When Jason Hung got his five minutes of food world fame after New York Magazine detailed his restaurant reservation-coding project Tablesweep, a private app that allowed him to nab reservations as soon as they came online, he was enjoying fancy meals as often as he could. The year was 2014 and he was desperately trying to get a table at ultra-buzzy spots including State Bird Provisions and New York’s Momofuku, long before it spawned a bi-coastal empire. But these days, he says the landscape has cooled. He’s not sure what fun there is in fine dining anymore. “When I eat out, I’m asking myself if it sparks joy,” Hung says. “And that’s the fundamental problem I’m finding these days.”
Hung might not be the only one feeling this way. In April 2023, Bon Appetit decried the state of restaurants in San Francisco, citing a lack of risk-taking due to the high costs of living and operating a business in the area as dealing a devastating blow to a region historically known for its many Michelin Stars and James Beard Awards. For the most part, Hung and other longtime fine dining hobbyists agree with many of the magazine’s points about the lackluster state of upscale dining in the area — though they aren’t ready to write off the Bay’s fine dining scene just yet.
Hung says many of the Bay Area’s most celebrated restaurants seem to prioritize style over substance. For example, he points to the French Laundry, an iconic fine dining restaurant that’s also been taken to task in recent years. When Hung ate there a few years ago, he says he felt like he was being taken to the cleaners. He was with a big group of fellow dining enthusiasts — not an uncommon site in Northern California thanks to moneyed tech wunderkinds. He and a few others groaned when someone in the party ordered the truffle accompaniment, adding to an already hefty price tag. He points to British food critic Tanya Gold’s scathing takedown of fine dining writ large from 2015, which called Per Se a “cult” and Eleven Madison Park’s menu “ragingly tasteless,” as akin to his experience. “There weren’t any dishes that I wanted on replay,” Hung says of French Laundry. “It was cookie cutter.”
Andrew Cheng, a Bay Area born-and-raised fan of lux dining, agrees with Bon Appetit’s contention that the inflating cost of goods has undercut his home region’s restaurant scene. His food fandom journey began with a dinner at Craft in Los Angeles in 2007; he moved back to the Bay Area around 2015 and leaped from Bourdain fanboy status to making ongoing appearances at two-Michelin-starred Acquerello and taking work in restaurant development with businesses including now-defunct Fat Noodle. He says he doesn’t blame people who are hesitant to drop a fat stack of cash on the upper echelon of restaurants. High housing costs and an exodus of service workers have gutted the strength of the Bay Area scene, he says. Now, it’s rare for him to go to these upscale restaurants alone locally; he likes them but considers them too expensive. In contrast, when he visited Spain in May 2023, he ate at one, two, and three Michelin-starred restaurants where the value seemed more well-matched to the cost.
For Jasmin Arneja, a big-time food lover, it’s a worldwide issue, not something specific to the Bay Area. After more than 20 years in the Bay, she says he relationship with fine dining is on the rocks, often feeling more arduous than enjoyable. She used to go out for lavish meals numerous times a year, always resetting at Benu, which she says was consistently heads and shoulders above the rest. But that was in the late 2010s, and these days high-end restaurants can feel too ponderous, too overdone. She says she’s noticed a flattening of menus at upscale restaurants all over the world, not just in the Bay Area. “It’s mostly a breakup,” Arneja laughs. “I mostly don’t go to fine dining establishments. If they’re not just right, they feel like torture.”
Still, Arneja says she’ll be back to Cotogna soon, as it didn’t just maintain its quality over the years but has gotten better with time. Bar Agricole, and chef Will Napoli, is another favorite, along with Mijoté — a restaurant Arneja says she’s visited one to three times a month since it opened in April 2022. Indeed all three say they still have their go-to restaurants in the city. Cheng and Hung agreed on chef Srijith Gopinathan’s new Indian restaurant Copra, and Hung hits Liholiho Yacht Club, Octavia, and Mourad under chef Rasika Venkatesa on rotation, whereas Cheng goes for Saison.
Individuality, creativity, and personality are what bring them out again and again to their preferred high-end dining destinations. Rather than name-dropping the same farms and using the same flashy techniques, Cheng says he’d like to see cooks approach their craft like the heroes of the movie Cool Runnings. “You have to be the best Jamaican bobsledding team, not just any bobsledding team,” he says. “I like sea urchin, but I don't need to see it everywhere. Don’t do it because you think you need to do it.”
Update: August 4th, 2023, 8:33 a.m.: This article has been updated to accurately reflect the restaurants Jasmin Arneja has visited.