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Innovation: the CHOW tour

We’re hitting the road! Two of our CHOW editors, Lessley Anderson and Roxanne Webber, will soon be scouring three large and food-obsessed cities — NY, San Francisco and LA -- looking for deliciousness with a twist: innovation.

For the San Francisco leg of the trip, we want to hear from local hounds: Where would you go to experience creativity or originality, if given the budget and the time? For that matter, what does innovation mean to you? We're not expecting this to be exclusively or even majorly high-end dining. It may be a pop-up restaurant, or a particularly clever wine program, or a bold return to an old-timey craft like salumi.

For all who remember the OG CHOW Tour, the Jim Leff caloric extravaganza, you know the model. Roxanne and Lessley will be on the road starting July 1, traversing the cities for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; they start in San Francisco, then Los Angeles, then New York, for about a week in each place. They'll be blogging, posting video, and tweeting along the entire tour. In fact, you can start following them now on Twitter: @lessleyanderson and @roxanne_chow.

We're excited, they're excited, we hope you'll be excited too and will follow along. In fact, we hope you'll join them sometimes -- they'll be tweeting their location and will love the company.

All suggestions are welcome, we'll be checking in before they leave and on the way as well. Guide them!

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  1. Probably Plum in Oakland if it's open in time.

    1. Manresa, Commis.

      Manresa Restaurant
      320 Village Lane, Los Gatos, CA 95030

      3859 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611

      1. Coi. Commis. I don't think Plum will open until late July.

        3859 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611

        3 Replies
        1. re: Michael Rodriguez

          Yeah, I think Coi would be a more obvious candidate than Plum, which is not open yet. I would also like to nominate the somewhat controversial Lafitte just for the hell of it. Canteen and Bar Crudo are good candidates. Not sure to what extent the usual pizza suspects would be regarded as innovative.

          Bar Crudo
          655 Divisadero Street, San Francisco, CA 94117

          1. re: nocharge

            How about Cheeseboard in Berkeley? They have a good balance of innovation, but keep a hold of solid pizza staple taste preferences.

            1. re: cmramos

              The Cheese Board's unique style of pizza was innovative when they came up with it circa 1985, but it's a bit late to call it that now.

        2. Incanto for popularizing offal (and doing it really well).

          Ubuntu (Napa) for revolutionizing vegetable cooking (Fox's influence is still all over the menu)

          Adesso (Oakland) for the sheer number and quality of house-made salumi.

          Cheeseboard/Arizmendi for their idiosyncratic and distinctly Bay Area take on pizza. i think I have to throw Pizzaiolo's Monterey Bay squid and aioli pizza in with the "innovative", too.

          If I want to try wine from a grape I've never heard of, I go to Dopo or A Cote (both Oakland),
          or La Ciccia.

          Don't know if you're looking at innovation in cocktails, too - but Grand Ave in Oakland has a Murderer's Row of restaurants with great cocktail programs (both inventive and classic) - Camino, Grand Tavern, Boot and Shoe Service, and Sidebar.

          Ubuntu Restaurant & Yoga Studio
          1140 Main Street, Napa, CA 94558

          La Ciccia
          291 30th Street, San Francisco, CA 94131

          5008 Telegraph Ave, Oakland, CA 94609

          4293 Piedmont Ave, Oakland, CA 94611

          A Cote
          5478 College Ave, Oakland, CA 94618

          4395 Piedmont Ave, Oakland, CA

          The Grand Tavern
          3601 Grand Ave, Oakland, CA

          Boot and Shoe Service
          3308 Grand Ave, Oakland, CA 94610

          2 Replies
          1. re: daveena

            Oh yeah, À Côté is in a class by itself in terms of esoteric grape varieties. How many restaurants would dare to put Pfneiszl Kékfrankos on their list let alone sell it by the glass?


            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              Not a restaurant, but I've seen some pretty esoteric varieties at the wine bar in the Ferry Building.

          2. High end with drink pairing: Coi (The wine pairings are unusual with cocktails, sake, beers making the occasional appearance. Patterson is pretty innovative as it is, but if you want to push the chef to the limits, I've heard you can ask him to go vegan or raw...)

            Ice cream: Humphrey Slocombe for Golden Saffron Beet sorbet (or go on an ice cream tour of the Mission with Bi-Rite, HS, Mitchell's, and Mr&Mrs, and....) or Scream for sweet pea sorbet

            Find a popup: Mission Street Food (which is on hiatus for a honeymoon, unfortunately) or Tendejon de la calle (in Healdsburg)

            Vegetarian that will make you forget meat: Although the chef has left, early reports seem to imply that Ubuntu still has the stuff.

            Chinese: Jai Yun--instead of a menu with 10,000 items, the chef decides.

            Bakery with a japanese twist: Sandbox Bakery with negi-miso pan!

            Take a butchery class with 4505 Meats or Avedano's or Fatted Calf. Too bloody? Take a class on making preserves with Happy Girl Kitchen or June Taylor (you are on an expense account, right?) or go to something at 18Reasons.

            Take a foraging hike with Iso Rabins or check out his Underground Market.

            Learn to bake and give away bagels on Monday with Sour Flour.

            Eat the offally dishes at Incanto and be amazed at how not offally they are.

            Get a guerrilla CSA basket from Mariquita Farms. (Can't commit for yearlong weekly baskets? No problem!)

            Get a growler full of House's rose kombucha or try a flight of Drinkwell's fermented sodas. If you are looking for really weird flavors, check out Cultured in Berkeley.

            Have Sunday brunch at a Thai temple or sample the overly gourmet street food that is popping up everywhere. For ex, 4505 meats at the Thu Ferry Bldg, healthy home cooked Indian at Green Coriander, Adobo Hobo, the dude who makes those bacon potato chips, and on and on...

            Ubuntu Restaurant & Yoga Studio
            1140 Main Street, Napa, CA 94558

            235 Cortland Ave, San Francisco, CA 94110

            Fatted Calf
            644-C First Street, Napa, CA 94559

            Mission Chinese Food
            2234 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94110

            4505 Meats
            1 Ferry Building, San Francisco, CA 94111, CA

            Sandbox Bakery
            833 Cortland Ave, San Francisco, CA 94110

            Adobo Hobo
            Dolores Park, San Francisco, CA 94114

            7 Replies
            1. re: sfbing

              These are some great suggestions, thanks for sharing!

              What do you think about "innovative" lunch options? We're thinking about Wexler's, Out the Door, and the Thursday Ferry Plaza lunch vendors so we can hit 4505, Namu, and the Arlequin pastry stand.

              I've also been thinking about how to work in more of the Bay Area's great Asian and Latin cuisine. Any spots come to mind that have an "innovative" twist? Jai Yun seems like a good contender.

              Roxanne of CHOW

              Jai Yun
              680 Clay St, San Francisco, CA 94111

              439 Balboa Street, San Francisco, CA 94118

              Out the Door
              1 Ferry Bldg Plaza, San Francisco, CA 94111

              1. re: Roxanne Webber

                I like Out the Door but what's innovative about it?

                Out the Door
                1 Ferry Bldg Plaza, San Francisco, CA 94111

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  The OTD on Bush is serving a mishmash of Vietnamese and Western breakfast items. I don't think it is that odd, but a common breakfast growing up for me was an over easy egg and ham banh mi with maggi sauce, so what do I know?

                  I love pho for breakfast, unfortunately OTD is terrible at making pho.

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    I was curious about the Bush location's wine on tap program. Have you scoped it out?

                  2. re: Roxanne Webber

                    For sure stop at 4505 and Namu at the Thursday Ferry Building market. At 4505, get anything 'zilla style, and please convince them to bottle their money sauce (has a "$" on the bottle at the stand)! The cheeseburgers (on the small side) are also divine, and you can usually pick up a Gob while you're there. Namu has many interesting items to try and hits on your interest in finding Asian food with a twist.

                  3. re: sfbing

                    Mission Street Foods is closed because they are opening up Commonwealth next door. Their last dinner was June 5th. I went, and it was disappointing overall. Hoping they get recharged for the new place.

                    1. re: mariacarmen

                      coincidentally, JUST saw this post:


                      Mission Street Food is going to start Mission Chinese Food in the same Lung Shan locale, SEVEN nights a week, beginning in July.

                      Lung Shan Restaurant
                      2234 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110

                  4. What innovation means to me is the personal expression of the chef to create something that hasn't been done before. Looking forward and inward instead of back to the old country for traditional recipes or copying someone else's recipe. Just because something is "new" to the Bay Area, doesn't mean it's innovative if it was copied from elsewhere. And better execution of the tried and true doesn't necessarily involve innovation.

                    So, I don't consider Jai Yun innovative under that definition. That format is available in Asia, where you state a price and let the chef cook for you. It's the way that the old school Chinatown restaurants used to operate, so maybe you could call it a return to that tradition.

                    What I do consider innovation is drawing inspiration from the old and then carrying the idea forward for our local eating audience and the materials available here in the Bay Area and in our culture. A lot of suggestions seem to be "what's old is new again", but if that fits within your working definition, a lot more territory opens. There's not that much that's really original or new, so I look forward to what you turn up.

                    One example of personal innovation might be the pizzas that Gochi in Cupertino makes. The very light and crispy crust is rice flour-based, rather than a wheat flour pizza crust. The toppings include things like unagi, salmon roe, mabo tofu, etc. with lots of bubbly cheese. But I'm not tuned in enough to what's going on in Japan or elsewhere in Japanese cuisine to know if this is an invention of Gochi's owner or copied.

                    Jai Yun
                    680 Clay St, San Francisco, CA 94111

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                      The taco truck was a California invention, combining the food of Mexico's taqueros with catering vans. The next step in the evolution might be the taco bike, http://www.biteclubeats.com/2010/06/t...

                      Tendejon de la Calle that sfbing mentions above is the roving pop-up restaurant of Mateo Granados. Here's last week's menu, http://www.roadhousewine.net/menu.htm , some dishes might be original. "La Evolucion de un Taco" sounds interesting: breaded goat head and rhubarb.

                      Gochi Japanese Fusion Tapas
                      19980 Homestead Rd, Cupertino, CA 95014

                      Mateo Granados
                      399 Business Park Dr, Windsor, CA

                      1. re: Melanie Wong

                        Taco bike ... plu-leeze ... how third world. Mexico has had them forever.

                        As for innovation ... what the heck is innovative about that other than the design. There are tons of these here only the bicycle part is attached to the back of the cart. Heck, I can get fries and chicken from a food bicycle. Only proves how third world the US is becoming .. loads of illegal street vendors ... and now on bikes.

                        Maybe someone should give Tartine the idea of delivering baked goods by bike.

                        Anyway, I'd say there is NO innovation in San Francisco. Innovation to me is doing something totally different and not following the pack. I can look at every upscale restaurant and the menus almost read identically it is just the way the same ingredients are arranged that is slightly digferent.

                        Though I know what Chow is looking for is the type of places that sfbiing does such a great job of listing. Along that line, not a new place, but Aziza's Cal-Morrocan take is something different. Or try Tee-Off, a dive bar near Aziza where the chef does his own thing and the special might include kangaroo on the menu.

                        There's always radio cat where you can get a maple bacon latte ... that never fails to make people's jaws drop whenever I mention it.

                        If this works out for you, I wish Chow would do a tour of lesser known dishes and food vendors. There's a nice Bolivian joint that makes with woonderful whipped beer and egg drink ... trust me it is delicious. There's a unique Brazilian place in Richmond (I know ... off the tourist track) that makes the only Brazilian pastels in the Bay Area ... light, crispy deep-fried sweed and savory snacks with over 30 fillings. I see the Examiner, at least, finally picked up on this place

                        Or a totally green Basque dinner at Vineyards Inn with all the wine you can drink for $40. Then there are Central American quesadillas which are cakes like this one from Rico Pan that Jonathan Kauffman wrote about

                        There's so much like that out there in the Bay Area ... and probably every metro area.

                        It would be nice to do a tour about delicious food that most people don't know about. I don't mean by this ethnic food. Most of the ethnic restaurants offer the same limited number of dishes from their given cuisine. I mean food that most places don't serve. I guess I burn out on the sameness of Bay Area innovative cuisine

                        1. re: rworange

                          Maybe you stopped at the word "bike" and didn't read the article. The bikes you refer to in your link are a delivery mechanism for food prepared elsewhere and kept warm with insulation. This bike is equipped for cooking ala minute. More importantly, it has hot, running water and a water catchment system so that it could potentially be a legal food preparation center as well as complying with EPA, unlike so many of the illegal food carts running around. These are features that larger, more expensive trucks or carts have. There are still some food safety issues that would need to be resolved, but a set-up like this is a step toward allowing food entrepreneurs to become part of the formal economy and legal. Designing these in at a lower price tag and lighter weight fits my idea of 'better, faster, cheaper" innovation.

                          (Just had to throw in another widely used definition of innovation!)

                          1. re: Melanie Wong

                            Ah ... hot water and health food compliance ... American ingenuity at its best.

                            Yes, I read the article ... and know the Mexico taco bike was a non-cooking example ... though from the new businesses selling food from bikes like the pie lady and Vientamese sandwich lady, you'd think this was some sort of genius idea that has never been done. We appaud ourselves for going third world.

                            However, in the rest of my post I was saying I don't see how that differs from this sort of bike cart you see all over the world

                            They have hot food cooking areas ... as I mentioned, some can cook french fries and chicken ... others have various types of grills. The only thing different ... besides the hype ... about the SF bike is the cooler-looking design.

                            Now a solar-powered bike food cart ... that could be something ... I hope this kid figures it out

                    2. I'm sorry, I'm really having a hard time with the the word "innovation." I much prefer Leff's word "deliciousness."
                      I understand deliciousness. Innovative? not so much.
                      Davina got some 'splainin' to do.

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: steve h.

                        I'm sorry, I can't stand the word "deliciousness"! It's just waaay too cute and arch. I certainly seem to be in the minority on this one, since so many folks use it.


                        1. re: oakjoan

                          yeah, it's an old chowhound word that dates back (way back) to the day when Leff ran the site on a shoestring budget.

                          1. re: steve h.

                            I don't mind deliciousness too much, but hyper-deliciousness is a bit too too!

                            Please don't send anyone to drink the maple bacon lattes at Pirate Cat Radio. Blorg.

                            Pirate Cat Radio Cafe
                            2781 21st St, San Francisco, CA

                            1. re: grayelf

                              No worries on that. A classic martini, on the other hand...

                      2. Definitely stop at the Thursday ferry building market! Lafitte may also be a good stop - it's new, and they literally have a different menu every day, so it's ambitious in that regard.... and somewhat controversial (per the earlier comment) b/c Bauer just gave it a poor review.

                        Coi is a no brainer for innovative high end, and I agree with the recommendation to check out a pop up like Mission Street Food or the Outside In series - there is one later this month at Heart Wine bar.

                        The Sentinel - a sandwich shop in an old tobacco storefront is definitely one to try for lunch.

                        For innovative cocktails in SF, try Rickhouse or Bourbon & Branch.

                        Bourbon & Branch
                        501 Jones St, San Francisco, CA

                        Rickhouse Bar
                        246 Kearny St, San Francisco, CA

                        Heart Wine Bar
                        1270 Valencia St, San Francisco, CA 94110

                        1. Stop in Bakersfield between SF and LA. Visit the Moo Creamery. They grind their own beef, make their own pickles, bake their own rolls, freeze their own ice cream. The Guinness Float is to die for.

                          1. I had dinner at Gather in Berkeley this weekend, and I would send you there to get the vegan "charcuterie" -- really interesting and creative things that they're doing with vegetables, some with a traditional spin (mushroom pate, roasted beets), but always with a twist.

                            1. Find Pizza Hacker for street food pizza from his PizzaForge, a heavily modified Weber grill. http://thepizzahacker.com/ or via Twitter @PizzaHacker. Very innovative!

                              1. Nombe in the Mission for some great Izakaya food combining the traditional with some creative twists. Service is always excellent and the chef and owner always come by to greet their guests.

                                Izakaya Restaurant
                                1335 N 1st St, San Jose, CA 95112

                                2491 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110

                                    1. You need to hit up the taco trucks on International Blvd in Oakland. I have randomly stopped by a number of them and all have been great.

                                      1. If "innovation" is the focus, there are two basic kinds: Those of recent memory (good examples already mentioned -- salumi revival, for instance) and those that helped define the local scene long-term, even if they happened many years ago.

                                        This fifth-generation native and student of food and wine has thought about the second category. Some local elements aren't especially unique. Of native ingredients, shellfish stand out, especially abalone which is all but fished out, though available (farmed) in restaurants. Crabs and oysters aren't unique to SF, but Cioppino, the West-Coast analog of bouillabaisse, is a local specialty. The California wine industry developed nearby, and was mature before Prohibition (winery count surpassed pre-Prohibition peak only in the 1990s), but based in rural areas outside the SF Bay cities.

                                        For restaurants, Berkeley's Chez Panisse (open 1971) comes to mind. Visitors can be surprised at its ordinariness, albeit with quality seasonal ingredients skillfully prepared. They don't realize that Panisse resembles other restautants today precisely because it influenced restaurant style. In the 1970s it was certainly novel, and became the place impossible to get reservations for (like the French Laundry today). I refer here to the original Chez Panisse, the restaurant, which made the reputation. Chez Panisse Cafe, its casual spinoff upstairs, is younger. Although not everyone realizes this, all longtime local diners I know consider them two separate restaurants (different service styles, cooking facilities, prices, hours, phone numbers), and the restaurant's ownership concurred when I asked about that point a couple of years ago.

                                        Chez Panisse
                                        1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709

                                        1. Some updates from the San Francisco leg of the tour:

                                          breakfast at Out the Door: http://www.chow.com/blog/2010/07/conf...
                                          Drinks at Terroir, with snacks from Spencer on the Go:
                                          Dinner at Heart: http://www.chow.com/blog/2010/07/this...

                                          Before that was Humphry Slocombe, lunch at the Thursday market, doughnuts at Dynamo. Coming soon: Incanto, Gracias Madre, and a lot more. How are they holding up? Exhausted. And full: always, always full.

                                          Out the Door
                                          1 Ferry Bldg Plaza, San Francisco, CA 94111

                                          Gracias Madre
                                          2211 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110

                                          4 Replies
                                          1. re: davina

                                            Isn't Dynamo Donuts pretty much a knockoff of Portland's Voodoo Donuts?

                                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                              I'm going to kick that to Roxanne to answer, because she's been to Voodoo more recently than I have. But until she can get to it, I would say no: Voodoo is geared towards late-night drinkers and, as I recall, the doughnuts were pretty mediocre. They're really living off the novelty factor. Their doughnuts are garish, whereas Dynamo's are a little more refined, with higher-end flavors and ingredients.

                                              1. re: davina

                                                I think that's pretty accurate. Dynamo is way more Cali/gourmet influenced (seasonal fruits, herbs, etc.) and subtle in its approach. Voodoo is in your face with a heavy emphasis on novelty (cereal and whole bacon strips on the donuts, cream-filled X-rated shapes...). I wasn't that into the donut I had there a few months ago (the signature "Voodoo Doll"), it tasted sort of like a supermarket donut with suspiciously artificial tasting and looking jelly in it. But Voodoo really is fun and has a sense of humor about it, so I still think it's worth a peek into.

                                              2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                Maybe you're thinking of Psycho Donuts in Campbell as the Voodoo clone.

                                                Psycho Donuts
                                                2006 Winchester Blvd, Campbell, CA 95008

                                            2. I was at Adesso the night that you all stopped by, glad you enjoyed it.

                                              4395 Piedmont Ave, Oakland, CA

                                              1. Nice selection and write ups for the SF portion.

                                                A few thoughts

                                                1. Maybe I'm jumping the gun but will you have a link just to the SF portion of this?

                                                It is tourist season, and it would be a good link to use for suggestions in addition to pointing people to the Chow Digest. With the changing restaurant scene, next year ... not so much ... but this year would be great.

                                                2. Can the board selection area be updated to mirror the drop down list

                                                It doesn't have the Digest links and I have to reduce my screen size to 75 % to find them

                                                3. Links for past chow tours have been removed

                                                I was hoping to find a link in the drop down menu for the current Chow Tour and noted Jim's tour and the, um, Mongolian (?) tour are no longer there.

                                                The current tour is great, but those first two were somethng different. With the current tours, as I said, like any restuarant info, by next year some of that info will be dated.

                                                The other two tours were something different. As much as I might have scoffed at parts of the Mongolian tour at the time, it was a truly report with info that isn't anywhere else on the web. Jim's tour wasn't so much about the places he went, but how to eat without using guides. I can't tell you how important to me that was when traveling and living in places that don't get much coverage.

                                                4. Promote the Chow Tours a little better.

                                                Yes, I know there is a post like this one on top of the relevant boards and a button way to the right. However, it took me a while to find that button. People who might not visit the SF, LA and NY boards might be interested in the info. Because the info on the Chow homepage is more static, I don't visit that page frequently. Maybe while the tour is active put the links in the Special Coverage tabs? That was where I expected to find it.

                                                5. Is the video format for the chow tour different than the regular chow videos?

                                                I'm finding they run significantly slower.

                                                6. Links to quick reviews to right of screen

                                                Could just under the 'see all reviews' you could add a link to 'see chowhound discussions'. It seems like Chowhound gets no love.

                                                7. The Aziza review was my favorite

                                                I'm always trying to convince people to go and they hear the word Morrocan and that's the end of that. Those photos will help.

                                                8. Editorial content

                                                I was adding links to each of the SF tour reports to the place records when I noticed a few had an editorial content section with the links. Would it be possible to put Chow Digest links there as well

                                                3 Replies
                                                1. re: rworange

                                                  How come no one ever thinks of coffee when this sort of question comes up?

                                                  There are several spots that are doing innovative stuff with coffee and might be included in such a tour.

                                                  • Blue Bottle not only roasts excellent coffee and holds restaurants that use their coffee to exacting standards, but offers siphon brewing at its Mint Street location--an innovation noted by the New York Times.

                                                  • Four Barrel Coffee is also innovative in that they offer customer cuppings every week and a variety of single-origin espressos, including decaf single origin espressos, which I haven't seen elsewhere.

                                                  • Philz goes to extraordinary lengths to brew drip coffee that's quite unique.

                                                  • And what about giving kudos to restaurants that actually take the trouble to make excellent coffee? Bar Bambino comes to mind as a restaurant that serves up espresso drinks equivalent to the best cafes, and, sad to say, that's innovative.

                                                  I'm sure others could add to this list.

                                                  Bar Bambino
                                                  2931 16th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103

                                                  Blue Bottle Cafe
                                                  66 Mint St, San Francisco, CA 94103

                                                  Four Barrel Coffee
                                                  375 Valencia St, San Francisco, CA 94103

                                                  1. re: TopoTail

                                                    The Chow Tour mentioned Four Barrel

                                                    Blue Bottle was mentioned, but the focus was on the absinthe cookies.From the sound of them I'm guessing they were from Miette.

                                                    Philz is a good one though. Maybe not innovative, but marching to his own drumer

                                                    Blue Bottle Cafe
                                                    66 Mint St, San Francisco, CA 94103

                                                    1. re: rworange

                                                      Thanks rworange. I somehow missed that.