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Cracking Open San Francisco – What’s Happening In The Kitchens By The Bay

Neoteric stops are pushing the San Francisco food scene to the front of the culinary foreground. The influence of James Beard Award wins, an influx of motivated chefs, and a natural deluge of local products are netting explosive reactivity for this city.

San Francisco restaurants have long been in the spotlight, the likes of the legendary House of Prime Rib up there with the Golden Gate Bridge, street cars and Alcatraz for a crowd drawing attraction. What is more? The food scene is quaking with new spots, solid performers, and a move to SF as an even more important food epicenter. Building an authentic food scene is fueled by experiment, growth, acceptance and viability.

Not LA’s shadow – dirt, vines, saltwater

There is room for great restaurants in more than one city in California. San Francisco is another of the Golden State’s culinary meccas. But what makes San Francisco different than its big cousin? The flow of produce from the surrounding valleys along with craft producers like Cowgirl Creamery and Blue Island Oyster Company, among many others, are a formidable start. The proximity to the unique valley-laden geography is an obvious outlet for Napa wines. And the coastal proximity to the Pacific ocean makes for dayboat accessibility, as well. Take Ron Siegel; the chef/owner is all over the local terrain with Madcap. Capitalizing on greens from Paradise Valley, for instance, makes for the exclamation on the chef’s notable footing.

James Beard lightning strikes

Corey Lee, chef at Benu, bested four of LA’s biggest to grab the 2017 James Beard Foundation for the west. Roll back a few years, Stuart Brozia and Nicole Krasinski grabbed gold with a 2013 Beard award with the launch of State Bird Provisions. Unquestionable sustained success, the leaders of the graze-dining spot hit paydirt with a follow-up win as next door’s Progress Bar was born. The medallions are nice, but the two-run homer further illuminated the sweetly booming SF scene. Oh, and the new State Bird cookbook may land the triple JBF win for the couple. These are San Francisco wins on many fronts.

“I’ll leave it up to you”

Omokase is shareable version 2-point-O. Not familiar? Think prix-fixe meets sushi. The chef-driven approach allows the kitchen’s culinary insight to wander by building tasting portions without the constraint of customers’  choices, omokase literally “I’ll leave it up to you.” Tomoharu Nokamura’s Wako is out front. Small dining area, limited seating, and chef-forward menuing makes the San Fran omakase the leader in the country. And the movement has legs; newly opened Robin joins the likes of Sasaki and Akiko with omokase options that make the segment more than a novelty.

Indian flavor rise

San Francisco kitchens are drilling deep with authenticity as an array of Indian digs boom. With the opening of August 1 Five and Babu Ji, the tell-tale signs of a new macro-trend are not lost in the bay area. Need more proof? Babu Ji’s Mission location is the second installment, the first being in New York city; that is high praise for the diversity of the area’s collective palate as well as the fortitude for the operation to bump a second iteration to the bay area.

There are other SF institutions, both young and old, worthy of a visit. Award winners, trends’ pioneers, and genuinely good, local ingredients make the city by the bay worth its own culinary tour. Once New York, Chicago and Los Angeles were considered the food capitals of the US, the likes of progressive metropolitan areas are swiftly—and adeptly—grabbing some of that mojo, none more entrancingly than San Francisco.

Jim Berman is a kitchen lifer. A career cook, Jim orchestrates new menus, works on staffing solutions and manages food purchases. He received his formal culinary training in New Mexico, and has done stints in kitchens in Pittsburgh, Santa Fe, and the Delaware valley. Jim’s writing is regularly featured on Foodable, Toast and Kitchen Grit.