I Eat Meat. Why Was Killing My Own So Hard?

This night is different from other nights. Last week I was huddled in a foggy parklet listening to triple-vaxxed friends crow about cryptocurrency over wisps of hamachi crudo. Tonight I’m sitting fireside beneath a heavily bearded bison, digging daggers into a feast of wild game, and dinner conversation is…wild.

Topics include favorite methods for excavating ungulate innards and the joys of canning raw bear meat. One woman explains how she strategically stashes firearms in case of a home intrusion. Another asks: “Who is Fauci?”

Our host, Jen Judge, poses a question. “Where’s the best place to shoot an elk?” “In the heart and lungs!” someone cheers. Yes, but no. “As close to the road as possible,” she says, smiling. It’s an inside-hunting joke I don’t quite get, yet. 

I was already having second thoughts. Now I’m having third thoughts. Dramatic thoughts. Coen Brothers–esque thoughts. I’m here to kill. Why?

Not like I’ve killed ants crawling on my kitchen counter. Or any plant I’ve ever owned. Not even like, oh, nooo, the raccoon I just didn’t see that one dark night. 

But I was here now, at Vermejo, a New Mexico eco-reserve half the size of the Grand Canyon, where Ted Turner’s deer and antelope roam. The 83-year-old billionaire CNN founder and conservationist has long lived by his own motto: “Save Everything.” He has dedicated the last three decades to restoring wildlife and, in turn, this land it lives on. Managing populations of bison, cutthroat trout, and a herd of 7,000 elk that includes some 4,000 females (a.k.a. cow elk), which is what we’re hunting. No antlers, trim beige coats, bottomless brown eyes, and puffy white butts so cute and bouncy they belong in a Charmin commercial.

So cute, so alive, I’m not sure I—an urban-dwelling, gun-shunning omnivore who can’t pull her own kid’s loose tooth (gross)—will be able to do what I came to do: pull a trigger, and then do every unappetizing thing it actually takes to eat a steak for dinner. Perhaps a hideous wild boar or a wee bird would’ve been easier?

This was not a vacation but a new forest-to-table workshop aimed at women who know little to nothing about hunting—nor possess the things required to try it, other than an open mind, a tough stomach, and deep pockets. Access to these 550,000 pristine acres isn’t cheap, especially since it comes with perks a bare-bones hunt on public land does not: comfy beds and hot showers, safety courses and expert guides, butchering demos, three chef-y meals a day. Every confounding detail (licenses, tags, firearms, ammunition, rubber gloves) prearranged. And if all goes well, more than a year’s worth of the most sustainable meat a family could eat.

Hunting on private land is akin to having CLEAR at the airport. It makes things a little easier, a lot less crowded, complete with someone to guide you through the maze. It also makes you feel like a prick.

Still, an opportunity like this transforms hunting into something it otherwise isn’t—not really—for someone without a tether to the tradition: Doable. Safe. Supportive. Lacking the machismo that women who hunt with men (which is most women who hunt) say they often encounter.

It makes it possible to breeze into northern New Mexico, ignorant and inexperienced, and leave six days later a new woman in a way, with purple elk steaks in her carry-on.

“Lots of people hunt,” shrugged my friend Chris, who doesn’t, before I left. He’s right. Lots of people hunt and have, of course, since the cave days. Although since the rise of the industrial meatpacking industry, not to mention DoorDash, let’s be honest, not that many.

The number of hunters in America has declined steadily over the decades, from 17 million in the 1980s to around 11.5 million today. The pandemic, however, gave hunting a boost. Like birding and biking, hiking and camping, COVID life led to a newfound appreciation for all there is to do outdoors. Pickleball, pig hunting, same-same?

A whopping 80% of Americans say they approve of hunting yet only 4% do it. California, where I live, issued 300,000 hunting licenses in 2020, a 9% increase over 2019. But that’s still less than 1% of its population.

That 1% did not include me. I was raised in suburban Boston. My father ran video arcades. My mother cooked Steak-umms. Somehow I grew up to be a fleeting San Francisco restaurant critic who finds hiking fun and enjoys gardening, as in picking lettuce at a farm-y Airbnb. Other pastimes include graciously accepting fresh-caught salmon and foraged porcini from friends and having nothing to offer in return. I even wrote a book about how to avoid wildlife encounters—which is the opposite of stalking them. Self-sufficiency isn’t my thing. Anxiety is.

To me, people who hunt have always been Other People. Hardier people. Rural people. Sturdy Midwesterners and genteel Southern people. British queens and their tweed-knickers-clad people. A certain breed of chef people. Increasingly, in the United States, hunting has attracted more women and people of color—but still, stereotypically, statistically, white, right, aging-male people are the majority.

Of course, I’m hardly the first coastal elite, shall we call me, to try hunting, or to write about it. Mary Zeiss Stange, an academic and author of the 1997 book Woman the Hunter, grew up in Hackensack, New Jersey, before morphing into a Montana rancher. “I assumed…that a good day’s hunting was best accomplished at Saks Fifth Avenue,” she once wrote. For his 2006 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan went on his first boar hunt, and wrote about it with an ego-free eloquence rarely associated with the pursuit. Soon lady-hunter tomes were trending, like Call of the Mild and Girl Hunter.

Post-2020, liberal-leaning deer hunters appear to be coming out of the woods like never before. Tamar Haspel’s new book, To Boldly Grow, chronicles her “firsthand food” adventures, from planting tomatoes to hunting turkey. Rue Mapp, the founder of Outdoor Afro, a nonprofit that inspires Black connections in nature, told me she’d “signed up for a pheasant hunt a few years ago but then totally chickened out.” Come COVID, though, she was ready to forgo grocery lines and factory farms, reclaim her family’s rural roots, and become something none of her Bay Area friends were: a hunter.

Rugged 101 camps are cropping up around the country. In 2021 veteran course Path of the Hunter, a months-long series outside Seattle, sold out twice for the first time in its dozen years. “We’re talking about harvesting roadkill!” my friend Damien Huang texted on day one. He’d bought his first gun for the occasion. “My homework is to carve a turkey call from bone! Here we go!”

These coastal elites are tougher, more capable coastal elites than me.

Here at Vermejo we were a dozen women, from opposite parts of the country. Omicron en route, I was the only one wearing a mask indoors and the only one afraid of firearms. Michelle, a middle-aged farmer from North Carolina, has carried one for protection she has never needed, she said, since she was 16. She gifted this trip to her daughter, Cat, a country singer, for Christmas. Christine, willowy with coiffed silver hair and armed with a Coach purse, came from Minnesota, where she owns a family-friendly shooting range. Julie went from managing events at Auberge in Napa to running a women’s handgun self-defense school outside San Bernardino. Her second husband proposed with a ring hidden inside a bloody elk heart.

Our guides: Amanda Caldwell, a Montana millennial who grew up feeding her family; Rihana Cary, an un-vaxxed ex-vegan with extra long eyelashes, more than a decade of wild game experience, and 90,000 Instagram followers; Jenna Rhoads, a 20-something realtor who daylights for her dad’s hunting and fishing outfit. As if by a yenta, I am perfectly matched with two boosted adult-onset hunters focused on filling their freezers. Aly Courtemanch, a wildlife biologist from Jackson Hole who hunts once a year for meat, and Jen Judge. She created this course, with Vermejo’s Kyle Jackson, a quiet, imposing man wearing the world’s biggest belt buckle. The two have long shared a vision: to bridge the illogical chasm between those who hunt to eat and those who merely love to eat.

Now’s the time. Awareness of Big Beef’s role in the intensifying climate crisis has never been greater. Livestock contributes to 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Many people are looking to change their meat-eating habits: reducing the amount they consume, seeking alternative forms, forgoing it altogether. And although nine out of 10 Americans still eat it, a whopping 23% cut back in 2019. Investment in plant-based is soaring. Lab-grown is supposedly coming soon.

But Impossible patties and cell-cultured duck alone can’t save us, says Celia Homyak, co-director of UC Berkeley’s Alt: Meat Lab. Moreover, whether cultured meat will ever scale enough to affordably feed the ever-growing masses remains a topic of debate. “It’ll either become, like, a niche-y ‘foie gras’ served at a Michelin-starred restaurant or the next Google,” as Homyak puts it. But “the goal is to decrease the methane gas that comes from animal production.”

Oat and almond milk have already begun to siphon off demand for dairy, but what is ultimately needed, she argues, isn’t the total elimination of cows but a diversification of food sources—of plant-based and cell-based products and small local farms. “Hunting holds a place,” in all of this too, Homyak says. It has a low carbon footprint, mitigates the overpopulation of wildlife, and helps keep the ecosystem in balance. As Tamar Haspel argued in The Washington Post, venison is unequivocally the single most ecologically friendly food you can eat.

I’d been so focused on the animal part, I’d forgotten about the gun part. The trip took place days after the mass shooting in Oxford, Michigan. Not long after the Alec Baldwin incident. And here I was in the company of six rifles and two men in shirts emblazoned with the name of their gun company (Best of the West), learning how to safely use one.

Not just any guns either: $10,000 guns custom-designed for this trip, according to instructor Wade Brown, a former Cheesecake Factory GM turned rifle salesman. Dominic “Dom” Pasquale, ex-military with the calming voice of Mr. Rogers, hands me a rifle splatter-painted pink and purple. It reminds me of my favorite Esprit T-shirt from sixth grade, except it’s a lethal weapon capable of sending a bullet flying 2,870 feet per second. The artist, I’m told, named it “Sexy Spruce.”

Set in a peaceful meadow, the practice range is, I’ll just say it, fun. Exhilarating. Team-building, like trust falls. Out here, in nature and benevolent hands, guns seem to me more sporty than evil.

 But shooting, accurately or otherwise, isn’t coming naturally. Was Sexy Spruce too big? Was my cheek weld too low? Shoulder pressure too weak? Rihana adjusts my stool. Amanda elevates my chin. Jen plants my foot firmly on the ground. How many women does it take to get a nice Jewish girl settled into proper eye relief? (Answer: six). Peering dizzily through the scope, I try to line up my crosshairs with the bull’s-eye. It feels as if I’m failing an eye exam, like I’ve shown up drunk to the ophthalmologist. 

“You’ll get it,” patient Dom promises. Eventually, hours later, as the hills burn gold, I do.

Day one of the hunt starts as hunts do: early. Legal shooting light begins a half hour before dawn and lasts precisely 30 minutes after sunset. Honestly, I’d never realized hunting had rules. I naively thought it was what the movies have long made it out to be: a trigger-happy, beer-guzzling, let’s-get-’em free-for-all. Hunting is not like that.

Aly, Jen, and I pile into a Toyota Tundra. With 150,000 acres—or a Zion National Park–size parcel—to ourselves, I drop “Dick Cheney accident” from my list of worries and leave my playing-it-extra-safe neon orange hat behind. But I clutch my multicolored Cotopaxi puffy coat like a security blanket.

As the inky sky streaks yellow, Jen turns to me, riding shotgun: “It’s time,” she laughs. Reluctantly, I wriggle into my new Sitka Optifade Subalpine outfit. Save my khaki Lululemon pants, I’m head-to-toe camo. Extreme Makeover: Hunter Edition.

Scanning for the flick of a female ear, we see only bulls. And a band of wild horses, flocks of turkeys, a lone bobcat, countless bison. Like elk, New Mexico’s bison population was decimated by commercial hunters by the late 1800s, but Vermejo’s conservation efforts over the past 26 years have taken its herd from zero to 1,200 strong. 

Pulling into the lodge after dusk, empty-handed, I feel relieved.

Dawn, the next morning, Jen and Aly spot a small herd of females bedded by a beaver pond 400 yards away. An experienced hunter might’ve gone for it. Not me. We let sleeping elk lie and press on. More bulls. More bison. A hundred pronghorn sprinting through the trees like a cross-country team taking off at the starting line.

The sun is sinking. The clock is ticking. Tomorrow’s forecast calls for snow and 100 mph winds. Hunting in that doesn’t sound fun. I’m still not certain hunting itself is fun. Then almost karmically—last light, last chance—there they are: at least 60 cow elk, scattered across a small valley backed by a steep hillside even the most agile animal would have a hard time climbing. Slinging my rifle over my shoulder like it’s a laptop bag, I march silently back toward the herd.

Ducking into the grass, Aly and I creep in slo-mo behind Jen, avoiding the crunch of pine cones, the snap of twigs, stopping mid-step when she does, like mimes playing freeze tag. They surely smell us. And likely see us, all those elk eyes with 280-degree vision. Okay, camo comes in handy. We look like the trees: unthreatening. Inching ever closer. Peering through Sexy Spruce’s scope, it’s elk in HD. Some are head down, eating. Others mill aimlessly, elegantly, like they’re bored at a garden party.

A garden party suddenly set to a string quartet. Chirping fills the air. Ooh, wow, I mouth to Aly. The birds! Though I don’t see any. Those aren’t birds, she mouths back. It’s elk talking, telling each other something’s up. They’re not scared, she says, just aware. 

I, however, am terrified. There are so many elk but only one standing apart. A clean, clear shot. Tripod set, muzzle pointed, camouflaged finger extended, safety unlocked. She’s in my crosshairs, crystal clear, but my thoughts are not. Take the shot, Jen mouths. I can’t. Not because my hands are shaking. They’re not shaking. 

I think about the randomness of death, of who dies from COVID or a car crash, at a concert, in a classroom. Hunting, I know, isn’t the same as such atrocities. Yet I couldn’t help but, if only for a second, see a parallel. Americans. Elk. Going so achingly innocently about their day. 

“Don’t hurt any animals!” my son cried on my way out the door. I won’t, I’d promised. I didn’t want to hurt an animal either. I let the elk drift through the grass, like a cloud in the sky, until she’s surrounded, saved by the herd. A lucky duck. 

Hunters don’t call it killing, by the way. They call it harvesting. Because at the end of the day, that is (also) what it is: hand-sourcing sustenance from the earth, instead of Costco.

Most modern humans don’t need to hunt. We don’t need to build our own houses or knit our own sweaters either (though some admirably handy people do). The rest of us, even the most food-obsessed, we’re busy! Sitting. Slacking. Cooking in our ivory kitchens, tweeting about mashed potatoes, posting halved burritos, scrolling Resy, regrowing scallions. Wandering around supermarkets instead of fields. Maybe wondering what the hell Mark Zuckerberg’s Horizon Worlds is and why on earth we’d ever want to “live” in it? Adhering to the sensible proverb: Why freaking kill a cow when we can press Purchase on a pound of local organic grass-fed grind for $13.99?

And yet there’s something about living on the edge of the metaverse that makes you want to flee as far from it as possible. There’s also something about living in the rapidly warming real world that makes you want to do a tiny part to help, or at least feel like you can.

Soon another perky-eared elk is on her own, standing broadside, 237 yards—a quarter of a second—away. Smushing my cheek, lining up my crosshairs, I steer my mind to what I’ve learned. How herbivorous animals often experience worse deaths at the paws and jaws of predators. How aging elk lose their molar teeth and suffer slow starvation. I think about how much respect I have for Jen and Aly, and how much they have for these animals.

I think about tomorrow’s forecasted bone-chilling blizzard and how, if I’m doing this, I’m doing it today, and drinking an old-fashioned or two tonight. Whenever you’re ready, whispers Jen. I’ll never be ready. So I shut down and just do it. Shock, adrenaline, shame. I bury my face.

Until I force myself to look up. The herd has bolted at the sound of the gun, leaving my elk standing alone. And me, horrified, confused. You shot her in the liver, Aly says. She doesn’t feel pain, just a little sick.

The second shot is harder because it’s quartering away, because I don’t want to shoot anything ever again. I squeeze. She drops. I sob like a sudden widow, like someone I don’t want to be.

Crossing an icy creek we trudge through the tall grass, eventually finding her on her side, heat rising from her fur. The sky glows. The moon shines. “Want to make the first incision?” Aly asks, Havalon in hand. “No,” I snap. “How about holding her legs?” I grab the hooves, the biggest-ever big toes, then her scratchy ankles, if ungulates have ankles, angling for a better grasp of the animal, of the situation. Lifting her lanky limbs like a wheelbarrow that won’t budge, I splay them apart. I’m an OB-GYN to a giant. Aly yanks her organs while I widen her rib cage, wading elbow-deep in electric red blood. Her heart is warm, the size of a Mary’s Organic chicken. She has such a big heart, I say, like people say.

No, I don’t take a bite, per supposed tradition. But now I get that fireside joke about being close to the road. Had we been deep in the backcountry, we would’ve had to dismember the elk in the field, pack it out, and walk for miles with 300 pounds on our backs. Instead, Jen pulls up with the truck; we heave the animal into the back and rumble out beneath the stars. Late, though not exactly starving, for dinner.

That night, showered, mired in remorse, I can’t sleep. So I do what anyone does after harvesting her first elk: send out the Paperless Post for my daughter’s bat mitzvah.

Back in my San Francisco comfort zone, I look the same, but I feel different. In that way you do after your internal world has shifted, like after you lose your virginity or someone you love. Like after I gave birth.

Hunting, I realize, doesn’t just access meat in its rawest state, but ours too. Did pushing a life out of my body make me a mother? Did taking one make me…a hunter? Did I ever want to do either of those things again?

All I know is now I have two kids. And a basement chest freezer from Home Depot, brimming with some 130 pounds of tenderloin and roasts, rumps and grind. And nine months later I haven’t bought an ounce of beef from the supermarket. I recently asked Michael Pollan if he ever hunted again. Just mushrooms. “My basic belief is that if I spend enough time in the company of a gun, someone’s going to get hurt,” he said. “I’m just too much of a klutz. I know my limitations.” I know mine too. Hunting, on my own, would require things I don’t have (a sense of direction, sniper-level archery skills) or want (a gun).

Still, when I’m in my slippers, stirring Bolognese or searing lean, grassy steaks in gobs of butter, I feel something I’d never felt after unloading $300 of groceries: accomplished? content? proud? To know what it truly means to be a meat eater. To finally have an appropriate thank you gift for my friend with the foraged porcinis. To be a mother just, you know, feeding her family supper.

I once tried a chicken nugget concocted in a lab. It tasted like a chicken nugget. I still picture the sterile, secretive factory, all the stainless steel, some tech dude in a performative apron, frying it up in a mini pan, serving me the future. If, one day, the meat we eat boils down to beakers versus bullets, which to choose?

I don’t know. I’d rather be standing at my stove, transported to New Mexico. Awed by the sunrise and the symphony. Laughing in the truck. Crying in the trees. Clinking midday whiskey in Jen’s kitchen, butchering a leg longer than mine.

Walking sheepishly into the bar that night with blood on my hands, I was welcomed with hugs and hoots. There was a high five, which felt weird. And my two old-fashioneds. We toasted a feat, our week, our elk, each other. I smiled. I hugged back, not feeling celebratory so much as supported. Understood. Cat and Michelle, Christine and Julie, Jenna, Rihana, Amanda, Wade and Dom, even quiet Kyle—somehow this unlikely crew had become my people. I felt like I’d traveled far, crossed a border into a world I’ll never quite consider home. Yet one I feel a little more at home in.

We created this course for people like you, Kyle told me, towering in his 10-gallon hat. “Whether you ever hunt again, you’ve tried it. You understand.”

I get what he means. When do we ever sit around a table—or belly-crawl through brush—with people from wholly different walks? When do we talk and listen, without anger or arguing, just curiosity, even compassion? Bound by an experience so shared and primal, it somehow makes America’s Great Ideological Divide seem a little less wide?

Kyle wants people to give hunting a chance. Which really means giving people a chance. Hunting elk, I have to say: more bonding even than breaking bread.

Rachel Levin is a San Francisco journalist and the author of LOOK BIG: And Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds and co-author of the cookbooks STEAMED and EAT SOMETHING.

In 2019, Men Named Their Restaurants After Women

Like snakeskin skirts and reusable straws, grandmothers dominated 2019. Italian grandmas, Jewish grandmas. German grandmas. Russian grandmas. Real-life inspirations all, behind many of the biggest restaurant openings this year.

There’s Rosalie in Houston. Emilie’s in Washington, D.C. Dear Inga in San Francisco.

In Denver, Vince Howard had hoped to name his new deli after his grandmother Hazel. “But there were already too many Hazels!” he says. So, he went with a different woman’s name: Tessa.

He doesn’t actually know anyone named Tessa. He just likes the way it sounds, what it conveys. “I always thought of it as a nice, comforting name,” he says. “It seems to suggest a loving, female touch.” In Greek, Tessa translates to “born fourth,” and as the father of three daughters — the deli his figurative fourth — that made sense. Also, he adds, it’s a kind of ham.

Mothers and daughters got their fair share of signage this year, too, like Leila in Detroit; LilyP in Boston; and Birdie G’s in Santa Monica, an ode to chef Jeremy Fox’s daughter, Birdie, and his grandmother Gladys. This is all nothing new, of course. Naming food establishments after women — often a chef’s first and formative culinary influence — is a convention about as old as eateries themselves. And a genuine, heartfelt tradition at that.

But it does make you wonder: Why wouldn’t Howard be moved to dub his deli, say, “Damien” instead? Why does this restaurant title tradition persist? What’s in a woman’s name today, anyway?

Apparently, the same thing that was in it yesterday.

“Warmth, caring, hospitality,” says San Francisco chef David Golovin, who opened Dear Inga in October. He and his partners, Ravi Kapur and Jeff Hanak, wanted their restaurant to feel like “somebody’s home, like Grandma’s cooking,” he explains. Like his grandma Inge’s cooking.

They switched the “e” to an “a” because they feared everyone would mispronounce it, like “hinge” or “ing.” They also added a little something extra.

“It was never going to be just Inga,” he says. Prefacing it with a long-lost salutation helped evoke the Old World feeling they were going for. Or at least a time before text and email, when handwritten letters reigned.

The trio floated a few other options, including Borzoi Trading Company (“Ridiculous!” says Golovin) and Linda, a nearby street. “But there was no Linda in my life,” he says.

The name “Dear Inga” has attracted as much press attention as its delicious langos and Liptauer cheese dip. “We liked the feminine note to it,” explains Golovin. “It’s a pretty masculine management team here; we wanted some female power.”

Wanting to telegraph an explicitly female energy makes sense in this #MeToo moment. “A female name shows that a restaurant doesn’t have the Mario Batali attitude,” says Paul Freedman, Yale historian and author of Ten Restaurants That Changed America. “Or even David Chang’s fuck-you attitude,” he adds. “A restaurant with a woman’s name conveys a kind of comfort and gaiety, a supportive, collaborative environment. Whereas a man’s name conveys… proprietorship.”

Does that sound a little sexist itself? Perhaps. (Rich Table alum Brandon Rice named his upcoming San Francisco restaurant Ernest, which I’d argue conveys something sweeter than simply ownership.)

It’s also worth noting that nearly all of the latest lady-named restaurants have been named by men.

That’s not to say women chefs never name their restaurants after their female influences. (Melissa Perello’s first San Francisco restaurant, Frances, for instance, was in homage to one grandmother, and her new LA restaurant — M. Georgina — the other. In Portland, Oregon, Maya Lovelace’s Mae is an ode to her grandmother, too.)

But my very unscientific study reveals that if a woman names her restaurant after a woman, she more likely names it after herself. Like Mamma Leone’s. Ruby Foo. And stalwarts like Stephanie’s, in Boston; Manhattan’s many Sarabeth’s; Harlem’s Sylvia’s.

And the more contemporary case in point: Dominique Crenn, of America’s first woman-run three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Atelier Crenn. And Petit Crenn. And Bar Crenn. But these days, Crenn is very much an exception for invoking her last name only.

No one is criticizing men, or anyone, for honoring the people who raised them, cared for them, and cooked for them. Even if we wonder, as ever: Why did those responsibilities always fall on the women? (Answer: patriarchy.)

Still, it’s the enduring practice of assigning random women’s names to men’s restaurant ventures that confounds. Celebrity chef Curtis Stone, whose two Los Angeles restaurants are named after his grandmothers, recently debuted a new restaurant, in Dallas, called Georgie. (Well, officially Georgie by Curtis Stone.) “And who, you might ask, is Georgie?” posed the Dallas Morning News. Stone selected it from a list of “G” names presented by his partner. It turned out Georgie is the nickname of Stone’s niece.

In Portland, Oregon, co-owner Sean O’Connor and executive chef Alex Jackson named their new Nordic-Northwestern restaurant Vivian. After the Vivian Apartments, which formerly occupied what’s now Iceland’s first stateside Kex Hotel. Had the apartment building been named, say, Victor, would they have kept it, though? No, admits O’Connor.

“We wanted to give the restaurant a feminine character,” he explains, echoing the other owners I spoke with. Jackson and O’Connor toyed with “Systir” and “Dottir,” sister and daughter in Icelandic, respectively. (They decided Dottir made a better name for the rooftop bar.)

In their minds, and on their mood boards, they envisioned Vivian as an unconventionally feminine woman. A “rough-around-the edges, yet refined” woman. And a specific woman: an ex-neighbor of their designer, in LA — a former Eastern European duchess, whose name no one remembers. But she’d hold court at the communal pool, playing the harp and pouring schnapps and sharing stories of her worldly adventures. “Vivian” exuded warmth and hospitality, as does, they hope, their restaurant.

And Big Dave’s Barbecue Joint doesn’t?

It goes back to the “mama’s boy” thing, says Joseph Szala of Atlanta-based Vigor Branding, to people’s relationships with their parents, to traditional family dynamics: the fathers and grandfathers as the stoic disciplinarians who go off to work, and the mothers and grandmothers as the loving caretakers and family cooks.

“People today are looking for restaurants that are genuine and inviting, as an answer to the divisiveness in our culture,” says Szala. “A restaurant with a woman’s name sounds like an open-arms type of place.”

That may be true. But as gender and gender roles continue to mix and morph, as our long-held associations with parents and grandparents continue to change, so too might something as seemingly simple as restaurant names. After all, it’s not a person’s gender per se that’s driving these feelings, says Szala. “It’s the connection, the love and respect a chef has for that person.”

Sometimes a term of endearment alone is enough — as in Portland, Oregon, restaurateur Micah Camden’s latest spot: Bae’s Fried Chicken. His business partner, the football player Ndamukong Suh, came up with the name, and Camden liked it straight away. “It was easy and memorable, and I liked that a 330-pound NFL defensive lineman suggested such a cutesy name,” he says. And a gender-neutral name. “I liked that it’s not overly masculine or overly feminine — it’s just, you know, my bae.”

Ultimately, says Szala, there’s a yearning right now for more interesting restaurant names. “Band names for restaurants — why not?” he says laughing. “Angry Grandma. That’d be a good one.”

His colleague, Aaron Allen, founder of Aaron Allen & Associates global restaurant consulting, is generally against naming restaurants after women — whether the owner knows them or not. “If you’re pushing really hard for a female-driven name, there better be a good story behind it. Even if Barbara had the best spaghetti recipe! In Santa Barbara! I’d advise against it.” A first name means nothing to anyone else, he says. What are you about? What’s the cuisine? What’s the takeaway?

“There are a million restaurants in this country,” says Allen. “If you can’t figure out something better than your grandmother’s name, maybe you’re in the wrong business.”

On Regulars, in Prime Covid Times

I haven’t had a latte since March 12th. I’m not complaining, merely stating a fact of my coronavirus life. Pre-pandemic, I purchased one every day. Most mornings, it was at Cole Valley’s Wooden Coffeehouse. I’d sit in a window seat, earning my keep in cold LaCroixs, talking with the owner, Steve Wickwire, about his squawking parakeet in the corner or complimenting Ivett Martinez on her latest T-shirt, as she handed me a ceramic cup brimming with a leaf-shaped swirl, before I could even order.

A latte in San Francisco costs $6 or so, including tip, and you have to tip. For fun one day, my fifth-grader calculated that I had been spending $2,184 a year — on coffee. Appalling, yes, but that’s also $2,184 cafes are collectively losing from me alone. I’ve been making coffee at home. I’ve also been cooking at home. Morning, noon and night, seven days a week for my family of four.

Much of my San Francisco life — like much of San Francisco life itself — had revolved around restaurants, until they were whisked away faster than an empty cocktail glass at Che Fico. I wasn’t so much a regular at any particular restaurant as I was a regular of restaurants. Still, I had my go-tos, and from writing a column for this newspaper about regulars, I know — for many people, myself included — a restaurant is more than just a source of food.

What Izhar Buendia, 30, appreciated most about Hayes Valley’s Rich Table wasn’t only the sardine chips but dropping by with his girlfriend after work, scoring two seats at the bar and sipping whatever whiskey-based cocktail was available that week.

Since Nopa opened on Divisadero in 2006, George McCalman, my collaborator on the regulars column, and I have laughed and cried and closed it down like it’s our living room. “Hovering for a seat at the bar is an Olympic sport! I’ve met a couple of boyfriends sitting at the bar,” says McCalman. “I’ve been spoiled for the experience. How can takeout compare?”

In those first weeks, bombarded by GoFundMe and Insta-pleas, choosing who to financially support felt overwhelming, like facing a desert filled with friends who were dehydrated and now lost without a compass. Almost six months later — with businesses desperately propping up parklets and slinging pizza kits — it still does. As restaurant regulars, who do we save first? Can we even save anyone?

A lot of diners are trying to — making donations and picking up “picnic packs” and pimping their posts. Recently, instead of making my 163rd lunch in a row, I decided to pick up sandwiches. Standing inside the small space waiting for my order, I almost had a panic attack. There were too many customers too close for comfort. Two of them chortling 2 inches from me, noses exposed over their masks. It’s not a busy counter staff’s responsibility to police its customers. Then again, a small business — no matter how beloved — can’t expect unconditional support from its COVID-conscious customers if they don’t.

Still, most restaurants are following the rules, working their butts off and doing their best. In turn, some diners are doubling-down and ordering out with intention.

Amy Dumas, a retired wrestler and vegan, considers takeout as a way to help San Francisco. “I don’t want to see this city become a shell of what it was!” Currently, cravings aren’t what dictate dinner in her house. “It’s ‘Where do we want our dollars to go? Who are we going to support tonight?’” She skips the delivery apps, with fees that cut deep into a restaurant’s bottom line, and instead zips around on her Vespa, picking up pizza at Beretta; dumplings from Golden Era in the Tenderloin; mushroom skewers from her friends at the Kebabery across the Bay Bridge. “It gets me out of my bubble and makes me feel connected to the community,” she says. “Living in a city is about contributing to your surroundings. Smiling at your neighbor. Ordering curry.”

Even without their beloved dining spaces, regulars are rising to the occasion. Buendia gave to Rich Table’s employee fund and has ordered from its to-go menu. “It’s my small way of saying ‘I believe in this community,’” he says. He also believes in Oakland’s Tacos la San Marquena and 36-year-old Pho84, and orders from both weekly.

Saramanda Swigart, who teaches writing at City College, spent $300 on meat loaf and mac ‘n’ cheese at the Mission’s long-running Blue Plate one night because of a special that gave all profits to furloughed employees. “My sister and I drove around like DoorDash, dropping food off for friends, saying hi from a distance,” she says. They’ve done the same from fellow favorites like Shakewell and Shanghai Dumpling King, La Ciccia, China Live.

“In the absence of an economic system that takes care of people, it’s up to those of us who still have a salary to support,” she says. Swigart, who used to work at Alice’s Restaurant in Woodside, also gave to a bunch of GoFundMe accounts, including 50 bucks to Mister Jiu’s — even though she’s never been. “I could never get in!” she says, laughing. “Maybe, one day, they’ll be able to save me a table.”

Not all the kinship of being a regular has been lost to the coronavirus. For years, Kim Caldwell and her daughter would “get cute” and go to Flava’s Jamaican Grill once a week. “Leroy makes sure everyone feels welcome,” she says. In this moment, it feels especially imperative, she says, to support Black-owned restaurants. Since COVID, just picking up ackee and saltfish on a Saturday night feels like a celebration. “I’ll run into people and say, ‘Hey, I saw you last week’ and we’ll nod, like, ‘We’re not cooking!’ It feels like a night out — but in.”

To me, cooking is what feels most right, and yet, it also feels wrong. I feel both guilty for not supporting the industry I care so much about, and good for not contributing to the endangerment of the industry I care so much about. In an effort to “limit interactions,” as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises, I can count on two hands how many times I’ve ordered takeout since the lockdown. As for eating out, outside or inside a plastic dome designed to separate the haves from the have-nots? Not once.

But if COVID and wildfires have taught us anything, it’s that nothing is permanent. Not our 1,000-year-old redwoods, not our 100-old restaurants, and certainly not us. I know my occasional takeout won’t save the day. Still, the other night I ordered one roast chicken for two (for four) and a Caesar salad from Zuni. My family and I sat around our kitchen table, again. Without the copper bar and expert bussers and Bob at the piano and the only worthwhile white tablecloths left in this world, it wasn’t the same. Not even close. But it was still Zuni. I felt a hint of hope. Maybe, together, it’s the regulars who will see this through.

Challah giving sourdough some competition

Sourdough may be the celebrity loaf of #quarantinelife — and it is delicious and deserves all of the love and care and at least half of the amateur photos it’s getting — but it’s not the bread I’m suddenly baking.

Instead, every Friday since San Francisco mandated we shelter in place, my 11-year-old daughter, Hazel, and I have been making challah. Sure, I spent eight weeks every summer at Jewish camp, lost the limbo at my bat mitzvah and was hoisted in a chair at my wedding — I even recently co-authored a Jewish cookbook — but confession: baking challah is not something I often do. Now it’s the only constant of our amorphous week. I’m not religious at all, but there’s something comforting, even moving, about this part of the Shabbat ritual. Perhaps because, in a way, it feels like we’ve all — regardless of religion — been tossed into a secular sort of Shabbat. An endless Shabbat.

The Sabbath, as the more pious call it, is intended to be a day of rest. A time when time seemingly halts and we slow down, ditch our cars, go for walks, cook and eat, and focus not on work but on what ultimately matters: the people we love, the present. As 20th century German philosopher Erich Fromm once wrote of Shabbat: “By not working — that is to say, by not participating in the process of natural and social change — man is free from the chains of nature and from the chains of time, although only for one day a week.” Typically, Shabbat lasts 25 hours. (No, not 24, an hour after sundown on Saturday, and all.) Right now, though, it feels like we’re honoring Shabbat seven days a week, every week. It’s like the Jewish version of “Groundhog Day” (starring Billy Crystal instead of Bill Murray?).

Shabbat, too, comes with rules and restrictions. They are different than those of the coronavirus, but restrictions nonetheless. Both come with family time. (So. Much. Family. Time.) And wine. So much wine.

Even before our collective lockdown, the ancient tradition was trending. In her 2019 book, “24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week,” local filmmaker Tiffany Shlain urged modern families to turn off all devices for 24 hours and take what she calls a “technology Shabbat.” Ashton Kutcher was lighting the Friday-night candles and racking up tens of thousands of likes. My gentile friends in Fairfax were “Shabbat-ing” amongst themselves (and, yes, turning it into a verb). A WASP-y mother of three in Potrero was powering down at the end of the week, bringing her kids together around the table. Millennials were hosting group dinners with OneTable, a social dining platform with a challah hotline and the tagline: How do you Friday? Everyone taking a collective pause on a Friday night over roast chicken (or fried chicken, shumai or shrimp tacos) and calling it what it is: Shabbat.

In COVID-19 times, Shlain has been baking challah every Friday with her daughters — and a hundred or so strangers online (hashtag #zoomchallahbake). OneTable turned its Friday dinners virtual with a new tagline: “Shabbat Alone, Together.” And recently, Wise Sons launched a $110 Shabbat meal kit, including schmaltz-roasted potatoes, candles and a pre-made challah of its own, that’s quickly proven popular.

Pop star Katy Perry, raised an evangelical Christian, told a reporter not long ago: “I wish there was a thing like Shabbat for the whole world.” Well, Katy Perry, now it seems there is.

When this unprecedented, virus-induced reality was foisted upon us, something about it felt vaguely familiar. Like other times in life where it was upended in an instant and rearranged into something unrecognizable. In the beginning, I’d tried to pinpoint it. Sept. 11. The sudden death of my old boyfriend. The slog and fog and existential anxiety of new motherhood. The times when I’d wander the house and streets in sweats, forget where I parked, venture into the world only when I had to, warily. Times when the new normal was unwelcome, wrapped in a bubble that would eventually not so much burst as slowly blow away like a lost balloon, until I could see it only in the distance.

And then, the other day, as I sat in the backyard reading with my son, waiting for the dough’s second rise, I realized there was something else this quarantine reminded me of: Shabbat.

Around Passover, everyone was calling this 21st century pandemic our 11th plague, and — far worse than lice and frogs ever were — indeed it is. But it’s also been 14 weeks and counting, of an endless Shabbat. All the days blend together, but not Fridays. It was a few hours before sundown, and Hazel and I rolled and braided and brushed, like Jews have done, in some form or other, for thousands of years, through persecution and pain and perhaps times harder than this, and yet still: come out OK.

As does our challah. Warm and soft and sweet, made with flour and oil and eggs and honey and, unlike sourdough: yeast. (Which was not easy to find during this pandemic, but I had a connection.) An improbable sign of hope? It gets better each week.

Rachel Levin is the co-author of “Eat Something: A Wise Sons Cookbook for Jews Who Like Food and Food Lovers Who Like Jews” (Chronicle Books).

Delivery Date

Performed at La Cocina’s “Voices from the Kitchen”—delivery-date/

The Usual: Lou Seal & His Deliboard Sandwich

Welcome to The Usual, a new, irregular column about regulars in their restaurants — and the roles such places play in the lives of the people they feed.

Joel Zimei and Deli Board’s Adam Mesnick are talking, as apparently men do, about meat sweats. Meat sweats? “You know, if you eat a burger and a hot dog at a tailgate, and then at the game you’re like, ‘I’m going to get a cheesesteak!’ and then you go home later and have filet mignon for dinner,” explains Joel, biting into a sandwich the size of a newborn. “That’s it: meat sweats.”

Does Deli Board give him meat sweats? Nah, he says. It’s a lot of meat, but not enough meat to make him meat-sweat. Joel regular-sweats, though, rather profusely and frequently and even in the fog.

It’s his outfit: a 10-part, 30-pound furry getup he dons on average four hours a day, five times a week, six months a year — plus, another month or so in a good year (which it’s looking like this year isn’t).

“I had a little thermometer and it’s 37 degrees hotter for me than it is for you,” says the 46-year-old part-man, part-seal. Lou Seal. The San Francisco Giants’ mascot — a character, and costume, that Joel has lived and breathed (in) for the last 21 years.

The media room, which feeds mascots too, often does it up, offering chicken kare-kare and pinakbet on Filipino Heritage Night, or wok-fired gai lan and fried rice on Chinese Heritage Night. But nothing, says Joel — not even Crazy Crab’z “phenomenal” crab sandwich — compares to Deli Board.

Sometimes, he’ll send one of his “seal-curity” guys over to Deli Board for a pregame pickup. “It’s usually after a loss, when we need good luck,” he says. “I’ll be like, ‘GO GET THE LUCKY SANDWICH!!’”

Remembering the Leslie Salt Mountain: Bay Area’s odd, glistening landmark

As in, his usual: the Leroy Brown. Romanian pastrami, kosher salami, roast turkey, with peperoncini, special sauce and extra pickles on Dutch Crunch. (Hold the cheese, please.)

Joel admits he is “ridiculously super-duper-stitious.” There was a bagel shop off Townsend that used to be his lucky lunch. The Giants won the 2010 and the 2012 and 2014 World Series with those bagels after all. But when the shop’s ownership changed, Joel realized, so did his luck.

In 2015, he discovered Deli Board at 1058 Folsom St. Although he didn’t know it at first. His wife happened to bring him home some ginormous turkey clublike concoction one day — without realizing it was sandwich royalty.

“It was one of those euphoric food moments,” Joel recalls. “I remember scarfing it down, thinking I shouldn’t eat the second half. But then, of course, I did.”

A few months later, he got a Twitter notification, something along the lines of: “Hey @LouSeal01! I made you a sandwich. Come try it sometime.” Joel realized it was the same place he’d had the sandwich, and bonus: He lived nearby.

So, he put on one of his three World Series rings (proof of identification and all) and walked the few long SoMa blocks over to Deli Board. Adam was manning the register.

Flaunting his bling, Joel pushed his business card forward — and placed his order for, ahem, one Lou Seal. An Italian combo, for the Long Island-raised Italian: Genoa salami, mortadella, provolone, cherry peppers, lettuce, house Italian dressing, shum spread (garlic) on Deli Board’s signature Dutch Crunch.

Adam was starstruck and Joel was overjoyed. “Except I couldn’t eat my own sandwich,” he says. Cheese. So, Adam remade it for him without the provolone. Joel exchanged it for a signed Lou Seal bobblehead. And a new friendship was born.

“I had an issue for a while,” admits Joel. “I gained a couple of pounds.” He’d started lunching there a few times a week via electric scooter. “It’s only a two-minute ride!”

He now walks. He also treats Deli Board like a treat. “Thanksgiving wouldn’t be special if it was every day, either.”

Over the years, Lou Seal has become as popular among San Francisco baseball fans as Deli Board has among San Francisco sandwich fans. Both are loyal and cult-y and lean heavily male, judging from their recent respective daytime crowds. (Baseball I get. But sandwiches?)

“My first few years as Lou Seal, I’d get a lot of ‘Hey, sewer rat! Down in front!’” says Joel, who has yet to miss a single game — after some 1,700 games. With his humorous hip tosses, hip-hop moves and free hugs, he has built the character into one of the nation’s most beloved mascots, complete with a Hulu documentary series (“Behind the Mask, Season 2”) to its name.

“Sometimes I’ll get heckled by a baseball purist who doesn’t want the frills and just wants to watch the game. I get it, but I’m, like, ‘Sorry, man, go back in time.’” Now, says Joel, all he has to do is saunter into a section with his pot belly and raise his paws (flippers?) over his head “and the crowd just erupts,” he says. “It’s crazy.”

Lou Seal makes it look easy. But Joel works hard. Fans ask him to officiate their weddings and perform at tech parties and autograph their Lou Seal tattoos. He does upwards of 300 outside events a year. That’s in addition to his “offseason” gig as the leader of the Golden State Warriors’ Hoop Troop. No seal costume required, just general crowd-pumping and T-shirt-launching. Only thing is, he says: “Now that the Warriors are always in the NBA finals, I don’t really have an off-season.”

Adam works hard, too. He’s a no-frills purist himself, the sole owner, sans investors, of a bare-bones, 20-seat sandwich counter dedicated to handcrafted meats he can barely afford to sell in this city anymore. Still. “I will not compromise on quality,” says Adam. “What am I going to do? Bring in some s—y turkey just so I can sell a $9 sandwich?”

Spend a lunch hour chatting and chowing with Adam and Joel on Folsom Street, and you start to see the sandwich as something bigger than itself. (If that’s even possible at Deli Board.)

Not unlike baseball. It’s just a game. Some people say. It’s just a sandwich. Not to these two.

Nor to the neighborhood. In this stretch of SoMa, Deli Board is a means of connection, an unofficial community center in a disparate community. And in his own way, Adam, like Lou Seal, is the character who brings everyone together. He just talks more than a mascot.

His longtime refrigerator repairman, Falla, comes by in uniform to kibbitz, even though everything’s running fine. Lou Seal gave him and his family a special high-five at the game the other night. A homeless man walks in. “Hey, Yoni. How’s it going? You want a root beer and chips?” asks Adam. On his way to grab them, he stops to shake hands with a well-coiffed, TV-handsome man. Justin Fichelson from Bravo’s “Million Dollar Listing.”

Deli Board gets its share of local notables. Michael Krasny likes the corned beef with nothing but his native Cleveland mustard on a French roll. Before moving to Sacramento, Gavin Newsom’s go-to was the Ron (roast beef with coleslaw and avocado). Late mayor Ed Lee was a regular (pastrami with cheese, light mayo, light sauce), as are a disproportionate number of public defenders and judges, given Deli Board’s proximity to 850 Bryant. There’s an artist-neighbor the staff nicknamed “Brian the Babe,” who eats lunch here every day, alternating between the Cobb salad (yes, Deli Board does salads) and the turkey-bacon-avocado-stuffed Armando, always saving the second half for supper.

Still, it’s obvious: Adam’s favorite customer is Joel.

He doesn’t make his off-menu buffalo-style wings for just anyone. And Joel doesn’t spontaneously drop by dressed as Lou Seal for just anyone, either.

“I’m a sandwich guy,” says Joel. A Deli Board guy. “I won’t eat some crappy sandwich somewhere else.” Neither will he, or Adam, eat hot dogs with mayo. “It’s disgusting!” they declare in unison.

They’re like two burgers in a bun, meat-lovers talking stadium mustards and Bumgarner and middle age, marveling over how time flies. How they never thought they’d still be doing what they’re doing. How they’d never want to do anything else.

It’s easy to envision them 20 years from now, sitting here at Deli Board doing the same, reflecting on careers spent less on making money, and more on making people happy, be it through baseball or corned beef.

Deli Board’s menu includes stalwarts like the Zoe, an ex-girlfriend; the Goldie, his aunt; and the D. Rubin, his friend and “a great play on the Reuben.” And for a brief moment in time, the Lou Seal.

A lifelong Cleveland Indians fan, Adam thought of it as his own little ode to his adopted team. “I’ll never name a sandwich after a ballplayer,” says Adam. “They just get traded.” Not Lou Seal.

Is there any greater honor for a Sandwich Guy to have a sandwich named after him?

“If he hadn’t named a sandwich after me …” says Joel wistfully. “We would have never met.”

No matter that the sandwich is no longer on the menu.

“It’s a special!” explains Adam. “It’ll come back.”

As will, perhaps, the Giants. If Lou Seal eats enough Leroy Browns.


Rachel Levin is a Bay Area freelance writer. Twitter: @rachellevinsf Instagram: @offmenusf Email:

George McCalman is an artist and creative director based in San Francisco. Twitter/Instagram: @mccalmanco Email:


With a Shortage of Reviews, SF Restaurants Grow Restless

As the Bay Area awaits new San Francisco Chronicle critic Soleil Ho’s debut review — which is expected to drop any day now — let’s take a moment to reflect on these last almost six months without her — well, actually, without any regular, fully funded, three-visit, supposedly anonymous restaurant critic writing reviews and handing out stars.

After filing a review every week for three decades, Michael Bauer’s last starred supper ran in the Chronicle on September 14. (As any avid follower of the critic could have guessed, it was of Michael Mina’s Michael Mina.) Meanwhile, my year as Eater’s experimental San Francisco critic expired two weeks later — Eater SF has discontinued its reviews.

Before that, Josh Sens, longtime critic for San Franciscomagazine, was told his monthly reviews would be reduced to six a year. (Although now, with the breaking news that his editor Luke Tsai was laid off last week, that number may have unofficially dropped to zero.) It’s tough to tell from Modern Luxury’s decidedly un-modern website, but it looks like Sens’s last real review was Angler, in November. Actually, no — there was another Mina review: this month’sTrailblazer Tavern, the splashy 7,000-square-foot Hawaiian island in a Salesforce building.

In January, Tejal Rao, the New York Times’s new LA-based, California-wide critic, published her first review, also of Angler, which, as many remarked, was more profile than experiential opinion. SF Weekly’s Pete Kane — who continues to write frequent, and occasionally critical, but un-starred reviews — offered his ebullient angle on Angler as well. And even Bauer resurfaced with a summary of his meal of the a la carte Saison spin-off for a new regional magazine called Alta.

I, too, revere Angler’s now-signature radicchio salad, with blood-red leaves worthy of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. But if anyone is keeping tabs, in a city awash in new restaurants amid a dearth of critics, that makes two reviews for Mina and four for Joshua Skenes. Well, five, if you include Angler’s No. 1 spot on Esquire’s Best New Restaurants list.

Basically, our restaurant-obsessed city has been in a review drought. A plated purgatory. No wonder Eater SF hasn’t run its always-entertaining “Week in Reviews” roundup since August.

As a now former critic myself, I’ve been wondering: How do the owners of the dozens of restaurants — like Isla Vida,Bardo Lounge, Merchant Roots, Prairie, Obispo, and many others — that have opened during this time feel about that? Freed from the anxiety of having a critic stroll in unrecognized, cast an almighty opinion, and divvy out stars? Kind of like their parents went away for a very long weekend — and are about to come back and ground everyone?

“It feels really awkward,” says Anthony Strong, chef-owner of Prairie, which opened in the Mission in mid-October.

“[Chef] Daniel Patterson was in for dinner and he was like, ‘Dude, you’re so lucky — you don’t even have to worry about being reviewed!’ I said, ‘Am I?’ I think I’d rather be getting raked over the coals for some exposure.”

He admits that he has missed the critics, despite all the stress and angst they bring. Bauer did dine at Prairie, though, he says. Like clockwork, he came four weeks in, with his partner, Michael Murphy. “I messed up his drink order!” laughs Strong. “At first I freaked out, but then I was like, ‘Who cares?’”

“It would’ve been nice to have a formal review in our first months,” says Strong, even if he can’t stand the star system and the distractions and pressures that come with it. “As a new business, things were all over the place in terms of press, social media. It could have helped level things out.”

He adds: “I know everybody’s a critic. Instagrammers, Yelpers, but God knows we don’t want to just look to them. We might catch some glimmers of insight, but… I really appreciate an in-depth review that really tries to get to the core of things.”

Other coverage, like Eater’s heatmaps and guides or the Infatuation’s blurbs, have a huge impact, says Josh Harris, co-owner of Bon Voyage, the dumpling-and-Singapore Sling oasis that opened in October. “But there is more of a feeling of permanence with a review,” he says. Who knows whether or not his latest bar-restaurant hybrid would have been critiqued, like Trick Dog, had there been a critic to critique it, he says, but he admits that business has been booming without it.

Strong’s first restaurant opening as a young chef was Pizzeria Delfina, back in 2007. “It’s always just been part of the deal,” he says — for establishments run by popular, pedigreed chefs like himself, especially. “You open a restaurant, you get reviewed.”

That may no longer be the trajectory.

Ho won’t be anonymous, and whether she assigns stars remains to be seen, but she has been eating out twice a day, every day, and BART-ing all around the Bay. Unlike her predecessor, she won’t be lured by white linen and low decibels and beet-and-goat-cheese salads. She might not be immediately drawn to no-longer-new, midrange pasta places run by white men in the Mission, either.

Still, with even more high-profile openings on the way, and unsung places worthy of the spotlight, it’s inevitable that some of the restaurants that opened their doors during the critical dead zone will likely get overlooked. Whether positive or negative, a review offers something every new restaurant wants: relevance.

An example: Yo También Cantina, a tiny, seventh-month-old Venezuelan cantina in the Inner Sunset. Run by Isabella Bertorelli and Kenzie Benesh, it’s a simple, heartening daytime cafe with cactuses and ceramics and a crusty egg sandwich called the Jammy Sammy that, with a splash of spicy salsa picante, I’ve come to crave. It’s the kind of little, lovingly run spot that deserves more attention than it’s received. Had it been properly reviewed by someone, anyone, would I still have had it all to myself on a Friday morning? Did Bertorelli and Beneshthey wish they had been reviewed?

“It sure would have been nice,” says Benesh. More buzz and all. At the same time, she and her partner have appreciated the lack of attention; it’s experienced a slow build rather than big splash. They’ve been able to dial in their menu, they say. Get their systems running smoothly.

It’s the kind of quiet period high-profile chefs like Michael Tusk, of three Michelin-starred Quince, and Cotogna, rarely get to enjoy. Lucky for him and his wife, Lindsay, Verjus has arrived around the same time as Ho — should she choose to review it. Meanwhile, Mourad Lahlou, of the forthcoming Amara, noticed the absence of criticism these past few months and says “it was strange to not receive the weekly dose — eventually I stopped looking for it.”

The chef-owner of Aziza, beloved for almost 20 years out in the avenues, says reviews were critical to its success, especially Bauer’s three stars — and especially as it opened pre-Instagram, in 2001. “During that time, people had to be reassured that it was that good, worth a trip before dusting off their passports to venture out to the Outer Richmond district,” says Lahlou.

His next restaurant, Amara, is slated to open this summer, and Lahlou says he “most definitely” looks forward to being reviewed. “Having a legitimate journalist come in and experience the restaurant without any ties or regard to its financial survival is quite powerful,” he says. “[It] can truly contribute to the business’s success, or demise, for that matter.”

Meanwhile, over in Oakland, Brandi and Janice Dulce had been too busy opening FOB Kitchen, their first Filipino brick-and-mortar (and tending to their 2-year-old twin girls), to notice that in their first few months there was no Bauer, et al, with forks poised, at the ready to lay down judgment. “We honestly hadn’t even thought about it,” they said over the phone. “We’ve just been trusting in ourselves, doing what we’re doing, knowing it feels right.”

Five minutes after we hang up, though, they call me back, laughing. “We have a confession: As soon as we did hear about Soleil, that the Chronicle had a new critic, we hung her picture on our fridge. We think she came in. And we’re hella nervous.”

The Price of Poetry

Published by Lucky Peach, performed at La Cocina’s “Voices from the Kitchen”

On Clay Street, in San Francisco’s Chinatown, next to Adult Media Exotica and across from a Chinese community center, there is a restaurant called Jai Yun, which is closed more often than it’s open.

Accolades and Zagat stickers dating back to 2006 cover a door that remains locked behind an accordion metal gate—unless Chef Nei Chia Ji has a reservation, which is a rarity. Diners come in, mostly via OpenTable, sporadically and at a sprinkle: a table for two on a Thursday night, perhaps; a party of five on a Friday. Christmas Day last year was a biggie: thirty tables booked, but a bunch were no-shows. And the ones who did arrive suffered horrible service, admits Nei, who speaks no English aside from “What Night?” “What Time?” and “How Many People?”

The language barrier is his biggest problem, says the five-foot, sixty-year-old chef from Nanjing, through a translator. “It’s difficult to call someone if my refrigerator breaks. It’s difficult to confirm reservations. It’s difficult to communicate my philosophy to customers, or to helpers.” So he often does it all himself: the farmers’ market shopping, the prepping, the cooking, the toilet scrubbing, the dishwashing. The first time I ate there, a Friday night last fall, he also did the serving. We were the only customers in the place—which would be cozy if Jai Yun was the size of, say, a walk-in closet. But it’s not. It’s a two-floor, brightly lit palace, humming with the sound of that refrigerator and festooned with fake flowers and red tassels and paper dragons. At capacity, it seats 160.

When he lived in China, Nei had been a government manager. He quit for cooking school in the ’80s, when the doors to the world were just beginning to open. People were used to filling up with fatty deep-fried foods like pig intestines, he says. Nutritious, seasonal, beautiful fare was a foreign concept—and became the foundation of his cooking. He was well read and had “advanced ideas about the quality of life,” he says. He didn’t like the MSG-saturated dishes in restaurants, and knew he could do better. He opened a small restaurant in Nanjing and had success serving healthy dishes like a tofu-beansprout-bamboo stew and shinjin cai, a stir fry of leafy greens, lotus roots, and mushrooms, so he expanded to a two-hundred-seat space. He had many Chinese-American regulars, one of whom said he would sponsor Nei to come to the States to pursue his dream of opening a fine-dining, ingredient-driven, “healthy” Chinese restaurant there. In 1995, Nei landed at a Marriott in Maryland, flipping burgers—not what he had in mind.

He returned to China. A friend encouraged him to try again—this time in San Francisco, where he might have more luck, given its significant Asian population. Like most, Nei was after the American Dream—and a better future for his son—but he also hoped to change the Western bias toward Chinese immigrants. “That we’re all about getting rich quick,” he says, “haggling over every penny.” In 1999, after cooking for a couple of local Chinese restaurants, he opened his own. Jai Yun’s original Pacific Avenue location was more intimate—just thirty seats, a true hole in the wall. “In a good way,” says Charles Phan, a chef who would come in frequently. Business was solid, but Nei thought he should be closer to the financial district. Not because of the big expense budgets, he says, but because of people’s education levels and open-mindedness. And their willingness to try food like his—inspired.

Jai Yun’s seasonal prix-fixe menu is based on Nei’s personal interpretations of ancient Chinese poems. Each menu set reflects a different poem, he explains. And each line is a different dish, which results in a parade of nine to eighteen plates that collectively tell a story. One, he says, that only his well-educated, culturally Chinese customers can understand. Everyone else just eats. (And ponders the quality of the food versus the steep prices, which start at $98 per person, for two, and can go up to $168 per person or higher for dishes with special ingredients.)

On my second visit, thanks to the translator, I begin to appreciate this man and his menu. Our first course is a gorgeous palette of twelve tiny dishes, each a different taste: bitter melon, spicy cabbage, sweet tofu salad. “Like life,” Nei says. Then the abalone arrives. A pile of fleshy, snow-white meat draped in sautéed egg whites; it’s soft and subtle, a little salty, and as feminine as a food could be. Above it is a sprig of parsley and a cherry. The dish has no official name, he says; it’s a young girl staring up at the moon through at tree. It represents purity. I take another look at the halved maraschino cherry perched above the parsley, and think, Totally. By the time the “Dancing Ghosts” arrives—a tangle of spicy, flash-fried enoki mushrooms—I get it: I’m eating Nei’s poem. “Do you know any American poems I could cook?” he asks. “Maybe then more people could comprehend.”

He’s had a few “helpers” in the past that spoke English and Mandarin and promoted his business. 2009 was a good year—steady reservations, good press—until Nei had to let his helper go for knowingly overcharging customers. Since then, it’s been very hard. A couple of front-house folks have come and go, including a professional Mandarin-English translator Nei once hired, thinking that might solve the problem. “But even he couldn’t understand me and my poetry,” says Nei. Few people do—not even Nei’s son, who financially supports him and his restaurant, but doesn’t necessarily ascribe to his vision.

“Profit is not my priority,” Nei says. “No one understands that, especially the younger Chinese generations.” So why such high prices? “Because my food deserves it. Like Gary Danko,” he says.  Ingredient costs are high, he says, although labor costs are minimal—it’s all him, save for the servers he pays to have on call for when reservations come in. Ultimately, though, Nei is able to continue to operate Jai Yun because of his son, who helps cover the (below-market) rent. Nei busts out a photograph of him and Danko on which the celebrity chef has scrawled, “Amazing Meal!” in black Sharpie. Danko offered him a job once, Nei tells me. Charles Phan has, too. “They said, ‘Come cook for me, you won’t have to spend a penny.’”

“But that is not my dream,” he says, sitting in his empty restaurant on a Wednesday at six o’clock. He slips on his glasses and flips through a three-ring binder crammed with ideas and banquet menus and poems he’s penned on page after page of loose-leaf paper.

“Have you heard the term ‘starving artist?’” I ask. Nei stares blankly until the translator explains. “Yes! Yes!” Nei nods frantically, cheeks flushed. He flashes the first real smile I’ve seen and gives me an enthusiastic thumbs up.


Old laundromats have been getting a new lease on urban life lately. And in San Francisco, not surprisingly, that means restaurant leases — from Tide Pods to table, so to speak.

I’ve lived in this city long enough that I used to do laundry where Nopa now serves burgers. But in the last year alone, the Doug’s Suds in Cole Valley has become a coffee shop called Wooden that is, yes, heavily wooded, with a resident wise-cracking parrot. In the Tenderloin, Barnzu serves Korean small plates where soiled pants were once cleaned. And in late May, on a quiet midday stretch of Market Street, the 52-year-old Little Hollywood Launderette became Kantine, San Francisco’s first Scandinavian half-day cafe.


There was a lot of chest hair. Not in my food, but peeking out from the shirts of the men presenting it. And it was mostly men — wearing skinny jeans, no socks, blazers pulled tightly around fit torsos, and button-downs unbuttoned one button more than most, at least on this coast. I wouldn’t mention it, except the servers underscore the atmosphere at Avery, which can be summed up in two words: bachelor pad. It’s like a dark, boxy, barely decorated apartment rented by a single, 30-something guy who happens to be a really good cook.

And when I showed up alone on a Friday night, it felt like an awkward first date. Greeting me was nothing — and no one — but a floating black slotted wall. I stood staring at it until my husband arrived. Eventually the host showed up. “Welcome to Avery,” he said, unaware we’d been waiting.

“You’ll be joining us tonight for the Cello Player menu?” he asked, I assumed rhetorically. We were unsure of the actualname of the menu we purchased, anyway, as we’d prepaid through Tock earlier that week. The more expensive one, I wanted to say. We followed him through the small, hushed dining room, past a lone table of four, and up a set of black stairs to the second-floor dining room. It looked the same as the first, just without windows.

There, the awkwardness continued. We looked at our server. Our server looked at us. We looked at our menu, a vertical cut of calligraphy paper scrawled, simply, in black ink: “Grains,” “Oyster,” “Curry.” It was pretty and poetic, but clearly called for some sort of introduction, which we never got. So we asked. After a seven-minute monologue describing each of the seven courses, plus all of the possible “additions” — like trout roe, “caviar bump,” and spicy lobster with sea urchin — he wandered off, without asking if we’d like to start with anything to drink.

Then I realized: Wait, we hadn’t prepaid for Cello Player! We’d prepaid for the 13- to 15-course Shades of Spring menu, which was supposed to include all of those decadent add-ons. An honest error, but we would’ve left cheated had we not realized. And — as I learned when we later tried Cello — still hungry enough to eat an off-menu hot dog at the Progress across the street.

I let our server know about the mix-up, which led to more awkwardness: scurrying, whispering. Apparently we should’ve been seated downstairs with the handful of fellow high rollers who had also paid $189 per person. Instead, we were seated upstairs, with the commoners who’d paid a mere $89 per person. We were told to stay put. Our menus were whisked away. (Shades of Spring doesn’t come with menus.) “Let us cook for you,” our server proclaimed, with too much pomp for a moment we both knew had been lost.

All of which is to say: It wasn’t the smoothest start to a $700 dinner.

But Grains is: a ceramic palm-sized bowl half full of a broth infused with toasted rice and clarified burnt onion butter. It was so aromatic and rich and soothing, I wanted to bathe in it. And I hate baths. With each sip, our angst evaporated, and we were reminded: We came to Avery to eat. We also came to drink sake — the restaurant has a sake sommelier, after all — except we still had yet to be offered any. Ultimately, we came for chef Rodney Wages, whose resume is studded with all-star venues like the French Laundry, BenuSaison, and Atelier Crenn.

I never made it to his pop-upRTB Fillmore (RTB as in “Rod the Bod,” a nickname courtesy of his pals at Saison). But it was such a hit, he and partner Matthew Mako decided to make it permanent, and wisely rename it Avery (as in Milton, the American painter). And now we have yet another elaborate, expensive tasting menu in a high-flying town that’s teeming with them.

Lest we forget how elaborate and expensive, each indulgent, artfully arranged course at Avery reminds us. It’s like culinary hedonism’s greatest hits: Pearls of smoked trout roe are piled into a pair of golden spoons over crushed avocado with sesame, and accompanied by cured kampachi in a spicy-sweet sunomono with preserved citrus, crowned with a crisp of kelp.

A tin of osetra caviar arrives in a crystal bowl of crushed ice. It’s served as a bona fide “bump”— the server spoons the eggs onto your fist along with a dollop of smoked creme fraiche, then drapes it all in a fat slab of barbecued wagyu beef fat. (Yes, all on your fist.) It’s a salty, smoky, slippery slurp, enlivened by a perfect pop. The effect is similar to the drug it alludes to: I immediately wanted more — although not at $68 a hit.

Also, an island of Fort Bragg uni floats in a rich red broth made from lobster shells, spiked with espelette pepper. It’s the four-star version of a Fisherman’s Wharf cioppino, and I savored the slow burn of every slurp.

And of course there is foie gras, twin silky, smoky morsels in a light garlicky broth encircled, like a team of synchronized swimmers, by hand-pinched tortellini: delicate pouches concealing shiitake mushrooms and a burst of cultured butter that vanishes. “This might be the star that steals the show,” Mako warned, his chest hair emphasizing the cheesiness of his line. But he’s right.

Until the 12th course, when the “snow beef” shows up: a pair of rosy, marbled hunks of A5 wagyu, perfectly seared.“He’s the Jedi of beef,” said our serverreferring to its famous Hokkaido rancher, Fujio Terauchi. The $78 price for this “supplement” had looked preposterous when I saw it on our wrong menu earlier, but biting into the charred, buttery meat — velvet incarnate, really — it almost made sense.

It at least made economical sense to go for the whole Shades of Spring shebang rather than to tack the beef onto the cheaper, briefer Cello.

Money and value is a funny thing, though, when it comes to tasting menus. These days, we’re seeing more and more of them in the Bay Area at all price points. We’re paying for the food, but at $89, $189, or, in the case of Avery’s private room, $289 per person, we’re also paying for the experience. Avery excels in the former. I revered, and demolished, almost every dish. There were just two blips: The spiny lobster curry, which was overpowered by mint, and tasted like the world’s most expensive cup of Scopeand the cheese tart, which was gloppy and flimsy and, as the penultimate course, oddly incongruous with an otherwise exceptional parade.

But as for everything else, Avery is lacking — no matter where you sit. On my second visit, despite booking the less expensive menu, we were seated downstairs in the supposedly nicer space. Perhaps because they’d remembered they’d messed up last time, or perhaps because they’d recognized me last time. It later became clear I’d been outed — and possibly overserved, yet never charged for it.

Maybe they thought if I drank enough sake by the end of the meal, I’d forget all about its clumsy start.

Nope. That’s the problem. No matter how seamlessly my second supper went, no matter how wonderful Wages’ cooking, the vibe is too immature for its price tag; the experience too stiff and stilted and salesy. The warmest thing about Avery is the nubby, soft West Elm blankets curled in the banquettes, in case you feel cold — like the place itself.

There are too many other restaurants where you can spend a small fortune these days. If only Avery felt more like a good first date: fun enough to want to do it again.

Che Fico

Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t come here often, but she came here once — on the heels of Anderson Cooper, no less. And once, within weeks of opening, by two separate super-celebrities, was enough: enough to garner more than 83,000 Instagram likes between them; enough to book every online reservation for at least a month; and enough to create such a frenzy that on a recent Thursday night at 6 p.m., a friend walked up the flight of terra-cotta-tiled stairs to the host stand and was quoted a — wait for it — four-hour wait.

Which is why we showed up at 5:22 p.m. on a Tuesday, eight minutes before opening, to join the lineup of actually fashionably dressed San Franciscans hoping to score one of the 46 spots generously reserved for walk-ins at the zinc-topped bar, or window ledge, or communal table. Little Star, next door, shooing people away from its entrance, wasn’t asthrilled about the swarm as the squealing women snapping so-excited-to-be-here! selfies beneath Che Fico’s sign.

It’s the flashiest addition yet to the ever-gentrifying Divisadero Corridor, a bulb-lit arrow pointing to what the city’s latest crop of restaurants has been missing: a new classic. A place that both fits right in — and stands out. Che Fico has taken what we know and love about pizza and pasta and San Francisco and given it a jolt.

It might’ve taken almost four years to come to fruition, but — like the wait for a table — it’s worth it.

Inside is one of the most stunning, if intentionally photogenic, restaurants in San Francisco. It’s like Oakland-based designer Jon de la Cruz took the Insta-success of the lone wallpapered wall at Leo’s Oyster Bar and went nuts — well, figs — plastering the place with whimsical illustrations of leafy trees hanging with the plump, fuschia fruit. Mismatched with burnt-orange, black, and white floor tile, it creates a dizzying, almost Escher-like entrance that opens to a space so lovely — and unexpected in this city of lookalikes — that I literally gasped.

There are vintage-styled leather booths mixed with stained maple tables, a long marble countertop backed by a bright-red pizza oven from Italy, and a seemingly never-ending communal table fashioned from a 200-year-old felled oak. It is light and lofty, and inoffensively large. That size, and the rustic wooden rafters (festooned with bushels of sun-dried espelette peppers), are the only signifiers of the location’s former life as an auto-repair shop.

Rarely does a restaurant with so much hype actually live up to it. But from the first sip of my Coriander to the last scrape of olive oil cake through its puddle of roasted strawberry vinaigrette, I was a believer. The cocktail is casually elegant, garnished with a white blossom; it smells like a garden and tastes like gin — citrusy gin with coriander-infused curacao and housemade herbes de Provence bitters. And the fat slice of cake is as light and fluffy and life-changing as fresh snow on a Utah slope, adorned with a heavenly globe of malted yogurt gelato.

 And then there’s everything in between: antipasti and pastas and “peasant comfort” fare, wood-fired chicken and the crusty, eye-catching Parmesan-dusted pizzas that I passed up on my first visit to leave room for the lamb loin. Hailing from Sonoma County, it’s aged for 17 days, marinated for two, then slow-roasted on the wood fire and topped by a shrub of wild watercress. Thick, meaty medallions fanned across the plate, fat blissfully intact. It’s a hefty, yet tender, undertaking for two.

The albacore tuna conserva is the antithesis: delicate, with too few hunks of tuna. But with wisps of radish and wedges of artichoke, it’s a wonder: tuna from Baja that’s been cured and Cryovac’d in olive oil and slow-poached before it arrives drizzled with aioli. It is fleshy and light, more silky than fishy, and blows away anything served from a jar.

Meanwhile, the pasta blew my mind. Not an easy feat in a town where house-made tagliatelle has become almost as ubiquitous as burritos. Each dish is marked with a little bubble on the menu as fatta a macchina in casa (made with an in-house pasta machine) or fatta a mano (made by hand). The orecchiette with broccoli rabe and fennel sausage sounded so standard I almost skipped it, but that would’ve been a serious mistake. The chewy, thick thimbles, tossed in goat butter, trumped every other orecchiette I’ve tried. Another big hit was the bigoli nero, a bowl of delightfully dense squid-ink noodles tangled with octopus and Dungeness crab and littlenecks, scattered with the crunch of toasted breadcrumbs. Only the mafaldini — squiggle-edged lasagna-like lemony noodles in a bland fava-leaf pesto — was a miss. But in the lumache — snail-shaped shells clinging with a pomodoro sauce burning with ’nduja and chiles — I found true love.

And in the box on the menu labeled “Cucina Ebraica,” I found my roots. Sort of. Chef David Nayfeld’s NorCal version of the Jewish-Italian tradition was clearly not mine. In 1980s suburban Boston, where I was raised, that meant Friday night platters of chicken parm with gloppy ziti from a red-sauce palace off Route 9 called Marconi’s.

But, here, off Divisadero Street in 2018 San Francisco, Jewish-Italian cuisine includes locally sourced gizzards and chicken hearts and corned beef tongue. The duck liver is grilled over the wood fire, chopped, and mixed with a chicken-liver mousse. It is creamy and dreamy and something you’d think chopped liver, by its very nature, could never be: pretty. A velvety mound ringed like a hippie chick in petals of purple daikon and pickled onion, it came flanked by a single, seed-studded slab of Roman matzo that, if boxed, would put Manischewitz out of business. (Even if Nayfeld does use a reduction of its sweet wine to make the liver.) There was more liver than matzo, which was a little irritating, until I remembered I still had my fork. A chopped liver that stands on its own is a chopped liver worthy of celebration.

Ultimately, it’s neither Instagram nor Anderson Cooper (nor his viral post of the pineapple-red onion-fermented chile pizza, the crust of which I actually found to be too stiff, and one of the menu’s only disappointments) that is responsible for rocketing this restaurant to the top of San Francisco’s food chain. It’s the food and the drinks and the desserts. Not to mention the industry rock stars behind it: Nayfeld and his fellow Eleven Madison Park alum and Beard-winning pastry chef Angela Pinkerton — aided by co-owner Matthew Brewer and bar director Christopher Longoria, who are also ones to watch. Plus a staff that was so attentive, it at times felt stifling. They were peeking out from behind the fig trees, re-pouring water glasses still three-quarters full, and repeatedly asking “May I take that away?” a tad too soon.

Still, collectively, they have created a restaurant that feels unique and exciting and of the moment, like Delfina did two decades ago, like its neighbor Nopa did 10. And if we can peer into San Francisco’s pasta- and wood-fired chicken-tangled future — it also feels like almost-40-year-old Zuni does today: timeless.


Nyum Bai

Restaurants are often defined by their view: There are waterfront restaurants and rooftop bars and sidewalk cafes. But sitting on a pastel-pink stool one day in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, gazing out through a wall of windows, I didn’t see sailboats or city lights or women walking by wearing wide-legged Everlane pants.

Instead, I saw a Donald Trump pinata, dangling not unlike a dead man, from the store next door. And it made my meal of chef Nite Yun’s Cambodian street food even better. I found it satisfying to eat dinner cooked by a member of America’s immigrant community in the symbolic face of a president working to keep immigrants out of America.

If Trump had his way, we’d all be eating his eponymous steaks with ketchup — not dipping asparagus spears into a bowl of pungent Bolognese-like minced pork belly stir-fried with prahok (fermented fish paste) and simmered with coconut milk.

Yun was born in a Thai refugee camp to parents who’d fled the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal regime. Her family of five eventually landed in a small apartment in Stockton, California, home to one of the country’s largest Cambodian communities. Raised in her mother’s kitchen, filled with the smell of fresh-cut lemongrass, she was later inspired to return to Cambodia, to learn about her family and taste her culinary roots. In 2012, while slurping a bowl of noodle soup from a street stall in Phnom Penh, she found her calling.

Here, across from the Fruitvale BART station, steps from both a Payless ShoeSource and 2018 James Beard-nominated restaurant Reem’s, is the consummation of years of her hard work.

It’s also a sign of what’s to come in a changing city. As outpriced San Franciscans continue to invade Oakland, it’s easy to envision the Fruitvale Public Market one day morphing into a mini Ferry Plaza, complete with $4 peaches and $50 boxes of chocolate. But if change means more fantastic locally owned businesses like Nyum Bai, dedicated to enriching the community rather than bulldozing it, the future looks bright.

Inside Nyum Bai, it does too. The decor is airy and light, an upbeat palette of white, pale blues, neon accents, and millennial pink. Paper-wrapped chopsticks protrude from jasmine tea tins. Even the bathroom is somewhere you kind of want to stay a while — clad in wallpaper custom-designed by local illustrator Ratha Nou, featuring a mix of Oakland’s famed shipping cranes and faces of 1960s Cambodian rock stars like Pan Ron and Sinn Sisamouth. The same voices are behind the the music playing softly overhead and the colorful retro album covers that adorn the wall.

It’s all intended to buck our longtime association of Cambodia with its dark days, bringing us back to the country’s golden era. And it works.

The place, and its people, exude a kind of homey warmth and genuineness I haven’t experienced much lately on the San Francisco side of the bridge. It also serves the kind of unique, deeply flavorful, very affordable food I haven’t eatenmuch of lately on that side of the bridge.

Take amok, a curried fish souffle, steamed with coconut milk in banana leaf; koh, tender, caramelized pork belly and lightly fried tofu simmered in a coconut-soy broth; and lively ngoum, banana-blossom salad with crunchy sticks of cabbage and basil in a sweet lime dressing. It’s all served tableside, no less. You remember low-key sit-down restaurants, right?

Were Nyum Bai on, say, hip Hayes Street, it would no doubt be a fast-casual situation. I admit, I found myself feeling relieved, even relaxed, when I walked in and realized it wasn’t. (Am I tiring of ordering a multi-dish meal at a counter already? Maybe.)

The sad thing is that a place like Nyum Bai would likely never open on Hayes Street, let alone anywhere in 2018 San Francisco, where the costs of running a restaurant are astronomical, including rents up to three times that of Oakland.

Owning a restaurant in Fruitvale, however, is far less expensive. And Yun’s growing fan base benefits: Her priciest dish is $15.95. A creamy cardamom-coconut curry with braised short ribs in Oakland or a Pimm’s cup in San Francisco? Take your pick.

The sadder thing: A place like Nyum Bai couldn’t open at all without Kickstarter, yes, but also without assistance from food incubator nonprofits like La Cocina, whose primary mission is to help low-income women from immigrant communities realize their professional dreams.

One could argue that the industry is tough for anyone trying to open a restaurant, regardless of race or gender. But for the women La Cocina supports, that deck is stacked particularly high. This is expressly why the organization launched in the Bay Area in 2005 and why a cook like Yun was able to go from her mother’s kitchen to culinary entrepreneur to chef-owner of a restaurant  a restaurant so good, mind you, it’s in the top five of my running mental list and among Oakland’s top 18, according to my colleague Bill Addison.

Yun spent a year perfecting her mother’s recipe for kuy teav, a classic rice-noodle soup, before debuting it at her first San Francisco pop-up in 2014. She later moved to a kiosk at Emeryville’s Public Market. And now, at her first brick-and-mortar restaurant, the kuy teav “Phnom Penh” — dried shrimp and minced pork in a light, subtly sweet seven-hour pork broth brimming with fresh herbs and flecks of fried garlic — is just one star on a menu filled with them.

The restaurant serves 15 or so items, split into three loosely defined categories. My glistening pile of ginger fried chicken was slotted under “Snacks,” but in both size and sticky, crackling satisfaction, it was so much more. Even San Tung’s dry fried wings have got nothing on Yun’s.

Another supposed snack was skewers of grilled beef. Marinated in an umami-packed mix of fish sauce, honey, and lemongrass, countered by wisps of chile powder-dusted pickled papaya, the dish could have easily doubled as a small plate.

The condiment caddy deserves a category all its own. It’s a quadrant that includes a fiery hot sauce — a family recipe made with chiles dried over a wood fire — and something Westerners typically only offer with coffee: sugar. Sugar is a staple, our server explains. “Cambodians sprinkle it like salt.”

Tempting, but to me, the wilted stalks of garlicky water spinach delicately stir-fried and speckled with salted soybeans are perfect without it. So too is the kuy teav cha, which may have forever ruined me for pad Thai. The slippery rice noodles are stir-fried with dark soy and tamarind, touched with palm sugar, and blanketed by a sunny-side-up egg — further proof that a sweet yolk enhances everything.

As did knowing that the hundred bucks or so our foursome spent eating almost the entire menu supports a supremely talented, self-taught chef — a woman who has opened just the kind of restaurant America needs more of.

Bar Crenn

Not here. This opulent, dimly lit den is star chef Dominque Crenn’s, the Marina’s splashiest new spot since her first born, Atelier Crenn, opened next door in 2011. Crenn is one of America’s only multi-Michelin-starred female chef (Chef Suzette Gresham also maintains two at Acquerello). Nothing she does is kitschy: not the white, faux-fur-draped chaise or the chandeliers dripping crystal or the leopard-print thrones or the intentionally distressed books lining the shelves or the ginormous painting of a Coco Chanel lookalike presiding over our plates. It all could have felt gaudy or overwrought, but with Crenn’s touch, the sum total was tasteful, impeccably done. Bar Crenn is the most romantic place to sit and sip a pamplemousse negroni — and slurp Guy Savoy’s ice-poached oyster in its own gelee — in all of San Francisco.

And the most expensive: Bar Crenn was billed as a wine bar, but that’s a bit of a misnomer. If you want a table, you’ve got to buy a ticket through Tock: That’ll be $165 per person for the caviar tasting, $85 per person for the three-course “carte blanche” menu, or $50 per person for wine with “small bites.” If I’m going to spend at least $200 for two, I’m going to call it dinner. The only way to make this place affordable is to pop by for a glass (standing room only) or forgo all booze and order nothing but the brioche. Which, being a buttery, golden masterpiece of a mini loaf, would still be worth it.

As Crenn told Eater earlier, Bar Crenn’s design is intended to make us feel like we’re hanging out in her living room. (Her house must be pretty nice.) It’s not unlike George Chen’s aim for his elegant, “private chateau” Eight Tables or the couch-strewn vibe at SF Jazz’s newish B-Side lounge.

I’m down with living room-like dining. I don’t mind sinking into a cushy armchair or hunching over a coffee table. But to be fair, I usually do it while eating delivery pizza in front of Netflix, not cutting into a dainty pancetta-studded tarte flambee donated by Alain Ducasse. (Jews are supposed to recline on Passover, so why not on a Saturday night at a 1930s-style Parisian salon, too?)

Glancing around Bar Crenn’s long, narrow room, though, it was clear not everyone felt so comfortable. There was the trio squeezed side by side on a loveseat, facing out rather than toward each other, TV sitcom-style. The silver-haired foursome (men in sports jackets, ladies in pearls) shifting in their deep, velvet cushions, trying their best to make out the menu’s 10-point font in the dark. (“It sets a mood,” said our server. “But…”)

The flirty, well-heeled couples sitting knee to knee at the marble-topped bar were content. As were my sister and I, sliding into our mismatched settees, feeling chicer than we actually are — until we also felt something I hate feeling in a restaurant: cold. Seated beneath a ceiling vent blasting frigid air, it was like Siberia suddenly invaded France. We couldn’t switch because every one of the 26 seats was reserved or occupied; requests to make it warmer resulted in a warm stuffiness that we all agreed was worse. So, soigne Siberia it was. I thought about wrapping myself in the white faux-fur throw draped behind me, but realized that would’ve probably been frowned upon.

After all, Bar Crenn is civilized and sophisticated, a welcome detour off otherwise fratty, fleece-clad Chestnut Street. The kind of place where a hollowed eggshell arrives brimming with bone-marrow custard, smoky creme fraiche, a squeeze of Meyer lemon, and an abundance of sturgeon caviar on a silver pedestal; and Dungeness crab comes delicately sandwiched between slabs of creamy avocado, dotted with Marcona almonds and purple nasturtium.

Meanwhile, one pink scallop, recently pulled from the Puget Sound, curls up inside a seashell with horseradish-spiked creme fraiche, a few pearls of caviar, and a $20 price tag. And finally, an eggy salmon souffle baked with a layer of black cod and accompanied by a sweet tomato compote arrives so fluffy and fleshy and flavorful — yet it’s finis after four or five forkfuls and left us craving more.

Which is to say, at Bar Crenn, the portions are small, the prices are high, and midway through the carte blanche tasting, you start to worry that despite blowing big bucks, you might leave on a still-empty stomach.

Hence, my sister: “Another round of scallops!” she said to our server with gusto, without realizing that’d mean another $40 on our tab. We opted for seconds of the $5 oysters instead.

We also opted for the wine pairing. It was lovely — particularly the rare Loire Valley Sancerre — but it, too, wasn’t enough. Call me a wino, but for $65 I wanted more than the allotted three half-glasses spread across our almost three-hour supper. Or maybe it was just that the pacing was off; the Sancerre was poured long before our salmon souffle arrived. I took my first bite with my last sip. It would’ve been nice if our server had noticed and offered a splash more. At these prices, in this heady atmosphere, it would have been appropriate.

Personally, watching Crenn, rock star that she is, chitchatting at the bar, I didn’t forget how to eat — I just wished I could keep eating.

My earlier fear about not getting enough food? Confirmed — even after we enjoyed every last morsel. (Everything except for the quenelle Lyonnaise, that is. Its twin mounds of fish mousseline were squishy and airy and doused in a too-fishy crayfish sauce. It all tasted like a failed French attempt at Gefilte fish.) Even after spreading more whipped beef fat onto my brioche than any respectable human being should. Even after devouring the most divine Madeleine of my life — bronzed and buttery, made with almond flour, filled with lemon curd, bursting with Sicilian pistachios, and served less than 60 seconds after leaving the oven — I was out hundreds of dollars and still hungry. No matter how enchanting an evening, that’s never a good feeling. Or maybe it’s just the American in me.


International Smoke

Everyone loves Ayesha Curry. She is warm and smart and real, with a tireless commitment to kids, her own as well as the 13 million children in America struggling with hunger, and a genuine adoration of her husband, the Golden State Warriors’ mouth-guard-dangling NBA star, Steph.

After joining her 5 million-strong Instagram followers and binge-watching her Food Network shows the other day, I became a fan, too. Of Ayesha the person. The businesswoman. The brand.

Just not of her restaurant: International Smoke, the sprawling, globally inspired, don’t-call-it-barbecue spot she opened with Michael Mina (his 33rd restaurant), street level at the slowly sinking Millennium Tower, in November, to much hype and booked-solid reservations.

Scanning the menu was like taking a quick culinary trip around the world: from wagyu shaking beef to jerk-rubbed duck wings to Argentine rib eye in a chimichurri to a Punjabi-spiced fish fry to a carne asada-stuffed baked potato alongside togarashi-spiked sticky rice. And that was my favorite thing about International Smoke (apart from the word “HUMAN” being stenciled on every bathroom door): its globetrotting, multicultural focus, its borders so blissfully wide-open I wouldn’t put it past Trump to swoop in at any minute and order them closed. I only wish International Smoke lived up to its promise.

Curry smartly conceived of a restaurant that mirrors her own Jamaican-Chinese-Polish-African-American background. Although she intended Smoke to be a mash-up of true international flavors, it played more like a muted, Epcot imitation fit more for an Anywhere USA mall than a sophisticated food city. Something along the way — from Ayesha’s home to the Mina Group LLC headquarters to the Millennium Tower — must have been lost in translation.

The place certainly had its pros: the frothy, coconut-milky, crushed-ice Horquito rum cocktail and the crisp fennel-radish-carrot crudite; the buttery-sweet curried cornbread and the garlic-chile hominy that should be bagged and offered to road-trippers as a substitute for corn nuts. The roasted, soy-caramel-glazed Brussels sprouts tasted like sticky-sweet bundles of joy. And the Thai shrimp tom khawas rich and spicy and better than any I’ve had from my go-to take-outs. Then again, if I’d been in the mood for red curry with shrimp, I would have stayed home and ordered it. This one, though, came flanked by an atypical garnish: more of that cornbread.

Otherwise, upon reading the menu, I wanted absolutely everything! Upon eating it… we were underwhelmed by almost everything. The Kalua “Instant Bacon” with Hawaiian teriyaki, cilantro, and pineapple salsa on a steamed bun was all bun, barely any bacon. I love a soft pillow, but its folded doughy-white puffs were so smothering they muffled any flavor. The green papaya slaw lacked so much, including kick, I thought perhaps the kitchen had accidentally shredded the fruit and then forgot about it. The smoked burrata came with a big show (a glass dish lifted in a magic puff of smoke) and a befuddling cold mush of shaved Brussels, spiced squash, apples, and pecans. The black garlic and miso cod was as salty as the sea, and the Vietnamese barbecue pork chop was striped with aesthetically pleasing charred marks, but tasted more like a quick flame-broil job than barbecue through and through.

Smoked pork — in various forms — was the supposed centerpiece of the lengthy menu, yet I’d take the simple charcoal-grilled, lime-tinged Maine lobster tail (for a ridiculous $58) over them all. The Korean scallion crepes were flaccid and forgettable; the sliders ranked low among all the sliders I’ve enjoyed in my life. Only the crunch of the tostadas topped with smoky-hot New Mexican adovada-style pork shoulder sated. And the smoked ribs, trimmed to an easy-to-eat St. Louis style, came coated in a too-mild Korean gochujang, spicy New Mexican adovada, or sweet, sticky American barbecue. Touched with caramelized sugar then blow-torched, the American barbecues were the best. The meat fell off the bone, but without more bark, more finger-sucking, soul-stirring depth, the ribs failed to make me fall in love.

I wanted to at least like our servers. As people they were fine, but as humans working in the hospitality industry, they lacked an understanding of their jobs. Instead of offering eye contact, a semblance of personality, and an ability to offer much more than poorly memorized descriptions of the $30, $40, $50 entrees, they seemed sort of miserable, mechanical, hoping to just get through their night rather than help us enjoy ours.

We had a minor issue not worth getting into here, but I’m glad it happened, as it brought over the manager, who was effusive and sincere and expertly handled it. I felt better knowing there was someone working the floor Ayesha would be pleased to know was taking good care of her customers, if she can’t.

Customers who are loyal Curry Family fans, packing the restaurant like it was Warriors stadium, and comprising a crowd equally, and refreshingly, as diverse. Customers who come from around the Bay, if not the country, to support Ayesha and Steph, to soak in their aura, and bask in their glory while shooting Buffalo Trace bourbon picklebacks chased by turmeric-curry-infused pickle juice.

Customers like the couple clad in NBA Finals hoodies we met at the bar. They’d trekked in from Vallejo for happy hour— and left unimpressed, but not unhappy. It’d be hard to be with $3 ponies of Miller High Life and $3.50 apiece ribs and barbecue red-chile-basted oysters. Still, “everything was so salty, I feel all swollen up!” laughed the middle-aged man, puffing out his cheeks. (I couldn’t argue.)

“I guess it was a little more gourmet than ballpark food,” added his wife. “I wouldn’t make a special trip again, but I’m glad we tried it.”

That’s the thing about a celebrity-owned restaurant like International Smoke. It has the easy advantage of getting people in the door, but then the food has to be good enough to bring them back. True sports fans will stand by their team through the ups and the downs. True Ayesha fans may, too. When it comes to restaurants, though — in San Francisco especially — food fans aren’t so forgiving.

As Quoted

A Glutton’s Report from the Gluten-Free Frontlines

For an omnivorous, carb-craving, cocktail-swilling, relatively new restaurant critic still getting accustomed to her intake, spending dawn to dusk at As Quoted, an allergy-friendly, all-day cafe in Presidio Heights, was like checking into a one-day detox center. Or at least the “spa cafe” of a refined resort.

Fresh off an especially indulgent stint that included ham-centric holiday parties and Harbison Cellar cheeseboards, platters of ribs and baskets of jalapeno poppers, I — like so many San Franciscans — decided I needed a cleanse of sorts, but just a quickie, as I’m not really the cleanse type. (I once tried a juice fast and quickly realized two things: Liquid kale makes me queasy, and I prefer to chew my food.)

According to As Quoted’s Instagram account, the cafe looked healthy and happy, like everything I hoped for 2018.

For this first review of the new year, a glutton’s notes from the gluten-free frontlines:

9:30 a.m.

Scene: Quintessential Sacramento Street. Well groomed, high rent, and white (its subway-tiled walls, Formica-topped tables, and customers alike). Lines of mostly women waiting for organic beet lattes, Americanos, and “dark green” smoothies.

Dress code: Black Lululemon exercise pants.

Overheard: “Hiiiii! How are you? Are you working these days?”

Order: I decided to stray from my regular morning ritual and kick things off as one is supposed to at As Quoted: with an organic turmeric latte, infused with fresh ginger, almond milk, coconut oil, sea salt, and coconut sugar. But then I asked the perky woman behind the counter, “That includes espresso, though, too, right?” She smiled. No. And so I reverted back to my latte, made with Andytown beans and real milk. (The only cow milk item on the menu.)

Adequately caffeinated and settling into the As Quoted spirit, I decided to give the turmeric latte a try. And it was a pleasant surprise. As I sipped the steaming, spicy, coconut creamy, curry-yellow concoction, I felt my skin glow, noticed my stress dissipate, and instantly anti-inflamed. Kidding. Still, Gwyneth, who’s popularized the benefits of the almighty turmeric latte, might be onto something. (As Ayurvedic practitioners, who have been using turmeric for centuries, were before her.) Even if, for me, that something is only an occasional non-caffeinated hiatus from espresso.

For breakfast, I was flummoxed, too. The brief list of options sounded perfect for my health-focused mission: an open-faced organic almond butter-banana-honey-cinnamon sandwich; avocado toast, of course; and poached eggs over frisee drizzled with a shallot-Champagne vinaigrette (hold the pasture-raised bacon). Except, wait a minute. “Do I have to get it on gluten-free bread?” I asked, fully expecting a gluten-free cafe to offer real bread for those who want it.

“Uh, yes,” said the nice woman, giving me a look that said, Duh. “Everything here is gluten free.”


And so, after years of eschewing it, I experienced My First Gluten-Free Toast. And you know what? Baked daily with sorghum and multigrain flours, honey, eggs, and avocado oil, it was hearty without being too heavy, and not bad! It was made better, of course, because it came smothered in super-fresh avocado, thinly sliced radish, a swath of “Just” mayo (a mix of yellow split pea, lemon, and canola oil), and a sprinkle of red pepper flakes and Jacobson sea salt.

It came accompanied by a ready-to-go “honey-bruleed” grapefruit, complete with a sticky, shatter-worthy sheen, more Jacobsen’s salt, and a dash of cayenne. I realized I could, and should, eat this grapefruit every morning. (Although five bucks almost seems like a fair price for having someone else segment and sweeten your grapefruit for you, I’d probably be better off eating it at home.)

1:10 p.m.

Scene: Crowded, but calm. Ladies lunching; people pecking away on laptops; babies wailing.

Dress code: Black Lululemon exercise pants; pressed slacks with button-downs.

Overheard: [Married woman to single man] “Can I set you up with my friend?”

Order: Salad expectations are high at a health-minded place like As Quoted. And my “Chinese Chicken” rose to the occasion: a simple, heaping pile of crisp romaine and cabbage chopped and scattered with scallions, black sesame seeds, and cilantro in a clean, subtle sesame dressing. It came with a single, sprawling sheet of rice noodles that I broke to spread its sweet crunch. Was the salad worth $15? I’m not convinced, but I thoroughly enjoyed every bite.

 3:45 p.m.

Scene: Still crowded, with a steady stream coming and going. Afternoon work meetings over herbal tea and “Shrub Spritzers.”

Dress code: Black Lululemon exercise pants; real black pants, too, with leather boots and long cashmere coats.

Overheard: “My friend launched his startup with only $12 million in funding.”

Order: A cup of the seasonal/local/organic/andwholesome! (S.L.O.W™) bone broth soup of the day. It was spicy chicken vegetable — although I only spotted three teeny slivers of chicken, so it might as well have been veggie soup. Regardless, it was a deeply rich Marin Sun Farms bone broth with cayenne, cumin, broccoli, and an organic mirepoix. It was soothing and satisfying and I felt invigorated just sipping it (if also a little like a white-collar inmate who’d convinced Martha Stewart to cook for her; the $6 portion was small, and served on a spare white tray with a half-slice of multigrain gluten-free bread). Unadorned, it wasn’t as tasty as it had been earlier, but dipped in that broth it did its job.

6:30 p.m.

Scene: Still here. It was just me; a solo dude; and about a dozen single red roses, one on every white table, each poised in a glass bud vase. (If I weren’t married, and this guy were my type, and we were both vegan, this could’ve had the makings of a New York Times Vows piece.)

Dress code: Me: Uh, black exercise pants (Oiselle, though, not Lululemon.) Him: below-the-knee gym shorts and flip-flops.

Overheard: “Cruisin” by D’Angelo, coming out of the ceiling.

Order: “Is the zucchini pappardelle hot?” I asked the nice woman, already knowing the answer.

“No,” she said.

“And it’s just zucchini, right? No pasta?”

Yes, she replied. I tacked on a glass of earthy Spanish red. If As Quoted served wine, then even on my 10-hour cleanse I considered it kosher. Plus, it enhanced my vegan pappardelle: wide, paper-thin ribbons of zucchini that were silky and slippery in a sprightly green goddess sauce, effusing fresh basil and strewn with cherry tomatoes and crushed red pepper. It was a tangle that proved more flavorful and satisfying than it first looked.

The same could be said of As Quoted itself. Customers come in daily, sometimes twice a day, jonesing for its kale-romaine-cucumber smoothie, its Moofy muffin (brown rice flour, rice milk, avocado oil, banana), its Muff-Tata (eggs, spinach, garlic, basil), happy to have an eatery where they’re the majority, not an inconvenience. More and more people are anti-gluten and -dairy, -nuts, and -soy, and sisters Kara and Andie Yamagami opened this cafe, in 2016, for them. Digging into my zucchini pappardelle, though, I realized I don’t have to be one of them to enjoy it.

I admit, I often dismiss places like As Quoted and its ilk. If you eat everything, why go somewhere so restrictive? But my meals offered a glimpse into the Goopy, gluten-free lifestyle I’ve long ignored. It’s not my lifestyle, but spending the day at As Quoted, writing, eating, eavesdropping — and refilling my glass of fizzy water for free — left me, I’ll admit, feeling good. Better than I felt after my last review meal, as much as I’d loved it. It also left me feeling something I’ve rarely felt since starting this critic gig: hungry.

8 p.m.

Scene: Home.

Dress code: PJs, slippers.

Overheard: “What do you want for dinner?”

“I already ate,” I replied, tearing into a loaf of Acme’s olive bread.

Beep’s — SF’s Best $7 Burger

I had no childhood memories of the place. I had no adulthood memories of the place, either. Honestly, I barely knew Beep’s Burgers existed, until lost on Ocean Avenue one day, I noticed its red-and-white retro sign, complete with something resembling a rocket ship and a yellow arrow pointing the way, and pulled in.

Later I learned that the rocket ship was actually a satellite, a remnant of the Space Race days, when I guess all Sputnik really did up there was beep. It must’ve seemed like a good name, back in 1962, for a drive-in.

Fifty-five years later, having scored a prime parking spot, I questioned the drive-in concept on the whole. Scarfing down food from the front seat is a barbaric practice that should be reserved for those times when you’re running late to work or, say, trying to outrun Tahoe traffic. I suppose if they had servers roller-skating around and I were parked down the street and it were raining, I could see the appeal.

Instead, on a recent sunny Saturday afternoon, we stood behind just two people (you can’t call that a line in this town) and placed our over-order with a nice woman behind the window. Then we grabbed a couple of free stools capped with squeaky-clean, bright-blue, Pepsi-branded cushions, and waited for our name to be called over the muffled loudspeaker — a throwback I didn’t realized I missed until I heard it.

No hand-held vibrating buzzers. No hordes of tourists. No Ferry Building prices. There’s no Trumer pilsner or Turley zinfandel either, but that’s okay; Beep’s is more of a Cherry Pepsi-Orange Crush kind of place. And ever since 30-year-old Samantha Wong took it over in 2014, it’s become a Cherry Pepsi-Orange Crush kind of place with food fit for discerning San Francisco eaters who’d never deign to drink the stuff. Myself included. (A Twinkie milkshake and jalapeno poppers, however, I was totally up for.)

Biting into the thick, deep-fried crust to find oozy-hot cream cheese hiding a fat hunk of jalapeno was a thoroughly satisfying, and, for once, non-tongue-burning experience. As it turned out, sucking bits of blended Twinkie through a straw wasn’t as fun as it sounded. But apparently it’s a hit with the college crowd. No matter: The Nutella and the Oreo milkshakes, the latter made with Oreos crushed on the spot, were thick, kitsch, and delish. At $4.95 apiece for the 16 ounce, they together cost less than one at Cole Valley’s Ice Cream Bar.

What I really loved, though, were the onion rings: hearty, steak-cut, almost greaseless loops with a clean crunch and slippery, flavorful insides. The curly fries, too, were firm and seasoned and all I wanted them to be. Even the sweet potato fries, so frequently mush, had that perfect snap. The only disappointment in the fry department were the plain ones, which were not as crisp or golden or salty as they could be. Nothing to rant on Yelp about, but nothing to come back craving either.

My burger, however, I’d trek out to Ingleside for anytime: an all Angus beef quarter-pound patty, with Beep’s secret sauce (a mix of mayo, ketchup, paprika, and cayenne that could’ve used more kick), leafy lettuce, and melted cheddar on a soft Semifreddi’s bun. Juicy, messy, hand-shaped Niman Ranch beef, it was a $7 feat in a city where burgers now push $20.

In June, Beep’s was declared a San Francisco Legacy Business, joining beloved institutions like Casa Sanchez and Tommaso’s. A dinosaur, however, it’s not. What’s driving Beep’s today is Wong’s commitment to preserving the past, while serving the present. She shed what didn’t work (a confusing mix of teriyaki rice plates, tacos, watery pineapple shakes, and shoddy ingredients) and enhanced what did.

“They’ve definitely upped their game,” said a dad in a tweed cap, with his tweenage son just out of the SSATs and diving into a half-pound double.

I’d heard from a few San Francisco natives that Beep’s used to be a spot where local City College and high school kids would come begrudgingly — not because it was good, but because it was cheap, and the only thing around. Literally, the only thing around, confirmed a guy who grew up nearby. He’s been back on Beep’s since the revamp, he said.

He comes for the crispy chicken sandwich. (I also had it, and it was a winner: succulent breast meat coated in a thick crust, with a fresh, lively jalapeno-parsley-red onion slaw.) The kid pointed to the Whole Foods and the spate of new condos and the Philz Coffee across the street. “None of that was here before,” he said. “It was just us.”

And now it was me. And the hipster dad and son. And a college couple, totally intertwined. And two pairs of stressed-out parents attempting to corral toddlers covered in ketchup. And a trio of 20-something dudes with slicked hair, wearing Vans and white tees, looking appropriate for the time warp where they were lunching. “I just discovered this place two months ago,” one of them told me. “And now I’m, like, here every day.”

There was also a nerdy high school student patiently waiting, with a McDonald’s bag, for his Beep’s Burger. “I like McDonald’s nuggets better,” he explained. I agreed.

True to its name, Beep’s is for burgers, with grilled onions or mushrooms, fresh avocado or fried egg, if you like. As well as mini-corndogs and breakfast sandwiches served all day, and wafer cones of vanilla-chocolate swirl that cost less than a ride on the K Line.

Beep’s is a worthy reminder that every meal in this town doesn’t have to be epic or expensive or — gasp — organic. Or consumed in a leafy parklet built by a local craftsman with reclaimed wood, for that matter. Sometimes, even in San Francisco, it’s enough to just sit outside, on a Pepsi stool at a non-descript counter, and enjoy an admirable, below-market-price burger, mere inches from a row of parked cars that includes more beaters than Beamers — looking up at a neon-lit sign that, propped up by the next generation, has stood longer than anyone eating beneath it.

Eight Tables

The walk to Chinatown’s most expensive restaurant isn’t easy. For one, hidden behind a chain-link fence down an otherwise desolate alley, the place is hard to find. But that’s not what I mean. What I mean is: Striding past so many homeless people huddled in doorways on your way to blow a thousand bucks on dinner is, well, hard to justify.

True, it’s an encounter we have in this increasingly stratified city every single day — but as I stepped around an old man outstretched in a sleeping bag on Broadway, I felt acutely conflicted about my upcoming evening at Eight Tables.

I also felt excited (if, in jeans, underdressed). The new, yes, eight-table restaurant was arguably San Francisco’s most anticipated opening of the year. George Chen is the brains behind Union Street’s 1990s trailblazing Betelnut, four restaurants in Shanghai, and in March, ChinaLive, the $20 million Eataly of dim sum downstairs. And now he was opening his “home” — or an opulent stage set of it — to the .5 percent, si fang cai-style. Or “private chateau cuisine,” as Chen puts it, a lavish, 10-course feast that takes entertaining tips from 17th-century China.

Sitting on a crushed-velvet settee waiting for my date, looking at framed black-and-white Chen family photos and listening to Miles Davis on a midcentury console record player, it indeed felt like I was in someone’s living room. Though when a fellow diner checked in and stiffly took a seat beside me, it felt more akin to an upscale doctor’s waiting room.

After several minutes of awkward silence, the fellow diner spoke: “I’ve never been to a restaurant like this,” he said.

Me neither. Because of the price and pomp, some might consider it the French Laundry with chopsticks; a Qing Dynasty-style Quince; a less-austere Benu. But, really, Eight Tables is unlike any restaurant this side of the Pacific — and exactly what chef Chen intended it to be: dinner at his place. The elegant, tan-hued, multi-room maze was regal but warm, with white embossed wallpaper fashioned from antique wedding dress patterns, cushy leather banquettes, and circular, semi-private tables that were comically large for two.

It also includes a full (and appropriately pedigreed) staff: Anthony Keels, a genius bartender who defected from Saison, along with GM Andrew Fuentes; Tony Kim, a sociable sommelier who came from the Clift; and a mannerly server named Huntly, who genuinely thanked us for asking his name. “People rarely do,” he lamented. Then snapped his fingers. “It’s just, ‘deliver my drinks, serve my food.’”

Which he did, flawlessly. He was aided by a fleet of mostly men wearing light-beige three-piece Ralph Lauren suits with a rainbow of patterned Hermès ties, who collectively looked like groomsmen at a WASPy summer wedding — and Chen, who came around to each table like the proud father, to introduce each course. (Chen was also wearing jeans, by the way, and a stained chef’s coat, looking a little schlubbier than a fine dining chef parading through his dining room usually does. I found it refreshing.)

I also caught a glimpse of an elderly Asian couple wearing white socks and matching Asics, and instantly felt better about my outfit. A good reminder that this is San Francisco: underdressing always goes.

The first course was a grid of mini multicolored porcelain bowls containing the “nine essential flavors” of Chinese cuisine. These bite-sized beauties tasted even better than they looked: sweet, a jujube date bursting with chrysanthemum honey; salty, sous-vide chicken coiled with cured duck-egg yolk; smoky, dark soy-marinated smelt wok-fried then smoked; numbing, paper-thin slices of beef tendon simmered in red and green Sichuan peppercorns that left my lips tingling until the next course.

Which was a next-level shrimp har gow dumpling: a delicate, open-faced quadrant brimming with Russian golden osetra caviar, trout roe, chives, creme fraiche, encircled by dollops of uni one night, curled on top another. Scooping it, and savoring it, like a Hoodsie Cup with a mother-of-pearl spoon, it had me wishing I could flag down this creation from any old dim sum cart, anytime.

But no, everything about Eight Tables is the antithesis of “anytime.” (For most civilians, it’s special-occasion time, if not once in a lifetime.)

 What Chen has done at Eight Tables is take standard Chinese dishes and turn them into more glamorous versions of themselves. You know, like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.A supplemental course referred to as “beef and broccoli,” for instance, was anything but the gloppy go-to take-out order. Rather, bright-green baby bulbs of tender Gailan hearts were plated sparingly with Miyasaki A5 wagyu, marbled hunks the color of cooked rhubarb and the texture of softened butter — and worth every one of its 6,000 pennies. (Although, on another night, it was a less transcendent experience.)

Barbecue “shao kao” became a trio that included sweet, smoky strips of Iberico char siu with a kumquat glaze; a crisp deconstructed Cantonese-style pork-belly sandwich about half the size of a Kit Kat, with more crunch; and a crackling Peking duck skin topped with Kaluga caviar teetering over a piece of feather-light shrimp toast — maybe my favorite bite of the night, save for the mushy fish eggs (which were farmed in the Hubei province of China, and not yet quite up to snuff. Still, Chen explained, he wanted to support their efforts).

On my first visit, Norwegian Icelandic cod steamed in banana leaf with hot ginger scallion oil, buried with lotus root stuffed and topped with shreds of pickled white melon,was silky, mild, and memorable, but a couple of weeks later, prepared with local cod and pickled cucumber, it was too firm, dry to the point of tasting almost parched. In a place that aims for perfection, the slightest imperfection — and inconsistencies — stands out. The velvet chicken, too, suffered a similar fate. Tender breast poached in shallot oil and enmeshed in slippery, snow-white egg whites and matsutake mushrooms came blanketed in Burgundy truffles, and yet, it was a bit bland. A kind of comfort food dish I’d be happy to eat elsewhere; here it was the faintest of them all.

It was a blip immediately forgotten, though, with the first forkful of the unctuous red “dongpo” pork that followed. The soy-braised, thick-cut pork belly looked, and tasted, as rich as a layered chocolate cake.

We would’ve been content to consider it dessert, actually. We were about eight courses in. And — having opted for the “beverage pairing” — about eight glasses in. We began with a Gosset brut, peaked with a decadent Peter Michael Bordeaux blend (paired with that pork), and in between, enjoyed the prettiest cocktail I’ve ever sipped. The Lily Pond: a palm-sized bowl of Martin Miller’s gin and floating nasturtium, mixed with “forest water” — cucumber juice, sorrel, and red shiso, spun in a centrifuge — prepared tableside, with tweezers and a flourish of liquid nitrogen, making the cocktail the new bananas Foster. Meanwhile, my friend, who rarely drinks, and declined the pairing, was loving, and feeling, his Thai Iced Tea Milk Punch, a white rum-based wonder that was smooth and subtle and creamy, like a real Thai iced tea, made with half-and-half yet magically clear.

Did we really need the two desserts that followed, on the heels of a foie gras-stuffed potsticker, no less? The first was a bracing chrysanthemum granita with plum preserve, and the second was what pastry chef Luis Villavelazquez dubbed “Chinese sea grass”: passion-fruit mousse capped with pickled sea beans and crinkled seagrass rice crackers and frothing with translucent, mesquite-infused bubbles that reminded me of the time I accidentally put dish soap instead of detergent in the dishwasher. It was more spectacle than satisfying, but — and perhaps this was the point — an unforgettable finale.

Did we really need any of it? Of course not. A dinner like this is all about indulgence.

So often, at other restaurants of its caliber, such indulgence comes with an air of snobbery, pretension, and an uncomfortable stiltedness. But Eight Tables isn’t supposed to feel like a restaurant. It’s supposed to feel like a private chateau.

What that means, I’m not quite sure. I never dined with 17th-century Qing dynasty nobles. Nor, for that matter, with 2017 Hong Kong elite. All I know is that after four hours hanging out with Anthony and Tony, Huntly and George, it felt a little like bidding farewell to new friends. Friends who hand you a bill, in a book of Chinese poetry (and inelegantly let you know that the service charge is shared throughout the house, but “anything extra” goes to them, which required us, woozy writers, to do unnecessary math in a moment that should be frictionless). Still, they’re the kind of friends you wish could come over and mix up milk punch at your place — the kind of friends only a fortunate few are able to afford.


In restaurant real estate, people often talk about cursed locations. You know, where one day it’s New American, the next it’s Thai, two weeks later you walk by and it’s an always-empty spaghetti house. Is it bad food or just bad juju? You don’t actually know because you never even gave it a chance. Expectations are lower for cursed locations.

But then there are blessed locations. Rare gems that consistently house beloved restaurants that eventually shutter or expand elsewhere, leaving behind their good bones and even better vibes. Expectations are higher for blessed locations.

The window-walled space at Octavia and Bush has long been the latter. And as soon as I punctured Melissa Perello’s divine “deviled egg” — showered in dried marash pepper and a chile fresno relish that unleashed a scent so invigorating it could be the new Red Bull — I knew the latest incarnation of this corner lived up to, if not surpassed, its lineage.

Long gone was the New England stuffiness of the Meeting House, a place I was never old enough, or paid enough, to try (but apparently Joanna Karlinsky’s biscuits were so adored she continued baking them for customers until last year); gone was the genteel white linen and wainscoting of the original Quince; the dark-wood, golf-clubhouse air of Baker and Baker. Now, at this rarified 19th-century address, we have Octavia, open since 2015.

Spare yet warm, with wide-planked distressed floors, black Shaker-style chairs, and servers clad in long denim aprons, you could call Octavia’s look upscale Amish. An airy Pac Heights barn packed nightly with blazers and silver hair, yes, but also short dresses and long locks, new boyfriends, old friends, Frances fans making the cross-Market trek. Everyone swooning over dinner out as it used to be: unadulterated. Before hovering became the standard and mixologists became a must, before tightly crammed communal tables and fast-casual counters and drawn-out tasting menus.

Oh, Octavia has one, if you wish. A tasting menu. And we wished one weeknight. Though, unlike most, it wasn’t a big to-do, or, at $75 per person, a boggling bill. It just allowed us to sample anywhere from nine to 12 dishes in four courses — and catch up, without having to agonize over the brief but beguiling menu.

Like we did on ensuing visits:

Should we get the meaty Pt. Reyes lingcod in a lightly creamy nori beurre blanc scattered with perfect fingerling potatoes, sweet onions, and pearls of Manila clams? (We should.) What about the wild nettle tagliatelle in a tangle of bacon, egg yolk, peppercorns, and pangrattato? (Most definitely.) The ricotta malfatti stuffed with chanterelles, cauliflower, and French sorrel? (Dry and dull; that’s the one entree we should’ve skipped.)

What about the tomatoes? “Nah, a tomato is a tomato,” my friend declared, arguing that he could slice and drizzle olive oil over the same fruit at home. But the firm, sweet, multihued heirloom hunks, sprinkled with sea salt and sprigs of basil, won him over. Proving that when a restaurant like Octavia offers you tomatoes on a warm September eve, you bite.

A $14 avocado, however? You’re welcome to balk. “It’s a Brokaw avocado,” the server explained, seemingly as unsure as we were what exactly that meant. Clearly it was code for pricey avocado, albeit one that was as smooth and creamy as a savory pot de creme. Covered with broccolini and crisp quinoa, however, it looked more like a Chia Pet.

Any moments of mediocrity were fleeting: Chalky chickpea poppyseed sable crackers overpowered otherwise delightful pickled anchovies on one night, plump mussels with smoked pimenton another. But at least both were only a one-bite, six-buck disappointment. A palm-sized bowl of chilled squid-ink noodles with bottarga and fennel, in a pungent lemon agrumato, appeared to be a nightly staple, but unfortunately tasted more like next-day Bento box leftovers pulled from the fridge. After giving them a second chance on my second visit, I guiltlessly snubbed them on my third.

But that allowed for an encore order of the delicata squash — brawny, beautiful, donut-sized rings coated in a thin, crisp, tempura batter accompanied by a puddle of citrusy aioli and dash of chile.

On one night our petit filet begged for an extra pinch of salt. But that was okay, because lo and behold! There were actually mini ramekins of salt on every table. Fitting, as Octavia is not a place that emanates ego.

Rather, it exudes intentionality. From the open kitchen framed like a painting to each piece of earth-toned pottery by Berkeley’s Sarah Kersten to Perello’s fostering of female chefs, like executive pastry chef Sarah Bonar, who also does the desserts for Frances, and now chef de cuisine Sara Hauman, a 2015 Eater Young Gun, who came on in April off a stint as sous chef at Mister Jiu’s, by way of Huxley and Bar Agricole before that. (She actually got her start cooking at health spas in San Diego; she’s obviously back on butter — and for that my lingcod and I were grateful.)

Our only complaint about Octavia was that every starter we ordered arrived at once — also intentionally so. Receiving that dreamy deviled egg at the same time as the chickpea crackers, at the same time as the delicata squash, at the same time as Bonar’s purple barley levain, which is baked daily downstairs? Too much. The egg deserved our undivided attention! Then, fine, let the other dishes follow.

Desserts, on the other hand: bring ’em on. The more of Bonar’s creations the merrier. Our spoons dove eagerly back and forth between subtle treats that were acutely seasonal. And not in a Starbucks Pumpkin Spice way.

The Eton Mess was a visual mess, but an edible miracle: a mound of meringue mixed with poached quince, gooey butterscotch, and cinnamon ice cream. The toasted angel food cake was firm and moist (as much as we all hate that word, that’s what it was, and it was delicious). With a crackling creme brulee-like crust, it was unlike any of the you-call-this-cake? angel food cakes I recalled as a kid. Especially since it came with a scoop of squash ice cream. (Also delicious.)

That’s the thing about Octavia: It’s the kind of place where you feel like an adult, without even being a tiny bit bummed to be one.

Looking around the dimly lit, 55-seat room, at locals from all decades drinking wine and digging in, the scene was soothing but not serious, fun but not frenetic. For a moment, it felt like something was missing, and I couldn’t put my finger on what. Until I noticed: there was no bar, not even a little one. Unlike so many new San Francisco restaurants these days, Octavia bore none of the trendy moneymaking trappings of the moment. The kind that perhaps a less-blessed location — and chefs blessed with less talent — might rely on.

What I loved most about Octavia, I realized, was that it was there. And will be, I hope, for a long, long time.

Hook Fish

It was August in the Outer Sunset and so of course there were puffy coats and wool beanies and beards. And flip-flops.

Everyone out here wears flip-flops, no matter what the weather. It’s the only appropriate footwear for Ocean Beach. And, really, the only appropriate footwear for fish tacos.

As dudes in wetsuits strutted by still dripping, I wondered, what about bare, sandy feet? “It happens,” says Christian Morabito, co-owner of San Francisco’s newest seafood spot. “People try and bring in their dogs, though, and I’m like, no. This is a food facility!”

Friday night at Hook Fish isn’t like Friday night anywhere else in the city. Many of those who cut through Karl the Fog to get here do so on foot. Two blocks from the water, on a mostly residential stretch of Irving Street, there are no double-parked Ubers or eager Elite Yelpers or underdressed tourists, just a bunch of close-knit locals sitting on reclaimed pier pilings, putting back cold Pacificos, and slurping plump West Marin Miyagis, stoked to see each other — and stoked to have a new homegrown restaurant in the ’hood.

It’s a restaurant that feels more like the main cabin of a beautiful wooden sailboat — with hand-built, honey-hued everything: the counter, the benches, the one big table, the ceiling, the wall lamps, even the cash drawer is a log that’s been salvaged and sawed. All elements are the handiwork of resident woodworker Jay Nelson, the sustainability-minded talent behind Outerlands, a restaurant that pioneered the transformation of the nearby 4000 block of Judah.

You could call Hook Fish a “seafood shack,” and I’m sure by next summer, all the food and travel magazines rounding up their lists of “best seafood shacks” will. With just 15 seats inside, it’s the size of one. But that makes it sound rickety and salty and slippery, or like one of those sprawling waterfront traps trying to seem authentic.

Hook Fish is neither. It just is authentic. I don’t mean the food, per se — I mean the people and purpose behind it.

Co-owner Morabito is a 28-year-old lifelong surfer who quit his job delivering boxes of produce for the Fruit Guys to bike 1,600 miles down to Cabo with his brother. They rigged up a bike trailer big enough to lug their boards, camping gear, a bunch of water, and their fishing rods and Hawaiian slings. For three glorious nomadic months, they sustained themselves on spear-caught rockfish, halibut hooked on a fly, clams dug at low tide.

Back home in San Francisco, nostalgic for Baja, he started buying a whole albacore every now and then off the dock in Half Moon Bay. He and a few friends — friends who knew more about cooking than he did — would turn it into poke or ceviche, buy a bunch of beer and chips, and invite everyone over. Soon, that morphed into catering gigs for companies like Patagonia that cared, like him, where their fish comes from.

For a second, Morabito admits, he thought about starting a dog food business that used quality, local ingredients.

I’m so glad he didn’t. Instead, in June, having scored a decent rent from the former owners of Cajun Pacific, he opened a seafood business that uses quality, local ingredients. San Francisco’s 120,000 dogs may balk, but I think Hook Fish is a better boon for the city.

The goal was ambitious, and admirable: to open an “accessible place” to eat (and buy) seafood caught off the California coast, a place that connects “our fisherpeople” to all people while cutting out the many hands that typically touch a slab of salmon before it gets to the consumer.

The city’s most respected chefs, of course, do this already on their nightly changing, more elaborate menus. But Morabito just wanted to serve restorative food and really good fish at prices fair to those both catching it and eating it. And, magically, somehow — even in San Francisco — he did.

That’s a lot of backstory, I realize, but it’s important to understand what Hook Fish is and why it’s worth a long-ass Muni ride.

Morabito and his business partner, Beau Caillouette, hired fellow surfer Luke Johnson, a former in-house chef for Couchsurfing, to do the cooking. Together, they honed the brief menu that hits all the familiar beachside staples — made with your pick of the four of five catches of the day. They are all listed along with the vessel they were caught on and the method used to hook them (i.e.,Halibut, Port: Half Moon Bay, Method: rod and reel, Vessel: Krabmandu, Price: 33.95/lb).

Honestly? It’s all good. Could I really tell the difference between the lingcod and the halibut and the rockfish tacos, when each came cloaked in the same combo: pico de gallo, fresh avocado, a splatter-paint of spicy aioli, and a lively cumin- and coriander-spiked curtido, aka pickled cabbage slaw? Nope. They add a little too much pickled cabbage slaw, but on heavy, handmade corn tortillas, I loved them all anyway. I didn’t want to even bother trying the fried avocado tacos, but I was pleasantly surprised. They were meaty and creamy, and I barely missed the flesh of fish.

Other standouts: the blackened fish sandwich, which I had with halibut. It was firm and flavorful and smeared with tangy house-made tartar sauce, more of that slaw, and pepperoncinis on a not-too-bready roll. With a few dabs of the house-made carrot-habanero, it was even better. The only letdown about the burrito was the same letdown about any burrito: too much rice. When you’re paying 16 bucks for one stuffed with lingcod, you kind of want to be able to taste the fish.

If I lived two doors down, like pretty much everyone behind the counter, I’d come in daily at lunchtime for the house-smoked trout salad, served on a tin tray of seasonal greens doused in creamy creme fraiche, slivers of red onion, sunflower seeds, and these hidden “everything” nut clusters that added such a delightful crunch, I started seeking them out to ensure I got one with every bite.

Drawbacks to Hook Fish? The Fisherman’s stew tasted more like a mild minestrone. (Even on a cold night, I’d skip it.) And despite requesting they pace your over-order, it’ll arrive all at once — and always, impressively, within minutes.

The thing is, though, Hook Fish is the kind of place where you want to, you know, chill. If it took 25 minutes for my tacos, and I had to order another beer, I wouldn’t mind. My only fear is that as the weather warms this fall, and the word spreads, I may get my wish.

But for now, sitting outside on a bench made of cribbing timber, bundled up beneath a hammock of electrical wires sharing fish and chips with friends, Hook Fish still feels like a secret. Maybe the masses will stay away. After all, this is not a place to eat overpriced seafood overlooking the ocean with a sunset view. It’s better than that.

It’s a place to eat reasonably priced seafood with the Outer Sunset crew, ironically the warmest community in this ever-frenetic city. A true outside land, where people prefer to spend time together, surfing waves, not the web.


Dinner at Duna involves very few decisions, and for this we should be grateful. We’ve got enough to think about as we scroll endlessly, depressingly, through our Trump-strewn newsfeeds all day. Come dinnertime, it’s comforting to walk into a restaurant that’s homey and hearty and Hungarian — with a menu about as brief as a tweet.

It’s a little less comforting to have to stand in line and order at the counter while listening to people ask questions like “How’s the riesling?” and “How many dips should we order?” (My answer, after trying all five: all five.) Then survey the room for an open table. Then carry over your own glasses and carafe. And then have everything you ordered — especially when you ordered just about everything — come in rapid succession, like a blitzkrieg, mere seconds after your wine arrives.

If not before, as our chilled yogurt soup did one night. A peeve. Even the training manual at Pizzeria Uno, where I once worked, dictated that drinks be delivered within four minutes of a customer’s order.

It wasn’t like my soup was going to get cold or anything. So I ignored my pretty antique floral-patterned bowl of garlicky, house-made yogurt mixed with cultured kefir cream and brimming with bits of cool, garden-fresh cucumber, crumbled pecans, and a whole lot of dill, while I waited, for quite some time, for my glass of orange-hued rebula. (Both were ultimately delicious.)

Maybe delayed wine and DIY water are just what it takes to get a decently priced dinner in this town these days.

Due to the astronomical costs of running a restaurant in San Francisco, “fast-casual” spots keep proliferating — eateries with solid food and suitable ambiences that forgo welcoming hosts and doting servers and busting-their-asses bussers in favor of affordability. It’s a format that’s proving successful for the Little Gems and RT Rotisseries of the city, where people know what to expect.

But Duna — which debuted in June in the former Herbivore space, following chef-owners Nick Balla and Cortney Burns’s fleeting pop-up, Motze — is a bit of a different beast. It bills itself as “fine-casual.”

And fine it is. If fine means food that’s soulful, creative, and cooked with care, using local, organic — or as they put it, “noble” — ingredients. Accompanied by candlelight.

It’s the “casual” part of Duna I found confusing. It’s a compliment, really: Balla and Burns’s modern Central European fare deserves full service. Or at least some service.

After three visits, I’m not convinced this kind of quickie, truncated experience works for Duna. Perhaps it works for the owners — and that certainly counts for something — but from the customer perspective it’s uneven, almost awkward (especially when you go to punch a tip on the iPad at evening’s end. Philosophical question: Is 20 percent still fair?).

But nice only goes so far when you want, say, another slab of doughy, warm smoked potato flatbread, and are told, as we were on our first visit: “Sorry, you’ll have to get back in line.” (They’ve since rectified the issue by providing a phone number for already-seated diners to “text for re-orders.”)

And you will want more flatbread. We got seconds every time, as the dips — creamy, vibrant — routinely outlasted it. Standouts include roasted pumpkin seed doused with hot green chile and grapeseed oil; sweet preserved eggplant scattered with preserved kumquats and sprigs of mint; a spicy Liptauer paprika cheese thick with onion, garlic, and toasted sesame seeds that was reminiscent, in the very best way, of Trader Joe’s jalapeno pub cheese. When the last tear of bread was gone, rather than bother ordering another, we scraped the rest with our spoons.

The chopped salads — served family style, like every dish at Duna — are supposed to be eaten with spoons, too. I used my fork for the Sofia, which was essentially just a Greek salad named after the capital of Bulgaria. Nothing special, nothing more. But the Budapest was a bowl of beauty. A brightly colored jumble of bold flavors: juicy red tomatoes (cherry, Early Girl, andheirlooms), fiery electric-green padrons, and soft cubes of Point Reyes’s toma tossed with slices of smoky sausage, rings of piquant peppers, button mushrooms, and finished with plenty of paprika. The dressing — the vegetables’ natural juices soaked in red vinegar with garlic and marjoram — was simple and soupy and indeed worth slurping.

Balla and Burns have tried, yet again, to transform the formerly dull Herbivore space into something warm and woodsy, with bark and branches, woolly art and leafy plants. Intended to resemble the banks of the Danube River — for which Duna was named, perhaps? — it works well enough, but that drab gray institutional tiled floor will remain a thorn in Duna’s decor until they decide to do a real redesign.

Admittedly, no one but the critic seemed to care. Everyone in the long, narrow room clustered around votive-topped tables, as cozy and content as if they were in their own dining rooms (which is possible, as Duna does deliver).

If I squinted past the startup logo-emblazoned hoodies and the latest $300 clogs, it was almost as if 21st-century Valencia Street had time-traveled to 19th-century Budapest. But no, it was just the San Francisco elite digging into Duna’s “peasant” food.

As I slurped my fisherman’s stew, I wondered if the Old World ate this well. I doubted it. I also wondered if the Old World had teeth, as almost every entree had the same texture. That is: none, really. It was like a mushy, madly flavorful meal a sophisticated baby could love.

A duo of cabbage rolls stuffed with chicken and pork snuggling beside slippery house-made sauerkraut, slices of smoked sausage and pork belly, meaty roasted mushrooms, and dried apples was at once delicate and hardy. The chicken paprikas, in a thick, pungent gravy poured over eggy, soft spatzle was just as satisfying. Only the lentil croquettes were a disappointment. A beloved holdover from Balla and Burns’s Bar Tartine days, but made over at Duna, they were dense and dry. Luckily they were surrounded by a gorgeous assembly of roasted spinach, turmeric-tinged cauliflower, and chile-infused yogurt — all of which we devoured.

But we abandoned our croquettes. Like the staff did our otherwise empty dishes, which cluttered our table throughout the entire meal — until eventually I had to text someone to take them away.

“Sunday suppers” at Duna are ticketed, intended to be a more civilized, supposedly slower affair, with cultural themes like “Road Trip to Southern Bulgaria” and “Paprika and Onion.” We’d reserved two seats on the “Boat Trip to Belgrade” (which must have been a speedboat, because somehow our $170 meal was over within 52 minutes). We relished our lively yogurt soup; mild lamb tartare peppered with raisins and parsley; and spicy, rich rock-cod stew nonetheless.

But nothing was as good as Duna’s dips. Especially not dessert: a tasteless frozen custard coated in a parched black-sesame crumble that left me wishing for its doppelganger — Carvel’s crunchies — instead. The “peanut-butter and jelly truffle balls” were the kind of finale only a diehard gluten-free diner could love.


 It felt, at first, a little bit like flying first class. In part, because of our seats: comfy, caramel-colored leather cushions that would fit right in on row 2A. Then came the hot towels, followed by the soothing voice of our server inquiring whether we’d like something to drink.

Yes, please. The tightly curated beer list, minus the standard Sapporo, was calling. Then again, so was the sake. I started with the “72 Clocks” Daiginjo, which refers to the time it takes the Hiroshima-based brewery to polish the rice. It came in an earthy, mini-ceramic pitcher that emptied far too fast for $19, accompanied by a feather-light glass as delicate and clean as the sake itself.

Robin’s omakase-only menu bridges Japan and California as smoothly as an A380 Dreamliner, but otherwise any similarities to the in-flight experience ended as soon as the first dish (of at least a dozen) landed on the table. Airplane food this is not.

It’s the kind of sushi experience San Francisco has long lacked: one that’s neither austere nor Ace Wasabi. Where going out for serious fish doesn’t have to mean a boring menu, bright lights, and brisk service and an unpretentious, dimly lit, sexy scene doesn’t have to mean sake bombs and monster-sized, cream cheese-stuffed maki rolls named after aging rock stars.

Now my perfect sushi night — the perfect sushi night — can mean Robin.

It also means spendy. Robin charges $79 dollars (and up) per person for 15 or so pieces. Tack on an additional sea urchin dish — or five — and suddenly your tab goes from a $200 treat to an oops-we-just-spent $500 event.

But compared to other top omakase spots in the city, the procession of dishes is a solid value, especially when it includes a velvety A5 Wagyu, gently seared, and streaked with Half Moon Bay-cultivated wasabi (that’s been grated on shark skin, by the way), then showered with frozen foie gras “snow.” As well as a bowl of hand-pulled chilled sesame noodles blanketed with Australian black truffles. And uni. Lots of uni. Premium stuff, plucked off coasts everywhere, from Santa Barbara to Baja to Chile, to yes, Hokkaido.

Plus, it’s cheaper than therapy, which is also what my two tableside evenings at Robin brought to mind. In his calm, caring way, our sushi server felt more like our sushi therapist. He leaned in, stared into our eyes, and asked the hard questions: Do we prefer fatty and rich? Or lean and clean? What don’t we like? How do we feel about raw meat? And above all: Are we even uni fans?

I am. My friend was not. “Oh, Adam converts people,” he warned. (Not her: even the creamy, dreamy uni-topped wagyu tartare on a crisp, toasted nori chip with Asian pear, failed to win her affection.)

Adam, as in Adam Tortosa, Robin’s chef-owner who cut his toro in LA under Katsuya Uechi. (And keeps a framed, signed letter from him in the loo to let you know.) He spent the last two years honing his skills at Akiko (which is now my second favorite sushi place).

Robin’s sushi bar — a wide, beautiful slab of slate set just above the wood bar, so diners can watch the four-man team slicing and molding, tweezing and torching — is unlike most sushi bars of its kind. Most obviously because it’s run by a white guy.

One who looks like a younger, blonder Seinfeld’s Cosmo Kramer. And who has the utmost respect for Japanese tradition. He just isn’t wedded to it, as evidenced by his ingredients on display: hunks of fresh peaches; purees of Granny Smith apples; a tray of house-made potato chips; plastic containers of tomato confit and charred salsas; a lab-like line-up of squeeze bottles filled with ponzu and aged soy alongside heretical horseradish-based sauces. (“Why don’t sushi chefs use horseradish?” he pondered aloud. “It’s like America’s wasabi and no one touches it!”)

Also baffling to Tortosa: sushi chefs’ reliance on fish from Japan. “I don’t know why people don’t use the fish off our coast,” he said, slicing us the buttery-smooth belly of an albacore caught this morning on its way up to Canada. “I mean, it’s right fucking here!”

He laid a sliver of local fig across a steelhead from a sustainable trout farm up in Lassen. He spooned a serving of smoked white sturgeon caviar from Sacramento onto a ramp aioli-dipped house-made potato chip. He painted a fat, creamy slab of uni, from Fort Bragg, with a sticky-sweet, sunny-yellow shiro dashi-emulsified egg yolk that, together, tasted like I’d just dove into the ocean on a hot summer day. I wanted to do it again.

And on a beautiful Matsukawa starry flounder from Japan, he placed a pinch of grapefruit and a single shred of opal basil. Somehow, its slight spice belonged — with the mild, firm fish, and the tart citrus, and the sweet ponzu — as if basil has been a sushi staple for centuries.

The unlikely herb was at home atop a New Zealand king salmon, too, which was almost as red as its sweet tomato confit and layered with a silky whipped tofu.

In a way that’s not tacky or tasteless but subtle and seamless — and respectful of his painstakingly sourced product — Tortosa manages to combine improbable flavors and textures to make each nigiri something more than just a piece of fish.

Every dish was a work of art, worthy of the ceramic vessel it was served in. Each piece is handmade in Richmond by Jered’s Pottery (aka the new Heath). Apart from the pinch-pot chopstick rests that looked like my kids could’ve made them, it was impressive to see how much effort went into matching tableware to ocean fare.

A smooth bone-colored bowl was ringed in the same soft yellow hue as the diced galia melon with magochi sashimi, its delicate flavor enlivened by thin slices of Serrano. I especially loved the smooth, palm-sized bath my ‘onsen Jidori egg’ came in. A single egg cooked sous vide to a pudding-like consistency when swirled, popping with trout roe and chives and floating alongside meaty strips of maitake in a rich, dashi-soy broth. We slurped the broth, somewhat awkwardly, with wooden spoons that were a little too deep, like shrunken versions of the ladles worshippers use to wash their hands before entering a Shinto shrine.

Really, the only let downs came toward the end of each night. Once, I opted to finish with an albacore and grilled onion hand roll. It wilted into something resembling a flattened tube of tuna toothpaste and became chewy to the point of almost choky. I tried to “eat it before the nori melts,” like our sushi therapist advised, but apparently I couldn’t eat that quickly.

So the next time, I went for a real dessert, the only dessert: soft serve. (I love soft serve. But enough already, San Francisco!) Even if it was made with sake lees from Bayview and scattered with pistachios and blueberries, it was bland. Plus, I’d rather drink my sake.

Oh, and then there was the bill. Also not a highlight, as it was high, especially for a mellow Monday night. But, like a first class ticket on a transpacific flight, if you’ve got the money . . . it’s most definitely worth the splurge.


City Counter

I will do breakfast, dinner, after-work drinks with anyone, anytime. But that whole “Wanna grab some lunch?” thing? Eh, no thanks. Like most office types these days, I prefer to grab and go. And eat solo — #SadDeskLunch style.

No offense. It’s not you. It’s just… lunch, the least fun meal of the workday. It’s hard to have a good time with meetings and deadlines looming. Moreover, the standard downtown fare is rarely worth the time it takes to eat it anyway. A three-hour, three-martini outing would be a blast, but who really does that on a regular basis anymore?

I’m not alone in my anti-lunch sentiments: Americans ate 433 million fewer midday meals out last year; 2016 was the lowest lunch traffic in four decades according to market research firm NPD.

Delivery is up, and company cafeterias are taking over. Still, the “meet-me-at-Mixt-at-noon” monotony was clearly in need of a makeover.

Enter City Counter, which opened in May in the old Standard Oil building, in San Francisco’s Financial District. By bringing contemporary (organic, local, sustainable) ingredients to the classic lunch-counter model, first-time restaurateur Harper Matheson hopes to revive a dying tradition: the lunch date.

City Counter’s tagline, “Quality Luncheonette” — scrawled on every plate in an evocative cursive — rings true. The cozy, old-school feelings it purports to conjure up, though, not so much.

Matheson wrote on her Kickstarter page: “I don’t want to just serve you a delicious, satisfying sandwich. I want to make you feel the way I did when my mom took me to lunch after we got my prom dress in Union Square.”

Hmm. Admirable, except the vibe feels more like “I just got an iPhone.” All white, from the tile to the 30 stools lining the 40-foot-long counter to the two-tops set against a wall of windows, City Counter looks more 2017 Apple Genius Bar than 1940s Woolworth’s lunch counter — mixed with 1980s bat mitzvah DJ. “We Are Family” and “Got to Be Real” blare overhead at a decibel level that’s a little too much for lunch. Then again, maybe Matheson is just trying to up the “fun”?

She’s done a bit of a better job upping the food, giving the sandwich the love and attention that, oddly enough, very few downtown lunch spots — other than Dennis Leary’s take-out window, the Sentinel — do.

Consulting chef Sean Thomas, of Blue Plate, came up with nine sandwiches that defy the typical grilled turkey-and-cheese scenario. All are made-to-order yet magically served within minutes (key for any successful lunch spot).

And some are noticeably better than others. Like the Mezzogiorno: a fatty, fabulous hot mess of pistachio-studded mortadella, roasted pork loin and belly, smoked mozzarella, and hot cherry peppers on toasted Acme white bread. The tuna melt, closed-faced on toasted sourdough, with red onion, pickled celery, and a gooey, delicious three-cheese fondue, reminds me that tuna melts, when done right, deserve some respect.

The roast beef is stuffed with slow-cooked tri-tip, on the rare side and sliced thin, with spicy pickled carrots and red peppers on a roll smeared with garlic aioli and a house-made pimento cheese spread that I was happy to see again, as a $1 addition to the deviled egg salad sandwich.

You’ve got to be a real deviled egg lover to love that one. As just a deviled egg liker, I was overwhelmed by what seemed like a carton’s worth crammed between two slices of soft, unapologetic white bread. I was lured by the promise of “crushed salt & vinegar chips” inside the sandwich. A brilliant idea, but unfortunately, there was barely any crunch.

I’m also a beet hater. Blasphemy, I know. But from across the table (the only table in the long narrow space, by the way, that fits a trio and comes with chairs), I could appreciate the beauty of the Reubenesque: smoked red and golden beets pressed between thick slabs of perfectly toasted rye, with pickled cabbage and sharp cheddar that oozed like strawberry swirl. I tried one bite and it tasted like… beets, as beets do; my friend devoured the rest. He declared the beets to be a little too flimsy. I declared I wish City Counter had a real Reuben. Or at least a patty melt.

It would no doubt be better than the Counter Club, which was too bready and bulky to determine if there was indeed anything counter about it.

The salads, however, were crisp and creative. Despite the fact that they were so overdressed they’d make a Chez Panisse chef shiver, they beat any I’ve ever brought back to my office. The fresh peas and dried raspberries in the chopped spring pea were drowning in an otherwise tangy masala yogurt dressing. Purple and orange carrots, just pulled from the ground, were almost unidentifiable due to an abundance of a kaffir lime tahini in the roasted carrot. And the crispy chickpea and tuna: chunks of fresh tuna, cherry tomatoes, and (addictive) garlic peanuts came in a pool of Thousand Island dressing so deep, even my grandfather — who ate it by the bowl — would’ve disapproved.

But everyone’s grandmother — as well as non-gluttons of all ages — will applaud the aptly named Grammy Sammy: a single piece of white bread, spread with “counter sauce” (a mild garlic-Worcestershire aioli) and folded over a slice of mortadella and smoked cheddar. The menu states the Grammy Sammy “changes daily,” but it’s been the same since they opened, the smiley woman behind the iPad said.

No matter. It’s simple and sustaining and half the price of a latte at Blue Bottle next door. A decent $3 sandwich is a welcome addition to downtown San Francisco.

As is City Counter itself. It’s neither a power lunch nor a pathetic lunch, but a proper lunch. One worth occasionally ditching your desk to sit and eat, elbow-to-elbow, at a counter crowded with compatriots — perhaps even sip a root beer float — like people used to.


As the first San Francisco restaurant critic for Eater, I published reviews every other week. 

Restaurants aren’t entirely unlike people. Each one is unique, striving to forge its own identity, place, and purpose in a crowded city. Some you grow close to; others you eventually drift away from. And when, like an old friend, a restaurant falls off your radar, years later you might reflect, fondly or otherwise, and wonder what’s become of it.

That’s what happened with me and Walzwerk. Last time I was there, in the early aughts, I’d had a fight with my boyfriend and then never went back; something to do with birthdays and bad habits and too much beer. Because at Walzwerk, which pours only Germany’s best, it’s easy to drink too much beer.

Tucked among tire stores and auto-repair shops on an otherwise desolate stretch of South Van Ness Avenue, Walzwerk isn’t the kind of restaurant that gets much foot traffic. Or online traffic. (A San Francisco restaurant without its own Instagram page? Heresy!) In fact, after 18 years, Walzwerk doesn’t get much attention at all.

Which is why it’s the kind of restaurant you might easily forget about. Until one day, for no reason whatsoever, you’re waiting for Muni and suddenly think: Hey, whatever happened to Walzwerk?

Fueled more by nostalgia than a hankering for herring, I decided to find out.

Honestly, I’d assumed the place had closed, like most out-of-sight, out-of-mind midlist restaurants you never hear of anyone going to anymore. But a quick peek at Yelp revealed it was “Open now.” I rang to see about availability for that night, a Thursday, and heard something rarely uttered by a reservationist in this town: “Just come in anytime,” said a woman with a thick German accent. “Shouldn’t be a problem.”

True enough, around 6:30 p.m., as I pulled open the heavy wooden door — marked with a multilingual metal sign that read, “You are now leaving the American Sector” — Walzwerk was indeed empty, save for two dudes with steins of Köstritzer Schwarzbier and plates heaped with enough food for Thanksgiving.

Like the time warp Walzwerk aims to be, it looked just like I remembered: a scattering of sturdy, mismatched tables straight out of a 1950s accountant’s office; vintage cushioned metal chairs, some still scrawled with black Sharpie on their backs; framed albums of 1970s German disco stars; and life-size black-and-white posters of Lenin and Marx presiding over the dining room.

Plus, a hodgepodge of vintage tableware pillaged from flea markets over the years by owner Christiane Schmidt, who opened Walzwerk in 1999 with the goal of bringing a true East German restaurant to the Bavarian-heavy Bay Area. “This is one of my favorite plates,” said the smiley, bespectacled expat of a delicate floral pattern as she set down two irresistible appetizers: silky house-cured salmon with horseradish cream and dense “fitness bread” and a trio of lightly crisped potato pancakes with applesauce and chive sour cream. Then there was that herring, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise — pickled matjes in a sweet, lively sauce of sour cream, apples, and onions on a bed of butter lettuce.

As the sunlight that had been streaming in through the front windows began to fade, Christiane came around to light the little candle on every table. And more people began to pile in. These people, you could tell, had been here before: a motley crew of a dozen or so bound for the private room in back; a cute couple who beelined to the tiny, four-stool bar; graying parents who sat sipping their chilled German wine while they waited for their son and his girlfriend to arrive.

Rare is the San Franciscan who’d opt to eat heavy German food every week, let alone every month, which makes choosing among entrees especially hard. Pork schnitzel? Smoked pork chop? Bacon-stuffed tri-tip? Really, at Walzwerk, you can’t go wrong. Especially if you go with the jägerschnitzel, an unbreaded pork schnitzel on a bed of spätzle, topped in a rich mushroom cream sauce reminiscent of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup in the very best way. It’s been on the menu since day one, Christiane said with due pride, and has remained the most frequently ordered dish ever since.

The schnitzel — be it pork loin or chicken breast — is pretty much perfect. Pounded thin and coated thoroughly with breadcrumbs, it’s fried without tasting greasy and comes with buttery-smooth mashed potatoes — or boiled if you prefer — and a delicate cucumber salad that’s a refreshing counter to the schnitzel’s heft.

The grilled bratwurst, made with veal and pork, might be the best bratwurst in town. It’s so well seasoned and flavorful that it barely needed the accompanying spicy mustard and house-made sauerkraut, both of which (note to Walzwerk) were so good, they should be bottled.

Only the sauerbraten sounded better than it was: fat slices of beef marinated in a thick, sweet sauce strewn with golden raisins and paired with a duo of matzo-ball-sized mushroom bread dumplings that were dry and disappointing. The red cabbage it came with, however, had a subtle spice and was so delightful, we ordered an extra side. Same with the spätzle, light and eggy, gently browned little lumps that deserved an unadulterated bowl of its own.

There are a handful of other German spots in San Francisco, more popular German spots where every night is Oktoberfest, complete with groups guzzling from Das Boot. But if Suppenküche is a big, boisterous party at a Wirtshaus in Munich, Walzwerk is an intimate dinner party at the home of your best friend’s friend in Berlin.

An evening at Walzwerk truly is transportive, as the sign on its front door warns. “Leaving the American sector,” if only for a supper, is especially appealing these days. Leaving the current San Francisco sector occasionally is too. Walzwerk represents a return to a simpler time. A time before the ubiquity of Tolix stools and $16 cocktails and OpenTable (if you do want to make a reservation at Walzwerk, you’ve got to — gasp — call.) A time when I could drink too much Schneider Weisse and feel totally fine the next day.

As for the old boyfriend I last came here with, that relationship eventually died. As most restaurants do. Not Walzwerk. Walzwerk, I’m pleased to report, is very much alive.


A Mano

It’s a quiet Tuesday night in Hayes Valley, the kind of blustery, cold, blah Tuesday night when you’d expect people to stay in and order pho from Caviar or cook up their latest Sun Basket creation. There’s nothing going on at the nearby Nourse Theater, no symphony performing at Davies, no pricey shoe boutiques still open. There’s no reason, really, for anyone to be out and about. And strolling by old-timer Cafe Delle Stelle (plugging free bottles of wine with bills over $60) and newcomer Nightbird, it looks as if, indeed, they’re not. Apparently no one is in the mood for a heady $125 five-course tasting menu.

But round the corner to A Mano, and suddenly: crowds, Saturday-night-level crowds, visible through a wall of glass as squeaky clean as the spanking-new condos above. There are people seated at every one of the 90 seats; people crammed into the sliver of a bar sipping Negronis; people spilling onto the sidewalk as a perky host quotes hour-long waits.

Everyone, it seems, is in the mood for a $14 bowl of rigatoni.

A Mano (Italian for “by hand”) opened in early May with the goal of bringing affordable handmade pasta to a city where mint tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms has tipped toward $22. It aims to be the everylady’s Locanda. Or Cotogna. Or Tosca. Or La Ciccia… The list of San Francisco’s rustic Italian treasures goes on.

A Mano is the latest “concept from prolific restaurateur Adriano Paganini. And it’s a smart concept, if not an entirely new one. Pasta Pomodoro ring a bell? That was Paganini’s idea, too, back in 1994. At its peak, the chain had 40-something outposts, mostly throughout California, the last of which, under new ownership, closed last year. No big loss. It was a cheap, easy place to eat something edible and Italiany. It had no scene and it wasn’t supposed to.

But ever since, Paganini has been all about scene, or perhaps the proper word is packaging. In 2008, he turned his attention to pizza and figured out that if he enhanced the ambience and added exceptional cocktails — in a killer location — he’d be onto something. And he was: Beretta, on a sunny corner of Valencia Street, was an insta-hit, further popularizing the blistered crust-broccolini contorni trend that was already well underway.

Starbelly (Castro) and Delarosa (Marina) followed. He then wisely branched out to burgers, hawking humanely raised hamburgers for a reasonable $7.75 at Super Duper, which has 10 locations and counting around the Bay. And now — after adding a Belgian brasserie, tacos, and an Argentine steakhouse to his quiver — the Milan-born restaurateur has gone back to his roots: pasta.

The funny thing is, though, as I slid onto my stool, squeezing into the tightly packed communal table, my first thought was: This place reminds me of Pomodoro, just with sleeker digs and duck-liver mousse. And that was before I’d realized Paganini had anything to do with it.

 Aesthetically, it’s much cooler than that. The space is airy and oversized, with those floor-to-ceiling glass windows fronting the sidewalk, presumably chosen so passersby can peer in and see how much fun the hipsters are having.

Which they are. Filled with awkward first dates and rowdy tables of eight, everyone chatting, laughing, eating affordable food — which flies out of the open kitchen at a fairly rapid clip — A Mano feels like an adult cafeteria with cocktails. Call it arestauteriaa growing breed of eatery where essentially everything costs $16 or less; the kind of place that boasts all the accoutrements of a beloved San Francisco restaurant — but somehow lacks the soul of one.

There’s a muted red-white-and-green theme going on (Italy and all); bottles of Aperol and Campari lining the bar like artwork; track lighting (which they fiddled with throughout each night to get it right); and an especially warm, well-trained staff. Still, emotionally… A Mano feels kind of cold.

And, unfortunately, so did my pasta.

Not cold cold, in which case I would’ve just sent it back. More lukewarm, with pockets of varying temperatures, like a lake in summer. The problem, perhaps symptomatic of a slammed kitchen still finding its rhythm, plagued not just one pasta, but almost every pasta I had. (The agnolotti dal plin — rich, buttery pillows of pork, roast chicken, and chard — came out piping hot.)

The cauliflower bagna cauda was my favorite antipasti, roasted with garlic, lemon, torpedo onions, and chiles. The Monterey squid, too, which came in a tomato-rich stew of chickpeas and romanesco one night, summer corn another. Both were good, albeit not as good as similar iterations elsewhere.

There’s always a nightly special, like the Tuscan fried chicken with braised black kale, which was crisp and juicy and, at $20, the most expensive item on the menu. (If you really want to splurge, there’s a $95 bottle of brunello.)

The pizza at A Mano is not the focus. (Nor, after trying one topped with asparagus, green garlic, and anchovy, did it seem to me that it should be: the crust was doughy, and the asparagus mushy.) Which is why there are only two or three pizzas per night. And perhaps why, mysteriously, one evening around 7:30 p.m., we watched a delivery guy from Patxi’s, holding a box high above his head, work his way through the throngs to someone in the back.

The focus here, per Paganini’s plan, is on pasta. It’s handmade daily with durum, a finer ground semolina flour, under chef Freedom Rains, who cooked at Flour & Water and Incanto before heading the kitchen at Belga. He does seven generously portioned pastas nightly. They change frequently and always with the seasons.

Over three separate nights, I tried almost all of them. That agnolotti was the best of the bunch and probably what I’d order if I ever went back. (And I would, if I wanted more of a scene than, say, Souvla, before seeing Pop-Up Magazine or City Arts & Lecture.)

The spaghettini, tossed with clams and breadcrumbs, was firm, if dry, but flavorful enough to not render it a total mis-order. But while the pesto tagliatelle with pine nuts, fava beans, and English peas screamed spring — and was clearly made with fresh ingredients — the pasta itself tasted mealy. And the pesto was bland, as if Rains was told to play it safe.

Only the campanelle with broccoli di ciccio, a sweet heirloom broccoli, had any kick — and that’s because it was scattered with chile flakes. I actually witnessed more than one table request a side of chile flakes for their pastas mid-meal.

It’s what my rigatoni pork sugo needed, too. Like the others, it arrived sort of warm. While hearty, with hunks of braised meat, it lacked the depth and richness of a truly memorable sugo.

Therein lies the problem with a place like A Mano — there’s just too much in this town to compare it to. With every bite of my bucatini all’Amatriciana, I kept hoping it would become more like Locanda’s. (It didn’t.)

Paganini was quoted last year talking about what drives a successful company. “Why does someone open up one little retail store and somebody else becomes the Gap?” he said. Replace Old Navy with Super Duper and Belga with Banana and, hmm, maybe the Gap with A Mano, and Paganini has, in fact, built the edible version of the fashion empire —one that aims to please everyone without wowing anyone.

A Mano’s not going to win San Francisco’s heart, but when the bill comes around, suddenly a so-so sugo becomes a little easier to stomach.

Pret’s Most Regular Regular: Wylie Dufresne

The deli menu at the Gramercy Food Market, a 24-hour bodega at the corner of East 22nd Street and Second Avenue, offers half a dozen grilled chicken sandwiches named for men of a certain stature: There’s the Al Pacino (with spicy dressing), the Larry King (with Russian dressing) and the John Lennon (with chipotle sauce). Each comes with a free bag of Lay’s and a Pepsi. But Wylie Dufresne doesn’t do lunch here. Only breakfast. And only before 11 a.m. (to avoid the $1 late-breakfast fee). And so frequently that the guy behind the counter knows his order: one egg on a roll ($2). Except Dufresne takes two eggs (for an extra 50 cents). “It’s a classic New York egg-and-cheese — the best,” says the chef, who lives nearby. “There are so many bad ones. It’s so satisfying when it’s done right.”

Dufresne takes the foil-wrapped sandwich with him down 23rd Street, walking at a rapid clip. He’s dressed more like a hiker than a world-renowned chef revered for artfully plated, scientifically forward food, including delicacies like fried mayonnaise and savory everything-bagel ice cream. The iconic dishes he served at his now-shuttered restaurant WD-50 influenced an entire generation of molecular gastronomists. But on this day, he’s preparing for the opening of Du’s Donuts & Coffee, a much more casual joint situated at the William Vale Hotel in Williamsburg. (The space is now open.)

“My friend says I look like I’m ‘forever camping,’” he admits, referring to the waterproof backpack usually strapped across his chest, and his dry-wick North Face shorts crammed with mini flashlights and a pocketknife.

As for the hot breakfast sandwich in his hand, he says, “You can’t eat it yet. It’s not ready.” Not ready? “The cheese hasn’t melted yet. It’s still steaming.” Also, he needs coffee — which he didn’t order at the deli because, he says, “I won’t drink bad coffee.” And he is constantly on the hunt for good coffee.

Since the closing of his restaurant Alder two years ago, Dufresne has roamed Manhattan in search of two “meaningful coffee experiences” a day. He pulls a binder clip, fat with punch cards, out of one of his many pockets to prove it. He recounts stories of buying two coffees and only receiving one punch, being called “Willy” by baristas — and sometimes using his eldest daughter’s name, Sawyer, only to see it scrawled onto his cup as Soyer.“Guess they’ve never heard of Tom?” Dufresne laughs. He fans out his punch cards like a poker player proud of his hand: Everyman. Birch. Ground Support. Toby’s Estate. “Ah, they owe me a free one…” he says, pleased.

Turns out, so does Brooklyn Roasting Company, where he ends up this morning. Standing in line, corralled by velvet ropes, he whips out his phone and started the timer. “I always time it,” he says. (He refuses to wait for longer than eight minutes.)

He picks up his short latte (no sugar, no lid). It’s a warm spring day, but even in the dead of winter, Dufresne’s latte is iced — with the proper milk-to-espresso ratio only his most regular baristas get right. Purists might balk at putting milk in coffee, Dufresne says, “but for me, it’s all about coffee andmilk. They’re friends,” he explains. “Like bread and butter. Wine and cheese.”

Speaking of, 15 minutes after leaving the bodega, his cheese is ready. Dufresne unwraps the sandwich to reveal a lightly toasted Kaiser roll, eggs scrambled, a slice of American oozing in its orange-hued glory. Though Du’s is strictly doughnuts (10 highly technical flavors, including peanut butter yuzu as well as Creamsicle), eventually he plans to add an egg-and-cheese of his own — on an onion Kaiser. He really likes onion Kaisers. In fact, Dufresne has a lot of likes (and dislikes). Some more mass-market than you might expect from a James Beard Award-winning chef just back from the World’s 50 Best Restaurants ceremonies in Melbourne.

He likes Popeye’s fried chicken so much he served it at his wedding. He likes the occasional McDonalds burger (no ketchup, no pickles, no sauce). He really likes the NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt, enough to DVR it. And despite the ostensible competition, he deems Dunkin’ Donuts’ chocolate glazed “perfect.”

Unlike most of America, though, he prefers to finish his coffee while seated rather than taking it to go. “I don’t like holding anything,” he explains. (Umbrellas, in Wylie’s world, are especially ridiculous.) “Scrubbies,” however, are essential. He makes a beeline for Home Depot, which he navigates with the speed and expertise of a star employee, and goes directly to the Scotch-Brite Extreme Scrubs. “So much better than Scrub Daddy,” he says. “Shark Tank’s biggest seller ever!”

Errands done, Dufresne has one last stop before it’s time to test the doughnuts at Du’s: Pret a Manger. He eats Pret for lunch pretty much every day. The chain has 50 locations in Manhattan, and “I’ve got four in my rotation,” Dufresne says. But only one order: the balsamic chicken and avocado sandwich, a cucumber seltzer and a brownie bite. “It’s fantastic.” As good as Maile’s, he says, referring to his wife, who is the editor in chief of Food Network magazine.

He first tried Pret when Sawyer was a toddler. It was easy. She liked chicken. On his day off, they’d sit on a rock in Union Square, near where he grew up, and share a sandwich. “I remembered thinking, ‘That’s tasty.’”Years later, without WD-50 to feed him, and in a moment of nostalgia, he rediscovered Pret’s chicken sandwich. “Next thing I knew,” he says, “I was eating it four times a week.” Soon, Dufresne started bringing his laptop, taking phone calls; Pret became his de facto office. “Setting up investor meetings, my business partner once asked, in all seriousness: ‘Which Pret do you want to meet at?’” he recalls, laughing. “This woman was giving us $75,000. I picked the Nomad instead.”

Only twice has his Pret order strayed — to the chicken soup, and only because he had a cold. He has the utmost praise for the prepackaged sandwich. “It’s smartly engineered,” he says, explaining that the grilled chicken, not the mesclun, is dressed in the balsamic vinaigrette and sits between the dry lettuce and the avocado, so the bread doesn’t “sog out.” He takes it outside to Sawyer’s rock and eats every bite except the brownie bite. He likes to save it for later, for his second coffee experience.

Meanwhile, Dufresne can’t help but laugh about his steadfast devotion to eating Pret’s chicken sandwich. “We’re all creatures of habit,” he offers. “At least it’s not a candy bar.”

Pastrami in Hong Kong, But No Dr. Brown’s

You know you’re not in New York anymore when a restaurant website has a page with the line “What is a delicatessen?” up top.

Manhattan may be losing one of its top pastrami palaces when the Carnegie Deli closes, but Hong Kong recently welcomed Morty’s, which opened in April in the bustling Central district, on the ground floor of Jardine House. The office tower is home to mostly lawyers, financiers and dentists, a clientele that in New York would probably be familiar with lox, bagels, smoked meats and the like. But this is Asia.

A Chinese businessman, standing in a long weekday lunch line recently, said he had not visited New York but had become a regular at Morty’s. He ordered the Reuben. Why? He had seen one on “Seinfeld” and thought it looked good.

Even 8,000 miles and an ocean away from Manhattan, it is good, if flanked by a flaccid pickle and a tad light on the Thousand Island dressing. But the pastrami Reuben (heretically, not stuffed with corned beef) is tender, sweet and smoky, with the perfect hint of pepper. It’s hand-sliced — not too thick, not too thin — and served on soft house-baked rye, with Swiss and sauerkraut.

The space is slim and sleek, perhaps a little too sleek to feel like a true deli; the ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles sit on marble counters, and the menu lacks staples like egg creams and chopped liver. (No Dr. Brown’s either, but there is a full bar.)

The founder, Gerald Li, is Chinese, but he grew up in Toronto eating Reubens regularly and wanted to bring deli culture to Hong Kong. He teamed up with his friend Brian Tock, grandson of Morty Tock, who immigrated in 1920 from Europe to New York, where he learned to smoke meat. Morty’s pastrami recipe lives on at his Hong Kong namesake, where a 45-day aging process calls for 20 days of curing and 24 hours of cooking, followed by smoking with American hickory. (Morty’s smokes its own chicken, turkey and duck, too.) To help ease the wait, strangers — Australians, Britons, Chinese, Filipinos — are often seated in booths together.

At this particular lunch there was not a New Yorker in sight, though according to our server, “they seem to like it O.K.” Their only complaint? Even the large sandwich isn’t big enough.

Check In: The Olema


From $200.


There aren’t many hotel options on the Point Reyes Peninsula, Northern California’s national seashore, but in September 2015, West Marin County welcomed back one more: The Olema. Built in 1876, the historic property had operated as an inn (upstairs) and a restaurant (downstairs) for most of its existence, but when its new owners, Margaret Grade and Daniel DeLong, took over in 2013, they painted the fusty bright-white Victorian a gloomy shade of gray (to much local controversy) and reopened only the restaurant, named Sir and Star. It was a sequel, in a way, to their celebrated first: Manka’s Inverness Lodge, a pioneering local spot secluded in the woods and beloved by food lovers and luminaries alike, before it burned down in an electrical fire a decade ago. Now, the Olema once again operates as a proper inn, with five renovated rooms — each done in Ms. Grade’s unique style.


Just about every backpacker, birder and oyster-slurper bound for Point Reyes National Seashore passes through the unincorporated town of Olema, and therefore by its namesake inn at the intersection of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and Highway 1.


The Room

Spare but sophisticated, the inn’s rooms are tucked down a short hall dimly lit by sconces. Each room is decorated differently, some with wrought-iron bed frames and footstools, free-standing wardrobes and framed etchings of fowl — all scavenged by Ms. Grade from Parisian flea markets or her personal coffers. Rustic black, wide-planked floors are made from repurposed wood, and long black shutters help keep the otherwise drafty rooms warm. Eye masks and earplugs are set on every pillow, in case you’d rather not fall asleep to owl hoots and the faint jazz coming from the restaurant downstairs — or, for that matter, wake to the dairy trucks rumbling by below.

The Bathroom

It’s called the “W.C.,” as emblazoned on the door’s clouded glass. Clean, with classic white tile, Kiehl’s products and a vintage toothbrush holder too small for today’s bulbous handles, there is nothing especially noteworthy about this water closet — other than the fact that, despite California’s drought, the hot water took so long to warm up I worried that my shower, in a basic tub, might have to be cold. (It wasn’t.)


Years before the notion of “local” took root in the culinary world, Ms. Grade and Mr. DeLong cooked exclusively with ingredients gathered from within miles of their restaurant, Manka’s. (All that remains now are a few guest cabins.) Today, Sir and Star is an intimate restaurant adorned with antlers, stuffed cormorants and candelabras. It’s a fitting scene for feasting on rustic, memorable dishes like “Leg of a Neighbor’s Duck,” as worded on the whimsical menu — typically written mere minutes before 5 p.m. service begins.


No bicycles or hot tubs or even bathrobes, but the Olema does boast a romantic foyer with a seven-foot-high fireplace and pair of deep chairs, perfect for sharing a bottle of syrah by the local winemaker Sean Thackrey.

Bottom Line

If my room — though comfy and calming and affordable — was not a creaky flight of stairs above Sir and Star restaurant, I might wonder: What’s the point? (As Point Reyes has many cozy cabins available to rent.) But how wonderful it is, to enjoy such a fine supper in the countryside — without having to drive the winding road home.

The Olema, 10000 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, Olema; 415-663-1034;

Michelin Stars in the Desert

Palm Springs has always been known more for its palm trees and party scene than its culinary prowess.

Hoping to change that perception is SO.PA, a new alfresco-only restaurant hidden from the hum of East Palm Canyon Drive behind a whitewashed brick wall at the posh L’Horizon Hotel and Spa. “Designed by Steve Hermann,” whom we are apparently supposed to know, as his name is flaunted on the sign out front.

Mr. Hermann is also the owner of what he refers to as a “restaurant-driven” hotel. He originally hired the Michelin-starred chef Giacomo Pettinari (of El Bulli and Valentino) who opened SO.PA to immediate raves. Mr. Pettinari’s father recently passed away, forcing him back to Italy. His replacement also came with Michelin stars: the chef Chris Anderson, formerly of Alinea and Moto in Chicago, who cooked 22 courses for Mr. Hermann before scoring the job. (Mr. Pettinari had cooked 20.) “Most owners want authority over the menu,” he said. “Steve offered me free range.”

On a chilly evening in February (when the kitchen was still being run by Mr. Pettinari), we enjoyed just five, if you include the dreamy bowl of house-preserved olives mixed with creamy sheep’s feta and salted Marcona almonds we had with our $8 cocktails at the long walnut table reserved for “communal hour” (5 to 6:30 p.m.). Locals otherwise put off by SO.PA’s prices take advantage; 10 percent of proceeds go to local organizations like the Desert AIDS Project.

At 6:30, our server, whose affability pleasantly undermined his twee polka-dot bow tie, moved us beneath a sprawling mimosa tree to a table for two draped in white linen, and turned up the heat lamp. (That night heat lamps outnumbered diners in the courtyard 17 to 12.) “Come back in summer,” he said. “It’s so hot your foie gras melts.”

Our roasted Spanish octopus, however, was firm and flawless; the tender, meaty tentacle arched on a plate streaked with smoked squid ink, accompanied by crushed potatoes in a parsley pesto. A compressed melon salad with micro mint and French feta, though refreshing and enthusiastically recommended by our server, underwhelmed. But not the spicy, reasonably priced Zaca Mesa 2010 syrah — nor the indulgent confit poussinpan-roasted in duck fat over a seasonal apple purée with flash-fried baby artichokes.

Though a starry desert sky enhances any dinner, SO.PA’s commitment to embracing its darkened surroundings can be a bit of a hazard. Despite gorgeous, golden-hued molecular light fixtures — and the fact that flashlights are provided on request — there was occasional confusion over dishes, and diners.

“Our server, twice, asked, ‘What can I get you, gentlemen?’” remarked a local gallery owner after a recent meal. “My friend was, most definitely, a woman.”

SO.PA, 1050 East Palm Canyon Drive; 760-323-1858; Average price for dinner for two, without drinks or tip, is about $100.

A Regular in His Own Right: The Piano Man of Zuni Cafe

Published by Lucky Peach, performed at La Cocina’s “Voices from the Kitchen”

The six o’clock sun streams through the floor-to-ceiling windows, illuminating the long copper-topped bar and an oddity for a Thursday evening or any evening, really, at Zuni Café: a room full of empty tables.

Bob Carrau doesn’t seem to notice. He strolls in with his embroidered seat cushion under one arm and a tattered yellow Mexican market bag slung over the other, like he has twice a week, every week, for the last nine years. He nods hello to the hosts, whose names, he admits, he really should know by now, and heads downstairs, to Zuni’s underworld—where dishes are washed and ties are ironed and the staff shares big bowls of pasta—and grabs a small ceramic Mexican plate from his cubby: his tip plate.

Bob’s not hungry. He had a couple of carrots before he arrived, but otherwise, he never eats before he plays. He rarely sticks around to eat afterward either, unless friends come in. Doesn’t matter what plates pass by: the thick slices of levain with sea salt-sprinkled butter; the Caesar of all Caesars. Not even Zuni’s famed roasted chicken, nestled in warm bread salad, tempts. (As much as he likes it, he likes his partner Tony’s roast chicken more.)

Somehow, unlike everyone else in the restaurant, his mind isn’t on the food. It’s on his music.

For the next three hours, beneath “a flower arrangement Liberace could die for,” he’ll play a polished K. Kawai grand piano that’s stood there almost as long as the restaurant itself.

First, Bob opens his wallet. “Don’t tell anyone I’m doing this,” he says, and proceeds to do what everyone knows everyone with a tip jar—in Bob’s case, a tip plate—does: and feeds himself a five dollar bill.

Bob never wanted to play for tips! He wasn’t even sure he wanted to play for people. On an average night, he might pull in thirty bucks; fifty on a good night. Tonight—Game 1 of the NBA Finals for the Golden State Warriors—it’s so far looking slow.

“I’ve learned, how I play has no bearing on how much people tip,” he says laughing. “Depends on the night, their mood…” He could make a million mistakes, he says, and some big hitter might still slip him a twenty. Bob appreciates every penny, but he doesn’t play for the money. He can barely believe Zuni pays him at all.

“I guess that means I’m a professional?” He half-balks/half-marvels at the thought as he pulls what looks like forty pounds of spiral-bound jazz fake books out of his bag, some dating back decades.

From fifth grade through age fifty, playing piano was just a hobby for Bob. Something he did on his own, rarely if ever singing along, and always without fanfare. If there happened to be a piano at a friend’s house, he’d sneak off while everyone was making dinner. A performer, he was not, he promises. “I’d just see a piano and want to know what it would sound like.”

But the thing is: his friends thought it sounded pretty good.

And his friends owned restaurants. Like Alice Waters (whose speeches and books he sometimes cowrites, including her latest, Fanny in France, which comes out this fall.) And Gilbert Pilgram of Zuni, which had a piano in need of a player. So one rainy Monday afternoon in 2007, he invited Bob to come in and play a few tunes while he and Judy Rodgers worked on the books.

He doesn’t remember what he played, just how he felt playing. The acoustics were incredible. He gazes from the polished cement floors to the mile-high cathedral-like ceilings. “This room is just beautiful,” he says. “Especially when no one is in it.”

Tonight it’s just a few fellow regulars: a gray-haired woman in a trench coat sitting by herself. Another who gives him what he calls “the Princess Di wave” as she passes the piano. A bearded man in a blazer stops to give him a hearty hug, marveling at having his pick of tables. “Who knew the Zuni crowd were such Warriors fans?”

Bob agrees. The Zuni crowd used to be “gayer,” he says, chatting as his fingers flutter effortlessly over the keys to “The Caissons Go Rolling Along,” a WWII tune he sneaks in every time. “The first night I ever played at Zuni, the U.S. had just sent more troops to Iraq, or somewhere, and I was just sitting at the piano, looking around the room, realizing how insulated we were from the world,” he says. “It’s my own silly little protest.”

Bob was a regular back when Zuni was a sliver of an American-Mexican place. Before Judy Rogers took over in 1987, installed the brick oven, expanded, and turned Zuni Café into the iconic restaurant it is today.

There was always a piano, he recalls. “This one old guy from the Fillmore would play the blues and I’d just stare at his fingers, at how fast they could move.” Like I now sit and stare at his.

“Zuni was the kind of place you’d come to cruise,” Bob reminisced. In his thirties, he’d drop by around 11 p.m., hoping to maybe meet someone. “I never did,” he says laughing. “But it felt like you could.”

Now a graying fifty-eight year old in a twenty-year relationship, Bob’s certainly not here to meet men. He’s here to play. And people watch. “I’m a voyeur,” he says. “This gig allows me to be out in public, without, you know, really going out.” Originally a gofer-turned-screenwriter for Lucasfilm (he actually wrote his first script with George), he can’t help but watch the well-coiffed gaggles slurping Fanny Bays and sipping fresh lime margaritas and wonder who they are, where they’ve been, why they’re here.

He barely chats to anyone save the bartender, who pours him a single snifter of mezcal halfway through his set, or the server who always snaps as he strolls past. “That’s how I can tell the music is getting through,” says Bob. “Sometimes I think I sound great. Sometimes I think I sound like a guy on a cruise ship.”

Hardly, says Gilbert, who appreciates the warmth and intimacy that live music adds to a restaurant, a rarity in this age of piped-in playlists. “What I love about Bob is he’s not your typical lounge player. You’ll never catch him playing “New York, New York.” He has standards.”

He’s Zuni’s “regular celebrity,” according to Gilbert. To Bob’s mind, he’s pure background. “People don’t pay attention to me,” he says. “It’s okay.”

Once, though, Michael Tilson Thomas cruised through and gave him a thumbs-up. That felt good. A few years ago, Hillary Clinton came in, with a friend of his who asked her if she had any requests. She suggested “Moon River,” then ordered a Manhattan. But her friend urged her to try Zuni’s margarita. “‘Oh, I’ll just have both,’ she said!” Bob recounts. “Wait, maybe don’t print that. She’s trying to get elected president of the United States!” (Oh c’mon, if Gerald Ford liked his lunchtime martinis and Teddy Roosevelt drank mint juleps and even President Obama puts back an occasional pint, there’s no harm in Hillary Clinton double-fisting a couple of cocktails is there?)

Bob flips the pages of his fake book. He has no premeditated lineup. “I let the room tell me what to play,” he says, and launches into a riff of “Have You Met Miss Jones?”

Time for his break.

He rises and wanders out the side door, onto Market Street. “This stretch used to be scarier, all addicts and homeless,” he says, strolling a few doors down to his “office,” an entrance to a mattress shop and a respite from San Francisco’s wintry summer wind. He points to a shiny tech bus and the sleek new sushi spot across the street. A woman jogs by, as does a man pushing a baby stroller, then two matching hoodies. “You never used to see any of these people here—or if you did, they were lost.”

An almost forty-year-old restaurant with a wall of windows exposes more than just the waning evening light. Somehow, though, because this is Zuni, the changing city remains beyond the glass.

The clock strikes nine and a few Warriors’ revelers start to trickle in. Bob packs up his music, closes the lid on his borrowed piano, and slips the sole fiver back into his wallet. Time to head home. Perhaps Tony’s roasted a chicken.

The Outsize Importance of the Tiny Organic Seed

Parsley. Frank Morton is talking about parsley, possibly the least sexy, most maligned herb imaginable, often relegated to the role of garnish. And he’s excited.

“Parsley could be the new kale. You laugh, but I might make this happen,” says the owner of Wild Garden Seed, who’s spent much of the past 30-odd years living off the grid in Philomath, Oregon, where he breeds new lettuces, quinoas, and other edible plants. Morton is currently experimenting with parsley samples from around the world, sending them to chef-friends for taste testing, in the hopes of creating exceptionally flavorful, hardy varieties that won’t bolt prematurely.

Tonight, one of those parsleys, a flat-leaf from the Republic of Georgia, has migrated from the edge of the plate to headline a granita prepared by Matthew Accarrino of San Francisco’s Michelin-starred SPQR. The occasion: a dinner at the St. Helena, California, farm of Kit Crawford and her husband, Gary Erickson, who founded Clif Bar & Company. The event, benefiting Seed Matters (an initiative of the couple’s nonprofit Clif Bar Family Foundation), aims to push the now-ubiquitous farm-to-table fundraiser a few levels deeper.

“The problem with the farm-to-table thing,” explains Matthew Dillon, who oversees Seed Matters as the director of Clif Bar’s agricultural policy and programs, “is that it jumps into the story halfway.” Long before a sprig of parsley or an ear of corn is harvested—much less cooked and eaten—the right seed must be planted. And the outlook for the people who do the work of developing that all-important source material? Bleak, at best.

During the past century, as agriculture has become more and more industrialized, flavor and genetic diversity have been sacrificed in favor of efficiency and yield. The result, says Cornell University professor Michael Mazourek, is the bland, “one-size-fits-most crops” that dominate today’s culinary landscape. He is among the plant breeders gathered in St. Helena to showcase the work of Seed Matters, which helps fund his research. Mazourek’s chile peppers, including the ‘Habanada’—“It’s a habanero without the blistering heat. Get it?”—were paired with burrata cheese for an appetizer. “But this is not just about what we’re eating now,” says the scientist, who teamed with New York chef Dan Barber to create the squat ‘Honeynut’ squash. “It’s about what we’re leaving for future generations to build upon.”

Unfortunately, the seed business has consolidated in a few corporate hands over the years, and the Monsantos and Syngentas of the world patent their proprietary horticultural product. That’s why Clif Bar underwrites university endowments, fellowships, and grants, supporting the kind of public research that produces open-source varieties any breeder can access. Seed Matters also emphasizes the importance of organic methods. “Seeds created in a conventional, chemically dependent environment,” Dillon explains, “yield far less resilient plants.”

Another downside of privatization: Corporate control has given plant breeding a bad rap. “People think it means ‘genetically engineered,’” says Lane Selman, a researcher at Oregon State University and the founder of the Culinary Breeding Network, which connects breeders and chefs. “The heirloom boom of the nineties helped people see the value of preserving seed, but they don’t understand that it can get even better.” Traditional breeding methods, she says, hit the sweet spot between heirlooms and GMOs, producing flavorful, nutrient-rich edibles that are also disease resistant. “We want to show that plant sex is not a four-letter word.”

Bill Tracy certainly doesn’t shy away from the subject. “Corn is extremely promiscuous. We have to keep our plants isolated to prevent cross-pollination,” says the University of Wisconsin–Madison professor and one of only two public sweet-corn breeders in the United States. He and the other scientists at the Seed Matters benefit—Jim Myers of Oregon State University, Washington State University’s Stephen Jones, and Irwin Goldman of the University of Wisconsin–Madison—represent our nation’s best hope for better-tasting food. It would be hard, in fact, to underestimate the collective brainpower gathered here under an autumn sky. Thao Pham, the vice president of community at Clif Bar, jokes: “We are in earthquake territory. What if something happens?”

“Public plant breeding was on life support for a while,” says Tracy, whose ‘Who Gets Kissed?’ corn starred in a creamy gelato accompanying a cake made with Myers’s ‘Tromboncino’ squash. Preceding the dessert: sublime gnudi created by John McConnell, executive chef at the Clif Family Winery, that incorporated Mazourek’s ‘Honeynut’ squash and Morton’s ‘Lacinato Rainbow’ kale. Chef Accarrino served Goldman’s Danvers and Nantes carrots four different ways: roasted, raw, puréed, and pan-fried.

If the festive atmosphere tonight is any indication, Seed Matters is breathing new life into traditional plant breeding. Morton, for one, says he’s noticed a great deal of enthusiasm among the next generation. “They’re realizing seed is just so primary. There used to be clubs for people who saved seeds,” he adds. “You don’t hear about them nowadays, but I could see it catching on in a second.”


Law and Orders

It’s not every Saturday night that San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer is shown to his seat by a former prostitute who spent serious time on the streets. Not that he knew it. And neither would you. The woman’s smile is wide, her eyes kind. Dressed like all the hosts and servers in an embroidered black shirt custom-made in Oaxaca, Mexico, she exudes a natural warmth and sincerity not often displayed by hosts at hip, high-profile new restaurants in this town.

But Cala isn’t your typical hotspot. Opened in early October on a dark stretch of Fell Street, Cala is the first restaurant in the United States by Gabriela Cámara, the renowned owner of four Mexico City establishments. The most celebrated among them, Contramar, is revered by food-world royalty like Alice Waters and Diana Kennedy, both Cámara’s friends and mentors. “I was living happily in Mexico,” says Cámara, who moved to San Francisco last year with her then-five-year-old son. “Why would I open anything here unless it made sense socially and emotionally, and fit with who I am?”

Who Cámara is, is an extremely successful, extremely open-minded restaurateur who is willing to build her staff primarily from people with prison records and no prior experience. Sixty percent of Cala’s staff hail from long-respected halfway house programs like the Delancey Street Foundation; others essentially come straight from their cells via programs like America Works and the Community Assessment and Services Center, operated by San Francisco’s Adult Probation Department.

Many have struggled with addiction and don’t drink the mezcal cocktails they serve. Some had no idea that wine is made from grapes. “The other night, a server asked me the difference between sparkling wine and sparkling water,” says Cámara. “I don’t care. That stuff you can teach.” What you can’t teach, she says, is character, a work ethic, personality. “You can have technically perfect food, but that doesn’t make a good restaurant. It’s the people.” For her, those people are hardworking, motivated men and women who happen to have been incarcerated.

These members of Cámara’s staff aren’t confined to being part-time dishwashers: They’re full-time back- and front-of-house employees, all paid a living wage with full health benefits, a portion of pooled tips based on a point system (the restaurant prohibits tipping by customers), and a share of the restaurant’s profits. This is not a hiring model you’ll see at any other restaurant in town. Though the Delancey Street Foundation’s SoMa restaurant is staffed by former convicts, it’s a nonprofit entity that functions as a job-training center. Cala is very much a for-profit venture: For all of her idealism, Cámara is not running a charity.

And when you’re sitting in Cala’s airy, sophisticated dining room listening to a well-spoken floor manager talk about how she has found her family here, you realize how profound Cala’s hiring policy is. Cámara, spurred by her general manager, Emma Rosenbush, is, it can be said without an ounce of Silicon Valley exaggeration, changing lives.

In doing so, Cámara and Rosenbush are challenging San Francisco restaurants to think differently about hiring, an issue with which the service industry, which is suffering a labor crunch, has lately struggled. “On one hand, you can’t find people to work in restaurants because they can’t afford to live here,” says Rosenbush. “But there’s a whole population of people who can’t get work because—what—they have a record?” Rosenbush worked at Berkeley’s Prison Law Office after college and vowed that she would one day hire formerly incarcerated individuals if she were ever in a position to do so. They are, she says, “a huge resource not being used.” (Nationwide, about 60 percent of ex-prisoners are unemployed a year after release.)

Cámara and Rosenbush’s real motivation, though, isn’t supply and demand, but their desire to hire people who are a good fit for the restaurant regardless of their background. “You should see the faces of these people when they realize they are not being rejected,” says Cámara, who was hesitant to publicize her hiring program for fear that it would be perceived as a marketing ploy or an invasion of her employees’ privacy. “Emma and I are not trying to save society—we just want to work with people willing to do a good job.”

To find Cala’s staff, Rosenbush reached out to her former sociology professors, contacts from her law office days, and reentry organizations like Root and Rebound. “It went viral,” she recalls. “It was wild! I was getting so many emails and calls.” Her job post went far beyond the typical equal opportunity language: “Strongly encourage applications from people…with conviction histories.”

At least 50 former convicts showed up for an interview, many in a suit or a dress: “The non-incarcerated people dressed shittier,” says Rosenbush, laughing. A lack of experience was not only preferred—it was actually a prerequisite. “Part-time hipster servers,” says Rosenbush, aren’t sufficiently invested in their work. “Professional servers are difficult to retrain. They want to do things their way, not your way,” adds Cámara. “Servers in San Francisco don’t really give a shit. They know they can get a job anywhere.”

Cámara would rather train from scratch. That’s how she does it in Mexico. “If you’re smart, or even halfway smart but work hard,” she says, “you’re able to rise.” Still, she admits that six weeks in, service at Cala has been “a disaster.” During the restaurant’s first two months, it lost 14 of its original 33 staff, including about 10 ex-convicts. One admitted to using meth; another got a call in the middle of her shift that her brother had been shot. After two weeks of training, one of Rosenbush’s favorite hires, an honest, charming guy with zero experience, was a no-show. The reason, Rosenbush learned, was that he’d been re-incarcerated just before the restaurant was due to open.

In spite of these setbacks, to those dedicated to giving former convicts a second chance, Cala is an unqualified triumph. On its opening night, Lauren Bell, the interim director of the Adult Probation Department’s reentry division, was filled with pride watching her clients drape white linen napkins over their arms and pour water. “What Cala is doing is revolutionary in such a simple way,” she says. “It is putting people used to being on the sidelines of life front and center, with people looking right at them, people with deep pockets. It’s making them feel like they’re taking their first steps toward flying.”

Sabrina Reid certainly feels that way. “I’m managing the floor of a restaurant. That’s insane,” she says. “I’m being interviewed for a magazine. Never in my darkest days…” Reid, 46, became addicted to heroin as a teenager and spent the next 25 years in and out of federal prison. During the last five years, she ran private dining at the Delancey Street Restaurant, whose proceeds go directly to feeding, housing, and training Delancey residents, readying them for the “real world.” Rarely, though, are graduates really welcomed—at least not into San Francisco’s rarefied version of the real world. But Cámara and Rosenbush were literally waiting with open arms. “After our interview, it felt like we’d known each other for years,” says Reid. “We were hugging and jumping up and down. I was like, this has to be too good to be true.”

“There’s always drama in the restaurant industry, but this has been another level,” says Cámara. That said, it hasn’t always been the bad kind. As I interviewed Reid, she glanced over my shoulder and suddenly excused herself to greet a young woman who’d wandered in for brunch. “Wow: That’s Sabrina’s daughter,” Cámara told me. “She hasn’t seen her in eight years, I’m not sure what else I can tell you. That pretty much says it all.”


The Breakfast Club

Scrawled across the chest of every server at Sweet Maple is a tribute to its signature item. “I [heart] Millionaire’s Bacon,” the T-shirts tout. Indeed, the sales tactic works—as plates of the thick, brown sugar-tinged slabs adorn pretty much every one of the twenty-five tables in the place. But not Billy’s and Bob’s.

Pork?” scoffs Billy Cohen, when I ask if it’s the bacon that brings him and his friend Bob Bransten here every Saturday morning. Definitely not, they say.

At eighty years old, they don’t touch the stuffOh, sure, maybe thirty years ago—when the they were college buddies who became Pacific Heights neighbors and began what’s become a weekly breakfast tradition. Sweet Maple wasn’t always their spot. Neither can recall the name of the first San Francisco diner they went to together, just that they’ve outlived it. “Remember that other place on Fulton, where we could never find parking?” probes Bob, like one half of a long-married couple. “What was it called?”

Another of their spots was Eats, a classic on Clement Street. “But frankly, by the time we got there, it was already packed with families,” says Billy. “I don’t do lines anymore. I gave up that up in the army.”

The Internet is filled with raves about Sweet Maple (“OMG, the millionaire bacon. Let’s talk about that first!” Yelps Karen S. of Sacramento. “As I took the first bite, my eyes rolled back like I was having an orgasm.”), but for Billy and Bob, the food here is just “fine.” Ultimately, they chose it as their go-to place simply because of its size. It’s one of the largest breakfast spots in the city. Plus, they quickly figured out that if they showed up by eight a.m., they’d “beat the mobs.” After four years, the staff knows their names, their window table, and their order. “Granola and fruit, no yogurt, low-fat milk for Billy; one egg white scrambled with tomatoes and mushrooms, no toast, no potatoes, and a glass of orange juice [with a straw] for Bob,” says the smiley server as she presents their plates and refills their coffee mugs. Billy pours in three packets of Splenda and passes Bob the ketchup, which he squeezes beside his egg white. For Billy and Bob, it’s not about the cuisine, but the company.

Bob came from a big West Coast coffee family—MJB it was called; founded in 1881, it rivaled Folgers and Hills Bros. back in the day. He worked in mass-produced coffee for decades, but admits he likes Blue Bottle now. Still, he doesn’t seem to mind the generic Italian roast at Sweet Maple; he accepts a third, then a fourth, then a fifth topper.

Back in New York, Billy took his Harvard MBA to Broadway, where he was a producer. He still is, in that semi-retired, successful way. He co-produced the current hit Beautiful, about Carole King. “I’ve spent my life theoretically working in a creative industry,” says Billy, “but none of it has rolled off on me as far as my culinary habits.”

Bob agrees. “Let me suggest that Billy also likes to go to the same place at night,” he teases. That place is Izzy’s Steak & Chop House, a Marina mainstay since 1987. They go about once a monthwith their wives, which means they sometimes end up eating breakfast and dinner together in the same day. “He likes the potatoes and the creamed spinach there,” explains Bob.

After thirty years sitting across from each other, there’s still plenty to talk about: They gossip about their kids (Billy’s son, who’s thirty-two, “is about to cohabit with a young woman,” beams Billy); rib each other about their prestigious business schools (“You know what they call Harvard,” says Bob. “Preparation H.”); and roar with laughter about their lucky, lackluster military experience. “My friend here, was a member of the distinguished 353rd and Leaflet Battalion!” Billy guffaws over his granola. Apparently, Bob’s role was to drop leaflets for civilians when the occasion called, but turns out his battalion never even had to do that. “They called us ‘Legs,’” says Bob, “A deprecatory term that means guys who walked as opposed to guys who jump out of airplanes.” “You know, on Veterans Day, when you’re at the 49ers game and they ask those who served to stand, I’m always a little hesitant,” says Bob. “I don’t think we’re really the ones they mean to honor.”

The real draw of Sweet Maple every Saturday, say Billy and Bob, is the desire to get out of the house, to talk, and to try to make sense of the sort of life-stuff that happens. “Let me be clear, Billy is my psychiatrist,” says Bob, only half-joking. “My wife, forget it. He’s heard all of my trials and tribulations. It’s painful, but it’s cheaper than therapy.”

Billy puts the point of their weekly breakfast date a little more bluntly: “It keeps us alive,” he says.

With collared button-downs beneath their wool sweaters, gray hairs on their balding heads, and cute comments about grandkids (Bob has six; Billy’s “still waiting”), this two-top sticks out at Sweet Maple. In fact, they stick out in San Francisco, where signs of life over sixty are becoming more and more rare. But sit and talk with these guys for an hour on a Saturday morning, and their wrinkles and their years seem to fade away. Suddenly, it’s easy to see Billy and Bob as they still see themselves.

“Sure, we have more physical concerns now,” says Billy. “But we also wake up every morning and know it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative.” He peers around the restaurant, at the fitted plaid shirts, the soft hands sparkling with newly donned engagement rings, the new fathers cutting their toddler’s pancakes, and the hung-over crews devouring deep-fried French toast and sucking down Sweet Maple’s bottomless soju Bloody Marys. “We think, Gee, that guy over there certainly looks old, when he’s probably ten years younger!” (Or fifty years younger.)

Oh, kids today. They text and bail and reschedule and hover for hours, holding out for the perfect poached eggs at the most popular spot—but Billy and Bob know better. They know what matters isn’t so much where you go—bacon be damned—but that you show up. “We just call each other and say, ‘Eight a.m. and hang up,” says Billy.

The bill arrives, which they split, and scramble together a 20-plus percent tip. “I don’t like owing this guy anything,” teases Bob. It’s getting close to ten a.m. A few more swigs of coffee and the old friends shuffle out. In their loafers and pressed-yet-sagging khakis, they cut through the throngs waiting for a table, San Francisco’s hipster youth parting like the Red Sea. “What’s going on the rest of the day?” asks Bob. Not much, replies Billy. “I think I’ll go home and take a nap.”

Caviar Queen

At first glance — with her platinum hair, humongous diamond rings and wrinkle-free skin — Deborah Keane looks like your stereotypical wealthy California mom. Then she starts talking. Riffing between thick Boston and Russian accents. Tossing out retro, un-PC terms like a true Irish Masshole from the ’80s. Sharing stories about being “shaken down” by mobster-like men and high-heeling around fish farms for E! TV. That’s when you realize that Keane is not a lady who lunches.

Rather, she is the self-proclaimed “Caviar Queen” running the only female-owned and -operated caviar company in the world — in an industry long dominated, she says, “by mostly big, scary-looking, 60-year-old Russian guys.”

Keane launched California Caviar, which sells domestic and imported farm-raised fish eggs, in December 2007. “At the best possible time,” she says with a smirk. Right before the economy plummeted? “Yup. I had nowhere to go but up.”

And up. Today, California Caviar sells several million dollars’ worth of farmed caviar annually, works with acclaimed chefs like Jacques Pépin, Jose Garces and Daniel Patterson, and in March opened the first “caviar tasting room” at the company’s headquarters in Sausalito — where you can slurp a dozen or so types of sturgeon eggs — by the gram — off the back of your hand. Or, if you want to get fancy, a mother-of-pearl plate (though many — like the Spandex-clad cyclist who rolled in the other day — don’t).

And Keane’s latest coup? Scoring exclusive distribution rights to introduce the North American market to the first-ever sustainable, no-kill caviar.

Called Vivace, the Siberian baerii sturgeon caviar is produced in Germany using a technique patented by marine biologist Angela Köhler. She has perfected a process that’s been the holy grail for sturgeon breeders and caviar producers: making great caviar without killing the fish.

It involves massaging mature eggs out of the sturgeon, then rinsing them with a simple concentration that allows the eggs to maintain their natural state before being salted and packed like conventional caviar. Besides the obvious benefit of not killing the fish, Köhler’s process means a sturgeon’s eggs can be harvested repeatedly — every couple of years instead of just once in what would otherwise be the fish’s 60- to 120-year life span.

At $125 to $135 per ounce, Vivace isn’t cheaper than conventional caviar (yet). But it is sustainable and cruelty-free — and it seems to be passing the critical taste test.

“It has an amazing mouthfeel and pop, with a nice salinity and finish,” says Peter Armellino, chef of the Michelin-starred Plumed Horse in Saratoga, Calif. Others, like Sterling Caviar’s managing director Shaoching Bishop, applaud the no-kill factor but aren’t yet sold on the texture.

Keane describes Vivace as clean and mild, with the “Caspian pop” of wild-caught turgeon caviar, which we haven’t legally enjoyed since 2011, when wild caviar was officially banned due to depleting stocks.

As farmed caviar has risen in quality and quantity over the last decade — a wave Keane wisely caught — it’s turned into a global, multimillion-dollar industry. And now, with Köhler’s Vivace to sell, she has the potential to help shift Americans’ perception of caviar from elitist luxury to, as she puts it, “everyday indulgence.” Brioche and caviar: the new bagels and lox?

Raised in Foxboro, Mass., by a high school English teacher and a “football-obsessed” engineer, Keane grew up eating hot dogs at the Patriots’ stadium. “There was no caviar in our house,” laughs the woman who now zips around in clients’ private jets and yachts — and plays it up for reality shows like Buying for Billionaires.

After graduating from Northeastern, Keane became a pediatric neonatal nurse practitioner. “I had no life,” she says. “Eventually, I realized I wanted one.” So she landed a job at a luxury lifestyle publication and went from caring for sick babies to selling ads for cashmere.

In 2004, while at a San Francisco fundraiser, she reached for the same crab-leg canapé as an investor in Tsar Nicoulai, pioneers of farmed caviar — and within weeks had a job selling sturgeon eggs.

“I knew absolutely nothing about the industry,” she confesses. But she jumped right in — literally donning waders and heading into the tanks. “When I sell something, I will eat it. Sleep it. I have to touch the fish. … I have to make the caviar,” she says. “I have to love it.”

Only she didn’t. “It was horrible,” she recalls. “It tasted like the inside of a fish tank. I said, ’I can’t sell this.’” So she learned everything she could about caviar — and discovered she had a unique palate for it. “Must’ve been my Boston meat-and-potatoes diet.”

Her supertaster skills came in handy when dealers tested her early on. “I was (a) new to the industry, and (b) a woman,” she recalls. “It happened all the time: They’d put the good caviar on top, shitty caviar at the bottom. … Or try to sell me dyed whitefish when I asked for hackleback. I’d call them up, and say, ‘Nice dyed whitefish, jackass.’”

Things occasionally got scary, says Keane. She was once shaken down by dealers demanding money they weren’t owed, and she narrowly avoided starting a caviar company with a dodgy character who was eventually indicted. Distraught over what to do next, she rang Jacques Pépin, one of her clients at Tsar. “I said, ‘I’m unemployable! I don’t want to work for anybody,’ he said, ‘Good, let’s press caviar together.’” Bolstered by a big-name chef, California Caviar Company had its first custom product.

Seven years later, Keane is on the cusp of ushering in a new era for what’s always been an extravagance. One in which cyclists can sidle up to the bar for their daily dose of omega-3s, and a premium product — with double the shelf life of conventional caviar — could be stocked by Safeway.

“Caviar is today where the wine world was 40 years ago,” says the mother of two, who even packs the stuff in her kids’ lunchboxes. “Americans used to drink wine only on special occasions. Now we drink it every day.” She laughs. “Or at least I do.”

Richard Adams Carey, author of The Philosopher Fish: Sturgeon, Caviar, and the Geography of Desire, agrees that the industry is undergoing a major shift. “This is a really interesting development, this Vivace thing. I heard of a previous attempt in Russia that didn’t pass the taste test. … If this one manages that trick, it could potentially become much cheaper to produce caviar,” he says. “And what happens to the mystique of the food, once it’s as ordinary as a bagel?”

If Vivace succeeds, says Carey, “Deborah Keane will be making history. Angela Köhler as well.”

I Tried It … One of Those Damn Juice Cleanses

The text caught me in a weak moment: two days after Thanksgiving, while I was eating a bacon-gruyere cheeseburger for lunch. “Juice fast! Juice fast! Juice fast!” my friend Samantha cheered.

I wasn’t wholly unprepared for her message. A few months earlier we happened to meet the nice, if skeletal-looking co-owner of San Francisco’s Juice Shop at a happy hour. (We were drinking wine. He, of course, wasn’t.) After hearing all about how he and his two brothers started this company because green juicing had saved his life after a serious health scare, we were inspired. “We’re in! We’re doing it!” we’d declared, a little tipsy. And then, on our way to dinner, we promptly dropped the ridiculous idea.

But then, gluttony sort of sneaked up on us. My husband and I followed this year’s all-day turkey feast with a weekend of barbecued oysters dripping in bourbon-butter sauce, cinnamon sticky buns, the aforementioned cheeseburger — and a six-course supper of duck liver pate and pork belly; soup brimming with rabbit sausage; filet mignon paired with a braised beef stew; cheese and chocolate cake for dessert. In this extremely overstuffed moment, the idea of a juice cleanse seemed like a smart one.

And so, $189 dollars, plus deposit and home delivery (!) fees later, I was indeed in. They call it a “cleanse,” but I knew better. Whatever the promise of detoxification and recalibration and regeneration, this was a full on three-day fast: 102 liquid ounces a day of algae elixirs and local, organic cold-pressed concoctions that come in cute glass bottles in flavors like kale and celery, beet and carrots, pear and chia seed and, the real indulgence, raw almond and Himalayan salt.  “Yes!!!” I texted back. “I’m IN. 100%”

There are five or six juicing companies in San Francisco alone, and more juice bars and juice boxes and juice presses around the country by the day. Juice seems to be the new Coke for crying out loud, and I guess we should all be happy about that. Still, Americans — of the LuluLemon-clad, Range Rover-driving sort — have no qualms about spending nine, ten bucks a bottle to unleash their inner Gwyneth Paltrows. It’s a trend I’ve mocked while watching women, and men, (but mostly women) parade around town with their BPA-free bottles of green sludge.

I’m an eater. One of the best. Which is why everyone mocked me when I said I was on a juice cleanse for the next three days.

So, yeah, this was my first-ever fast, without having the stomach flu. Even on Yom Kippur, the one day of the year that Jewish guilt could potentially convince me to forgo breakfast, I start the day off with a three-egg omelet. I’m an eater. One of the best.

And, for better or worse, of the body type that’s more or less able to withstand an above average level of gluttony. Which is why everyone mocked me when I said I was on a juice cleanse for the next three days. “You??” “Whhhhyyy? “Good luck with that…”

How did it go, you wonder? Because, admit it, you have been wondering whether you should maaaaybe try a juice cleanse, too. I’ll tell you: It sucked. Pretty much every second of it was awful.

I choked down the algae, telling my daughter it was medicine so I didn’t give her an eating disorder at age 5. I had a persistent headache from the get-go from giving up coffee. My stomach growled incessantly. I drank herbal tea while my officemates celebrated a book deal with martinis and apple pie.

I would savor every single seed swimming in my favorite juice, the Pear-Pineapple-Chia, and try desperately to reach the ones on the very bottom of the bottle with my tongue to no avail. I peed, oh, about every half-hour. I almost-puked a few times, and eventually, started fasting on the fast because (sorry Juice Shop!) I just could not get the Deep Greens down.

I googled “juice cleanses bull shit” and came across this Jezebel clip entitled (yup) “Juice Cleanses Are Kind Of Bullshit.” And a hilarious feature in San Francisco magazine, “Are We Glowing Yet?,” that made me think, for a split second, when I looked n the mirror on Day 3, that, hmm, maybe I was glowing. Or was that jaundice? Slate’s piece— the one Samantha posted on her Facebook page, along with this apt comment: “Juice cleanses are just privileged people starving themselves voluntarily” — put it best, though: “Stop Juicing: It’s not healthy, it’s not virtuous, and it makes you seem like a jerk.”

And a jerk is certainly what I felt like at the movie theater as my friends passed the popcorn directly over me, while I demurred, no, no, thanks, I’m good with my raw almond-coconut water and, um-excuse-me-everyone bathroom breaks.

But, ok, ok, the upside? I had more time when I was on a juice cleanse. Without my morning run or latte wait or wondering What Do I Want for Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner? (Because when you live in San Francisco especially, every glorious, delicious meal counts.) Life opened up a little. Also, I slept well. I lost a pound. I felt… calm.

Ultimately, though, for me, the real virtue of The Cleanse was, simply, that I did it. (Despite the two texts to Samantha in which I tried to bail.) I said I was IN, 100% percent. And I was. Except for one prematurely celebratory glass of red wine on the last night, which left me a little loopy.

Bottom line for anyone contemplating a juice cleanse? Guess I’d tell you the same thing that I tell my kids: Chew your food.


The Joy of Cooking with Samin

When Samin Nosrat wants something, she writes a letter — a real, old-fashioned, heartfelt letter.

“I’m an insane stalker person,” says the 34-year-old cook/writer/surfer with a laugh. “I find people I admire and I just want to be near them. I want them to be my teacher.” So, (novel idea) she simply asks.

And because she is the kind of huggy, happy, highly talented person people want to be around too, they inevitably say yes. Benedetta Vitali. Alice Waters. Michael Pollan. Strangers turned mentors, all. It’s Samin’s way with words — and food — that has gotten her where she is on this sunny winter day: blissfully barefoot in her cluttered Berkeley, California kitchen, toiling over her white Frigidaire stovetop. And laptop. Hard at work on what could be The Next Great Cookbook.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: The Four Elements of Good Cooking will be published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster — to the chagrin of a dozen or so houses that lost the bidding war in March. The lucky winner? Editor Michael Szczerban who happened to write Samin a genuine letter himself that brought her to tears.

As did the enviable advance, which has allowed Samin to make writing this book her full-time job. Prior to the deal, she was scraping by on $17,000 a year. “Now I’m going to buy sea salt!” she cried to a friend the morning after the sale.

What sets this cookbook-to-be apart from the zillions out there? “It fills a gap in the literature,” says Michael Pollan. “Lots of cookbooks tell you what to do, but very few explain why.” Samin is not a restaurant celebrity, as is all the rage these days, but a true home chef, whose aim is to really teach you — yes, even you; and, for that matter, me — how to cook. Lots of cookbooks tell you what to do, but very few explain why. – Michael Pollan

“Once you understand the four basic principles of salt, fat, acid, and heat,” she promises, “you’re no longer a slave to step-by-step recipes.” Samin’s 50 recipes will be mixed with musings, science and personal stories — and, best of all, only call for ingredients you already have on hand. No buttermilk? Try milk squeezed with lemon instead. No need to buy pecorino and Parmesan; Samin would never ask you to do something so… annoying.

Born in Southern California to Iranian parents, Samin was a “food-obsessed” kid who grew up eating her mom’s Persian equivalent of PB&J: cucumbers, grapes and feta on lavash. “My lunchbox didn’t look like everybody else’s,” she says, “and I loved that.”

At age 19, she and her UC Berkeley boyfriend saved up for a special dinner date at Chez Panisse. “I’d never eaten in a fancy restaurant. I had no idea who Alice Waters was or why this place was famous, but we got dressed up, and ordered wine and ate chocolate soufflé,” recalls Samin. “With milk! I ordered milk!” she says, laughing, still mortified. “The meal… the service… It was life-changing.”

The next day, she wrote a letter, pleading for a job as a busser, and was hired on the spot. “I remember vacuuming the downstairs dining room and feeling so honored. Like, I can’t believe they’re letting me vacuum the floor of Chez Panisse.”

Soon enough, she pestered Christopher Lee at Chez to pleaaase let her into the kitchen, even though she had no prior cooking experience. He sent her home with a pile of books, told her to practice, and a few months later, let her peel onions. The rest is culinary history.

Her career includes making pasta and plucking duck feathers in Tuscany; cooking with Lee at Eccolo; and hosting monthly dinners at Tartine that became one of the hottest reservations in town. She also put on a popular “pop-up general store” in Oakland that brought farmers and chefs and consumers together and influenced the launch of Good Eggs, the fast-growing local-food start-up she now advises.

All along, Samin had her heart set on her next guru: New York Times best-selling author and UC Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan. She wrote him an impassioned plea asking to audit his class — a class with, sorry, a waitlist of hundreds of (paying) students. But her persistence and clear sense of community purpose paid off. She became a star pupil, and not just because she brought in piping-hot lasagnas.

And then…the student became the teacher. When Pollan wanted to learn how to cook for his latest book Cooked (2013), who better to teach him how to braise than Samin? Soon, she was showered with notes herself. The time was ripe for Samin to put her decade-old book idea — one she’d had brewing since her early days at Chez — down on paper.

But first! She had one more “stalker letter” to write. To San Francisco illustrator Wendy MacNaughton whose smart, whimsical work she’d admired from afar. “I wanted light-hearted, timeless illustrations — not photographs. I didn’t want people feeling bad when their dish doesn’t look like the picture,” she says. (Thank you.) “Wendy can find the beauty in anything.”

MacNaughton draws meticulously, and quickly, and always from life, as Samin chops and stirs and squeezes — say, water from balls of chard for cucu sabzi, a Persian frittata so green and delicate, it’ll ruin those eggy French things forever. True collaborators, they share hearty laughs and a love of Bud Lite Lime, which they often sip while working in MacNaughton’s kitchen. (More mod, less messy.)

Once the book comes out, Nosrat plans to resume teaching at places like 18 Reasons and San Francisco Cooking School but also take it on the road into low-income communities and food deserts everywhere. “You are afraid to cook? You only make mac n’ cheese from a box? I’m here!” she says. “I want to connect with you. Whoever you are.”

Pollan, for one, has no doubt she will.“Samin is eloquent, passionate, and clear,” he says. “Her literary gift is to be able to recreate these qualities on the page.”

Samin, however, is still a little overwhelmed. “Man, I’m like a brown girl who grew up in San Diego in the 80s,” she says. “My whole life I’ve been an outsider wanting to be accepted by the mainstream.” And now here she is, an Iranian-American woman with a big personality and even bigger heart, on the cusp — if publishers’ predictions are right — of being a nicer, more talented Rachael Ray. A more approachable Alice Waters. The next … Julia Child?

But Samin’s goal isn’t to become a household name. “I want more people to cook,” she says. “When I show someone how to properly use salt, it’s like crack. Their mind is blown. I want to be the teacher that, you know, gives you the thing and sends you into the world.”


The San Tung Addiction

It’s Monday afternoon, 4 p.m.—purgatory in restaurant time—and San Tung’s 100 seats are full. Asian-American families sit tweezing spicy green beans and slurping handmade noodles as pods of college kids pile in for pot stickers and old men shuffle out with their walkers, soy sauce stains on their shirts. “I don’t get it,” says manager Frank Chu, sipping black tea. “If they eat now, do they still eat dinner?”

Given the feast that is San Tung, probably not. Anyway, as insiders know, it pays to come off-peak to avoid the sidewalk swarm. On Sunday nights, even takeout orders can take two hours. The kitchen often gets so backed up that the staff just takes the phone off the hook.

Which is why Mrs. Chu—Frank’s mother and the owner of the 25-year-old Chinese restaurant—tends to eschew the media. “She’s turned down all the big Chinese newspapers,” says Frank, who dropped out of college at 18, after his father had a stroke, to help run the Irving Street restaurant that his parents had opened after emigrating from Korea. “We just can’t handle it. We’re too busy as it is.”

Mrs. Chu, who at 60 presides over the register, keeping tabs on the till and her 17-person staff, would rather the focus be on her son. “Take his picture, not mine,” she says, nodding toward Frank, who is 39 and will inherit San Tung when and if she’s ready to retire.

Last year, Mrs. Chu’s youngest son, Charles, opened San Tung #2 next door in an attempt to capitalize on the original restaurant’s overflow. Her other son operates So, in SoMa (and myriad cousins run East Bay restaurants). Neither, however, has achieved the first San Tung’s cult status. “The food is similar, but they’re fancier,” says Frank, “with dim lights and stuff.”

Fancy, San Tung is not. Servers wear white button-downs and bow ties, but the ambience is all fluorescent lights, worn carpeting, and deafening din. One thousand diners a day don’t come here for the atmosphere. They come for the food—though why, exactly, remains a mystery to Mrs. Chu. “Honestly, honestly, I don’t think our food is that good,” she says. “We’re just lucky.”

Back in San Tung’s early days, the dumplings were the draw, so much so that Mrs. Chu and her sons would work until 2 a.m. every night making them. “We’d turn on the radio, make dumplings, and talk,” she recalls. “They were teenagers. They hated me.”

Today, she hires other people to do the cooking. About a dozen staffers toil in the sprawling kitchen (which, Mrs. Chu says, is still too small). Three women pinch dumplings and pull noodles, and three cooks toss woks. And, says Mrs. Chu, one lone man fries, donning a hat, a mask, and gloves to burn through some 700 to 800 pounds of meat a day for San Tung’s signature dry-fried chicken wings.

“Yes, I’ve heard they call it crack,” Mrs. Chu says, smiling when I mention the nickname for the chicken, which is crisp, sticky, and covered in spicy-sweet sauce. “It’s kind of a compliment.”

The sauce used to be soggier, but one night a regular complained that it was too wet. So Mrs. Chu took out some of the water and added sugar. The customer couldn’t get enough of it—and soon, neither could anyone else. Today, Mrs. Chu hears of copycats all over town. Several years ago, she actually caught one of her employees trying to teach her recipe to the owner of the restaurant across the street. “That employee still works here,” she says. “It’s OK—we all have to make a living.”

After a quarter century of working almost every day, Mrs. Chu is living what most immigrants would call the American dream. “We’ve passed the money-hungry stage,” she says with a smile. “I think we did all right.”

Frank worries, though, about the day that his mother finally retires. “It’s a lot of pressure,” he admits. “It’s one thing to build a successful restaurant from nothing. What if I take over, and it slows down?” Mrs. Chushrugs.“Keep doing what we do now,” she says. “Done.”


The Comfort Food of Strangers

At first I think we might have come to the wrong address. When my cousin Dave and I ring the bell of a Bartlett Street duplex right on time, minutes pass before the door opens—revealing a blue-haired guy in a white V-neck T-shirt with a toddler hanging all over him. “Hi,” he says, as we size each other up. The presence of a cute, soon-to-be-crying little person catches me off guard. It’s one thing to have dinner with my own children or those of friends, but eating elbow-to-elbow with some random kid is not really my idea of a night out. Then again, this is more of a night in.

We slip off our shoes, climb the old Victorian’s carpeted stairs, and are fumbling with the baby gate when Eden, the guy’s wife and our host for the evening, ushers us in. On Feastly, a new San Francisco–based meal-sharing site, she’d advertised the dinner she’s about to serve us as a “hearty Thai family supper”—but standing awkwardly around her stove making small talk, I’m wondering what I’ve signed up for, exactly.

It was only a matter of time before the sharing economy took over the home kitchen. In the last few months, startups like Feastly, EatWith, and Cookapp have arrived in San Francisco, luring locals hungry for the next big thing into the homes of total strangers who like to cook and hope to make a few bucks, maybe find some new friends, and perhaps, if they’re lucky, gain a following.

Eden’s Mission rental is nowhere near as hip as the restaurants near it. Plastic toys are strewn about; toiletries clutter the split bath. Stacked against the dining room wall are boxes of bulk diapers, draped with purple gauze to minimize their intrusion. But the table is lovingly set with carved-wood chopsticks and floating elephant-shaped candles.

I’m half wishing that I were at home watching Homeland and eating Lers Ros takeout when I catch a whiff of fresh lemongrass and ginger. After my first sip of tom yum gai—and some gratis sauvignon blanc—I’m feeling soothed. And soon enough, I’m laughing with a table of six strangers over pumpkin curry and the cow-tipping of Smart cars.

Eden spent just “three days, once” in Thailand, she says, but she worked for several years under a Thai chef in Austin and ghostwrote a Thai cookbook. Because this is her first Feastly supper, the company’s chief operating officer, Leigh Goldstein, is at the table too, making sure that all is kosher, figuratively speaking. As it turns out, the $40 meal’s pacing is off, the two curries lack kick, and the dessert is plastic-wrapped mints—but overall, the meal is pretty good. Not Lers Ros good, but more fun than sitting at home—which for some is a huge part of the appeal of this weird new breed of dining experience.

“We see the dinner table as the original social network,” says Feastly founder Noah Karesh, who conceived the company after he and his girlfriend were invited home for supper by an avocado seller during a visit to Guatemala. “The meal was magical,” Karesh recalls. He wanted to re-create that authenticity here and, in doing so, build a community. “Someone may have 5,000 Facebook friends, but still eat dinner alone,” he says. “We want to bridge the divide between offline and online.”

It seems to be working. What were once considered underground supper clubs are inching toward the mainstream—at least in urban areas. In June, EatWith founder Guy Michlin moved his headquarters here from Tel Aviv to be closer, he says, to Greylock Partners, his new investors. Cookapp launched in Buenos Aires in 2013 and expanded to New York and San Francisco earlier this year. Year-old Feastly also recently relocated here from Washington, D.C. And there are others, like Cozymeal and SupperShare and PlaceInvaders.

The sites have much in common. Meal prices are set by the cooks, all of whom are vetted (some more vigorously than others, based on my experience—EatWith says that its acceptance rate is only 4 percent). Each site offers a staggering variety of themes and cuisines, from singles’ oyster night to paleo desserts to a paella party. “Restaurants can get boring,” Feastly’s Goldstein tells me during our meal at Eden’s house. “You know what to expect. This is more like an adventure.”

Still, this kind of adventure can be a tough sell in a city already drowning in upwards of 2,400 restaurants. Michlin, who has had respectable success with EatWith in 162 cities around the world, admits that launching in the Bay Area has been a challenge. “Tel Aviv has a food scene, Barcelona has a food scene, every city has a food scene—but I’ve never seen anything like this,” he says. “San Francisco is very competitive. We have to draw diners away from restaurants. It hasn’t been easy.”

It isn’t easy for me, either: My friends don’t jump at my house-hopping invites. Cousin Dave is into the idea because he’s an up-for-anything kind of guy, but my friend Raina, visiting from Manhattan, has zero interest in EatWith’s fried chicken night at Lindsay’s apartment. She hates chitchatting with people she’ll never see again, and there are a zillion real restaurants that she wants to try instead. Lavinia reluctantly agrees to EatWith’s Pugliese Pasta Night at Kai’s but then regrets it—there are too many olives for her taste. My friend Anne—who thinks that we’re planning to hit a new restaurant in Noe until she rereads my text and realizes that we’re actually going to Seafood Wednesday at the house of a man named Mitch—replies, “Shit, do we have to?”

But Seafood Wednesday proves to be a happy meal. The work of Mitch, a payment and fraud analyst and a Cookapp member with multiple CSA memberships, and his friend Justine, it’s worth the $65 price tag. “It’s Seafood Wednesday because the fish comes in on Tuesday,” explains Mitch. He’s the kind of home cook who carries vanilla beans back from French Polynesia—Justine used one of them in a tarte tatin that I’m still thinking about. Their multicourse meal is as good as any I’ve had at my favorite San Francisco restaurants—more memorable, in a way, because it wasn’t at a restaurant.

As we eat his food in his immaculate, Zen-inspired home, Mitch explains why he joined Cookapp. “My friends don’t care that I spent 10 hours making this fish fumet broth,” he says. “I like cooking for people who appreciate it.” He surveys our motley table. “And maybe I’ll make friends who do, too.”

Maybe. That’s a lot of pressure to put on someone who just came for the fresh-caught poached albacore. But when you sign up for one of these dinners, you’re signing up for a peek into people’s lives. You might learn that your host uses Natural Organics for Hair Loss shampoo or is trying to get pregnant. You’ll likely be invited to yoga or a playdate or, at the very least, asked to come again.

But would I? Why chance a half-baked chicken at Chad’s house when Zuni accepts walk-ins? The city is saturated with exceptional restaurants, and we’re spoiled. That said, food-sharing sites, like food trucks before them, are bound to expose some truly great cooks. And where there’s good food in San Francisco, there are always takers.

As Feastly’s Goldstein says, showing up on someone’s doorstep for supper is an adventure. And it’s one that I’m up for—occasionally. But at the end of the day, I’d probably take the sure bet of the communal table at Nopa over someone’s random dining table in NoPa.


Sir and Star at the Olema: Life, Death and Rebirth of a Restaurant Legend

On a foggy Sunday in January 2007, several weeks after a fire razed Manka’s Inverness Lodge in Northern California, hundreds of mourners poured into the Manka’s boathouse on Tomales Bay. They brought wheels of artisanal cheese, bottles of local wine and oysters pulled from nearby beds.

They’d come to pay their respects to the old hunting lodge in the woods high above the water, which co-owners Margaret Grade and Daniel DeLong had turned into a legendary retreat, a winding hour-and-a-half drive from San Francisco. Thomas Keller celebrated his birthday there, and Prince Charles and Camilla had visited for dinner, joining the farmers who grew the ingredients for their nine-course meal. Locavores before the term existed, Grade and DeLong sourced the best ingredients in West Marin. One guest was kindly told that eggs, though on the breakfast menu in the lodge, couldn’t be delivered to his $600-a-night cabin, 40 feet away, because “The chef does not like the eggs to travel too far from the flame.”

The boathouse gathering had the look and feel of a funeral. People cried. Condolence letters from around the globe hung on the walls. Cards read, “Born: 1917. Died: December 27, 2006. Reborn: Any moment now.”

In a sense, that moment has arrived. Grade and DeLong have finally opened a new restaurant, one with its own unique story. Long before the fire, they’d had their eyes on the historic Olema Inn, a fussy, fancy-occasion, white-painted spot in the West Marin town of Olema. “But we didn’t want an inn,” says DeLong, defining that as something “cutesy, with white tablecloths.”

So after they bought the property last year, they painted it dark gray and renamed it Sir and Star at The Olema. Presiding over the gateway to Point Reyes National Seashore, the restaurant is right on Highway 1. Hikers, beachgoers, artists and writers congregate on the wraparound porch to eat spectacular dishes like a saffron-laced vegetable broth with baby artichokes, zucchini and fennel: “A Bouillabaisse of All Things Green from the Garden.” All the dishes have lyrical names, as they did at Manka’s. “Leg of a Neighbor’s Duck” is tasty and simple, slow-braised in red wine and marjoram. It’s DeLong’s version of comfort food: “The stuff I like to eat when I’m tired.” For those in the know, there’s a hidden menu based on whatever ingredients—foraged, fished, hunted or harvested—came through the back door in amounts too small or too pricey to put on the à la carte menu (most starters are $10; entrées, $20).

In the dining room, Grade refurbished the original tables and left them linen-free, using brown-paper runners instead. A stuffed cormorant from a Paris flea market stands on a sconce. Travelers will be able to stay in the six guest rooms later this summer. “I call them bird-watcher rooms,” DeLong says, “because you’d better be up early. The dairy trucks start rumbling down the road at dawn.”

Grade often dresses all in black, wearing a long skirt, a hat and dark sunglasses. She speaks in a gravelly whisper, favoring words you rarely hear anymore: She “digs” duck eggs; guests “toddle off” after dinner. She and DeLong love a party yet, paradoxically, tend to hide out in the kitchen. “We’re not happy, cheery people,” says DeLong, smiling. “We’re like the fog; the dark, brooding coast.” Still, when their kids race up the porch, begging for ice cream (house-made, topped simply with West Marin honey, lemon curd or olive oil), Grade whoops and chases them.

She recounts one of the first dinners at The Olema, a benefit for the Marin Agricultural Land Trust. In attendance were friends and longtime suppliers, including Sue Conley of Cowgirl Creamery. At the end of the night, Grade entered the dining room. “I saw the guests standing, these big faces and tall bodies,” she says. “It was a standing ovation. I was confused. And then I realized: It’s because we’re back.”

Pastrami: Discuss

Notes from the first-ever Deli Summit

Noah and Rae Bernamoff’s The Mile End Cookbook: From Hash to Hamantaschen, which came out earlier this month, contains more than 100 recipes from the couple’s 430-square-foot messiah of a smokehouse in Brooklyn, the Mile End Delicatessen. The Bernamoffs had a few fellow “geniuses” contribute to the book, too, with full-page black-and-white photographs and unpolished prose. Bob McClure of McClure’s Pickles lists “Seven Things I Love About Pickles.” Joel Bukiewicz, of Cut Brooklyn, explains “How To Love Your Knife so It Will Love You Back.” And Ken Gordon of Kenny & Zuke’s Delicatessen, in Portland, Ore., gives the all-important “Ode to Pastrami.”

“It was quite an honor,” says the Queens-born cook, who smokes 2,000 pounds a week of the stuff and recently opened a new late-night spot that serves a $12.95 “Jewcuterie board” and a daiquiri containing loganberry Manischewitz and aged rum. “I’m actually 40 pounds lighter now than I was in that photo,” he says, referring somewhat remorsefully to his headshot in The Mile End Cookbook. “Got diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and had to cut back.” (Job hazard.)

Noah and Ken met up last summer, at a JCC in Berkeley, Calif., to discuss the future of pastrami-on-rye, at the first-ever Deli Summit. Joined by the other cool deli kids—Evan Bloom and Leo Beckerman of San Francisco’s wildly popular Wise Sons, and hosts Peter Levitt and Karen Adelman, co-owners of Saul’s Deli, down the street—it was a meet-and-greet of the self-anointed New Guard: deli artisans who brine/pickle/cure/smoke/hand-slice their-own-everything; serve only humanely raised, hormone-free meat; and could care less about kosher.

“It was kind of an exclusive invite,” explained 5-foot-3 Karen, in baggy khakis and a black blouse, standing excitedly in the lobby before the crowds formed.* “People asked me, ‘Why isn’t Katz’s coming?’ ” She shrugged. “Old guard.”

“I get crap from those guys all the time,” said a blasé Noah, with his wife, Rae, by his side, clad in his-and-hers hipster glasses, square and cat-eye, respectively. “They’re, like, ‘What’s he doing here?’ They don’t really talk to me. Or to each other. The owner of Carnegie’s, I forget his name, but he thinks his shit doesn’t stink. Big guy.”

“They’re all big guys,” said Rae.

Not Wise Sons co-owner Leo Beckerman. The skinny 28-year-old, with a permanent smile and waist-length dreadlocks, was slinging still-warm bialys smeared with house-made chive cream cheese and lox. Waiting in line were heavily made-up ladies who trekked in from Palo Alto; pregnant women debating whether, wild or not, it’s OK to eat smoked salmon, and the requisite kvetchers. (“How can you call Saul’s a Jewish deli, when they don’t even have salami!”) East Coast transplants, too. “I’m from New Jersey,” confessed an Asian man who came straight from work. “Gimme a good bialy.” Another proudly pointed to his “Yonah Shimmel” hat. “How ’bout a knish?”

“The Deli Summit is the place to be tonight,” said a freckly redhead. “I think Obama might show up.”

A hot ticket, yes, but not an instant sell-out as in 2010, when Saul’s hosted a Referendum on the Jewish Deli Menu. “We had star power then,” explained Karen Adelman. “Michael Pollan. He’s a regular.” This year, they tried for Ruth Reichl. “She really wanted to do it! Mark Bittman was interested, too …”

Before show time, the speakers assembled in the back office to discuss what to discuss. “Bacon?” someone proposed. “Ooh, don’t go there …” warned Noah. “The Tablet ripped on us!” “I could tell my favorite joke,” proposed Ken. “What’s the biggest Jewish dilemma? Half-price sale on pork.” “Butter versus shmaltz?” someone suggested. “Oo, yeah, Shmaltz! Good one,” said Wise Sons’ Evan Bloom.

This was no G8 Summit of suits. The line-up on the small stage looked more like a student council meeting at a Yeshiva day school. Ken, the graying grandpa of the group, wore a black T-shirt emblazoned with Body by Pastrami. (Note: This was before he lost the 40 pounds.)

Third-choice moderator Joan Nathan, the prolific Jewish cookbook author with a perfectly coiffed pouf and an encyclopedic knowledge of kugel, kicked things off. “Tell us your pastrami conundrums.” Noah detailed his intricate sourcing and smoking process. “People don’t understand why I sometimes run out of meat. I can’t just call up Donny over at the plant and order more.” “At least you’re not dealing with a population that’s 75 percent vegan!” said Ken, from Portland. “We do a veggie Reuben,” offered Evan. Cheers and applause erupted from the Berkeley audience.

Sephardic cuisine, shrinking menus, pastrami portions were all fair game, but it was the topic of complimentary pickles that really got people fired up. “I don’t give pickles, or anything, away,” declared Noah. “Unless you’re a policeman. People come in asking, ‘Where’s my free slice of pastrami like I get at Katz’s?’ I tell them, ‘inside your sandwich.’ ”

“Nostalgia is something we all deal with,” continued Noah. “I have 85-year-old ladies telling me my chicken soup isn’t as good as their grandmother’s,” griped Ken. “Sorry, but your grandma has been dead for 40 years! How do you even remember?”

“You guys are just lucky not to be in New York,” Noah went on. “I’m still battling the 120-year-old meat temples. The idea of the ‘New York Deli’ is a joke.”

“Katz’s isn’t a deli,” muttered Joan.

People, some in faded Levis and Birkenstocks with socks, listened intently, cupping their faces and furiously scrawling questions on note cards. None of you are kosher. How can you call yourself a Jewish deli when your food is off-limits to a large number of Jews? “What, like 12 people?” scoffed Ken. “Portland isn’t exactly West Jerusalem.”

 “Basically, it’s just cool to be Jewish again,” concluded Evan. Hoots, hollers, and then folks filed out. Most beaming. Others were disappointed. “Too much talk about meat,” said a woman sporting a “Bubala’s Rugelach” T-shirt in an attempt to pimp her new start-up. An orthodox man was blatantly offended. “That one from New York, he’s a self-hating Jew.”

At an invite-only after-party at Saul’s, the panelists clinked glasses of Côte Du Rhône and passed platters of potato latkes and bowls of rhubarb-and-carrot tsimmis. “We all have different philosophies of pastrami-ama,” said Karen, “but for deli’s survival, it’s important that we stick together.” Every member of the New Guard agreed.

Now, a year later, with gefilte fish trending on par with foie gras, the New Guard is indeed getting together again. This time it’s happening in Manhattan, at the City Grit, where Noah invited his West Coast deli friends to collaborate with him on a $200, nine-course Shabbat dinner on Oct. 12, as part of the Food Network’s New York City Wine & Food Festival, to be followed by a still-unnamed second Deli Summit on Oct. 13, moderated, this time, by David Sax. “I keep coming up with all these pretentious names,” says Noah, “like, ‘The Symposium on the Future of Jewish Food’ or whatever. But maybe it’ll just be ‘Deli Summit II.”

“It’s only 65 percent sold-out right now, but I’m not worried,” he adds, sounding slightly worried. “They wanted to pair me up with a Food Network chef—Michelle Bernstein from Miami,” Noah scoffs. “She does Spanish food?! It was, like, Yeah, yeah, they’re Jewish, stick them together …”

But with his new book out, especially, “I feel this unique responsibility,” says the 30-year-old cook who—unlike Ken—has admittedly packed on a few pounds since leaving law school to, unintentionally, carry a torch. “Together, we, you know, kind of represent the future of Jewish food.” So he dissed the celebrity chefs to stick with his peeps.

“It’s going to be a good reunion.”

Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen

A real-deal Jewish deli in San Francisco has always been as tough to come by as a California-style burrito in Manhattan. There have been a few fleeting attempts, but none have stuck. Leo Beckerman and Evan Bloom aim to change that with Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen. The pop-up restaurant, which made its debut in January, is open only on Saturdays, when they take over the Beast and the Hare restaurant.

Mr. Beckerman, 27, and Mr. Bloom, 25, met at the University of California, Berkeley, where they would cook kosher dinners at the Hillel House. Years later, commiserating over San Francisco’s sad pastrami situation, they decided to make their own. “But pastrami recipes are closely guarded secrets — they don’t really exist,” explained Mr. Bloom, whose great-grandparents owned a Jewish deli outside of Boston.

So, after rummaging through their grandmothers’ old cookbooks and conducting deli crawls around New York City, they started tinkering. They began by smoking meat in Mr. Bloom’s backyard, then moved to nearby La Cocina, an incubator for small culinary businesses. From there it was trial and error. The result: tender, perfectly fatty, hand-carved pastrami piled high between slices of house-baked rye, adorned, as it should be, with nothing save spicy brown mustard or (if you are a bit less traditional) Thousand Island dressing.

The brief menu consists of dishes that are almost all house-made, including brunch items and rotating sandwiches. On a recent rainy Saturday, customers waited beneath umbrellas to place their order with a beaming Mr. Beckerman — his dreadlocks tied back in a bandana, the fresh face of the next generation of delis.

Out flew compostable paper plates of still-warm bialys; thick slices of flakey, bittersweet chocolate babka; corned beef scrambles; pastrami sandwiches accompanied by creamy potato salad and barrel-brined sour dill pickles. The matzo ball soup comes with the caveat “probably not better than your grandmother’s,” and is served in noodle bowls from Chinatown. (“You can’t serve matzo ball soup in paper,” Mr. Bloom explained.)

The customers — a mix of East Coast transplants, self-proclaimed regulars and deli first-timers — made quick work of their repast. But there was one woman, standing not so inconspicuously in the corner, with a camera in her hand and tears in her eyes, too excited to eat.

“I’m overwhelmed,” gushed Linda Bloom, Evan’s mother. “You know, he was an architect. But this is his passion. I’m just so proud.” Spoken like a true Jewish mom.

Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen, 

Passover Goes Gourmet

Why was this night different from all other nights? For starters, there was a bar. And not a bottle of Manischewitz behind it. Guests were actually drinking wine — good wine — before the first of the traditional four glasses was poured. Little-known fact about Jews, namely East Coast women over the age of 50: they don’t drink. No religious explanation for this, they just don’t. And, honestly, most of them really should.

Secondly, people were dressed in jeans. My mother never let me wear even my very best Jordache to Passover Seder. Dresses and tights that would sag around my ankles only. Now, almost three decades later — with “you can’t wear that” ringing in my head — I swapped a pair of faded cords for a stylish purple number and heels. I hadn’t felt this overdressed since I wore a bathing suit to the Big Sur hot springs.

But above all, this wasn’t my grandparents’ house in a manicured suburb outside of Boston. My scary old aunts and crazy second-cousins-once-removed were clear across the country. There was no whiny Cousin Gary, who once gave me a trashcan for my bat mitzvah. Or puffy Cousin Linda with cankles as thick as Cottonelle Ultra. There was no kids’ table. Or Welch’s white grape juice. Or lengthy conversations-cum-arguments about what route everyone took to get there.

Rather, this was a Seder of total strangers. Fifty folks here voluntarily — not because their parents forced them to come. Jews and gentiles, gay boys and a sprinkling of grandmas, all gathered under the soaring roof of a mod-white warehouse-café in San Francisco’s Mission District. The real draw: the food.

Leo Beckerman and Evan Bloom were cooking, not Grandma Hannah. Two twenty-something college buddies turned artisanal Deli Guys who launched Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen last year as a weekly pop-up. They had an immediate cult following — and just opened a real-deal restaurant in February. Last April, their first-ever public Passover Seder sold out within minutes by word of mouth.

Imagine, the promise of Gefilte fish that good.

Candles were lit. Communal tables were set. Sparely. No lacy-white tablecloths or blue Danube china. Playing silently on a screen overhead was the ‘50s classic film The Ten Commandments. I mean, Charlton Heston’s low-tech parting of the Red Sea is the kind of Seder entertainment I really could’ve used as a kid.

I loved my grandpa Orrin, I really did. He was a kind, lanky doctor in a knit-tie and corduroy blazer — but the Seders he led were by-the-book snooze.

Here was fresh-faced, 26-year-old Leo! With waist-length dreadlocks pulled back in a ponytail, he had a cool, confident command over the room that would no doubt make his own grandfather proud. “What kind of cigarettes do Jews smoke?” he asked to kick things off. “Gefilt-ahs!” guests groaned. After the blessing over the wine, servers presented plates of matzo–it was blistered, cracker-thin, imperfectly shaped. And not from a box, but made by Blake Joffe of Beauty’s Bagel Shop — with more than just the requisite flour-and-water. If all it takes is a little sea salt and olive oil to enhance matzo’s typically dry-mouth taste, then I vote for a minor overhaul of tradition.

Still, this was a legit Seder. Everyone had a photocopy of a Haggadah, the book of prayers, songs, and biblical tales that recount the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery.

Yeah, it’s a good story. But as a kid, taking turns around the table reading the.entire.freaking.thing meant we didn’t eat for hours. I’d steal sprigs of parsley from the tabletop (long after we’d dipped it in salt water) — and sit, starving, and bored as hell. Grandma’s dense-as-rocks matzo balls and gray, leather-tough brisket weren’t any prize. But by the time dinner was actually served, they were edible.

“Tonight, we’re going to move through the Passover story pretty quickly,” announced Leo. “We’ve got eating to do!” Amen to that.

And so it began: The explanation of the Seder plate. The Four Questions. (Typically the youngest person at the table is charged with tone-deaf singing this integral part of the evening. But on this night, the lone ‘tween was too shy; instead we were treated to a woman who actually had a beautiful voice.) The Ten Plagues. By “Dayenu” we’d lost count of glasses of wine and were all one, big, actually happy family–singing, clapping, exchanging smiles. At one point, a black, Caribbean born, non-Jew named George turned to me and exclaimed: “I love this! I’m with my people!”

Before we knew it, dinner was served, family-style: Pickled heirloom carrots and bulls blood beets. “Mock liver” mashed with organic peas and blue lake beans. The prettiest, most perfectly pungent, hand-grated fluorescent-fuschia horseradish I’ve ever had. (Note to Wise Sons: jar that stuff!) The soup was a clean, flavorful broth buoying matzo balls as God intended them to be: feather-light and fluffy. The Gefilte fish was a custom-grind of carp and whitefish in a fennel-thyme fumet and a far cry from the congealed liquid you see every season at Safeway. And the brisket… Not gray! Not tough! But fork-tender shreds of peppery-sweet meat.

One woman at our table sent her husband home to grab some Tupperware for leftovers. “I swear I don’t usually do this, but it’s just sooo good and I can’t eat another bite!” Not me. I was a member of the Passover clean-plate club for the first time.

Down to the last sips of Madeira, matched with a creamy-rich Guittard pot de crème (single-handedly bringing kosher desserts back from the dead), there was laughter; career-advice-giving; gossip about embarrassing wedding toasts and bad break-ups about people we didn’t know. No barking between relatives or “help-clear-the-table” mandates from mom. But hugs good-bye. And sincere cries of: “Next Year — with Wise Sons!”

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