Dear Eater SF,
We understand that times are rocky for restaurants, and we don’t want to seem like we are complaining. We’re big fans of fine dining, but when we’ve tried to enjoy an outdoor experience at our favorite places, it’s been really hit-or-miss, from a service … perspective, but the price ... remains the same ... Are there fine dining restaurants that either have cut prices to acknowledge that what we’re getting these days isn’t what we were paying for, or are there places that really, really do it right, even now? Or should we just stick to getting takeout from these restaurants? At least that way, we’re not sitting on a picnic table waiting (true story) over an hour just to order. We understand that restaurants need support, but don’t want to spend $300 for a cold, lonely bench and no service.
A Chilled Fine Diner
Dear Fine Diner,
You’re absolutely right. Fine dining fans have been left out in the cold. If you want to dig deeper, the entire industry is discussing the future of fine dining right now. Our colleagues in New York are seeing the rise of the warm neighborhood restaurant, and the fall of the fine dining destination. Here in San Francisco, even before the pandemic, we were seeing a big split between the overwhelming trend in fast-casual spots, juxtaposed with increasingly elevated experiences (with a lot of challenges for mid-level restaurants in between, but that’s another story).
At the top, many fine dining restaurants rely on indoor experiences, with dazzling dining rooms and intimate omakase counters. And right now, any restaurants that relied on indoor dining have their work cut out for them, after waiting six long months to just find out they can maybe seat 25 percent of their guests this fall. So anyone with a cheese cart has been asked to do the wildest swivel of all, and you can see the highly variable results. Thomas Keller is essentially turning his entire restaurant into a private room. Lazy Bear has been serving pimento cheese biscuits. They’re throwing uni-butter spaghetti at the wall.
So for fine diners who love those elevated, interesting, and thought-provoking experiences, I do understand the grief. But let’s not forget: SF has the highest concentration of three-star restaurants in the country. We have extraordinarily creative and hardworking chefs. Restaurants are figuring it out, and for sure, it’s going to be uneven. But if you can drop the comparisons, there are some cool menus around town, and restaurants are tapping down prices. Here are just a few fine dining stars that are getting buzz.
True to form, Benu has a strikingly beautiful tasting menu these days, reimagined as a takeout. Three-star chef Corey Lee is calling the takeout concept San Ho Won, and it’s five courses for $48, a fraction of the usual cost. Order online for takeout or delivery.
Lord Stanley has been consistently creative and comforting throughout the pandemic, switching it up every week, moving from summer lobster rolls into proper roast dinners. And they just made it official with a hot pink takeout window. A family meal for two runs a reasonable hundred dollars. Order online for takeout and delivery.
Mister Jiu’s still stars in Chinatown, and the wonderful thing about chef Brandon Jew is how he cares so much about ingredients, while still understanding Chinese-American takeout nostalgia. Roasted duck, steak fried rice, and dumplings are equally delicious in the quiet alley or carried home. Order online for takeout or delivery, or snag an online reservation.
Mourad just shimmered open again, to the delight of fine diners. For most of the pandemic, Mourad Lahlou was cooking out of Aziza, his warm neighborhood restaurant in the Richmond, but it’s a big deal that his namesake fine dining palace has reopened downtown. Order online to pick up a meal kit for two with options like smoked duck, hand-rolled couscous, and spiced bread pudding.
For omakase obsessives, Wako, the sushi star of the Richmond, has a range of options, from beautiful chirashi bowls for forty bucks to a full omakase array for a hundred, plus the occasional limited drop of uni boxes. Order online to pick up.
AL’s Place has officially given up on takeout, and why not? Aaron London always excelled at small plates and tasting menus, and it’ll be exciting to watch the vegetable-centric chef completely focus on the outdoor dining experience. The patio officially opens tomorrow, September 24. Pray the snackles are back. Reserve online.
Saison still won’t tell Eater SF where exactly Joshua Skenes might be in the wilderness, but in the meantime, the chefs there and at sister restaurant Angler teamed up for maybe the meatiest pandemic pivot. The star team launched Saison Smokehouse, a barbecue concept, and are now serving smoked brisket that melts like butter. Order online for takeout or delivery, or the patio is open.
Lazy Bear isn’t taking itself too seriously, and has been playing with takeout, switching up the menus every week and keeping it inventive and fun. You can pick up a five-course dinner kit for two, and put the finishing touches on it at home. Or just load up on one-off items like buttermilk biscuit sandwiches and take-and-bake cinnabuns. Order online to pick up.
Marlena is the rare and exciting new opening these days. A Michelin-starred power couple is opening a neighborhood restaurant in Bernal Heights, starting with picnic baskets to tote to the park, and rolling into a cozy parklet for date night. Order online to pick up.
Hina Yakitori, that new omakase-style restaurant for chicken skewers, went from setting courses on the counter to packing up bento boxes. Which means that a hundred-dollar tasting menu just dropped down to a chicken box for less than twenty bucks, for everyone who was grousing about pricing, and it’s so cute. Order online for takeout or delivery.
But for all those who really miss the sit-down, coursed-out experience, maybe just venture further afield. Quince is leading the way with luxurious farm dinners, on site at Fresh Run Farm in Bolinas, starting at $350 per person. Clean air willing, it might be the immersive experience that you’ve missed. Online reservations are open.