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One night in San Francisco: Gary Danko or Chez Panisse?

It's sad but with a packed schedule, including heading up to Napa and then back down the coast to LA, my girlfriend and I only managed one full day and, thus, one night in San Francisco.

Consequently we have a bit of a dilemma on our hands: eat at Gary Danko or Chez Panisse?

I'm much more of the stylish one, looking to be impressed/wowed (and so am pulling for G.D), while she's very interested in the all natural, locavore approach and all things California (so pulling for C.P.).

So, what should we do? Appreciate any insights. Thanks

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Chez Panisse
1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709

Gary Danko
800 N Point St, San Francisco, CA 94109

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  1. Well, I think you've got a pretty clear picture of the distinctions between the two. At that point, it just becomes a personal decision. Are you going to be having a dinner in Napa? If so, it might be a good idea to base your choice on how different it might be from where you eat in Napa.

    1. CP Downstairs is very stylish - a stunning expression of Craftsman architecture. And such history.

      GD is not in the best odor these days - why don't you consider Commis, or if you want to go "safe", Boulevard or Zuni?

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      Zuni Cafe
      1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

      Commis
      3859 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611

      3 Replies
      1. re: bbulkow

        I love Chez Panisse, but if you only have one night in San Francisco, I would stay in San Francisco, Zuni is a good choice for California Cuisine style food. And as I always mention, my friends and I will go to the bar at Zuni just to grab a drink anytime we want a margarita because they are so good (fresh lime juice and cointreau).

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        Zuni Cafe
        1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

        Chez Panisse
        1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709

        1. re: bbulkow

          Coi might be exactly what you are looking for, combining both of your interests. It is exclusively locavore with the best fresh ingredients (the Chef stopped importing ingredients about 18 months ago and now forages for ingredients at the local farmers markets), but the approach is modern, and the surroundings upscale. Our local newspaper food critic said: "two recent revisits to Coi have shown that his approach has continued to morph into a style that is not only highly individual, but could only happen in the Bay Area" Coi is one of only four Northern California restaurants with 2 Michelin stars and the only one in San Francisco (Chez Panisse and Gary Danko have one star).

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          Coi
          373 Broadway, San Francisco, CA 94133

          1. re: Paul H

            Second Coi! Gary Danko didn't wow me as I thought it would, though it was very good. Coi wowed.

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            Gary Danko
            800 N Point St, San Francisco, CA 94109

        2. I personally prefer Danko between those two but either would be a good choice. I think you have a good idea of the difference between the two. One factor that you didn't mention is which day of the week your dinner will be. The dinners at Chez are more refined on Fridays and Saturdays and more rustic early in the week.

          Another option I suggest you consider is Coi which has a very local and seasonal approach to ingredients but also uses much more modern (and less "safe") techniques than either Danko or Chez.

          You could theoretically have a lunch a Chez Panisse Cafe - which is wonderful and really captures that minimalist, ingredient-driven approach to food as well or better than Chez Panisse Restaurant - and then have dinner that same night at Danko. That would be a great food day!

          If you like the idea of this approach, but don't want to spend time traveling to the east bay, you might try Zuni - which is a similar style of food as Chez Cafe, although IMO not quite as good - for lunch and Danko for dinner.

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          Chez Panisse
          1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709

          1. Gary Danko is such a "safe" choice nowadays - nothing will misfire but nothing will extend your horizons or "wow" you either. I'd go with Coi or Commis over Danko, or if you have time to drive to Los Gatos, Manresa.

            Any number of places up in Napa/Sonoma will serve you better than G.D. - Cyrus, Redd, Meadowood...

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            Manresa Restaurant
            320 Village Lane, Los Gatos, CA 95030

            Gary Danko
            800 N Point St, San Francisco, CA 94109

            Commis
            3859 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611

            9 Replies
            1. re: mikeh

              Between Gary Danko or Chez Panisse, I would definitely pick Gary Danko. GD serves very good upscale food. Nothing earth shattering or particularly "innovative", but the food is always very good with great service. Personally I'm not a fan of Chez Panisse. I've been a few times and always left disappointed and underwhelmed. I find the food boring and bland - not worth the hype at all. I'm okay with restaurants not wowing me as long as the food tastes good, but CP is not one of them, especially for the price.

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              Chez Panisse
              1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709

              Gary Danko
              800 N Point St, San Francisco, CA 94109

              1. re: calalilly

                Put us down for Danko. We have had nothing but wonderful experiences there on multiple occasions. CP......... underwhelmed is probably the best description.

                1. re: calalilly

                  Agree completely about CP. I cook better meals with local, seasonal ingredients than they do. I find their food totally boring.

                  1. re: pikawicca

                    "Better meals" are the awesome-ist. I used to listen to classical music, and then I learned that I could hum better. Now I hum all the time, it's better. Really.

                    Danko is technical. CP is about food of a place. I don't think they're your best options unless wowing people with your culinary escapades is your objective. The menu and interaction with ingredients is also interesting at Quince and Oliveto.

                    1. re: keg

                      I have access to first-rate local produce and meat, and I'm a talented-enough home cook to combine them in delicious ways. I've always found CP to be totally unimaginative. Why pay oodles for a plainly roasted lamb chop when you can cook the same thing at home and season it more to your linking? Maybe even (gasp) make a pan sauce. This is, perhaps, the most over-rated restaurant in the States, if not the world. The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia has being doing local food for decades, and it's magnitudes better than CP.

                      1. re: pikawicca

                        Because I can't make the same thing at home. I don't have a wood-burning hearth with a spit, and while with effort I can buy from most (though not all) of Chez Panisse's producers, they often get first crack at the best of the best.

                        Plus, at Chez Panisse I get to sit at the table with my friends and enjoy the meal. I'm technically capable of making similar meals at home, but I learned 25+ years ago that it's not that much fun to spend most of the evening in the kitchen while my friends are having a great time in the next room.

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                        Chez Panisse
                        1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709

                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            My friends hang out with me in the kitchen, so that's not an issue. I am very supportive of local growers and have a great relationship with them. I get really good stuff.

                            1. re: pikawicca

                              I buy virtually all my produce and meat direct from farmers and ranchers, in many cases the same ones that supply Chez Panisse. I can still taste the difference when I eat there. I've been trying to find out where they get their hazelnuts for years.

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                              Chez Panisse
                              1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709

                2. Chez Panisse is great. If you eat downstairs it's very stylish in its own unique way and is really a must for anyone who's into natural / locavore / sustainable food.

                  I'm not sure there's anyplace in SF proper that's similarly a must for someone into style and wow factor compared with the French Laundry or Manresa.

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                  Chez Panisse
                  1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709

                  1. ...

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                    Chez Panisse
                    1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709

                    Gary Danko
                    800 N Point St, San Francisco, CA 94109

                    1. As between your two original choices, I'd go for Chez Panisse. The food is always very good, although its simplicity (don't expect vertical food or alginate pearls) is part of the appeal. But it's a place that looms large in culinary history, especially California cuisine.

                      That said, I'd put in one more vote for COI. Not just as a good compromise, but as something that may well deliver a meal that exceeds the others both by your criteria and by your girlfriend's.

                      Gary Danko is a fine upscale restaurant, but in my limited experience, the food at COI is more innovative. Chez Panisse does a good job with local and sustainable ingredients, but COI is more impressive.

                      Best of all, if you eat at COI you're going to get a wider variety of tastes. The eleven-course tasting menu is the only option. It's not cheap, even by the lofty standards of restaurants with Michelin stars ($135pp + wine), but if you just have one dinner in town, you may as well pull out all the stops.

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                      Coi
                      373 Broadway, San Francisco, CA 94133

                      Chez Panisse
                      1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709

                      Gary Danko
                      800 N Point St, San Francisco, CA 94109

                      1. Thank you to everyone who has replied and made some great suggestions.

                        Clearly, the choice has been made for Coi...however, one small snafu: this lone night I have available in SF is a Monday and, alas, Coi (somehow??) is CLOSED on Mondays.

                        Sadness.

                        5 Replies
                        1. re: goldn3

                          Not sure how often you come to the Bay Area, but in general I'd vote for CP for visitors. It's very *California*, whereas you can find food like GD in many places. Too bad about Coi -- but though I also prefer Coi the most out of the three, I'd recommend CP first for visitors due to the local feeling.

                          1. re: goldn3

                            Two things to keep in mind:
                            1. Monday night is the cheapest night to eat at CP compared to the rest of the week. So if price is a concern then CP may be a good choice on a Monday.
                            2. CP downstairs serves a fixed menu so if the menu is not to your liking on the night you are going you won't be able to select from a variety of other items. If having choices of menu items is important then GD is a better option.

                            1. re: goldn3

                              Price aside, Monday is my favorite night downstairs at Chez Panisse. That's sort of the day set aside for the chefs to have fun. It's "only" three courses but the main course is often something relatively time-consuming and elaborate, such as bollito misto or bouillabaisse.

                              http://www.chezpanisse.com/menus/mond...

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                              Chez Panisse
                              1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709

                              1. re: goldn3

                                such a BUMMER! we got you all worked up for Coi and now you can't go! ) :

                                1. re: goldn3

                                  The best-laid plans... Like the time we were all psyched for Jai Yun. On Thursday. Who closes on Thursday? Dammit.

                                2. My vote is for Chez Panisse.

                                  I had the opportunity to dine at both last summer and Chez Panisse hit all the right notes for us. The food was sublime in its simplicity and respect for individual ingredients. The ingredients were truly top-notch and every single course was perfectly executed. The room and service are professional and serene-I actually found it quite "zen-like". I would definitely say that Chez Panisse is a must, at least from the perspective of quintessential Northern Californian cuisine.

                                  Danko disappointed. I was so looking forward to it, and was shocked at many of the kitchen's missteps. Frog legs horribly overcooked to the point that it should never have left the pass, and repeated elements in many of mine and my companion's courses (did I see lentils again?). We had an exceptional server-very warm, genuine and professional. However the sommelier came across as disinterested even after we tried to engage him in a discussion about Austrian wines. The whole evening ended up being kind of off-kilter, with some highs but more lows overall. The room at Danko is much more lively than Chez Panisse.

                                  Every restaurant can have an off-night, and I'm sure it was (unfortunately) the case for me at Danko. Even so, I can't shake the suspicion that even if they were "on", I would still have preferred the food at Chez Panisse. However, if you read the board, you will find the SF hounds much more divided about Chez Panisse-it tends to be a love it or hate it sorta thing.

                                  Didn't manage to get to Coi, although I was curious. Next time-next year.

                                  As always, read, read, and read the boards some more to get a good idea of which SF hounds you think your palate/dining preferences are most aligned to and go with that.

                                  1. Easy. Eat at The Fifth Floor.

                                    Gary Denko . . Shortly after being seated 2 waiters ostentatiously presented us with an amuse-bouche and a glass of prosecco, with the words 'Gary would like you to have this.' After the meal? $11 for that wine, on the bill. And no, the food didn't outweigh the enormity of this gaffe.

                                    CP - everything said above captures it. but I like the Fifth Floor better. CP will never give you Foie Gras 3 ways and make you whimper while devouring it.

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                                    Fifth Floor Restaurant
                                    12 Fourth St., San Francisco, CA 94103

                                    4 Replies
                                    1. re: Jordancc

                                      Are you referring to Fifth Floor under the most recent chef?

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                                      Fifth Floor Restaurant
                                      12 Fourth St., San Francisco, CA 94103

                                      1. re: Jordancc

                                        Have you been to Fifth Floor since Jennie Lorenzo took over last summer? I've been curious to try her food, she seems like both a fussy Frenchy chef and a down-to-earth chowhound:

                                        http://www.fifthfloorrestaurant.com/p...
                                        http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/20/din...

                                        One of the things I like about Chez Panisse is that I know I don't have to worry about them serving me one dish three ways, unless maybe it's a lamb or pork plate with a griled chop, braised shoulder, and sausage.

                                        -----
                                        Chez Panisse
                                        1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709

                                        Fifth Floor Restaurant
                                        12 Fourth St., San Francisco, CA 94103

                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                          Oh, the horrors of being served one dish three ways! ;-)

                                      2. My vote is Danko! This is a long list of split opinions, but I have to say, Danko will wow you....and Chez Panisse is nice, but won't knock your socks off. I am a complete foodie, total locavore, and pescetarian. I really thought I would fall in love with Chez Panisse, but I honestly found it very non-memorable. At Danko, I remember every single thing I ate. It's delicious, and the service is lovely.

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                                        Chez Panisse
                                        1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: kshennessy

                                          Whatever Gary Danko's virtues, the restaurant is not very into the locavore trend. The menu typically has very few ingredients that couldn't be as easily sourced in New York or Dubai.

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                                          Gary Danko
                                          800 N Point St, San Francisco, CA 94109

                                        2. I visited Gary Danko's a couple of weeks ago for the very first time and was thoroughly impressed! It is quite posh....think fur coats, power suits, diamond jewelry but the food was astounding and the service impeccable. I had the Seared Ahi Tuna, Lemon Pepper Duck Breast, and the Chocolate Souffle and everything was delicious. It is certainly worth a visit!

                                          -----
                                          Gary Danko
                                          800 N Point St, San Francisco, CA 94109

                                          1. Although I know you're looking for an answer between those two, I would say neither - both are overrated, although Gary Danko is at least good! I was very very disappointed by Chez Panisse on a recent visit. My choice for the best meal in the bay area is La Folie, followed very closely by Luce!

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                                            La Folie
                                            2316 Polk St., San Francisco, CA 94109

                                            4 Replies
                                            1. re: epicuriousdeb

                                              To be fair, Luce is the only restaurant mentioned in this thread that's open for lunch, and I have only been for lunch, but I was severely disappointed

                                              1. re: vulber

                                                Luce is the only restaurant mentioned in this thread that's open for lunch
                                                Chez Panisse Café Lunch Hours:
                                                Monday through Thursday: 11:30 a.m. -3:00 p.m.
                                                Friday and Saturday: 11:30 a.m. -3:30 p.m.
                                                Sunday: Closed.
                                                Zuni Café is open for lunch and dinner.
                                                Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday 11:30 am to 11 pm
                                                Friday and Saturday 11:30 am to midnight
                                                Sunday 11:00 am to 11:00 pm | Closed Monday

                                                -----
                                                Zuni Cafe
                                                1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

                                                Chez Panisse
                                                1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709

                                                1. re: wolfe

                                                  I'm pretty sure the CP cafe isn't under consideration

                                                  1. re: vulber

                                                    Only pointing out that lunch is available if it is wanted. Free parking is also usually available on Henry Street 1 block west of Shattuck.;-)

                                            2. Bear in mind that GD is well-executed generic haute international French cuisine. If you spend enough money in any metropolitan area with a population over a few million, you will have a nearly identical meal. You can almost certainly experience the same food in LA. GD can also be rather obnoxious about telling you when you sit down exactly how long you are allowed to be at the table, and then being obnoxiously obsequious when you order expensive wine and letting you stay at the table all evening. They lack tact.

                                              4 Replies
                                              1. re: SteveG

                                                I have never had GD tell me how long I am allowed at a table, and I typically bring wine. Granted I haven't been in a couple of years, so unless this is new I have not experienced anything but polite, friendly and personable service at GD.

                                                1. re: Scott M

                                                  I'm not making that up, just reporting an experience.

                                                  1. re: SteveG

                                                    Although I haven't experienced the time limit, I totally agree with the point about the service lacking tact.

                                                  2. Gary Danko for sure! CP is good and all, but really you are just getting the very best of local ingredients.

                                                    -----
                                                    Gary Danko
                                                    800 N Point St, San Francisco, CA 94109

                                                    1. I love the radical binary division of opinion here on both restaurants. Gary Danko will wow you with the same exquisite French food you can get in any major city. Chez Panisse uses the finest ingredients available in Northern California to make food no better than you could whip up at home.

                                                      Any restaurant that can provoke that kind of disagreement must be worth at least one visit.

                                                      -----
                                                      Chez Panisse
                                                      1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709

                                                      Gary Danko
                                                      800 N Point St, San Francisco, CA 94109

                                                      1. FWIW, I just faced a similar challenge for my wife's upcoming birthday. I live here in the Bay Area but was struggling to find something interesting that we'd enjoy and that was sufficiently good, and "special" that it would be a memorable evening. Only constraint that I had was that we're bringing our well-traveled teenagers to dinner with us, so something not TOO challenging was indicated.

                                                        My final choices turned out to be a Friday night dinner at Quince (in SF) with the kids, and then driving up to Napa on Saturday for lunch at Ubuntu. I know Jeremy Fox has left Ubuntu but am hoping that the menu and execution will carry on his inspiration and technique.

                                                        1 Reply
                                                        1. re: RichInMV

                                                          I think Quince is a lovely suggestion, though I haven't been since they moved to the new space.

                                                        2. We prefer GD of the two in the OP but must say LaFolie last summer was one of the most amazing meals we've ever had.

                                                          1. My choices if I were you:
                                                            -The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton
                                                            -GD, great service, great food
                                                            -La Folie but make sure you get a table in the main dining room and not in the back room
                                                            -Michael Mina, love it
                                                            -Coi, never been but from the comments from everyone here, it's my next destination spot and seems like it will be a great compromise for you
                                                            -Ame, love it

                                                            CP, not a fan.