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Apr 4, 2007 08:58 AM

NOPA - great argument for cooking at home [San Francisco]

Friday night around 11pm, four of us stopped in at NOPA for a snack and cocktail. Sure, the space is nice. Sure, the service was attentive. Sure, the food was good. Sure, the cocktails were balanced and not too sweet (a common problem).

We had the flatbread which was tasty without being spectacular. The tagine was yummy. Our veggie was nice.

But, really? Most of the food is very basic and I can make this stuff or similar at home. I left thinking "Damn, I gotta have more dinner parties!" (which we proceeded to do the very next evening)

And I was also kinda embarrassed since our guests included a chef from LA who was like "This is THE hot new place in SF? What the hell?"

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  1. Nopa has solid food just like you said, not revelatory. but like you said, everything was good. they do everything very well. first of all that cant be said for very many restaurants. think of all the restaurants you go to for great food and im sure there is a level of failure at some point on the food service spectrum. for example, Zuni: great food, great space, pretty good cocktails, quetionable service.

    People dont just go to restaurants for good food. otherwise they would order take out or just cook. people go out to eat to be part of their communities, to interact even if just by proximity with others.

    Nopa has a great "feel" or "vibe" or whatever you want to call it. i honestly dont think people are going there because of a trendiness, otherwise i wouldnt be there. but its packed every night so people keep coming back. they are doing something very right and in my opinion its their community and ambience coupled with all the other solid ingredients that make it a great "restaurant"

    2 Replies
    1. re: Lord Griffin

      Lord Griffin well put. There are many people that cannot make that kind of food at home trust me, most of my friends would be in that category. With that said it is a great place to go out for dinner without paying a fortune for good solid food and cocktails. It's not a trendy place at all, it's just popular.

      1. re: Lord Griffin

        Right on Lord Griffin! There are also many people out there - myself included - that would rather have someone else do the shopping, cook the food, and clean up the mess while I drink my cocktail. Also, I often find that it is actually cheaper for me to go out and eat than to buy all the necessary ingredients it would take to make a basic (for me) two-course meal. I love to cook, but time can be something of a commodity.

        And, is it trendy? Sure it's trendy, or at least it definitely has that "hip" vibe, but so what? It helps ease the fact that you're paying for food you could make at home. :o)

      2. People make the same "I could cook this at home" argument about Zuni, but I don't have a wood oven, a place to grill when it's dark or raining, or a deep fryer.

        And even if I did, to duplicate a typical meal I'd order at Nopa, I'd be spending so much time in the yard frying anchovies, baking pizza, and grilling lamb that I wouldn't be able to sit down and enjoy my own party.

        1. I really like Nopa, I have been there many times. That said, the two dishes you mention are the least interesting ones I have had there. I was in particular disappointed with the tagine. Other dishes are really fantastic, such as the lamb riblets, burger, and some desserts. And of course, the drinks are awesome.

          4 Replies
          1. re: Maya

            NOPA is simply an "only in san francisco" type restaurant. It wouldn't be on the radar in Manhattan or Chicago. That type of good, hearty food is prevalent there and most people wouldn't pay much attention to it. In this City, a lack of pretension goes a long way. The chic and the sleek often don't appeal to the San Francisco mentality, the casual and basic do. Personally I don't enjoy loud restaurants and casual service at higher prices and basic hearty food isn't exciting enough to keep me coming back. Different strokes for different folks I guess.

            1. re: grubber4

              That style of restaurant first appeared in America at Chez Panisse, which begat Zuni, which strongly influenced (and lost some staff to) Nopa, but it has become popular in New York and elsewhere.

              What determines success in SF is mostly great food. Unless a restaurant has a steady stream of tourist business, it can't get by on style alone. If it has great food, people will go whether it's casual or fancy, so long as the prices are in line with the total experience. Nopa's packed, but so is Michael Mina.

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                Completely disagree with your family tree. NOPA's style: a mixture of classic American with some other influence was around far before Alice Waters began prying her California Organic theme. As I said, for my money, sloppy, tatooed and pierced wait staff, loud hard surfaces with brick walls with good basic american food (roast chicken or a roast pork chop was not invented by Chez Panisse) isn't too thrilling. Others dig that scene.

              2. re: grubber4

                I think you're very much correct, that NOPA sticks out as a well executed version of what it is, because of it's place in San Francisco...and I also agree that it's a different family tree than the Waters line. I really enjoyed my experiences at NOPA and it's one of the few places in SF I don't hesitate to recommend. Not because it's the most inventive, most exclusive, or even best food I've ever had, but it's just good.

                I also think SF is coming out of a slump where it's most heralded establishments were living off hype...and it's nice to see a full package, at a good value, that serves California comfort food.

            2. It might be a bit hasty to judge it based on the limited number of items you tried. Or have you been before and this was a follow-up to another "basic" experience for you?

              1. Wait, you're basing your thoughts on Nopa entirely on having had a "snack" amongst friends?? Do you go to French Laundry and decide how good/bad the entire meal is before the 3rd course arrives?? Is that the M.O. you expect from Michael Bauer, Robert Lauriston and other local food critics - eat one entree, one app & one vegetable and base their entire review on that alone??

                I think you were expecting Nopa to be some sort of epiphany dining experience a la FL, Chez Panisse, Manresa, etc. That it most certainly is not. What it is is a nice place with good food/cocktails and a great vibe that's priced much less than what you would expect it to be. There's certainly something to be said for going to places like that rather than cooking at home......

                2 Replies
                1. re: Eugene Park

                  I was simply sharing the experience.

                  I never compared Nopa to French Laundry. The menu at Nopa is mix & match, not a set menu. But as it happens, I was blown away by my first bite at FL.

                  I was not expecting Nopa to be an epiphany dining experience. But given how many people on this board give it glowing recommendations, I did think it would be more interesting than it was.

                  1. re: larochelle

                    I'm with larochelle and find the tone of some of these replies entertaining. And I liked the meal I had at NoPa quite a bit, and thought the execution was superb. But the menu's kind of boring American food, like an upscale Chow, and the room is hardly intimate. $100+ is a lot to spend for two for roasted meats and vegetables, let alone at a place you can hardly get a reservation.

                    I've never been impressed with Zuni, for what it's worth, or understood why others are. Chez Panisse is a different story.