A perfect meal in San Francisco
Food lovers from around the world flock to the Bay Area this round-up of the city's best restaurants tells you why
In 1971, Alice Waters and Paul Aratow founded Chez Panisse, the iconic Berkeley restaurant on Shattuck Avenue which set into motion a food revolution that transformed American food. By bridging relationships with local farmers, and encouraging them to farm organic, Chez Panisse minted a culinary language that was singular and first in line: the emphasis was to eat fresh, with little fuss, and always with sterling ingredients. In the years that followed, Chez Panisse distinguished itself not only as a restaurant of excellence but as a lab or salon where new ideas were animatedly discussed, old ways were set aside, and ran a kitchen that inspired a generation of chefs. “The sensual pleasure of eating beautiful food from the garden brings with it the moral satisfaction of doing the right thing for the planet and for yourself," Waters was quoted as saying. When I lived in Berkeley in the early 2000s, I went to Chez Panisse for special occasions like birthdays or graduation dinners. The meals were delicious, satisfying and infused with simplicity—a pear from Frog Hollow Farms might constitute dessert. Some years later, when I heard a cappella musical performances, I was reminded of meals at Chez Panisse: both undecorated experiences of magnitude.
The northern California belt—San Francisco and its neighbouring districts—has one of the highest concentrations of Michelin-star restaurants in the US. Dedicated food lovers from across the world come here on gastronomy trails, mostly concentrating on San Francisco and the wine belt in Napa Valley. Most cities have their own farmers’ markets, which are a sound indicator of what’s in season, and showcase an assortment of vegetables and fruits, flowers, cheese and jams. The atmosphere is sociable and warm, with pets and people milling around a golden harvest of Valencia oranges and buckets of flowers (picture lavender and tuberoses in metal tubs). Many of the Michelin-star restaurants source directly from farmers while some—like the legendary vegetarian restaurant, Greens—have their own holdings (Green Gulch Farm in Marin).
In 2016, The New York Times designated In Situ America’s most original new restaurant. Located in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and building on the idea of food as art, each dish comes from a different master chef’s kitchen. The menu is collated much in the way a curator might collect works for a group show, considering how they might complement each other or stand apart in sharp relief. I went for the carrot tartare, from the books of Daniel Humm and his restaurant Eleven Madison Park. It was efficiently presented, delicate, exactly what I desired, on a quiet weekday afternoon as the San Franciscan fog rolled outside. From Massimo Bottura’s celebrated Osteria Francescana came Oops! I Dropped The Lemon Tart, a masterful, bravura act of delicious mischief. A unique concept, exquisitely executed, In Situ deserves the one star it presently enjoys.
Commonwealth, in San Francisco’s Mission district, dazzled me with its scope and range, its inventive charm and daring. What’s not to love? I was taken with the vegetarian tasting, which included asparagus with potato salad, liquorice herbs, watercress and smoked egg. The fava beans in brown butter with spinach and lovage were like a magical transformation, elevating a somewhat “basic" vegetable—the fava bean—to a hearty, handsome addition for the palate. We attempted the pescatarian menu, and marvelled at both the delicately presented crispy oysters with creamed nettles as well as the monkfish with red wine poached octopus and leeks (the red wine imparts a spooky, sublime colour). Before moving on to a dessert of burnt honey ice cream, we cleansed our palate with a celery sorbet.
At Lord Stanley on Polk Street, wine director Louisa Smith possessed a bold, seamless brilliance, a pairing genius that reminded me of Ulrika Karlsson, the award-winning owner and sommelier at Sweden’s Krakas Krog. In distinguished ways, both women developed a wine list that is unique and robust; favouring lesser-known regions and drawing on flavours that surprise the palate with citrus tones and lighter cherry notes. Smith’s glorious selection brings to life the menu at Lord Stanley—these include onion petals with sherry vinegar, absolutely stunning pan-fried scallops teamed with beurre blanc, and a halibut teased with roasted fish sauce. The menu here has a neatness to it that brings to mind the prose of Raymond Carver, a celebration of elegant concision and direct strength. As an aside, Lord Stanley draws some of San Francisco’s better-dressed diners—one guest, perhaps in an Issey Miyake, stood at the entrance, alert to the full, arresting force of her glamour. On the subject of the alcohol range, if you’re drawn more to beers and Pils, I’d suggest Cesar, in Berkeley, where I hung out as a student, bingeing on what must qualify as the world’s best fries. They are shaved spears of potatoes with herbs like rosemary (order also their anchovies with aioli) and an unparalleled list of ales.
While speaking to younger chefs in the Bay Area, I was informed that Chez Panisse lost its Michelin star in 2009, after having it for three years, as the menu was found to be “too simple". Such comments are patronizing. They come from the younger guns, who believed a dressage performance in the culinary arts is the way to go. It might also be that Alice Waters is simply not interested in such validations, and refuses to play along. The Michelin fancy dress continues, but Waters remains the queen who watches the show with an equal mix of amusement and atonement.