Prior to March of this year, Birdsong, the Michelin-starred fine dining spot in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood, was known for its elegant, $200-plus tasting menus inspired by the ingredients of the Pacific Northwest — seaweeds marinated in fishbone vinegar, a cookie made from a duck’s skin and liver, and pine needle sorbet, all served in a serene and rustic-chic dining room.
Since the start of the pandemic? It has been operating mostly as a takeout- and delivery-focused fried chicken sandwich shop. Because of course it has.
If the pre-pandemic Bay Area dining scene was defined by the sheer variety of its dining options — from intimate tasting menus and omakase experiences to crowded bar pop-ups — what the coronavirus crisis has caused, in part, is a flattening of those options. With in-person dining off the table until quite recently, every restaurant has scrambled to figure out what kind of takeout pivot would make sense. We’ve seen a proliferation of meal kits and bento boxes and, perhaps more than anything, sandwiches. Lots and lots of sandwiches.
Not that this is a bad thing. In cities like San Francisco and Oakland, the sandwich options have never been more robust, as some of the region’s top chefs are now applying all of their talents to figure out what might taste best on a toasted bun.
Right at the start of shelter in place, Birdsong rebranded itself as “Birdbox,” a casual fried chicken takeout spot, and the one menu item that really took off was that fried chicken sandwich — an immediately recognizable version, since it’s got the bird’s claw still attached. Liholiho Yacht Club, long the hardest-to-snag dinner reservation in the Tendernob, has dropped its prettily plated Hawai‘i-inspired small plates in favor of Spam breakfast sandwiches and a fried fish sandwich that’s like a super-premium Filet-O-Fish, featuring local ling cod and house-made tartar sauce. Izzy’s, the long-running Marina steakhouse, launched a lunch menu made up entirely of sandwiches. So did Oakland’s Homestead, another fine dining spot that never dabbled in sandwiches prior to the pandemic.
The reasons for this sandwich boom are, in many ways, quite simple: Sandwiches are portable and tend to be relatively affordable; they’re a good takeout item. Addam Byrne, the chef de cuisine at Izzy’s, says the main motivation behind his menu of corned beef Rachels, grilled tofu banh mi, and such was to offer something that would make it easy for customers to grab on the go — “to take it with them on a little picnic in the park or at the beach, or order it online and have something good to eat in between their Zoom meetings.”
“Sandwiches offer elevated experience at a more affordable price point,” says Danny Stoller, co-owner of Square Pie Guys, the popular SoMa Detroit-style pizza shop, which, back in April, spun off an online-only fried chicken sandwich business called Hetchy’s Hots. Beyond that, he says, “sandwiches are the ultimate comfort food. They’re carbs wrapped around delicious fillings, some of which are often cheese or meat. And you can make sandwiches that look really fucking cool.”
The comfort food aspect was especially appealing to Oakland’s Homestead, which shut down entirely at the beginning of the pandemic. Chef and co-owner Elizabeth Sassen, who runs the restaurant with her husband, Fred, says when it came time to reopen, they wanted to do something straightforward and comforting — which was ultimately the concept behind the Humble Sandwich, the restaurant’s new lunchtime takeout operation.
“Everyone knows what a sandwich is,” Sassen says. “It’s nothing weird or new or scary during a time when everything is weird or new or scary.” Instead of the ambitious wood-fire-cooked entrees the restaurant had been known for, they served a simple steak sandwich and a meat-packed Italian combo. The Humble Sandwich was the restaurant’s only offering until outdoor dining started in Oakland and they were able to resume dinner service — and, according to Sassen, they plan to keep it going, probably for the duration of the pandemic.
For other restaurants, sandwiches have provided a creative outlet. Liholiho Yacht Club chef and co-owner Ravi Kapur says it has been difficult for the restaurant — which was loved by its regulars as much for the dining room’s lively atmosphere as it was for its food — to distinguish itself during a time when the city has been flooded with so many appealing takeout options.
So, Kapur says, “we’re focused on having a good time while we’re here” — and trying to capture some of the energy of the restaurant in the food itself. Take Liholiho’s breakfast sandwich, for instance, which comes out looking like a fried hash brown patty on a bun — but when the customer bites or cuts into it, they get a surprise: alternating layers of housemade Spam, stretchy melted Fontina cheese, and steamed egg omelet (akin to a slightly denser chawanmushi, Kapur says). Topped with kimchi aioli, it’s meant to check every box of what you might want in a breakfast sandwich — with the added bonus that it travels well, Kapur says, because all of the fillings come enclosed in a “crispy jacket.” The sandwich is a way of communicating some of the spirit of the restaurant during this time when Kapur can’t welcome customers into the dining room.
Birdsong chef Chris Bleidorn, for his part, doesn’t talk about his fried chicken sandwich in terms of it being any sort of compromise — in fact, he says, he already had plans to open a fried chicken restaurant called Birdbox even prior to the pandemic. COVID just accelerated those plans. What Bleidorn talks about instead is how that chicken is a moral imperative of sorts — the idea that he uses the chickens with the claw attached, he explains, is meant to be a signal to the diner that he’s using high-quality, humanely raised chicken — not factory-farmed birds, whose claws wind up so damaged that they can never be sold. (The fact that those claws make for pretty photographs on Instagram is just a fortuitous side benefit.)
Beyond that, Bleidorn says his kitchen team doesn’t really change their approach just because they’re dealing with a sandwich now — they still use all of their skill and technique to make the fried chicken, the house-made potato bun, and the umami-packed seasoning blend, mixed with caramelized and toasted yeasts. He still has the same “laser focus,” he says, that he would for a pigeon dish he might put on the Birdsong tasting menu.
Still, this much is clear: For most restaurants, sandwiches are not any kind of savior.
“I don’t want to paint the picture that we’re thriving in this time,” Liholiho’s Kapur says. The sandwiches do well, “but they’re not saving the day by any means” — not when an entire week of sales only adds up to what used to be a slow night at the restaurant.
Homestead’s Sassen puts it even more bluntly: “It’s not financially viable. None of it.” The chef notes that Homestead isn’t necessarily losing money, but its business model is predicated on being fully booked for indoor dining. “The sandwiches are paying for themselves, but once you factor in all the other overhead, sandwiches alone can’t cover that.”
Which isn’t to say that the current sandwich renaissance won’t have lasting impacts beyond this current moment. The owners of Square Pie Guys, for instance, note that they’re selling 10 or 20 times more sandwiches since they launched Hetchy’s Hots than when they had a single sandwich option on their pizza menu. For now, it’s a side operation that functions as a kind of “sandbox” or “testing ground” for the overall business, says co-owner Marc Schechter. “If we’re going to try something new or risky in marketing, we’ll try it at Hetchy’s,” he says. But if sales continue to grow? A standalone Hetchy’s Hots storefront is a definite possibility for the future.
Birdsong’s Bleidorn, on the other hand, is already negotiating a lease for a standalone Birdbox location. And, in general, he believes that sandwich shops and other casual, quick-service restaurants will be the way forward for San Francisco’s restaurant community. “I would be reluctant to open a Birdsong-like restaurant ever again,” he says. “It’s just too risky.”
In the future, he says, the Bay Area’s most talented and ambitious chefs will think twice before sinking several million dollars into building a fine dining restaurant. But he doesn’t see that as a bad thing — not if it means that there are more Birdbox-like restaurants that are relatively affordable and can make good, thoughtful food accessible to a greater number of people: “At the end of this, restaurants in the Bay Area are going to be serving better food than they ever have. For sure.”
For Liholiho’s Kapur, the question of whether his restaurant will still be selling sandwiches six months from now is impossible to answer. “It’s hard to see past the point we’re in, as we make two steps forward and one or two steps back,” he says. “We’re looking at, what is Liho in the future? What is the future?”
One thing’s for certain, though: “I never thought I would be serving sandwiches at Liholiho Yacht Club,” Kapur says. “Never.”