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ZUNI Cafe

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  • Arthur May 26, 2003 01:26 PM

Is it just me and almost everyone that I know, or do others feel the same? - The ZUNI Cafe is the most overrated restaurant in San Francisco. I've yet to have a memorable meal there. I've had their "wonderful" hamburger - You can only get it for lunch. Too bad, because it's better than most of what you can get for dinner but it was far from knocking my socks off; very far. The chicken. Well, I'm not that big on chicken anyway.... These are the two dishes that this place is known for! Chicken and hamburger? I just don't get it. On the times that I have been there I have also been annoyed that you can not sit at their bar to have a drink. Stools are not provided; you must stand. That's a sure way to ensure that no one will linger there for long - Yet another reason to dislike the place. Have I just been unlucky every time that I have been there? Is there something wonderful that I am missing? Who do the owners of this place know to continue to get rave reveiws? Ahhhh, it feels good to get this off my chest.

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  1. You are correct--- it is just you.....seriously, no place that has managed to be so successful for so long and who's mover and shaker has become so famous can possibly meet the expectations those three factors inevitably set. The fact that it has remained a very good, medium-priced, casual restaurant for so long is amazing and if you don't like chicken and don't like burgers why did you go there in the first place given so many choices. The French Laundry it is not, and has never claimed to be...

    2 Replies
    1. re: Jimbo

      I've had many good meals at Zuni. I remember some ricotta gnocci that hovered above the plate, they were so light. Never enough time to have the chicken though. Zuni Cafe cookbook just out and getting good press. In fact, Judy Rogers received two of the top national James Beard awards (to be presented on A&E on Jun 28th), one for the restaurant, the other for the book.

      1. re: Jimbo

        I suspect the operators of Zuni would--and certainly should--be appalled at the advice you offer!

        Hamburger and chicken represent what--10%--of a given day's menu?

        We've had far more disappointing than wonderful meals there, everything from friendly and competent service to surly, incompetent.

        I believe one thing above all others when it comes to (serious) restaurants, in any price range, of any culinary style: The kitchen should take pride in and pay total attention to every morsel served. Nothing should be on the menu if it can't meet that standard. My image of a restaurant diner is a couple who have hired a babysitter, paid for transportation or parking, and are looking forward to a rare night out that's been budgeted for carefully. They deserve to feel welcome, get competent and helpful service, and fresh, properly prepared, delicious food at a fair price, as well as a decent choice of modest-priced wines.

        Why have we returned to Zuni over the years? Mostly because we always eat out after performances and periodically Zuni comes up as one of the declining number of spots available for later-evening dining; it's got a certain urban charm; and, I guess, hope springs eternal--we always want it to live up to the best memories we have (which definitely include those ricotta ravioli).

        I recently posted on the Calif. board about a chicken dish at Stoke's in Monterey that lived up to the expectations I've always had when ordering Zuni's.

        We did have such a bad experience the last time we were there, it's been a couple of years since and we haven't been back. All this inspires me to give it another go sometime soon.

        Sure hope Rogers reads this board.

      2. the only reason I go there now is to have an afternoon oyster feast with a fine bottle of wine- one of the very best places in the city for it.

        over the years I've had too many hit and miss meals to go for dinner anymore and the service is usually indifferent or worse. I know lots of people who feel the same as you and lots that still love it.

        yea it's been around for a long time and winning awards recently, etc...which speaks to the wide and differing range of what people expect and experience in mainstays like zuni.

        awards and press often misrepresent restaurants these days...

        1. I'm with you. I've had several mediocre and overpriced meals there and have come to the conclusion that it's one of those places with a somewhat inflated reputation and a "see and be seen scene" that is probably fun for others but I just don't get it.

          1. j
            Judith Hurley

            I've griped about Zuni at length on this board, but I have to say that I had brunch there this past Sunday and it was lovely. It's admittedly wildly expensive. For the price, I was hoping my poached Aracuana eggs might have something to do with a nearly extinct ostrich-like bird from an exotic locale, but apparently they came from a mere chicken, albeit a chicken with interesting plumage (for the money, I hoped I'd at least get to meet her). But we had a gorgeous window seat, great service, excellent bread. The cheese desserts paired with dried fruits or honey are always a great choice, and the wine and aperitif list is a treat.

            The main thing, I think, is that over time, Zuni isn't reliable. You can have a wonderful experience . . . or not. We've been burned there in the past, most especially on service. And there's no predicting. Given the restaurant's reputation and the cost, you would hope that it would be really good for most people most of the time.

            5 Replies
            1. re: Judith Hurley

              Reliability or consistency seems to be a problem practically everywhere in SF..I know we've discused this strange anomaly here on the board before...It's getting to the point that when someone asks for a restaurant suggestion, I couch it by saying "if you go on a good day!" or "usually it's good..but you never know" It is frustrating...I don't remember having to say this when I lived other places...perhaps now that I 'm a "Hound" I'm more aware of quality and have loftier expectations!

              1. re: derek

                Derek,

                I totally agree. We went to Chez Panisse Cafe last night and the service was adequate, but our waiter never checked with us if it wasn't absolutely manadatory. And the pacing was quite slow (which was especially problematic due to the lack of check-ins). The food was delicious but not mind-blowing.

                My BF and I rarely go out to eat for budgetary reasons--last night was a special occasion. When we're going to splurge we really want it to be perfect. But we were saying to each other, after our CP experience, that it's always such a gamble whether service will ruin the meal (or if the food will even be that great) that it's really not worth it. Fortunately, I love to cook and am pretty decent at it. More often than not, I end up wishing I'd busted the paycheck on delights from the farmers market and butcher/fishmonger than having gone out.

                I've never been to Zuni, mostly because of the experiences I've read on this board. Now that I have the cookbook, I really want to eat there, but I just feel I can't risk the rare expense of a (only potentially) good meal to bad service.

                Excellent service definitely can make a mediocre meal taste a lot better. The converse is painfully true as well. ARGGHH!

                -MP

                1. re: Missy P.
                  s
                  Stanley Stephan

                  I guess I've been lucky since I've never had bad service at Zuni. Don't know why as I hear many complaints about it.

                  With Zuni, I would stick with the things they are noted for like the chicken and the ceasar salad. I never tried the hamburger as I believe it doesn't qualify as a hamburger unless it is on a hamburger bun. Even a sourdough roll has me foaming at the mouth in rage. So the hamburger at Zuni never appealed to me.

                  I had a salad at Zuni once that was memorably disappointing. It was a pink lady apple that had four slices of apple so thin you could see through them. They added no taste to the salad at all and at $8, I felt robbed. However other than that I've had good food experiances there.

                  1. re: Stanley Stephan

                    i disagree almost wholeheartedly; what's amazing about Zuni are the non-'signature' items.

                    the kitchen's way w/ingredients is mindboggling. had a simple dish of bitter greens, topped w/mustard vinaigrette, sieved egg, and breadcrumbs. it was one of the best things i've ever eaten in my life.

                    that's not to say the chicken/caesar road's a bad one. i just think it'd be foolish to stick to solely those items.

                2. re: derek

                  yes I'm sure it has been discussed here before but good point derek.

                  I often find myself, when dining out at a new place I've read about thinking that- if this was place was in nyc it wouldn't last six months.

                  I love sf and lots of food we have here but there is a big difference in what diners in this city will accept, hype, and patronize than in nyc for example.

                  not trying to start a discussion on sf / nyc as I know it's been discussed on this board before too- but it seems to be getting worse here so I had to mention it.

              2. amen! I read with amazement any time Zuni is mentioned as a great restaurant. I've eaten there twice, once about 2 months ago. Except for the fact that it served relatively late there were no other redeeming features. As far as "moderate price" is concerned, Zuni is not in that category. I spend quite a bit on places more expensive, but this is not some casual bistro with Luna Park pricing. Instead it's a casual bistro with Julia pricing.

                1. I too, have always lucked out on service at Zuni. And I have to say I've lucked out pretty regularly too, so I thought it was the norm. I work just down the street from Zuni, so rarely a month goes by that I don't have at least one lunch there, the dinners more rarely.

                  The hamburger is good in it's freshness and the fact that it's salt-ground and aged a bit, but I, like Stanley, also dislike the fact that it's not on a proper bun. I also dislike the whisper-thin shoestring potatoes (though practically everyone else I know loves them). They are too airy to appeal to me -- I don't eat something deep-fried for it's "airiness", but that's just me.

                  The Caesar salads are each individually made, with the vagaries of lemon juice acidity and saltiness of cheese, consistency of eggs, etc., to contend with, so there is variation. This made-to-order-salad is by nature not going to be exactly the same every time. I've had masterful, unbelievably good ones, and so-so ones. That's definitely a risk when you order it -- since it's not a uniform product. I have, on two separate occasions, sent the salad back (which is a big deal for shy, Midwestern-raised me) and gotten something else or skipped that course. On both occasions I was either brought something I did like (and the Caesar taken off the bill), and in one case, comped a completely different dish.

                  I'd challenge anyone who has had the chicken with bread salad to tell me it isn't worth the price of admission. It's a really special dish, and justly famous. If anyone has truly ordered it and received a substandard product, I'd really like to hear about it.

                  The oysters are justly famous, and there are fewer places in the city where you can get this kind of variety and quality (Swan's Oyster Depot withstanding), and is a real treat.

                  They occasionally have a carbonara on the menu with is foot-stompingly fantastic.

                  The bread is almost always good.

                  If you have not had the espresso and grapefruit granitas, you must try them. They are the most delicious grown-up snowcones! A really great, not often seen, delicious dessert.

                  How many restaurants do you know that have a great signature chicken dish, a well-chosen cheese course, reliably good bread and salads (at least 90% of the time), good highlighted and seasonally (daily, too) changing menu items, fine oysters, and a decent wine list?

                  I'm always sad to hear about the bad service there, and go there on the lookout for it regularly. I just haven't seen it yet. I believe the posters who say they've received it, though, of course, and can only hope that it stops.

                  I defend Zuni on the grounds that I eat better there than in about 9 out 10 restaurants in the city. That's what makes it great for me. I never expect everything on a menu at a restaurant to be perfect -- but when a few standout dishes (oooh the frito misto) appear regularly with better-than-average seasonals, I am happy.

                  The debate continues :)

                  1. I have to agree. I just dined there last night, as I owed a friend a dinner of the famous Zuni chicken. Not only was the service mediocre, but the meal itself was a horrible disappointement. I used to work around the corner and had lunch there on one prior occasion. I recall thinking at the time that the food was just OK, but it was not until my full dinner experience there that I realized that this restaurant is TRULY all hype. For the money (or even less) there are far better restaurants in the city.

                    1. I've been going since they were a take-out grilling out back. The last time the meal was perfect: brined pork chops and a consummate pasta (I don't remember, but it was 7 mos. ago), Acme bread…. I went at 4 and was the only one in the place, had a great view of the open kitchen. When it's crowded, it's not mellow. Go with mellow, off hours.

                      1. Mid nineties, I had one meal that I think of as top-10-lifetime, and one dish I firmly remember (grape-fennel-chicken). But then came a long succession of pretty-darn-good meals. I rarely bother with reservations, so end up at a bar table. Still, it's now been years since I've been back.

                        Just 6 months ago I tried to meet a friend there, on the early side, and there was no room at the inn. We ended up at Cav instead. Cav met every expectation of a graceful san francisco meal, from the unusual german red flight to a peculiar desert. Although, frankly, I can't remember too much of the meal.

                        Do I recommend Zuni to friends? No, I do not.

                        Do I remember, wistfully, those fantastic meals, back when there were only dozens of restaurants cooking at that level? Yes, I do.

                        Mrs Smith - how many restaurants like you name? The oysters make Zuni unusual (Foreign Cinema has a strong oyster list), but I would say there are several hundred restaurants in SF, maybe 300 including berkeley, cooking at that level. As there are well over 4000 restaurants in SF, I'll put them in the top 5%, better than your "9 out of 10". But many speak of them as on of the top 10, impossible to get a reservation, and I just can't get behind that.

                        1. Nope. It's not just you. I've been going to Zuni every few years over the past 17 years because either friends invite me there or I wonder if I was just being too hard on the place. And every time the place has proven my assessments correct: it's a good restaurant, but nothing that rises above the din of other good restaurants spread throughout the city.

                          The typical litmus test of a really good restaurant is one that I would seek out and go back to. With Zuni, it's never something I want to do. It's always been something I felt I had to do for either some social function or to resolve some doubt that I really should like that place better.

                          1. Obviously nothing much has changed in five years!

                            I've been eating at Zuni several times a year since Judy Rodgers took over, and had two of my best meals there in the past year. I've been hearing that it is either overrated or has gone downhill for most of that time, but it has been steadily consistent in satisfying its fans.

                            There are still only a few restaurants with a charcoal grill, a wood oven, a strongly market-driven daily menu, a raw bar, a large pantry stocked with housemade preserves (e.g. anchovies, pickles, Moroccan lemons), a great wine list, a full bar, and a kitchen that's open continuously from lunch to midnight.

                            1. We read so many great reviews about this restaurant that we felt that we HAD to choose it to celebrate my birthday. What a disappointment! I've never written a restaurant review before, but I was so appalled by so many things that I felt compelled to post my own opinion. Keep in mind, I was not in a bad mood when we visited Zuni. I'd had a great day at work, we had reason to celebrate, and I was with great company.

                              The first thing that upset us was the fact that we had to wait 30 minutes for our table, in spite of the fact that we had made reservations a week in advance, and HALF THE TABLES in the restaurant were empty! But this was just the start of the exceptionally slow service. For instance, we had to ask our waitress several times before she'd bring us anything, and even then it was usually the busboy who finally filled our requests.

                              Once the waitress FINALLY took our orders, we were so hungry that we had no choice but to choke down the stale, burnt bread. And for such a "classy" restaurant, we were surprised by the cold, hard, completely unspreadable butter.

                              A trip to the restroom proved to be a mistake. When I stood up, a rusty nail sticking out from the rotting window frame tore my shirt. Then while walking through the restaurant, I nearly tripped on the loose, rotten section of hardwood flooring upstairs. The restroom proved to be miserable place to go, more akin to what you'd expect to find in an inner-city gas station than an expensive, "hip" restaurant. The lack of any hot water to wash my hands, or any towels with which to dry my hands, were just the icing on the cake; I'll spare you the details, but let's just say after that first visit to the restroom, I decided to just hold it until I could find a more suitable facility.

                              Walking back to our table I passed the live pianist, who honestly sounded more like a toddler randomly banging the keys than a paid professional. A radio and some speakers would be a lot cheaper and a lot less offensive. At least as the night went on, he seemed to improve (or our alcohol started to kick in).

                              The salad, which the waitress assured us would be big enough for the two of us to split, turned out to be nothing more than a fist-sized pile of bitter lettuce with a little vinaigrette dressing and two croutons.

                              We knew ahead of time that their signature dish, the "fabulous" roasted chicken, was going to take an hour to prepare. But looking around the restaurant, we saw that over half of the tables had also ordered the chicken. With that the case, I don't understand why Zuni doesn't start preparing the chickens in advance, knowing that there will be dozens of orders each night. If their excuse is that they want to serve it hot and fresh, then why was it that from our vantage point upstairs directly down into the noisy kitchen, we could watch our and 5 other guests' chickens sitting on the counter for NEARLY 10 MINUTES before the waiters and waitresses got around to bringing them to our tables?

                              Anyway, once the $48 "chicken" arrived, we found it to be warm - not hot - from having sat so long after being removed from the oven. It was burnt - black and charred - on the outside, while the breast was still slightly undercooked. And while it tasted better than what you would get at KFC, it was certainly nothing to write home about. In all honesty, I would have had a better "chicken" if I had stayed home. And I would have gotten an actual chicken, instead of the tiny little bird we were served, which was more akin to a Cornish game hen than an actual chicken. If I was the owner or chef of this restaurant, I would be ashamed to serve this as my signature dish.

                              After all of that, we decided against ordering dessert. We just wanted to get out of there, but again we had to wait forever to get our check. After asking our waitress and another table's waitress to bring our check, it was finally the busboy who complied - the same busboy who spilled water on my lap while filling our glasses, not just once but TWICE throughout the evening.

                              So after the poor service and mediocre food, I was floored when I saw the bill. My advice? Stick to the East Bay if you want good food, good service, and a reasonable cost. How such subpar restaurants can get away with exorbitant expense and such snooty attitudes is beyond me.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: Oliver Klosov

                                Zuni's one of my favorite restaurants, but given how many people don't like it, I would never recommend making a first visit on a birthday or other special occasion.

                                Re the empty seats, I believe they reserve the relatively uncomfortable tables by the noisy bar / waiting area for walk-ins. If you reserve, you get a better, quieter table in the back or upstairs.

                                The chicken rests while they make the bread salad with its juices. That's part of the recipe—to quote the cookbook, "the meat will become more tender and uniformly succulent as it cools."

                                1. re: Oliver Klosov

                                  love the zuni. it's the first place deb and i head to after dropping our bags at the hotel (we're east-coast folk). as previously mentioned, zuni is a comfortable pair of shoes. i love the fresh and expertly shucked oyster, the professionally prepared vodka gimlets (up, thank you), the chicken, the burgers, the salads, the service and so-on.

                                  the zuni cookbook is a favorite goto in my house. we've cooked the chicken all over the world. friends/guests love it. i have a smidgen of the mock porchetta in refrigerator that will be lunch tomorrow.

                                  in short, i'm a big fan. the place puts a smile on my face whether it's old friends meeting every week for lunch and bloody marys (you girls know who you are) or bikers sitting outside swilling vodka and slurping oysters.

                                  zuni works for me.