Welcome to Ask Eater, a column from Eater SF where the site’s editors answer difficult dining questions from readers and friends. Have a question for us? Email email@example.com.
Dear Eater SF,
I’m baffled: We live in a city that has a large population of people who are either lactose intolerant, have dairy allergies, or are voluntarily dairy-free. Seriously, 68 percent of the world population has lactose malabsorption. However, there are so many tasting menus that refuse to accommodate this. I’d love to see Eater SF put out a list of tasting menus that allow for people who literally can’t eat dairy to enjoy. Do they even exist? I imagine I’m not the only San Francisco resident that has found this frustrating.
Hold the Cheese Please
Dear Hold the Cheese Please,
As a celiac and more-often-than-not vegan diner, I hear you and I got you. The first thing that comes to mind is Eater SF’s vegan restaurant list, which includes some the upscale restaurants you may be looking for. This very month there are even a two trendy pop-ups teaming up to show off high-end vegan (and therefore, dairy-free) fare. But I also recognize that you’re not talking about vegan specifically: You’re fine with meat, but you’re trying to skip the dairy. And you’re asking about tasting menus, which you’ll usually find at the Michelin star-holding and James Beard Award-winning outfits.
It’s the status quo that the fancier the restaurant, the less likely a chef is to accommodate any variations on their menu. Many point out that this can run the risk of ableism by making restaurants inaccessible to some diners. Yet it remains the dining world we live in, which makes finding a dairy-free tasting menu all the better. In San Francisco alone, there are plenty of places where diners can not only can skip the dairy but even rarer requests including specific vegetables and oils. Here are just a few restaurants that welcome these welcome diners with restrictions, though there are plenty more who might take dairy-free into consideration; restaurants’ OpenTable and Resy reservation pages often will let you know in advance if variations can be made.
On Minnesota Street, chef Heena Patel serves an all-vegetarian South Asian menu. Many of her dishes do include dairy, but thankfully, Besharam’s tasting menu can cater to many diets. Bar lead Alex Okarkau even developed an AR software to make sure guests check off every single ingredient they could be allergic or sensitive to; there are almost 40 allergens listed on the interface, including various religious diets. Even without the dairy, and all the rest left in the mix, diners will find a cornucopia of options including spicy and saucy Gujarati dal and creamy kaju masala.
This sister restaurant to thunderously popular Flour + Water has an $85 “Dinner Party” tasting menu that can be made dairy-free. The idea behind this menu is to highlight favorites from the kitchen staff, so it’s no trouble to leave cream on the side.
Birch & Rye
Chef Anya el-Wattar wants to serve food as medicine, at the end of the day. Or that’s how she thinks about her modern Russian restaurant in Noe Valley, featuring one of the premiere vegan tasting menus in the city. Warming borschsts, plant-based caviars, and decadent sorbet and sharlotka are all naturally dairy-free. The chef and owner goes further when asked to ensure the meat mains are both dairy and gluten-free — think Wagyu beef cheek and duck plov — and that she’s always happy and excited to accommodate. That goes for fancy brunch, too.
Bernal Heights’ go-to upscale restaurant has a $165 vegan tasting menu — with a $300 “YOLO” wine pairing version as well — that chef and owner Greg Lutes says is always dairy-free. The traditional tasting menu here is a bit pricier, and Lutes says he’s always happy to work with any request. Basically, if you want to get a vegan tasting menu with added-in meat for a higher cost, you’re welcome to ask at this Cortland Avenue safe haven.