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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Ten Reasons Why San Francisco Is A Great Restaurant City

I recently suggested that the editors of Bon Appetit Magazine, in identifying San Francisco as one of the nation's Top 5 Restaurant Cities, made a mistake.   Not in including our city on the list, of course, but rather in supporting their conclusion by pointing to the Ferry Building Marketplace – a destination that may demonstrate that San Francisco is a great food town, but does little to prove why it's a great restaurant city as well.

So, let me offer ten distinct reasons why I think the San Francisco region is worthy of inclusion on Bon Appetit's annual list, any one of which I would have cited well before the Ferry Building.   The first five entries on my list are general characteristics of the Bay Area that make it particularly conducive to a vibrant restaurant community;   the second five are current trends that make this an exciting time in our local dining scene.   First, the general characteristics:

  1. Proximity to a Wide Range of Produce and Artisanal Products:   One need only look at the local farmers' markets to realize what an incredible variety of fresh produce is grown right here in Northern California, and the number of artisanal food purveyors that are based here is equally impressive.   This gives Bay Area chefs an enviable palette of foods with which to work, which correlates directly to the breadth and quality of our restaurants' offerings.

  2. Diverse Population:   San Francisco is obviously an "international" city, with nearly every ethnic group on the planet represented at least to some degree.   And because that same diversity is reflected amongst our chefs, we have been continually introduced to exciting, enticing and enriching foods from around the world.   From Pathama Parikanont at Thep Phanom, to Charles Phan at The Slanted Door, to Martin Castillo at Limon, the infusion of different cuisines into the local restaurant market has played a central role in making this a special place.

  3. Innovation:   I usually bristle at the cliched descriptions of California as being a "frontier" or as having an "innovative spirit," but I think there's an element of truth to this in the instant case.   Whether it's cooking seasonally, eating locally, or farming sustainably, the Bay Area has been an early adopter – and sometimes the originator - of many of the nation's dining trends.   This not only attracts chefs who are predisposed toward casting off old approaches, it gives all chefs in the area some license to push boundaries.

  4. Adventurous Diners:   Having innovative chefs with diverse influences is relevant, of course, only if the dining public is willing to expand its gastronomical horizons, and Bay Area residents fortunately are.   This is at least partially attributable, I would submit, to the diversity in the populace;   after all, it's hard to stay insulated in one's own food comfort zone when surrounded by such a rich variety of distinctive cultures and gustatory opportunities.

  5. Tourist Destination:   San Francisco remains one of the nation's top tourist destinations, the importance of which cannot be overlooked in considering the reasons behind our impressive restaurant selection.   After all, many of these establishments are vying with each other for a share of tourist dollars, and they all exist within a region that intrinsically understands the hospitality business – providing both the motivation and the means to excel.

  6. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
    There's more...
    Now for some of the current trends that are lending excitement to the Bay Area dining scene:

  7. Pizza, Pizza, and More Pizza:   A pizza explosion has recently swept across the Bay Area, with several new contenders poised to present formidable challenges to the old guard.   These include A16, Pizzeria Delfina, Pizzaiolo, Little Star Pizza, and Pizzeria Picco.   Time will tell whether this is a fad that fades, or the beginning of a fundamental shift in local tastes.

  8. Sous Chefs Strike Out on Their Own:   During the past couple of years, a number of sous chefs from prominent restaurants have left their mentors behind to assume starring roles of their own.   Michael Tusk (formerly sous chef at Chez Panisse and Oliveto) opened Quince, and Sean O’Brien (formerly at Gary Danko) took the helm at Myth – both of which currently rank amongst the hottest restaurants in town.   Meanwhile, Douglas Keane – once a sous chef at Jardiniere and Gary Danko – launched Cyrus, an ambitious undertaking that is already being compared by some with The French Laundry.   Finally, keep an eye out for Mamacita, a forthcoming Mexican restaurant in the Marina that will be headed up by Sam Josi (formerly sous chef at The Slanted Door).

  9. The Mission Continues to Morph:   The Mission District of San Francisco has always been known as a place for restaurants to establish themselves, and the tradition appears to be alive and well.   Several new establishments have recently sprung up in the neighborhood, including Maverick, Range, Pizzeria Delfina, La Provence, and Last Supper Club (which, though in existence for some time, recently acquired a new owner, chef, and menu).   And the site where Chef Johnny Alamilla’s Nuevo Latino restaurant, Alma, once sat will not be idle for long;   the people behind Café Bastille plan to open a French bistro on that property.

  10. The Building of Empires:   One of the interesting trends that the city has witnessed recently is a surge in restaurateurs and chefs expanding their holdings to encompass multiple establishments.   The Aqua Development Corporation, already behind established eateries including Aqua, Pisces, and C&L, is taking over Café de La Presse.   Michael Mina, chef/owner of Arcadia in San Jose, launched Michael Mina restaurant in San Francisco last summer.   And Fresca, Home and Roti all have added new locations.   But nothing can compare to the prolific rate at which two Frenchmen – Pascal Rigo and Jocelyn Bulow – appear to be "battling" it out to see who can build the biggest empire.   Rigo is behind several boulangeries and restaurants including Rigolo, Cortez, Chez Nous, Americano and Le Petit Robert.   Bulow has a stake in Plouf, Baraka, La Suite, Chez Papa, and Chez Maman, and he has already announced plans to open three more Chez Maman locations in the next few months!

  11. Rumblings in the Top-Tier:   After the restaurant boom of the late '90's, the identity and relative positioning of the restaurants in the top-tier remained more or less fixed for a number of years.   That is no longer the case.   The French Laundry – long considered by many to be at the pinnacle – may well be in decline and is suddenly starting to look vulnerable.   The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton and Fifth Floor, meanwhile, are ascending rapidly under the skilled kitchens of Ron Siegel and Melissa Perello, respectively.   David Kinch and Douglas Keane have created restaurants – Manresa in the case of the former, Cyrus in the latter – that are competing very well with the best of the best.   And established talents like Michael Mina and the duo of Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani are expanding further into the high-end – with, respectively, Michael Mina restaurant and the forthcoming Ame.   Whatever else may be said, the one thing that's clear is that major shifts are already underway.
So, there they are, my thoughts on just some of the things that make the San Francisco area one of the best restaurant regions in the country.   The above list is not intended, of course, to be exhaustive, and I'm sure that others can think of additional characteristics and trends that are just as significant as the ones set forth here.   But in the face of all of these factors that make our city's restaurant scene so exciting, why the editors of Bon Appetit magazine focused on the Ferry Building remains, to me, a real mystery.


Blogger Tana Butler said...

Well written. Thank you. I'm sharing the link with some folks.

August 25, 2005 12:27 AM  
Anonymous Jeanne said...

What a great, well-written, well-thought out post. When I received my BA issue I was so disappointed me with its focus on(yet again) SFFP. I love the market even with all the annoyances that we deal with.

Articles such as this one is why I think food blogging will continue to make food magazine and newspaper sections continue to decline. It's about relevance and context--you are there!

August 25, 2005 7:45 AM  
Blogger NS said...

Tana and Jeanne: Thank you both for the very kind words - it means a lot coming from the authors of two such outstanding blogs!

August 25, 2005 9:11 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Absolutely impressive. All ten points are well-supported and demonstrate your considerable understanding of the restaurant scene. I greatly enjoyed this, and will be passing it on as well...

My guess is that the BA writers/editors were on a deadline crunch, and so chose to focus on the current darling.

August 26, 2005 3:16 PM  
Blogger NS said...

Jennifer: Thanks so much for the nice words, and thank you for stopping by - I greatly appreciate it!

I just discovered your blog, and I look forward to reading more about your adventures in Novato. Have you had a chance to try Boca, the Argentinean steakhouse by George Morrone? I'm very curious to hear some direct feedback about it...

August 26, 2005 4:12 PM  

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