Zuni Cafe is an unlikely heroine of the San Francisco dining scene, kind of like a fraternal twin of Chez Panisse: separated by birth but sharing the same genetic qualities that make them both a success. Except unlike its Berkeley sister, it’s located on a funny corner on a stretch of Market Street that was, for a long time, less than desirable.
Yet, for forty years, it has been operating out of that triangular space. Billy West originally opened the restaurant in February of 1979, adjacent to a cactus shop where he was part-owner. To fit in with the desert theme, he named the restaurant after a Southwestern Native American tribe and outfitted it with adobe mud walls. (In 1986, Zuni expanded into the less lucrative cactus store, taking it from 55 to 110 seats in one fell swoop.)
In 1987, however, chef Judy Rodgers arrived, heralding a menu shift away from vaguely Mexican dishes to a more classic canon of French and Italian ingredients and techniques — as always, through the lens of Northern California. Her arrival also meant the addition of a wood-burning oven, and the famous roast chicken that has drawn diners for years, one outcome that Rodgers deemed almost too successful for the restaurant’s own good.
Rodgers, who spent her previous years at Chez Panisse, studying in France, and working with Marion Cunningham at the Union Hotel in Benicia, brought a sharp focus on simple ingredients to the cafe. As a result, many great chefs passed through the kitchen over the years, including Gayle Pirie and John Clark of Foreign Cinema, Marsha McBride of now-closed Cafe Rouge, Kelsey Kerr of Standard Fare, Rebecca Boice, and more. In 2006, chef Gilbert Pilgram, also a Chez Panisse alum and a friend of Rodgers’, became a partner in the restaurant. In 2013, Rodgers died of cancer.
Currently in the kitchen is Nate Norris, a chef with over 10 years of experience at Zuni over the years, most of which were during Rodger’s tenure at the restaurant. Norris returned to the kitchen last year after the departure of chef Rebecca Boice.
“I think sustained success can enable a place like Zuni to be a place that doesn’t look to trends to guide it,” says Norris. “I don’t ever think about what our food’s going to look like on Instagram. I think [Instagram is] great, but we’ve got this big business humming along and we are fortunate not to have to do that.”
To celebrate 40 years of Zuni, Norris shared some of the restaurant’s carefully collected menus from early in Rodgers’ career there, each covered with handwritten notes on dishes. The menus clearly show the core of the restaurant that is still operating today, based on Rodgers’s vision. The piccolo fritto may change from sand dabs and broccoli to skate wing and grass shrimp, and the gnocchi is accompanied by chanterelles one day and tomato sauce the next, but the menus reflect a constant dedication to ingredients.
“When I started here [in the early ‘00s] she was still here and very active in the day-to-day operations and comparing the pork chop from this week to next. The minutiae was very important and heavily recorded.”
“To go back to menus from 1990 and to see Judy’s scribbles on there, to see what she thought was yummy, or mealy, or what happened and how we should change things for the next day... These menus really display that, the practice of making exhaustive notes on the menu.”
“I think for me, one thing that really comes back is food that’s very approachable and comfortable and well-executed and a real attention to hospitality, especially under Gilbert [Pilgram’s] watch,” says Norris. “I wouldn’t say Zuni has always been known for the best hospitality — it was never bad — but Gilbert really turned that around. [The James Beard Award for Outstanding Service in 2018] really a testament to that: When a restaurant is 39 years old it usually doesn’t have any business being considered for such things.”
“Judy was not a one woman show, she was surrounded by and trained a lot of other chefs. She would supervise and give guidance and have ideas. She was a real teacher and I think that is another thing these menus show. There are aspects on the paper that really point to why we’re here celebrating the fortieth.”
“It’s systems but it’s also people,” says Norris, noting that several cooks have been there for over 30 years. “I think Zuni feels like a really beautiful big neighborhood restaurant and while San Francisco changes around it, I think we can to a certain extent provide some of that same experience and comfort that’s been there since the beginning.”
Will it ever come off the Eater Essential 38? Probably not, at this rate.
Long live Zuni.