San Francisco has one of the best food scenes in North America – according to Michael Bauer, the restaurant critic for San Francisco Chronicle, a travel industry survey revealed that most visitors mention food as a major reason for their trip to the Bay Area capital. A 2012 article in the Huffington Post revealed that San Francisco has more restaurants per capita than any other city in the United States: 39.3 restaurants per 10,000 households. Although there are always a million new places to try, a perennial favourite every time we visit the city is Zuni Café. Although Zuni is hardly a new find, having been established in 1979, it’s a classic that hits that elusive balance between chic and comfortable. The lofty, two-floor space which occupies an angled street corner has floor-to-ceiling windows and has that perfect ambiance – an elegant but still relaxed room where dining is a truly enjoyable experience rather than a stuffy, formal affair. And the food is incredible too.
Judy Rodgers has been the captain of this ship since 1987 and really is now synonymous with the restaurant, even though it was originally founded by Billy West several years earlier. Although it initially served up Mexican fare, since Rodgers has been at the helm, Zuni has transformed to incorporate French and Italian cuisine while also being inspired by the local bounty of seasonal organic ingredients with dishes that change regularly to reflect their commitment to using only the freshest and best of what’s currently available – this is evidenced by their menus which are printed daily. Over the quarter century that Rodgers has helmed Zuni’s kitchen, her style has become a defining example of California cuisine. Zuni’s dinner menu is full of tempting options like Cranberry Bean and Tomato Soup with Black Limes, Garlic and Pesto as well as Santa Cruz White Sea Bass Braised in the brick oven with White Wine and Marjoram, Tomato, Fresh Shelling Beans, Cracker Bread, and Aïoli, so we are regularly torn between trying something new and sticking to old favourites.
The Zuni Caesar is pretty legendary; forget the gloopy, droopy bore of the Caesars served so many other places – here, beautifully crisp Romaine lettuce is coated with the perfect amount of their wonderfully savoury but tangy dressing and topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano and chewy, toasted croutons. This Caesar amazes because it manages to be full of flavour but not at all heavy; the care they take in preparing this staple is evident in the final results. Chicken often feels like a sensible but uninspired choice when dining out but here it is perhaps the dish for which they are most renowned. Serving two, the bird is roasted in the brick oven until its skin is crisp and its flesh tender and juicy. The golden pieces of meat are presented on top of a warm bread salad tossed with scallions, garlic, dandelion greens, dried currents and pine nuts. The bread salad is an exterior stuffing of sorts as it sops up the bird drippings creating an absolutely decadent and moreish experience. The menu specifies an hour preparation time – make the commitment, it is absolutely worth the wait. The portion size seems huge when the platter is set down at the table since it is a whole chicken with sides, but every time we’ve ordered it, we’ve managed to find it a good home. We’ve recommended this dish to family and friends and it has received rave reviews every time.
We love cheese as a dessert option and here it comes paired with a touch of sweet in the form of honey in the comb, figs or raspberries. But there are more traditional options for those with a sweet tooth, including a Caramel pot de crème, or the Gâteau Victoire with whipped cream – a Julia Child inspired recipe that has been served daily at Zuni since it was first introduced in 1982. As you might expect from a restaurant of this calibre in California, their wine list is well-curated with options from the United States, France and Italy; you can also bring your own for a $20 corkage fee. We very much enjoyed a bottle of their reasonably priced house label, a very drinkable Pinot Noir that was perfect on its own but also worked well with the roasted chicken. Zuni is a restaurant that we will visit time and time again because all of its component parts work so well – the room, food, wine and service are all just right. In this city with more restaurants per capita than any other in the United States, it’s one of our all-time favourites.