subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve



To each restaurant there is a season. Alas, some of San Francisco’s old guard went the way of the dodo in 2014.

As Paolo Lucchesi reports in his article on the biggest closures of the year in the S.F. Chronicle, Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor shut their doors. They were perhaps the best-known names of now-shuttered restos. Another that’s gone is Daniel Patterson’s Plum, just down the street from me.

As archeologists can tell a lot from digging down into the ruins of an ancient settlement, so too can we glean some hints about the state of our food (and wine) culture by examining who went out of business. It’s not always possible to determine exactly why a restaurant closes, but we can assume that, in general, it’s because the times have passed them by. Whatever pulse they held on the weltanschauung has, for various reasons, gone away.

In the case of Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor—both of which I was familiar with for many years—it was because our times no longer favor old-fashioned palaces of fine dining, with white tablecloths, snooty servors, and rather predictable food at stellar prices. In a sense, San Francisco simply outgrew that experience. People today want to eat out in relaxed comfort, in a place where the food is exciting and reassuring. True, in the place of Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor we now have destinations like Saison and Benu, with their prix fixe multi-course extravaganzas. But there’s something different about the latter two that makes them a better fit for today’s ethos. There’s nothing stodgy whatsoever about them. Both places are culinary adventures with a sense of adventure that looks forward, not backwards, as Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor did. Where Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor were Paris vacations, Saison and Benu are more Iceland, Antarctica or Myanmar—exciting, off-the-beaten path destinations you’ll remember for a lifetime. Saison and Benu may not last for many years, as Fleur de Lys did (it gave up the ghost at the age of 28 years), but they fill an important niche now for a destination.

Plum, too, offered adventurous cooking from Patterson, a Michelin-starred (Coi) chef. But where Daniel miscalculated was to think that downtown Oakland would support a place of high concept. From the decorative, Warholesque paintings of plums on the walls to the rather austere menu it never caught on. Let’s face it, beet boudin noir with Thai black rice, a sort of faux blood sausage served with caramelized Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi sauerkraut, simply isn’t a combination most Oaklanders can wrap their heads around. It shows once more than a chef makes a fundamental mistake if he serves only food that intellectually stimulates himself. Winemakers, too, must accommodate themselves to the public’s tastes. It’s a balancing act.

Comfort isn’t necessarily the new black; we’ve been through countless comfort food phases over the years, from the taco era to today’s obsession with noodles. But people do want something that reminds them of simpler, happier times, even if the past never was as simple and happy as we like to remember it.

  1. Saison and Benu are the very top ones in SF. Corey Lee is outstanding in conceiving the outcome of a happy intermarriage between French technique and Asian root. But there’s something beyond that at Benu: It’s his palate that reigns supreme. Think about a dish with beets, Thai black rice, blood sausage, brussels sprouts and sauerkraut. I can imagine how visually stunning the presentation can be and how balanced the flavors are together. But a taste-good dish does not necessarily deliver the wow factor; moreover neither does it achieve the ultimate layer of umami, something that gives you food orgasm.

    Out-of-the-box creativity is not for the sake of creativity, and I buy it at Saison, because it’s been incorporated into the overall theme that is executed for the sole purpose of blow-you-away taste. In the good old days when Saison was still located inside that courtyard in Mission, you could grab a seat and watch Joshua working in the kitchen with his favorite accessory on – a yellow DT pencil that is tucked behind the ear. I had the illusion of seeing Albert Einstein’s forehead in him. I ran into this swanky guy gentleman who paid, like me, the hefty bill out of his own pocket for the unmatched dining experience. But, unlike me, he had to fly five hours from Boston to SF to try Saison. Someone told me a couple of weeks ago that he saw Flynn McGarry dining at Saison. If you’re into food, you may have read about the 15-years young McGarry who wants to open the best restaurant in the world.

    Sorry, Steve, for knocking sideways. Your mentioning of such restaurants may get us foodies carried away. But by the same token, we’d like to know from you true wine-ies about knock-your-socks-off wine-makers& their creations, those that you’re willing to pay your own airfare and fly five hours to try. Cheers!

  2. Susan,

    These are not my dining anecdotes, but those of a wine and food friend: Jim Gaby.

    He celebrated his 50th birthday by committing himself to dining at 50 of the top restaurants in the world — driving or flying to the host city, either while on a business trip in a nearby city, or on his vacation time. (His buddy Charlie Trotter personally wrote to each and every dining establishment — such as elBulli — to secure the reservation for Jim).

    I joined Jim here in Los Angeles for dinner at Sona. (We’ve done The French Laundry and La Toque and Spago on earlier occasions.)

    (At Sona, our party snagged the private dining room. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt and their “entourage” were forced to dine on the main floor in full public view of the other patrons. There were more than a few covetous glances our way at our VIP accommodations.)

    ~~ Bob

    “Charlie Trotter’s;
    At the head of the table”

    “T&C Remembers a Culinary Icon;
    The late Charlie Trotter redefined how America eats. When he closed his legendary Chicago restaurant last year, Jay McInerney was there.”

Leave a Reply


Recent Comments

Recent Posts