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Underwhlemed at Zuni [San Francisco]

We finally got out to try Zuni Cafe this past weekend. We took my sister and brother in law for their recent birthdays. Zuni had been on our list for quite some time and everyone was really excited to try it.

We started at the bar which was lovely. I love the shiny copper bar and the cocktails were fun. We were seated upstairs in a cozy booth. It was much bigger and spread out than I anticipated. Overall the service was pretty good. I can't fault our server, he was very personable and prompt but the overall level of service from the restaurant wasn't as high as I expected.

It was the food that garnered the three star review though. We ordered a sampling of salads and soups for the first course. My sister had the cesar salad which was awesome! Strong but not too strong anchovy flavor in the dressing and croutons that were to die for. My husband had the minestrone soup which was also delicious, very fresh. My baby jewel lettuce salad was okay, fresh but not very well dressed and the avocado wasn't really ripe. The polenta was fine, nothing spectacular. We ordered the house cured sardines, again fine but not memorable.

For mains my sister and I split a roast chicken which was the specialty of the house as I understand. It was tasty and moist but served very plainly with some greens and a bread salad. I just thought for a $48 chicken it would have plenty of veggies, not a few leafy greens and bread. It was plenty of chicken and that was a good thing since the boys portions were pretty small. They seemed happy with the salmon and lamb (I didn't have any) but they were finished very quick and tucked into the chicken. I am not looking for huge portions but since Zuni is not fine dining I would not expect fine dining portions.

I don't know if my expectations are too high and I don't mean to bash a perfectly fine restaurant I just expected more. It's a beautiful restaurant with a great atmosphere, maybe we ordered wrong or hit an off night. We ended up spending $95/pp incl tip with 1 bottle of wine, 1 round of cocktails and no dessert. I felt either the food or the service should have been better and I probably would have left happy. I would much rather spend $25 more/pp and head to Commis.

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Zuni Cafe
1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

Commis
3859 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611

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  1. Join the club :) Although I wouldn't want to go to Commis either.

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    Commis
    3859 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611

    1. I go to Zuni for burgers and chicken. I like the oysters, too.
      It's not fancy (or cheap) by any stretch. Somehow, Deb and I, over the years, have made it our first stop after we touch down at SFO.
      It's good to have a tradition.

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      Zuni Cafe
      1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

      4 Replies
      1. re: steve h.

        Steve in CT! Thanks to your BBI recommendation (I'm Dr. Knockboots on there!), I ate at Zuni two summers ago. I will definitely return to Zuni in September when I next trek out to SF. My girlfriend and I also plan to establish the same tradition!

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        Zuni Cafe
        1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

        1. re: Rich D.

          Howdy, Doc!
          Zuni grows on you. Deb and I will be back in Northern California next week.
          The tradition continues.

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          Zuni Cafe
          1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

          1. re: steve h.

            Where are you headed? Instead of starting a whole new thread (which I may anyway), how about I see what you think. Wed night I land am eating at Zuni. Thurs morn drive up to St. Helena in Napa and scrounge for lunch. Thurs night I'm tentatively scheduled for Martini House in St. Helena. Thoughts on it? Friday day wine taste and then Friday night I have reservations at Redd in Yountville. Ever been there? Other than TFL (booked), am I missing out on any great places in the Napa Valley? Finally, Saturday night I'm debating between Ame and Quince... Any thoughts on those?

            Other Hounders, please weigh in! If I should start a new topic I will...

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            Zuni Cafe
            1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

            Martini House
            1245 Spring St., St. Helena, CA 94574

            1. re: Rich D.

              Deb and I are heading south from SFO to Pebble Beach via the PCH for the Concours. We should be back to San Francisco (and Zuni) by the 16th.

              Sounds like you are facing a mighty-fine road trip. As your attorney, I suggest you drive North over the mountains (Route 1). I don't know Martini House but the name sounds damn good to me. Keller is Keller. I love his stuff. Ask for a tour of the kitchen.

              Mustards Grill in Napa is an old favorite of mine. Cindy Pawlcyn is charming and a damn fine chef. Mustards has a website.

              Quince is a terrific restaurant although I may have read that there was some recent turnover in the kitchen. You may want to consider taking public transportation out to Noe Valley to Chris Cosentino's Incanto. Food is excellent and the ride out from FiDi is a hoot. Lots more recommendations but you get the idea.

              Best regards,

              --steve

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              Zuni Cafe
              1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

              Mustards Grill
              7399 St Helena Hwy, Napa, CA 94558

              Martini House
              1245 Spring St., St. Helena, CA 94574

      2. Nice post. Thanks for the update.

        People either seem to like Zuni or not. It is not inexpensive so that expectation probably was off.

        I don't think you ordered wrong or it was an off nnight. The burgers, the caesar salad, oysters and the chicken are the top things to order there. While I love the chicken ... simple as it may be ... I'm not a fan of the burgers because they are on sourdough rolls ... a travesty to a burger, IMO.

        If you are ever in the Berkeley area, Zaki Kabob house has an excellent roast chicken.

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        Zuni Cafe
        1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

        7 Replies
        1. re: rworange

          I enjoyed the food at Zuni but was shocked at the portioning for some things. For the price we left very hungry and we typically are not disappointed with portions. My son ordered a quail dish and just about cried when he saw how small it was. Yet, we saw the burger and fries at the next table and it was huge... so I guess it is what you order.

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          Zuni Cafe
          1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

          1. re: jsaimd

            Every now and then Zuni goes nuts. It has to be at least a decade, but I still resent the green salad with pink lady apples that had exxactly three slices of apple so thin I could see thru them almost. I was about to go off on a rant when the friend who was visiting from out of state started to rave about how much she loved the joint ... but I still resent it ... one of those dishes that is memorable ... but not in a good way.

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            Zuni Cafe
            1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

            1. re: rworange

              And then there was the nectarine that just rolled around on its plate (my favorite Chowhound thread ever).

              1. re: JasmineG

                OMG, I'd forgotten about that one. Ithink we need a thread about these oldies but not so goodies.

          2. re: rworange

            Not to nitpick, but the Zuni burger is served on foccacia, not sourdough. I actually really love their burger-it's a great lunchtime treat.

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            Zuni Cafe
            1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

            1. re: rworange

              I think the top things to order there are the bloody mary and the espresso granita (and oysters and caesar salad). I do like Zuni, a heck of a lot more than I liked Commis, though I've always gone for lunch, not dinner (which may keep the bar bill down a bit since I typically don't order lots of wine at lunch). The bill always seems to be high, but then, I expect that. (though I've certainly never spent $95 per person). I never expect too much of the service, since it is in reality a casual place, IMO. (In that respect, the service at Commis has Zuni beats hands down, but then IMO the service was by far the best part of Commis).

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              Zuni Cafe
              1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

              Commis
              3859 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611

              1. re: susancinsf

                On my occasional visits to Zuni over a lot of years I've always found the service great; personable, knowledgeable, and helpful. I guess I'm puzzled by the service complaints.

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                Zuni Cafe
                1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

            2. "Overall the service was pretty good. I can't fault our server, he was very personable and prompt but the overall level of service from the restaurant wasn't as high as I expected. "

              I don't understand that. Could you elaborate please?

              BTW, that bread salad to me is one of the best things I've ever had as a side. Sorry you weren't impressed :(

              3 Replies
              1. re: c oliver

                The didn't clear all of our silverware, they didn't refill water until the ice was clinking, our table didn't have the crumbs wiped between courses (just at the end of the meal). After reading the comments in this thread I think I expected it to be less casual than it is so its partially my fault for walking in with higher expectations.

                I just never got that it was casual from what I'd read.

                1. re: Foodie.wannabe

                  I would agree that service here is not the strong point. I have never been entirely happy with the service and always have to ask for more water as you noted and sometimes other oddities from time to time which I don't need to go into. I guess I just have low expectations given the casual atmosphere. But while I really love the chicken, the burger, the pizza, the caesar salad, the anchovies, and the ricotta gnocchi, I really haven't had any bad dishes here. I agree that some of the food could be considered bland by some, but I believe our American palates are conditioned to expect big flavors, lots of spice, garlic, heat, sweetness etc. and sometimes that can be disappointing if your expectations are set at that level. This is not a big flavors kind of restaurant.

                  1. re: Foodie.wannabe

                    I do think it is overhyped at times, so appreciate your report as a cautionary tale to others not to expect too much..

                    Of course, the first time I went to Zuni I was expecting to absolutely hate it, based on what I had heard from friends, and from hubby, who had a very bad experience there years ago. I was quite surprised that I actually enjoyed myself; always nice when that happens rather than the reverse...

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                    Zuni Cafe
                    1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

                2. Zuni is praised by some as much as others praise The French Laundry. It is no wonder that some people are underwhelmed when presented with reality. Zuni would be better served by its fans if they scaled back the hyperbole.

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                  Zuni Cafe
                  1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

                  The French Laundry
                  6640 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599

                  1. My now 30 year old daughter always has to have us eat at Zuni's when she returns home and it's always the same menu items: oysters, shoe string potatoes, roast chicken with the bread salad, anchovies. Tom and I always share the Caesar salad. So these old standbys are what draw us back over and over again. Occasionally a special (the hanger steak for instance) was revelatory and got me searching for hanger steak at butchers. The last time we were there there was a memorable meringue dessert and we don't even like meringues in general. So I guess what we appreciate are the consistency since she was a small child of our old favorites and the occasional wonderful surprises. Plus the great oysters but she and I could eat oysters for all the courses including dessert!

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                    Zuni Cafe
                    1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

                    1. The chicken for two is at $24 per person the cheapest entrée on the menu. It has always been a generous helping for two when I've ordered it.

                      The polenta is exactly what it says on the menu, a bowl of polenta with Parmesan or mascarpone. It's good but as bland as it sounds. I've always felt like it's there for kids or invalids. Totally do not recommend it except maybe as a side dish for an entrée.

                      15 Replies
                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        Zuni is called Zuni Cafe and it fits the vibe. I love the cocktails especially the margarita (all fresh lime juice -no horrible mixers) they make simple tasty food where the key ingredient may shine. This is not what I would look for a romantic or mind-blowing evening out.

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                        Zuni Cafe
                        1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

                        1. re: myst

                          The name dates back to the early, pre-Judy Rodgers days. It started out as a neighborhood cafe and evolved into a restaurant thanks to the appeal of Billy West's French-Southwestern fusion. The original cafe took up only a storefront that's now the westernmost portion of the restaurant, and the bulk of the space was a cactus store.

                          The expanded restaurant was inspired by Parisian brasseries and like them was open all day, from morning to late night.

                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            Robert, I know my memory is not the most reliable of instruments, but my recollection is that the cactus store was across the alley (Red Desert was the name, I think). Maybe I didn't know about the cactus store until it moved there?

                            1. re: jillyju

                              I think the cactus store moved across the alley when Zuni expanded into the corner space.

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                              Zuni Cafe
                              1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

                            2. re: Robert Lauriston

                              I remember the cacti in the window at the corner - when we lunch at Zuni now, it's for oysters, roast chicken, and espresso granita - every time - my expectations are met happily in all ways.

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                              Zuni Cafe
                              1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

                            3. re: myst

                              good to know about the margarita, if I were ever not in the mood for a bloody mary :-)

                                1. re: myst

                                  Boulevard's is consistently awesome and I suspect "better".

                                  1. re: bbulkow

                                    The vodka gimlets at Zuni are the perfect counterpoint to the oysters.

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                                    Zuni Cafe
                                    1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

                                    1. re: steve h.

                                      Oooh, I haven't had a VG in about 40 years. Must try that combo.

                                    2. re: bbulkow

                                      Boulevard ought to be better: first courses are $13.75 to $19.75 ($29.75 for foie gras) vs. $7.50 to $14.50 at Zuni; main dishes are $29.75 to $39.75 vs. $25-29 at Zuni.

                                      Boulevard's new spinoff Prospect costs about the same as Zuni.

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                                      Zuni Cafe
                                      1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        I was just talking about the margaritas, which I suspect have less of a price difference.

                                    3. re: myst

                                      another rave review for the margaritas...and I've been systematically testing them...

                                      1. re: escargot3

                                        Lemon drops there have been hit and miss, but the Cosmo might be the standard by which all others are judged. I'm not a big cosmo guy, and I like 'em.

                                        1. re: escargot3

                                          Me too. :) I replicate the recipe (as close as I can) for my own parties at home.....

                                          In fact these margarita's got me over my tequila phobia (developed after way too much on a youthful trip to Cabo San Lucas).

                                2. I've been to Zuni twice, and although the food was fine, I wasn't overly impressed by it. I usually keep this opinion to myself though, because some of my friends think I'm either a snob or crazy to think it. Or worse, that i don't know what the hell I'm talking about, and should be burned at the stake for heresy ;)

                                  My BF nearly cried when he saw the portion of rabbit they gave him, it was so small, and with very little rabbit, 'harely there" you might say

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                                  Zuni Cafe
                                  1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

                                  1. It had been a crappy couple of burger days in San Francisco when I went to the much lauded Zuni Cafe for their signature, house-ground burgers. Keep in mind that this cheeseburger was served on focaccia, so one can imagine the gustatory hell that I was about to enter. The burger was 17 bucks, and the cheese (something snooty in the White Cheddar family) was an additional $1.75......dicks.

                                    The burger arrived and looked fine until it was flipped over to reveal a cool, grill treatment, so it had weak sear marks and a rubbery crust. The focaccia (rosemary) was oddly lacking both rosemary and the customary, slightly chewy and firm texture--it was more like cornbread.

                                    Bite one--hmmm that's oddly gamey---I wonder if it's just me--looks across table to see similar look of confusion mirrored on dining partner's face.

                                    Bite two--well, that's sort of........fishy tasting and reaching for unpleasant.

                                    Bite three--this is downright unsettling.

                                    Bite four--no, it's just plain off-putting.

                                    Bite five--there was no bite five.

                                    I have failed--I could not choke this one down. However, I consider myself a survivor of the single worst burger that I have ever tried. It was a crapcake--and that is actually insulting to cakes of crap everywhere.

                                    The grind was fine as polenta, and the flavor was pure, fishy skank. It was also remarkably firm, which suggested that they took puréed ground round, added dashinomoto (bonito flakes) or fish food, and an egg--whizzed it up in a food processor while going out back to smoke, and then caught up with an old friend for ten minutes before realizing the mixture was nearly liquified, and then saying "eff it, let's serve it anyway.". The cooked burger ended up being a meatloaf made with Gerber baby food with the flavor of overly "ripe" salmon. I assume that they did not bother trimming the beef deeply enough and handed us a burger made from the bacteria-rich rind of the dry-aged beef.

                                    The mouth feel was ghastly--mealy, vaguely toasted focaccia sandwiching mealy "beef" with a greasy wad of salty cheese. More sadly, the dubious focaccia dutifully soaked up the fishy drippings to deliver a bite of something resembling a soggy, carp flavored brownie.

                                    The waitress sheepishly hustled away the plates of 2/3rds consumed burgers and brought us a dessert menu to cleanse our palettes. The strawberry sorbet was bright, sunny, and bursting with fruit flavor, and the peach meringata dish was a work of genius from the dual perspectives of texture and flavor. That meant that someone in the Zuni Cafe kitchen was worth a damn, but it certainly was not the guy on the grill.

                                    In all fairness, the burgers were removed from the tab. There were other patrons in the restaurant that were not revolted by similar looking burgers, which suggests that either we got a bad batch or that the other patrons were OK with the food.

                                    Burger Review : Astonishingly bad. Tee up Destiny's Child's I'm a Survivor, and just walk the other way. You really, really don't want to know. I could still taste it 24 hours later.

                                    http://www.theburgerreview.com/2010/0...

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                                    Zuni Cafe
                                    1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: TheBurgerBusters

                                      I didn't quite consider it that bad, but I definitely couldn't figure out the big deal and found it fairly gamey. Of course, it was overshadowed by some of the best French Toast I've had.

                                      1. re: TheBurgerBusters

                                        The burger at Zuni can be quite good. The focaccia usually is up to the task of sopping up juices. The grind on my last visit in late August was coarser than on previous visits: a good thing. Pickled vegetables on the side are exemplary. String fries are ok in my book.

                                        Zuni's Achilles' heel is service.

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                                        Zuni Cafe
                                        1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

                                        1. re: TheBurgerBusters

                                          I tried the much lauded Zuni burger for the first time recently. I didn't find it revolting, in fact I thought it was pretty good, but that's it, just good not great, didn't live up to the hype for me. The shoestring potatoes were also just good. However, the overall experience was enjoyable and I have a feeling I might have enjoyed some of the other menu items more.

                                        2. Went by last night at 7:30 and then back at 8:30 to meet friends for dinner, both times there were only a couple of people standing at the bar, first time I can recall not seeing it packed. Maybe I'm not usually there on Tuesdays.

                                          Highlights of dinner for me were the best oysters I've ever had and the burger we ordered for dessert. I'm still not a huge fan of the focaccia but the flavor of the meat is exceptional.

                                          The wine list has a better selection of bottles in the under-$40 range than most places in Zuni's price range. We had a $32 Gewürztraminer, a $36 Falanghina, and a $38 Blaye, both very nice.

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                                          Zuni Cafe
                                          1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

                                          3 Replies
                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                            The oysters at Zuni are very good. I pair 'em with a vodka gimlet.
                                            I haven't made a weekday reservation there in years. Waiting a bit at the bar before getting a table seems par for the course.

                                            1. re: steve h.

                                              We had two kinds of oysters. The Kumamotos I asked for were nothing special, The others, some other variety, from Humboldt Bay, picked by the waiter, were fantastic. That'll teach me to leave the choice up to them. Periwinkles and two kinds of clams were very good.

                                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                Yeah, I let them call the shots. Zuni does a pretty good shucking job, too.

                                          2. Had a lovely special-occasion meal last night. Highlights out of many good dishes were the onion rings in the fritto misto, a rabbit confit "risotto" that was about as good a rice dish as I've had in a restaurant, the peach-leaf ice cream that came with the crêpes, and the always perfect espresso granita.

                                            5 Replies
                                              1. re: Glencora

                                                It said risotto on the menu, but it was no more than ten minutes between the time we ordered it until it arrived at the table, so strictly speaking it was something else.

                                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                  ? risotto can be prepared to a certain point, then finished later to be on the table in 10 minutes at a restaurant. So, then, Robert - who's preparing and serving genuine risotto in San Francisco?

                                                  1. re: Cynsa

                                                    Restaurants do that, but, as Marcella Hazan said, "genuine risotto is quite another thing."

                                                    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/897335

                                                    1. re: Cynsa

                                                      I've eaten at a restaurant that makes continuous batches of risotto to serve on the half-hour.