By Adam Hyman
It started with a phone call to Ken Friedman in New York – co-founder of The Spotted Pig – who had recently opened a restaurant in San Francisco. “Come to Tosca, pre-order the roast chicken, and then go to Chez Panisse. It’s the most influential restaurant in North America.” So, we did just that. As well as lots more.
San Francisco not only boasts the weather we long for in the UK, as well as the lifestyle, but it currently has one of the most exciting restaurant scenes in the States.
Ask someone to name an American city that they’d recommend visiting for restaurants and no doubt most would say New York. But an 11 hour flight from London gets you to, what many call, America’s best food city. San Francisco has long been a food destination in its own right, with the likes of Alice Waters and the late Judy Rodgers, to name but a few.
Landing at San Francisco International on a balmy Friday evening in October, we Uber’d to our hotel. The Kensington Park hotel (Doubles from £170; kensingtonparkhotel.com) is perfectly located on Post Street, just off Union Square, for a long weekend in the city. Rooms in the 1925 Gothic style building have views across the topographically challenged city.
Dinner that night – jet lagged to the max – was at Tosca (toscacafesf.com). April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman have revamped the iconic bar. Although the jukebox, piano and murals on the wall remain in place, Tosca is now a restaurant too. Yet, it’s distinctly different to their New York establishments. An open-kitchen looks out onto a dining room with dark wood and red leather banquettes. A meal of roasted treviso, crispy pig tails, gemelli pasta with black pepper and pecorino Toscana and that roasted chicken with ricotta, pine nuts and marsala shows off Bloomfield’s skill in the kitchen. You can see why it made Bon Appétit’s 10 best new restaurants of 2014.
An early morning run before the city awoke on Saturday morning, took us past Zuni Café, which resulted in us booking a table for brunch the next day. A flat white from Blue Bottle Coffee (bluebottlecoffee.com) – they have now expanded into Japan – kept us going in the 90-minute queue at Plow in Potrero Hill (eatatplow.com). The rest of the locals came prepared with Thermos flasks of Mimosas; the American’s have such commitment and dedication to brunch.
Lemon and ricotta pancakes, apple sausages and the best crispy fried potatoes in the city, were worth the wait and fuelled us for the short train ride on the BART to lunch at Chez Panisse in Berkeley (chezpanisse.com). Alice Water’s Shattuck Avenue restaurant has been so influential in shaping modern day American restaurants and San Francisco is scattered with Chez Panisse alumni who have gone on to open their own places. Our lunch in the upstairs café was grown-up yet relaxed. The sort of experience you get at The River Café in London.
Although it was unnecessary after a full day of eating, we finished the day with a late dinner of pork chops and burgers at Nopa (nopasf.com).
Far too many Manhattans at Nopa, meant the third day in the city started with fuzzy heads. The weather had been kind to us yet again and it was off to brunch at Zuni Café (zunicafe.com). We were first through the doors to the famous restaurant in the triangular building on Market Street at 11am. Fifteen minutes later, every table was occupied. Bloody Marys, oysters, Caesar salad, scrambled eggs with summer truffles and shoestring fries – this restaurant is still at the top of its game 35 years after it opened.
Visits to Delfina Pizzeria (pizzeriadelfina.com) and Bi-Rite Creamery (biritecreamery.com) – their flavours include strawberry balsamic, honey lavender and salted caramel – reassured us just how diverse and individual San Francisco’s food scene is. It’s not about chasing trends in this city.
State Bird Provisions (statebirdsf.com) – getting a reservation here makes booking a table at Chiltern Firehouse look like a piece of cake – had come highly recommended by both Oliver Peyton and Marina O’Loughlin. We decided to chance it and rocked up without a reservation at 6pm on Sunday evening and, by some twist of fate by the culinary Gods, we managed to get a table thanks to a last minute cancellation.
The décor is similar to that of Beard in Tokyo, but it’s fair to say that this is some of the most distinctive food I’ve eaten in a long while. It’s difficult to try and compare it to anywhere else. A kind of fusion menu that manages to remain focused. There are only fifteen dishes on the menu but they also bring out dishes on trolleys and trays – a mashup of cichetti and dim sum – for you to choose from during your meal. A sexy meals on wheels, if you will.
Sweetcorn pancakes with local Mt. Tam cheese, guinea fowl dumplings in a broth, roasted bone marrow with mushrooms and pink peppercorn and a small plate of duck ham. Buttermilk fried state bird (quail is the bird of California) and bacon-curry with crispy beef sweetbreads and pickled squash. If there’s one restaurant in San Francisco to visit, this is it.
The next morning we had one more place to visit that was on our hit list. Some may say we’d left the best till last. With our Rimowas in tow, we headed to Swan Oyster Depot (sfswanoysterdepot.com) for cold beers and fresh seafood. We headed off to San Francisco airport, with Scott Mackenzie playing, full of fresh crab, smoked salmon and oysters.
I fell in love again with San Francisco eight years after first visiting. Just be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.
By Adam Hyman