu of intelligent comfort food soothes many moods: a standout burger; schnitzel with bacon-fat eggs and marinated anchovies; for brunch, a hangover-helper cocktail of Fernet Branca, ginger beer, and lemon (available by the pitcher, should you require it). “My inspiration is always food I want to eat on my day off,” Puccio says.

Pleasure, says Bauer, is the dominant theme in San Francisco dining. “That’s been true since the gold rush, when there was a house of prostitution on every street and they distinguished themselves by their free lunches. The best lunches got the most men.”

What distinguishes menus around town these days, he says, is “how personal they’ve become. You can look at a plate and know who produced it.”

One of the chefs Bauer mentions in this context is Corey Lee, who worked for Thomas Keller for many years before opening his own place in the SoMa district. At Benu, Lee applies the French Laundry–style precision and restraint he internalized as chef de cuisine there to ingredients and dishes that reflect not only his Asian heritage but also his own particular obsessions. The $180, 18-course tasting menu at Benu has moments of real beauty. A bowl of wild-salmon roe with puffed buckwheat conjures taste memories of cold soba. There is Lee’s take on a xiao long bao, flavored with lobster meat and coral, lobster consommé, and tarragon. Not traditional but better than any soup dumpling I’ve had in Shanghai. “Every day I spend two hours making those,” Lee tells me later, laughing. “I’m enslaved by them. It involves a lot of modern techniques like whisking clarified butter over liquid nitrogen, but the idea is for none of that to show up for the diner.” I ask him about one of the courses—eel wrapped in brik pastry—and he tells me a long backstory involving Christofle cigar holders, Korean bar snacks, and Thomas Keller’s fiancée. “She’s very picky. She doesn’t eat all sorts of stuff, including Thomas’s signature salmon cone that everyone starts with at French Laundry. She just didn’t like it.” So Lee improvised a replacement, a tuile served in a cigar holder with powdered olives as ash and…. Well, somehow this led, years later, to this very nice, crunchy, rich little bite of braised Japanese eel.

Of course, inspired flights of fancy sometimes crash and burn. There’s a loony restaurant on Fillmore called State Bird Provisions that has garnered feverishly good notices for its dim-sum-cart-style service scheme and gleefully whackadoodle flavor mash-ups (“pickles, smoked-albacore-lardo butter”; “local boquerones, yeasted sesame pancake, crème fraîche”). I can’t explain the appeal of the place any more than I can explain to my mouth why I put that smoked albacore-lardo butter in it. The room is dispiritingly ugly, the stuff I tried tasted muddled to middling, the concept bafflingly misguided. This isn’t a case of the emperor’s new clothes, more the court jester’s new clown shoes.

Let us turn instead to a dish that sounded utterly unpromising on paper but turned out to be one of the nicest things I ate in San Francisco. The chicken-liver mousse with pole beans and dill, topped with a crumbly cracker of pain de mie, at Rich Table, a new (and otherwise sane-seeming) restaurant in Hayes Valley. The light, salty-sweet mousse bound the beans together; the crunch of the cracker added texture—incongruously, it all worked.

“It’s really a riff on the green-bean casserole I had as a kid,” said Evan Rich, who owns the place with his wife, Sarah. “The beans are the star of the dish. The cracker on top was a replacement for the fried onions.”

With its planked walls and industrial sconces, Rich Table has a certain familiar urban-woodsy aesthetic. But like that liver-beans dish, it works because it’s smartly put together.

Rich, another East Coast convert, moved to San Francisco with his wife from New York about five years ago. “I hate to say it, but at the time the dining scene seemed very one-note,” he says. He worked at Coi for a while and remembers Patterson telling him, “The difference between New York and San Francisco is that if you serve an amazing lamb dish in New York, the diner will ask, ‘How did you cook that lamb?’ And if you serve the same amazing dish here, the diner will ask, ‘Where did you get the lamb?’ These days, though, chefs here are really working to elevate what they do beyond just putting beautiful product on a plate. They’ve become bolder.”

Nobody’s abandoned the local-seasonal-sustainable mantra. They’ve just stopped repeating it out loud. San Francisco has always been an eater’s earthly paradise of the finest produce and fiercest pieties. Now it’s developed a personality to match.

Adam Sachs is a T+L contributing editor.


Abbot’s Cellar 742 Valencia St.; $$$

Bar Tartine 561 Valencia St.; $$

Benu 22 Hawthorne St.; $$$$

Central Kitchen Confidently unfussy California cuisine in a canopied, elegantly industrial space from Thomas McNaughton of Flour & Water. 3000 20th St.; $$$

Craftsman & Wolves 746 Valencia St.; $$

4505 Meats 1 Ferry Building;

Locanda Bustling osteria from the team behind Mission stalwarts Delfina and Delfina Pizza. 557 Valencia St.; $$$

Namu Gaji Minute Korean spot in the Mission with lines out the door to rival its neighbor Bi-Rite Creamery. 499 Dolores St.; $$$

Outerlands 4001 Judah St.; $$

Park Tavern 1652 Stockton St.; $$$

Pig & Pie 2962 24th St.; $$

Rich Table 199 Gough St.; $$$

St. Vincent 1270 Valencia St.; $$

Tacolicious 741 Valencia St.;$$

Wise Sons Delicatessen 3150 24th St.;; no dinner. $$

Restaurant Pricing Key

$ Less than $25
$$ $25 to $75
$$$ $75 to $150
$$$$ More than $150