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Restaurants & Bars 8

The state of Bay Area dining

squid-kun | Nov 7, 200209:01 PM

Anyone happen to see the latest issue of 7x7, the newish city magazine? The lead food feature is billed as a ``hard look'' at San Francisco as a restaurant town. It opens with a provocative poll from Food & Wine magazine, which asked 500,000 people to name America's best food city. New York came in No. 1, no surprise there, while San Francisco was -- gasp! -- No. 4 and out of the money. (Place and show went to Chicago and New Orleans.) A half million is a large sample, but it's still hard to say what, if anything, this means (beyond that Food & Wine, and 7x7, were looking to sell magazines). One wonders just who those 500,000 people are and what they think they know.

As it turns out, the poll is beside the point. What the writer, Sara Deseran, is really interested in is the state of our restaurants. She says the world-famous ``California cuisine'' -- French and Italian roots, the best ingredients in season, simple preparations, etc. -- so dominates Bay Area dining that few restaurateurs dare to try anything different. Meanwhile, in New York and elsewhere, chefs are taking chances. Deseran mentions the Nuevo Latino wave, which broke nearly a decade ago back east but, she says, has barely made a ripple here (Alma is cited as a rare local success for this style).

Of course, evidence of a livelier Bay Area scene -- more diverse food, more adventurous diners -- abounds on this board. But the writer's focus is the upper end, where she says the ``well-traveled foodie'' crowd is content to stick with the familiar. Bruce Hill, who did East-West fusion at the Waterfront and Oritalia, calls this ``whatever-Mediterranean food.''

Not that anyone has to gag this stuff down. The now-canonical regional style remains ``by and large terrific,'' says Gourmet critic (and former Angeleno) Jonathan Gold. Yet he admits that a certain sameness has set in, and Deseran checks off a list of local menu cliches: seared ahi, ``Zuni-style'' roast chicken, goat cheese and beet salads, to name a few. By now these are national menu cliches as well, but San Francisco, she argues, should be ahead of the curve. She closes with a call for Bay Area restaurants to step out of the shadow of Chez Panisse, which she says still defines the regional dining scene even after three decades.

The case is not entirely convincing. Deseran does acknowledge, in passing, the Asian influence, but I think she understates its importance here. It's also worth remembering that there is creativity and there is mere trendiness, and there's something to be said for resisting the latter. That said, much of the article rings true, and it is more measured and thoughtful than its packaging might suggest (cover line: ``SF vs. NYC -- Why *They* Have Better Restaurants''). I'm curious about what others thought of it.

Elsewhere in the same magazine, in a column of food briefs, is a plug for the Chowhound Passport. And why not? Buy a bunch, and pass them out like breath mints to your food-loving friends who need it. You know the ones, their faces smeared with beet juice and goat cheese.


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