When Paul Canales, chef of Spanish dining favorite Duende, was approached to discuss a new restaurant at an upcoming hotel in 2020, the developers raised many possibilities for the restaurant’s theme and menu. One of them was to go in the direction of France, and the idea caught Canales’s attention. “I thought, there are no French restaurants in Oakland or Berkeley,” he says.
Occitania, located at the new Kissel hotel in downtown Oakland, opened in May this year and found itself amid an unprecedented wave of new French restaurants opening across the Bay Area. It joins Mijoté, a French bistro with a Japanese twist, which opened in the Mission in April, and Le Fantastique, the lavish raw fish and French wine project in Hayes Valley. In August, San Francisco saw the opening of La Société at the Hyatt Hotel in the SoMa. The Rendez-Vous, a cozy French bistro opened its doors that same month on the Oakland-Berkeley border, just a quick drive down the road from Occitania.
Maison Nico, the FiDi cafe that introduced San Franciscans to pate-en-croute and terrine, just reopened, and in different corners of the Bay, French bistros made appearances as well — Chez Philippe in Los Gatos and Petit Left Bank in Tiburon both opened their doors in the past three months. Even the new offering at Turntable, the rotating chef series at Lord Stanley, is leaning French. Basically, there’s never been a better time, perhaps outside of the 1970s, to tuck into beef Bourguignon and dunk a baguette into buttery, garlic-laced escargot in the Bay. And, as with all things French, the reasons for the big bistro boom — and the ways they’re manifesting on the local dining scene these days — are simple: Unbridled decadence is fun.
Chef Roland Passot says French cuisine’s popularity in the Bay Area has seen peaks and valleys. “It goes by waves,” Passot says. It’s lunchtime at his new restaurant, Petit Left Bank in Tiburon, which recently joined the many existing locations of Left Bank Brasserie. The small restaurant is full to the last table. Plates of petrale sole Grenobloise and steak frites criss-cross the floor, delivered by servers in T-shirts that say “Let’s French!” Passot, of La Folie fame, has seen it all. “In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, San Francisco had probably 15 or 20 French restaurants, both fine dining and a lot of bistros,” he says. “But then fine dining culture changed, and the cuisine took a dip.” Interestingly, the current French comeback is less about white tablecloths and buttoned-up service — “snooty,” Passot comments — and more about letting loose.
One way to do that is by riffing on classics while paying homage to familiar Bay Area dishes and showcasing the best local produce. This may look like Dutch Crunch gougères and scallops served with creamed Brentwood corn at La Société, or a white-wine poached shrimp and avocado tartine at The Rendez-Vous. “I didn’t want to do ‘my Paris vacation 10 years ago’,” Canales says. The Occitania menu, although chock-full of recognizable dishes like salade Lyonnaise and boudin blanc, is heavily inspired by local farmers markets and northern California seasonality. Instead of asparagus, it’s leeks mimosa at the moment, tangy and more biting than one might expect. “I don’t know if there’s delicata squash in France, but I’m using it because we’re here,” he says. That squash is also currently the star of a panisse, kale, and feta entree at Petit Left Bank. “The technique is French, with a bit of that Californian flair,” Passot says.
With liberation from textbook French cooking also comes a boldness to include dishes that are lesser known to the old-school French-American palette, like fried oysters served with homemade sausage or blanquette de veau, a French veal stew that will soon join the Occitania menu. Not bouillabaisse, but matelote, an Alsatian fish stew, is one of Rendez-Vous’ winter comforts, courtesy of chef Nate Berrigan-Dunlop. “We would call ourselves more of a non-traditional French-forward restaurant,” says Rendez-Vous co-owner Johnelle Mancha, who, with her husband Brian Hill, also owns the Oakland design shop Mignonne Decor. Mancha’s mother had been living in France for the past 18 years, which inspired the influence.
“For me, the word ‘bistro’ implies a sense of freedom to the cuisine,” says Mijote’s chef and owner Kosuke Tada. “For me, bistro cuisine grows from the utilization of French technique to create a dish based on quality ingredients.” On Mijoté’s frequently changing tasting menu, diners can find dishes like halibut with fennel and persimmon or mushrooms with apples and hazelnuts. Tada has also taken the Bay Area connection one step further by zeroing in on a local specialty: natural wines. “In France, bistro culture is more connected directly with winemakers than here in the U.S.,” Tada says. “Many small towns in winemaking regions have a restaurant connected to the local winemakers.” At Mijoté, he works with producers including Dorsal, Caleb Leisure, and La Onda, to name a few, to create wine pairings.
Two years of COVID-19 have steered diners toward the comforts of the known; when air travel returned, many American travelers booked trips, but not to far-flung destinations on the edge of the globe — they flocked to Paris. Dining trends have followed a similar path. “People are creatures of comfort, especially after coming through the tragedy of the pandemic,” says Patric Yumul, CEO of TableOne Hospitality, which operates La Société in San Francisco. “I think that there is something very soothing about French brasserie cuisine.”
The hand-written menus and antique silverware at The Rendez-Vous, the wood bistro chairs at Petit Left Bank, the low, seductive lighting at La Société and Occitania — it’s, as the saying goes, a whole vibe. “My goal was to design a space that felt like it had been there for years already,” says the Rendez-Vous’ Johnelle Mancha, placing it firmly opposite to the modernist look and feel of some of the maximalist Bay Area newcomers.
Perhaps this combination of lived-in and novel, of familiar and elaborate, is what makes the new French wave so irresistible. It’s about feeling at home, but being a bit extra. It’s about going on vacation, but feeling like you’ve returned to a place you recognize. “People want the comfort of good beef bourguignon, coq-au-vin,” Passot says. “On the other hand, this is something they can not cook [in the same way] at home.”