Traveling down the west coast to follow Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on tour this summer provided the perfect excuse to try out some of the most noted and notorious restaurants in San Francisco and Los Angeles. After all, a girl’s got to eat and I figured I might as well do it up right. I started with San Francisco and began my research months in advance so I’d have plenty of time to exercise my reservation-making mojo. What was I looking for? I wanted creative chef-driven food served in a relatively informal atmosphere. I wanted food that would tell me a story, and I was open to a challenge if that’s where destiny took me. But while my selection criteria was simple, making final decisions in this world-class food city was not. I did a lot of hemming and hawing because there seemed to be an overwhelming number of options. Luckily, I had a couple of limiting parameters: two of the four nights required early meals before heading out to rock and roll shows so that eliminated restaurants with multi-course tasting menus, and one night I would be solo and wanted a restaurant with a chef’s counter where I could sit comfortably on my own and watch the action. Michelin stars were not a requirement of the selection process, but they proved hard to resist and ended up being a common thread.
“There is no love sincerer than the love of food.”
-George Bernard Shaw, “Man and Superman.”
My first night in San Francisco started with dinner at Sons & Daughters, a small twenty-eight seat restaurant in Union Square that serves a tasting menu based on seasonal, local food primarily sourced from their very own eighty-three acre farm that supplies “roots, greens, fruits, seeds, sprouts, flowers, herbs, foraged mountain goods, mushrooms, honey, eggs, and a variety of animal products” exclusively for the Sons & Daughters Restaurant Group. Located in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Dark Hill Farm allows the restaurant to have a unique farm-to-restaurant-and-back-to-farm concept by turning the kitchen leftovers into compost and animal feed.
I’m a big fan of tasting menus and since Sunday night was our only real opportunity for a long, leisurely meal, this was an obvious choice. The lingering pace was also the perfect opportunity to catch up with my great friend Todd, someone I hadn’t seen in a few years, who came up from Los Angeles to join me. We had an 8:30pm reservation – on the late side for a school night. When we arrived there were only a few tables still occupied, and we ended up shutting down the joint.
I immediately fell in love with the dining room: intimate and cozy with black ceilings, dramatic chandeliers, large black and white photos on the walls, and black-clad waitstaff. The design of the space made you feel like you were embarking on a special night out but still managed to feel relaxed and comfortable. Co-chefs Matt McNamara and Teague Moriarty opened Sons & Daughters – their first restaurant – in 2010 and were awarded their first Michelin star just two years later. While originally their menu was focused on molecular gastronomy, today that concept takes more of a supporting role while the creative farm-to-table concept has grown, along with the farm itself, to take center stage.
Since the restaurant only serves a tasting menu we had no decisions to make other than whether or not to order the wine pairings, which resulted in an easy, affirmative answer. Many higher-end restaurants are currently changing to a tasting menu format and opinions vary on whether that’s a positive approach or not. Personally, I enjoy tasting menus because I like the opportunity to try a variety of different things to gain a better understanding of the story the chef is trying to convey through their chosen medium, as well as experience his or her current explorations and obsessions, even if it’s not always 100 percent successful. As long as the food is tasty and creative, and I have some comprehension of what the chef is trying to do, I’m pretty happy. Of course, also having at least a couple of mind-blowing moments while dining doesn’t hurt.
Sons & Daughters’ tasting menu offers seven courses plus surprise extras throughout. Our meal began with a delicate and pretty amuse bouche of a buttermilk chip with fish roe and crème fraiche paired with a festive sparkling wine which perfectly set the stage for what was to come. The first three courses embodied the locavore, summer-time, farm-fresh concept of the restaurant, including tomato with lemon cucumber and marigold, roasted baby beets with vadouvan spices and mustard seeds, and squash blossom with fennel and charred padron pepper. As the meal progressed towards the main courses the food became richer and more savory. The salmon with quail egg and avocado, served with a Napa Valley rose, was beautiful and tasted like the epitome of summer, while the veal with endive and chanterelle mushrooms hinted at the upcoming autumn season. In-between these first five courses we were served bread. I love the idea of bread as a course: you don’t accidentally fill up on it before you even start your meal and it highlights the chosen bread as a transition between courses almost, but not quite, like a palate cleanser. While all the courses were fairly small portions, I quickly filled up and was stuffed before we got to the end, but the cornbread, brioche, and pretzel roll proved hard to resist.
Of course, there was still dessert ahead. Luckily the summer season leant itself to lighter, refreshing dessert courses, and so I soldiered on. Plums with tangy yogurt and lemon were followed by blueberries on a polenta cake with lime and basil sorbet. The desserts were delicious, and I was happy I sacrificed my good sense and managed to get through these final dishes.
Sons & Daughters proved to be a splendid night out. It had a cool, relaxed vibe and the service was professional, knowledgeable, and friendly. At ninety-eight dollars for the tasting menu, it felt like a great value for this level of creativity and deliciousness and the good feeling about supporting this hyper-locavore restaurant concept.
The next day we never got around to eating a proper meal or anything remotely close until dinner, but we did manage to try some signature coffee and ice cream throughout the day. We started at Blue Bottle Coffee’s Hayes Valley Kiosk. The coffee was good, but coming from Seattle and being spoiled for choice, it didn’t strike me as out of the ordinary. What I did love was the tiny, stylish kiosk tucked into an alleyway; searching for it felt like we were on a treasure hunt. While we sipped our coffee, we waited not-so-patiently for Smitten Ice Cream to open, which was located nearby in a slightly larger kiosk and where we found the likes of Joy Division and the Cure blaring through its speakers. Smitten serves made-to-order ice cream developed by founder Robyn Sue Fisher, whose quest it is to serve ice cream as fresh as possible and with all natural ingredients. She’s able to achieve this with the help of liquid nitrogen and a custom-built machine to perfect the “ultra-cold churning process,” which you get to observe with each and every order. Smitten offers just a couple of flavors each day, along with suggested pairings of their house-made toppings. We both tried their seasonal nectarine ice cream with brown sugar caramel sauce. It was very good and at over seven dollars each for a small scoop, it was also pricey.
Next on the agenda was a leisurely stroll down Valencia Street for some window shopping followed by a much-needed afternoon caffeine break at the ultra-hip Ritual Coffee. When we saw Bi-Rite Creamery up the street, we decided to stop there too. While Bi-Rite had a variety of interesting flavors, I just wanted something simple and refreshing, and decided on a scoop of mint chip.
My system was a little out of whack from a day of imbibing only coffee and ice cream, and I found myself definitely ready for a real meal. Dinner on our second night was a major score with coveted reservations at State Bird Provisions. Owned by chefs Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski, this was another Michelin-starred restaurant and 2013 James Beard Best New Restaurant winner. As I was doing my research, everything I read made it seem as if reservations would be impossible to get; in fact, last year it got so bad that internet hackers were using reservation bots to immediately snag reservations and then scalp them to anxious, desperate diners. This had supposedly been remedied, but articles and reviews continued to lament how difficult reservations were to come by. Seats at State Bird Provisions are released exactly sixty days in advance at midnight. I decided to give it a go and did a few practice runs beforehand to make sure I counted my days back correctly. Once I felt confident on my dates, I just needed to make sure I could stay up past my usual bedtime. Luckily, we were shooting for a table on a Monday evening, and an early reservation at that, since we had a concert to go to so that may have helped. In any case, I got the reservations I wanted on the day I wanted at the time I wanted. Apparently, that was nothing short of a miracle.
When we arrived at the unsigned restaurant on a stretch of Fillmore Street that’s still a bit rough around the edges, the now legendary line was as long as I’d read it would be. The restaurant holds one-third of its tables a night for walk-ins, and if you’re first in line you’ll get in at the opening. Otherwise, you’ll be given a time for later that night. Flexibility is the key to dining at this extremely popular restaurant and people line up hours in advance of the doors opening each night. Since we had reservations, we were able to hover at the door and were let in as soon as they opened. Despite the Michelin star, State Bird Provisions is a very casual space with a relaxed atmosphere. The culinary concept is contemporary American cuisine served dim-sum style, and their website states that while “State Bird Provisions started as a recipe for serving quail, it has slowly evolved into a restaurant without any programmed elements.” The offerings change frequently but there are some staples, such as their signature dish “State Bird with Provisions,” which was indeed a highlight of the meal. There are several dishes you can order off the menu; many others are brought around on dim sum carts and you can pick and choose whatever looks good. All the plates are small and meant to be shared. In our case, even with just two people we tried an incredible amount of dishes. The vibe is fun and the service was excellent. While your table is assigned a server, you’re invited to request anything you might want from anyone who is available.
It’s loud and a bit frenetic, and we had a great time. The food was very good and we had dishes ranging from duck liver mousse on almond toast, to smoked trout and avocado with house-made chips, to wild salmon tartare – to name a few favorites. The air-dried beef with chili oil was good but didn’t hold our attention, and the guinea fowl dumpling was fine but not particularly memorable. State Bird is also known for its savory pancakes, and the stack of sweet corncakes we shared was another highlight. Melon granita was a refreshing and light way to end the meal since we still had a late night ahead of us.
While I very much enjoyed the meal, I think it’s the concept and atmosphere that really stood out for me. It was a great evening and I had a lot of fun trying so many different dishes, and while I’m not a Michelin star expert, I am a little surprised by the star rating, the reservation insanity, and the lines down the block. This is San Francisco – one of the food capitals of the world – and the frenzy seemed a bit overblown, but it certainly added to the excitement.
On day three, determined to have some actual food at some point before dinner, we had a late breakfast at Craftsman and Wolves. After gawking at their beautiful array of sweet and savory breakfast treats, we decided to share “The Rebel Within,” which was a savory muffin with Asiago cheese, sausage, green onion, and a whole soft-cooked egg inside, plus a savory pop tart served complete with peas and carrots. The day was already a success as we sat outside on a sunny sidewalk drinking coffee and eating real food before noon. After we finished, we headed over to the Ferry Building Marketplace – a collection of restaurants and market stalls of small, local purveyors of artisan food products located in the historic 1898 Ferry Building, with stunning views of the San Francisco Bay. While we weren’t hungry, it was a delight to look at all the beautiful food on offer, and when we stumbled upon Humphry Slocombe Ice Cream – which we’d been dying to try – we had to get a scoop. At this point, we were joined by Chester, another friend from Los Angeles, who didn’t hesitate to join in on our ice cream frenzy. The guys at the counter were happy to give us loads of samples and we tried all sorts of interesting flavors, like the naughty Secret Breakfast with bourbon and corn flakes, and Brown Sugar Fennel, which was good for a bite but I’m not sure I could eat a whole scoop. I went with the Black Pepper and Mint Chip, which was an intriguing combination of refreshing spiciness.
We left Tuesday night open for a spontaneous meal as the mood struck us. It was an early dinner again since we had another concert to go to and, even so, we were lucky to get a seats at Pizzeria Delfina, which serves Neapolitan-style pizzas along with antipasti, a few other mains, and house-made gelato, all from locally sourced products. We ordered a few pizzas to share, each of which were perfectly light and crispy, with a slightly blackened-around-the-edges crust, covered with fresh ingredients like prosciutto and arugula, and a simple Margherita with tomatoes, basil and silky-smooth mozzarella. Add some red wine and we had another great but-still-casual meal.
The next day was my last in San Francisco before heading to LA, and I spent the day working myself up for a challenge: dinner on my own at the Michelin starred restaurant SPQR. I’d never eaten at a high-end restaurant by myself and I was a little nervous about it. While I would have loved to have had a dining companion – and at some point I did get on my knees and beg my friends to stay – I was also looking forward to this challenge.
It was a rough day for me. The previous night had ended very late, with my head on the table next to a half-eaten tuna melt trying to keep my eyes open at the classic Nob Hill all-night diner Grubstake, which followed cocktails at the quintessential North Beach establishment Tosca Cafe after the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds show. On top of that, my friends had an early wake-up call at 5:30am to catch a flight back to LA, and while I heard them heading out the door I couldn’t manage to actually get out of bed to say goodbye. I never really went back to sleep, and instead spent the next couple of hours drifting in and out of a slightly hungover and emotionally drained haze. It was a week of sensory overload. Four Nick Cave shows so far, a flight with the band that still had my stomach in knots a couple of days later, catching up with good friends, eating amazing food, and reconciling some mixed emotions about the beautiful city I used to live in. All of it left me wrecked on my final day in San Francisco, but I finally rallied around noon to hit some spots that I had saved to go to on my own.
I started off with lunch at House of Nanking. This Chinese food establishment opened more than two decades ago, when I first lived in San Francisco, and from day one it has had lines out the door. Small, crowded, greasy, with rude service and the occasional cockroach making an uninvited appearance at your table, the food was still worth it. I used to work nearby and it used to be a lunchtime staple for me, so knowing that it was best to go either well before or after the lunch hour to avoid the line made it a breeze. It took years for my House of Nanking cravings to dissipate, although I’ve still never had Chinese food that comes close. Coincidentally, I also discovered on this trip that House of Nanking is a favorite of Nick Cave’s – as if I needed another reason to love the restaurant or Nick.
As soon as I walked in I discovered that there had been some changes – they’d expanded and remodeled. While by no means fancy, it definitely wasn’t the same place I remember with its sticky, plastic laminate communal tables, and grease-splattered walls. The service, however, was still on the surly side. House of Nanking also now serves a limited lunch menu, which didn’t have any of the favorites on it that I remember. I ordered from the lunch menu, not realizing I had any other option, and discovered too late that you can still ask for the full menu. I assume it’s become so popular for tourists that they’ve come up with the limited menu to get people in and out quicker and, apparently, while this used to be my regular hang-out, I am now officially a tourist in my former beloved city. I ended up ordering Nanking chicken, which is not something I would typically choose, but it was delicious. The piping hot, fried chicken in a tangy orange sauce was exactly what I needed to finally get my day started. I will definitely go back again, but next time I’ll act less like a tourist.
The rest of the day was spent wandering around Chinatown, North Beach, and Nob Hill, searching for apartment buildings I used to live in, and favorite cafes, lunch spots, and bars in the area. It was interesting to see what had changed and, more often than not, what hadn’t. I walked way more than I planned and was tired and wind-blown on this semi-stormy day by the time my dinner reservation was approaching. I was also probably a bit too casual in skinny jeans and a Nick Cave tee, but I thought I’d just go in and try to rock the look because it just didn’t seem worth it to go back to the apartment I was staying at when I was already so close to the restaurant. I had 6:00pm reservations at the chef’s counter and I was surprised to see that, while the restaurant was packed at that early hour, not a single soul was seated at the counter. It made me feel even more conspicuous when I thought this would help me to blend in as a single diner.
I had originally hesitated about going to SPQR. Sure, I’d read some great reviews, but I just wasn’t convinced I wanted to spend the effort and money on Italian fare. Don’t get me wrong: I love Italian food, but I didn’t find myself feeling overly enthusiastic about it as a possibility. Then I read an article that sealed the deal for me and I decided I absolutely had to discover for myself what Chef Matthew Accarrino was doing at SPQR. Maybe it was the analogy to chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, whose restaurants in LA I was also itching to try; maybe it was the fact that this wasn’t straight up Italian cuisine but that “most of the dishes have enough subtle or overt cues to keep the brain registering the meal as Italian”; or maybe it was simply the descriptions and photos of the food that made me realize this was someplace special that I shouldn’t miss out on.
After I was seated at the chef’s counter, I perused the food and wine menu. I knew SPQR offered a tasting menu on certain weeknights, and I originally thought that would be a good way to try a variety of menu items since I was by myself, but I wasn’t sure I was that hungry or wanted to linger for that long on my own, so I asked my server what his favorites were from the menu to help me narrow down my choices. What I discovered in the end was that ordering off the menu didn’t stop me from eating a ridiculous amount of food, or from having a very leisurely meal.
When I ordered I also asked the server if it was okay if I took a few photos during the meal. He told me he’d have to ask the chef, who was expediting and plating food at the pass directly across from me. It was an awkward moment as I sat alone at the counter in a t-shirt and jeans waiting to be granted permission by the chef to take photos, but that’s exactly why I ask. My waiter reported back that I had been granted permission, as long as I didn’t go overboard. This made me even more self-conscious because I had to make some assumptions about what he would consider appropriate, and because of our close proximity I was pretty sure he would be keeping an eye on me.
Chef Matthew Accarrino has been at the helm of SPQR since 2009 and has won numerous accolades, including in 2013 his first Michelin star. He utilizes the bounty of ingredients found locally, and taps into his Italian heritage to create an “intensely personal cuisine that is both technically polished and soulful.” I thought it was one of the best meals of my life. It was simultaneously beautiful and full of substance. It was innovative and surprising without going over the top. It was too complex to comprehend in one seating yet was still warm and comforting. It wasn’t like anything I expected. I was completely blown away and giddy with excitement.
I started with a warm yellow corn salad with fried avocado, quinoa, and pecans plus corn fritters and a corn puree with summer truffles. The plate was beautifully presented and every bite was outstanding. I don’t think I knew how much I liked corn until I had this dish. I had a hard time deciding on my main course but when the cocoa bean and duck cannelloni came out, I knew I’d made the right decision. It was served with an intensely green spinach puree and golden chanterelle mushrooms, as well as a surprise gift of Australian truffles (a coveted ingredient that was the focus of the night’s specials). I was told by my server this meant I hadn’t exceeded my picture-taking quota. I reveled in the flavors and ate every last drop.
Watching the action at the counter during my meal was a little tense. There’s minimal banter between the chefs and they clearly take what they do very seriously. It’s evident that there’s a very high standard for both the quality of the food and the presentation, and anything less is not acceptable. Maybe it was partly my own uneasiness at being solo and not having a distraction other than to watch the chefs intensely at work, but I felt some relief when some other diners were finally seated at the counter. Even if we didn’t exchange words, I felt a little less conspicuous.
SPQR is not inexpensive, but the food is hearty and the portions aren’t skimpy, and after my meal I was about to burst. I really didn’t need dessert, but I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to sample some more of Chef Accarrino’s food so I chose what seemed to be the lightest option: panna cotta with mint ice, strawberries, and chocolate cookies. I struggled through it, but I couldn’t stop myself. It was that good. I intentionally left one spoonful just to prove I had some self-control, but when the final bill came with a pair of cocoa dusted marshmallows, I ate those too.
This was an exceptional meal and the next time I’m in San Francisco, SPQR – or wherever Chef Accarrino is cooking at the time – will be at the top of my dining list. I survived my personal challenge of dining at an upscale restaurant on my own and I would do it again if the circumstances presented themselves, but in this case the meal was so outstanding that I wish I had someone to share it with. And that’s the thing about really good food: it’s about pleasure and sharing, and you don’t want to keep it to yourself. If I had a dining companion that night I would have literally been squealing out loud with delight.