How much money is too much money for a multi-course dinner at one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s top restaurants?
That’s what the San Francisco Chronicle’s longtime restaurant critic, Michael Bauer, asked this past Sunday in this article, in which he takes to task Bay Area restaurants that raise their prices to astronomical levels but all too often fail to deliver for the money.
What kinds of prices are we talking about? $398 at Saison…$310 at French Laundry…$298 at Atelier Crenn…$220 at Quince…$500 at Meadowood…throw in some good wine and the amount soars even higher. I mean, not that long ago those prices would feed four people, not just one.
In the article, Bauer traces the evolution of this price inflation and blames it on the confluence of three things: “food-obsessed tourists” coming to the region, who are already psychologically primed to spend a lot of money on a meal; “the sophistication of the Bay Area dining public,” which includes me and, I assume, those of you lucky enough to live here; and—bottom line–“enough disposable income to indulge.” The latter apparently is no problem here in San Francisco, which sometimes seem like it’s swimming in money the way Uncle Scrooge used to in the comics.
How much you choose to spend for dinner is up to you, of course. But I agree with Michael Bauer when he says, “[N]o matter the price tag, there has to be a sense of value. High prices are not a given; they have to be earned.” I’m sure you agree, too; the problem is that these places would not be able to get away with these exorbitant prices if people weren’t prepared to pay them. I’ve had my share of these dinners (Saison, French Laundry, Meadowood and others, including beyond the Bay Area), and was fortunate in that somebody else was usually picking up the tab. But everytime I have one of these meals, I think, “For this price, I could eat at any of my favorite restaurants in Oakland ten times.” This is true, I’m sure, for everybody else, so why do people continue to queue up for seats at these palaces of gastronomy?
For the same reason they line up for the most expensive wines. There are psychological phenomena at work, ranging from not wanting to miss out on something special, to bragging rights and an authentic curiosity about what food at that price tastes like, how it’s served, and the ambience in the restaurant. We foodistas are understandably passionate about great meals. It goes with the territory if you’re a wino. Still, the psychological part fascinates me. I sometimes feel like an anthropologist who’s parachuted into the Bay Area to observe the social habits, including dining, of the natives. Like Margaret Mead when she observed Samoan culture in the 1920s, I want to understand the behaviors of a very particular group: well-educated, primarily white, middle-aged gourmands who are able to afford to eat in the top restaurants of Napa Valley, San Francisco and the Bay Area in general.
This group radiates confidence and refined sensibilities, but at heart they also suffer from a sense of insecurity. Although they possess many things in the form of material comforts, they feel like something is missing from their lives. What it is, cannot be accurately defined; if it could, they would possess that, too. Perhaps the thing they feel is missing cannot be possessed, but one never knows until one has tried. And so the search goes on, for a greater wine, a greater vacation destination, a greater restaurant experience. As Buddhism points out, “desire” is the attempt to fill a spiritual hole that cannot be filled; the pursuit of things to fulfill desire will always be fruitless; the rarest commodity in the world will not really fulfill desire because change—irresistible, inevitable—soon will have us feeling dissatisfied again. And so back at it we go, seeking an ever greater food, wine, exotic locale.
Well, I don’t mean to be the snake at the garden party. I like good food and wine as much as you do. And I don’t care what somebody spends at Quince, or what they don’t spend; it’s no skin off my nose. I do hope that people who drop these big bucks at restaurants are also using their money in more charitable ways, to help others; and I think there’s something to be said about frugality as an attitude towards life. We don’t see much frugality in the Bay Area; we see a lot of its opposite, profligacy. That means “the careless and foolish wasting of money.” Again, of course, it’s not my place to tell you or anybody else what to do with your money. I can only speak for myself.
Somm Journal executive editor David Gadd asks the pertinent question of what to do when you let a sommelier hand-sell you a glass of older wine, and when you taste it, it’s over the hill.
I say the question is pertinent, because we see this happening with greater frequency nowadays, what with these older vintages, especially of more obscure wines and regions, being readily available at affordable prices, and somms being notoriously into “cool”, offbeat wines that can be downright strange to more traditional tastes. The general public, which includes many professionals in the wine industry, still is mesmerized by older wines; even though many of us understand that the life-curve of most wines is short, and that, from the moment they are bottled they begin to die, the possibility of finding some transmogrified old treasure still haunts us, and is probably responsible for more money being spent on moribund wine than is generally acknowledged.
Such at any rate was evidently the case with David Gadd, who spent $25 each on two “fossils” that were “heavily oxidized” and finished “flat [and] funereal.”
That does not sound like a pleasant gastronomic experience!
I had a very similar time once in one of Carmel’s top restaurants, when I was persuaded by a somm (complete with silver tastevin around his neck) to invest in a 12-year old Spanish Albariño he guaranteed would be fantastic with my scallops sautéed in butter. The wine was completely dead and tasted frankly awful.
The reason these anecdotes, mine and David’s, matter is not because of their particulars, but because they raise questions of current interest. Today’s diner of fine food and wines is confronted with a looming question: whether to stick with what he or she knows and likes, which is usually Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon or one of the other major varieties, in a fresh and relatively young wine; or to go the route of adventure, which usually means an obscure variety, from a lesser-known country or region, and moreover, may—depending on the restaurant and sommelier—have acquired some bottle age, although it may still not cost much more than a younger bottling. One might be tempted to go the second route, in which case there are two possible ways of preventing catastrophe: asking for a free tasting sample of the wine before officially ordering it, or reaching an understanding with the server that, should you not care for the wine, you will have an unconditional money-back guarantee. Both of these are more or less standard practices in good restaurants, but both come with a certain level of risk: you, the diner, are out on the town for fun, and you don’t suddenly want to find yourself plunged into drama with a sommelier or server, particularly when the playlet is likely to be overheard by strangers at neighboring tables (not to mention potentially stressing your dining companions). The first alternative, asking for a free tasting sample, is less fraught with danger, but also less likely: a restaurant is not likely to offer a tasting sample of older wines (although the advent of the Coravin is making that more likely).
The diner, then, finds himself on the horns of a dilemma. We don’t want to be conservative and stuffy and trod only the well-worn paths of least resistance. We want to be open to surprise and delight, ends that cannot be achieved unless we’re willing to take risks. But the dining room floor is often not the best place to take those risks. As a former critic, I have come to the conclusion that older wines are generally more apt to disappoint than to please, which is why, except under strict circumstances, I wouldn’t take the chance, but would stick to young and fresh. There are exceptions, of course: if there’s a wine and winery you’re familiar with, and know has a good track record for aging, then go for it. (For example, I wouldn’t have any problem ordering a 12-year old Corison Kronos.) But old dry Loire whites, which is what caught David Gadd off-guard? Nope.
Hasn’t the day of the bloated wine list come, and gone?
How many wines do diners need to “peruse” on a list anyway? Obviously, there’s no correct answer, so I can only speak for myself. I, personally, like a list with perhaps 50 or 60 choices. It’s manageable; you actually have the time and mental energy to think about each wine, to talk about choices with your dining companions and have an intelligent conversation with your server or sommelier.
There’s another thing about a short wine list I like, and that’s that when you see a good one, you can tell it’s been curated intelligently. Somebody in the restaurant loved that wine list enough to really think carefully about what wines to include. That person truly considered chef’s food, diners’ habits and budgets, and the restaurant’s overall concept. That is so much different from a list whose creator simply threw everything on there he could, based on big names and in the hope of winning awards like the one The World of Fine Wine (WOFW) recently published.
Would you be more tempted to dine at, say, Robuchon du Dome, in Lisbon (one of WOFW’s winners) if you knew they have 12,700 wines on the list? I wouldn’t, nor would I be enamored of having to wade through all 24 pages of the list at Bobby Flay’s Atlantic City restaurant, Bobby Flay Steak—so extensive that, like an encyclopedia, it has a table of contents.
How many Bordeaux, Cabernets, Rhônes, Pinot Noirs, Barolos and Riojas do you need, just to have a decent wine to drink with steak?
Once upon a time, these massive wine lists had a purpose. They announced that the American restaurant had come of age, in terms of wine sophistication. Baby Boomers wanted more variation on lists than had been the case in the 1960s and even into the 1970s, and so restaurants gave them more variation…and more variation…and more and more and more. Then came the era of the wine list award. The result was that many wine lists became—not useful guides for diners—but trophies, in the literal sense: the restaurant could win a plaque, then hang it in their lobby.
But those days are waning. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer, the senior wine critic in California newspapers, recently wrote, “Wine lists have also become more compact,” an evolution paralleled by a similar shortening of menus themselves: “shorter, more focused menus.”
Coravin, the wine closure and accessories company, wrote about this recently on their blog, quoting a somm who praised “smaller, more focused wine programs that are structured and presented in an approachable fashion for the consumer to extract the most pertinent information necessary”.
These twin developments–shorter menus, shorter wine lists–aren’t merely about helping restaurants save money. They’re due also to a shift in the customers’ thinking, and it’s not just because of Twitter and the 140-character brain. We have only so much time and energy in our lives; we want to devote our consciousness to important things, not minutiae. We also recognize bloat when we see it. What is more sorry than sitting down in a nice restaurant, with nice companions, only to have to trudge through a phonebook-sized wine list? Half the people at the table don’t care all that much anyway; they just want something good. So you inevitably get the “expert” studying the list, alienated from his companions, while the others, in the back of their minds, are thinking, “OMG, just pick something and get it over with.”
Here in Oakland, which is such hotbed of restaurant activity, we’re definitely seeing a move away from bloated wine lists. Oakland is the land of the pop-up restaurant, food trucks, shared kitchens, virtual restaurants, and ethnic fare from all over the world. The hot Wood Tavern, in the Rockridge District, exemplifies this new thinking about wine lists. Theirs is a bit on the longish side (about 65 selections), but it reads short and snappy, shows bottles from all over the world, both well-known and obscure, and is priced affordably. Similar in size is Flora’s wine list, easy to take in at a glance, but so well-crafted and thoughtful. Shakewell’s list is even more curated, a mere 27 bottles (not including Sherry), but really, it is positively Mondrian-esque in its spare, one might almost say spartan elegance. This is the direction I believe restaurants are headed. It’s not only easier on the diner, it means the list is more creative, and the restaurant can save money on inventory, can order more nimbly in order to take advantage of deals, and can keep prices lower. Nothing wrong with that.
Daniel Patterson’s first attempt at this Oakland space (2214 Broadway), which he called Plum—located at ground zero of the city’s hot Uptown District–was a failure. Plum just didn’t work for Oakland. It’s true that Commis, James Syhabout’s Michelin-starred restaurant on nearby Piedmont Ave., had succeeded with expensive conceptual food, but there’s probably just enough room in Oakland for one such place. Besides, Piedmont, about a mile away, has an entirely different vibe from Uptown: whiter, less edgy, and more receptive to upscale dining; Bay Wolf was there for decades. Uptown was scruffy Downtown until a few years ago, when the Chamber of Commerce types reinvented it. Still, for the fancy new moniker, Uptown remains a little scroungy and rough, which is the way we like it. It’s most successful fooderies for years have been Ike’s Place (awesome sandwiches to go) and Luka’s Taproom, a neighborhood pub, where the old Hofbrau used to get all rowdy on Raider nights.
Daniel Patterson eventually learned—third time’s the charm–from looking around at his neighbors. What Uptown likes is good but casual food, served up in a friendly environment that reflects the town’s urban sensibility. Plum, which was fussy and precious if not pretentious, had none of that. As Eater explained in 2014, Patterson “struggled to find [his] footing,” which “made it hard for it to establish a consistent voice.” If Patterson hasn’t exactly pulled a Syhabout*, he has at least paid homage to the concept that a Michelin chef can also sell street food, with pride.
After Plum closed, other restaurants (including Patterson’s Ume, which featured haut-Japanese fare) tried their hand, unsuccessfully, at the space, which is just off the busy Broadway-Grand Avenue intersection. Patterson, though, apparently is not a man to accept the sting of defeat. He still runs Plum Bar, just next door, in the same block, and now, he has opened Loco’L,
which he dubs “revolutionary fast food.” With nothing on the menu more than $7, it goes to the opposite extreme of the old Plum: to get cheaper food, you’d have to go to Subway, around the corner.
Patterson’s (and co-founder Roy Choi’s) concept with Loco’l is “to compete with the likes of McDonald’s and Burger King, especially in low-income neighborhoods.” The idea, says the San Francisco Chronicle’s Paolo Lucchesi, is “bringing good food to the state’s food deserts – on a large scale.” Another Loco’L supposedly is set to open in San Francisco’s seedy Tenderloin District, with a third launching in L.A.
I don’t particularly see Uptown as “low-income” or a “food desert”—if anything, it’s just the opposite, especially judging from the legitimate concerns on the part of locals that they’re getting gentrified out of Oakland. Just two blocks down Broadway from Loco’L is the new Uber headquarters, while kitty-corner across the street are two of Uptown’s most expensive and prestigious restaurants, Pican and Ozumo. Still, the neighborhood (let’s define it as ten blocks in all directions) has plenty of people who are looking for a good deal. They will appreciate good food at Loco’L’s prices. And judging by the crowd last night–largely ethnic and young–that’s exactly what Loco’l is going to draw.
And what of the food? You order at the register—soon you’ll be able to do it from a countertop computer—then stand in line beside the counter until they call your number.
Even though the line was getting long, service was fast. But there are a few wrinkles to iron out. For instance, there’s no alcohol served in the restaurant. I asked an employee about that, and she said I could take my food—“pack it out,” in her words (put it into to-go containers)—
and bring it next door to Plum Bar.
Which is exactly what I did, only to be told by Plum Bar’s bartender that this was not allowed. So clearly, this is something for Daniel to rule on. (Please, Daniel, let us eat at the bar!!!) Besides I’m not sure that I’d like to eat at Loco’l’s seating, which is rather fundamental (the seats are hard upright rectangles and so are the tables).
At the bar, I ordered my standard Vodka Gimlet ($12) and set myself up.
I had three things: a carnitas foldie ($3), a noodleman bowl ($7),
and a chicken nugs crunchie ($4), for a total of $14 before tax. The foldie was awesome: A soft, flat tortilla-type dough, stuffed with spicy meat, greasy and endlessly satisfying. The noodleman was a bit of a disappointment: filling enough, with spicy, chile-hot noodles, scallions and carrots, but it could have had more flavor. Then there were the crunchies, which I devoured: your basic fried, breaded chicken nuggets, but super-good, filled with dark meat flavor, moist and savory. For fifteen bucks and change, this was a hearty, satisfying and delicious meal. Nothing fancy, but fun and oh, so Uptown. I think this time Daniel has got it right. Loco’l will be a huge success. I just hope (memo to Daniel) they let us take the food and eat at the bar.
A few years ago, James Syhabout opened Hawker Fare, an inexpensive joint featuring the Thai street food of his youth. It’s about two blocks from LocoL; nothing costs more than $18.
Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle’s influential restaurant critic, is out with his Top 100 Restaurants list for 2016. A close reading of it provides some glimpses into dining and other trends affecting the Bay Area.
For one, we’re definitely out of the doldrums of the Great Recession. In the dismal years 2009-2012, there was a steady drumbeat of restaurant closures in San Francisco. My town, Oakland, was the beneficiary, because lots of chefs moved their restaurants here, thus helping to fuel Oakland’s growth, especially Uptown; but it was sad to see so many places close in S.F., and so many staff lose their jobs.
Now, San Francisco’s restaurant scene is livelier and more diverse than ever. Bauer pays homage to this diversity, featuring not only old standbys like Acquerello, Commonwealth, Piperade and Boulevard, but newer ones, including Al’s Place—an inexpensive, veggie-centric (but not vegetarian) spot in the Valencia Corridor, Belga, which as the name suggests stars Belgian food, and Comal, a Mexican eaterie that’s actually is in Berkeley (and is owned by Phish’s ex-manager). In fact, I can’t remember so many Mexican restaurants on previous lists as there are now on Bauer’s.
Bauer’s range of cuisines and restaurant styles is eclectic. As he writes in his introduction, among the “predominant trends we see today” are “shorter, more focused menus…increasing use of the prix fixe format…” and—importantly—“the elevation of casual-quick service to fine-dining standards.”
Each of these trends is noteworthy. Shorter menus (and wine lists) are a welcome development; people don’t want to wade through reams of data and then feel overwhelmed in making their choices. In complicated times like ours, we want simple pleasures when we dine out. It’s true, also, that a shorter menu means the kitchen can focus more on what they do best (instead of spreading their time and talents too broadly), and the chefs also can adhere more closely to farm-to-table and locovore standards. The prix fixe format is connected to this trend towards brevity: no fussing and mussing over who pays what (we’re all sharing everything today anyway, aren’t we?), no fussy deliberation over what entrée goes with what side dish, a more relaxed experience for the diner, just what-you-see-is-what-you-get. I like that Prix fixe also means the chef is doing food she loves and wants to concentrate on.
But it’s “the elevation of casual-quick” that I really like. We’ve seen this coming for years, with the increasing quality and interest value of bar food to the to-go cuisine of markets like Whole Foods and Wegman’s. When I moved to San Francisco in the late 1970s, there were “good” restaurants you had to dress up for, and “family style” restaurants you didn’t. I first noticed the change at the old Lulu, South of Market, where the food was incredible but it felt more like a block party than did Ernie’s stuffy atmosphere, and you could wear jeans, sneakers, whatever, and still dine like a king or (more appropriate to San Francisco, a queen). Lulu’s wine list also was revolutionary: it moved away from the standards to feature interesting, inexpensive wines by the glass from places around the world. In the last few years we’ve seen this repeated time and again; here in Oakland, Boot & Shoe Service and Pizzaiolo (also on the Top 100 list) were just such spots, catering to a tattooed hipster crowd, but with food that’s absolutely divine. Perhaps the poster child for this casual-but-upscale is Hawker Fare, also on Bauer’s list, and just a few blocks from my house.
The same trends we see in restaurants can be discerned in the wine scene. “Casual-quick” is what diners, especially Millennials, are looking for in wine, too: easy-drinking, interesting stuff that won’t cost an arm and a leg–generally lower in alcohol and oak, more streamlined, but no less “fancy”—wines that can elevate a meal, but that in turn can be elevated by the food.
One unfortunate trend that’s hit San Francisco and Bay Area restaurants, though, is rising prices, due not to the greed of owners but to mandated fees imposed on them by cities: a rise in the minimum wage is the latest example. Then again, of course, the local economy in the Bay Area (and wine country) is on fire: I’ve never seen people spending money so fast. It’s a carpe diem mentality out there, people are partying like it’s 2099, and the restaurant scene is explosive. Is this another bubble? Perish the thought.