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All you can eat: The SF culinary scene is at its tipping point

By Christian Chensvold

Stuffed to the saturation point and better than ever, is San Francisco’s restaurant scene too much of a good thing?

Illustration by Jochen Schievink

Imagine staring at a menu in which all the items are simply more menus, like some mirrored funhouse reflecting itself beyond the Golden Gate and on to infinity. Now ponder that your waitress doesn’t just cover your table and the ones adjacent, but also dashes out to the bistro across the street because there’s a labor shortage.

The head chef preparing your meal is brilliant, of course, but the same can’t be said of the bureaucrats regulating his business. And while there are great eateries on every street in the city, there’s a lot of not-so-great stuff on the streets, too. Then there’s what you might call culinary self-esteem: In the Olympics of fine dining, does San Francisco still feel it has something to prove to the world?

Such is but a taste of the issues facing San Francisco’s culinary scene, a Barbary Coast banquet with enough choices to short-circuit the medial orbitofrontal cortex, the part of the brain that feels regret when faced with too many options. It’s a glass of zin simultaneously half-empty and half-full, as never before has there been a better time to be a diner nor a more challenging time to be a restaurateur.

Eat or be eaten

“We’re definitely oversaturated at this point, with so many choices and not enough consumers,” says Traci Des Jardins, a 25-year industry veteran and award winning chef. “There are just too many restaurants, and it’s hard to keep track of all the things that are opening.”

It’s not just diners overwhelmed by options. Imagine trying to position yourself as an in-the-know blogger buried under super-sized portions of hype and buzz. “The foodie scene is like enjoying a romantic relationship, not quite sure whether it’s going to last,” says Sandy Daenerys, who runs SandyByTheBay.com and @sffoodphotography on Instagram.

Buzz is not only ephemeral and ceaseless, it’s often unwarranted. “It’s hard to know where the good spots are,” she says, “as there are super-long lines for places that are just mediocre. Many think if the line is long the food must be good, but that’s not necessarily the case.”

Writer and photographer Sarah Chorey, who runs SarahCraves.com, sifts through the hype by noting the names behind new restaurants. “Looking for noteworthy individuals who are willing to put their time into a new project is a key way to know if a spot is going to be worth a visit,” Chorey says.

Brett Cooper is just that type of note-worthy individual, and his kitchen at Aster is stocked with everything he needs — save for a crystal ball. “We’re in a saturated market, continually trying to understand what our guests want,” he says. “It’s difficult to figure out because we’re seeing fewer trends. Predictability has gone way down, including projecting sales.” Adding to the saturation are many of Cooper’s longtime peers, and while he wants to be supportive, he says he can’t help but slip into self-preservation mode.

“If 35 new restaurants open in the first quarter, you wonder what that will do to your business,” he says. “And what if it’s a hundred, meanwhile your internal costs are constantly going up? One of the things that drew me to San Francisco was the sense of community in our industry, and while it still exists, it’s difficult to get excited for hundreds of new businesses every year when our own are struggling to stay relevant.” Survival mandates constantly updating Aster’s business plan, and the present model stresses value. “Our focus now is to overdeliver,” Cooper says, “since accessibility is so abundant for anything anybody could think of to deliver.”

The question of value is the crux of the matter in a bloated market, according to Jen Pelka Bililies, founder of Magnum PR, which represents a number of restaurants, including her husband Charles Billies’s Souvla. “The challenge with dining right now is not competition,” Pelka Bililies says. “It’s guests coming in and saying, ‘Is this worth the money or not?’ And because of the economic challenges of the city, it can be hard for restaurants to keep their prices at a point that drives a lot of value.”

She cites the fine-casual movement, or elevated counter-service model — Souffle, Marzotta and Media Noche — as likely headed in the right direction, and is surprised more places haven’t copied the communal dining model of Lazy Bear, “which is consistently busy because it’s so remarkable: financially viable, fun and people want to go again and again.”

When the present course is over and the dishes bused, the next one may be something that equates fine dining with the fine arts. Des Jardins says she can see the industry evolving to offer an experience similar to a night at the opera, ballet or symphony, noting how spots like Saison charge $500-$800 per person for a meal. “In France, people are willing to pay a lot more for a three-star Michelin experience, and we’re starting to see that here,” she says. “So there’s the super-ultra-expensive top tier, where you may go once every five years, and then the lower tier where you pay a hundred bucks. But those places just don’t make money anymore.”

To sustain revenue, even at iconic establishments, innovation is key. Laura Smith Borman, author of several tomes on the city’s culinary culture — including her latest, Iconic San Francisco Dishes, Drinks and Desserts — looks at “what threatens the classic landscape, and what’s in harmony with it.” She notes the new happy-hour open patio at Financial District fave Sam’s, devised as a lure for the younger crowd. Other forward-thinking ideas include meals presented family-style, as at The Progress, since “people want community and a shared experience around the table.”

San Francisco pride

With more restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the country — 4,415 restaurants for a population of 884,363 people — quality and accolades have logically followed. In 2018, Michelin awarded seven San Francisco-area restaurants three stars — Benu, Coi, The French Laundry, Manresa, Quince, The Restaurant at Meadowood, and Saison — compared to five for New York. Bon Appetit’s 2018 list of the 50 best new restaurants in the country features five from the Bay Area (Che Fico, Robin, Sorrel and RT Rotisserie in the city, plus Nyum Bai in Oakland), or 10 percent of the entire list. But is there a lingering provincial mentality, an inferiority complex that San Francisco remains underappreciated among the world’s other great cities?

Illustration by Jochen Schievink

For Chris Cosentino, chef and co-founder of Cockscomb, likening apples to oranges is pointless. “Comparing one city to another is a waste of time,” he says. “We are our own culture. San Francisco cuisine is different from every other place, because of all the immigrant cultures that came here since the days of the Gold Rush.”

A true artist, Cosentino doesn’t pay attention to trends or what other artists are doing, instead following his vision of paying tribute to the city’s rich history, saying, “I try to have a bit of every culture within the restaurant.” Cockscomb features dishes inspired by Chinese cuisine pioneer Barbara Tropp (owner of legendary China Moon), for example, and a pork chop wrapped in bacon but with Mexican flavors such as marinated cabbage and pickled onions. “There’s no need to feel we’re inferior, and no need to say we’re better,” he says. “All we need is to be who we are.”

Now is the time to jump in the global ring and fight for culinary glory, as San Francisco definitely “punches above its weight,” according to Tyler Gosnell, director of global brand strategy and analytics for San Francisco Travel. This fall, the agency is unveiling a series of new culinary videos featuring Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn, Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski of State Bird Provisions, Evan and Sarah Rich of Rich Table, Belinda Leong of B. Patisserie, Heena Patel of Besharam and Corey Lee of Benu for international promotion.

Reality bites

San Francisco has another unique thing going for it: More meat, produce and wine within a 90-mile radius than any other culinary capital. Unfortunately, that’s practically the necessary commuter circle as well, since restaurants aren’t just competing for the same guests, they’re also competing for the same staff in a city with the country’s highest labor costs.

“There are only so many people in San Francisco who can and want to work in restaurants,” says chef Lee, “so there’s saturation on the back end as well. We’re at a very strange crossroads, since there’s a ceiling for what you can actually pay someone in a restaurant and still keep the business viable.”

Please come again

There’s a time to every purpose under fog, and now is the time for feast and gluttony. If San Francisco’s restaurant scene is a champagne bubble about to burst, now is the time to partake in the harvest of bounty.

Every creative type dreams of connecting with a savvy and engaged audience, and Lee says he sees this as the best part of the current all-you-can-eat buffet of San Francisco restaurant options.

“We have a population here that’s very engaged in food, and that’s what allows all these restaurants to thrive,” he says. “I can’t recall a time in my career when the locals were as engaged and aware of what’s going on in the restaurant business as here and now. That’s the most positive thing we have going for us.”

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