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Date Night - Classic California Cuisine?

princess00 Apr 5, 2012 01:56 PM

Hi Chowhounds ...

So, my hubby and I are visiting the Bay Area in May and I've narrowed down our dinner options - except for one night. He finally gave me the green light to plan a splurge dinner - no budget limit. Woo hoo!

However, I'm trying to select a restaurant that offers classic Californian cuisine and am struggling to locate options. Most of what comes back frequently on the boards that I have perused and have looked interesting to me (Lers Ros, Aziza, Mandalay, etc.) have been nixed by the hubby. =( So, I'm now searching for something less globally adventurous, but equally tasty.

Any suggestions? We are from Texas so we would prefer to avoid Steakhouses and Mexican (which are plentiful here), and I've already reserved an Italian restaurant (Delfina) on another night. Given that San Francisco is on the Bay, I thought maybe seafood or sushi would be good, but from reading the boards - those options don't seem to be a strong point on the food scene??

Looking for a meal that when we leave, we say "Wow, San Francisco is a great food town! Best meal E-VER."

Please help!

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  1. p
    princess00 RE: princess00 Apr 5, 2012 01:59 PM

    Forgot to add that we will have a car and are staying around Union Square.

    1. g
      goldangl95 RE: princess00 Apr 5, 2012 03:22 PM

      Classic Cal Cuisine: Chez Panisse (Berkeley - about a 20 minute drive, plus a little more time for parking). Gary Danko or Michael Mina in SF.

      Classic French/Cal: La Folie in SF

      A little more modernist/adventerous: Saison or Coi both in SF

      3 Replies
      1. re: goldangl95
        princess00 RE: goldangl95 Apr 5, 2012 03:52 PM

        Thanks, goldangI95 - would you recommend the Tasting Menu or just the regular menu at Gary Danko?

        1. re: princess00
          goldangl95 RE: princess00 Apr 5, 2012 04:11 PM

          Depends on your tolerance for having someone else pick your food for you. It sounds like that tolerance may not be too high, so I would suggest sticking to the regular menu .

          1. re: goldangl95
            princess00 RE: goldangl95 Apr 5, 2012 05:15 PM

            Thanks! I have a pretty high tolerance, but my hubby ... Not so much! Lol!

      2. Civil Bear RE: princess00 Apr 5, 2012 03:26 PM

        Around here classic california cuisine means the use of freshly prepared local ingredients (farm to table) with french or other influences. It was essentially inveted accross the bay in Berkeley by Alice Waters at Chez Panisse. San Francisco has many deciples, but after reading the body of your post I'm not so sure that is what you are looking for. Could it be you are looking more for classic California or San Francisco restaurants?

        9 Replies
        1. re: Civil Bear
          princess00 RE: Civil Bear Apr 5, 2012 03:40 PM

          Yes - that's what I'm looking for - freshly prepared local ingredients. Simple, artful food.

          1. re: Civil Bear
            princess00 RE: Civil Bear Apr 5, 2012 03:51 PM

            Okay - so for Chez Panisse - do you do the restaurant or the cafe? The restaurant looks like you only have one option for dinner each night and the cafe is more of a standard menu. Is there a difference?

            1. re: princess00
              goldangl95 RE: princess00 Apr 5, 2012 05:38 PM

              The restaurant is a little more formal, and also where the more interesting cuisine comes from. It may not be the best choice for your husband, as there is just one set menu offered each day.

              The cafe is more casual, very good, has nice standards in a warm space. Great place, but not particularly destination worthy.

              1. re: princess00
                Civil Bear RE: princess00 Apr 5, 2012 10:22 PM

                Yes, the restaurant is more of a destination type place. You are correct that they only have one option each night, but you can check ahead and see what they are serving for the week:


                1. re: princess00
                  Robert Lauriston RE: princess00 Apr 6, 2012 09:05 AM

                  Chez Panisse's downstairs restaurant is the place for a special occasion. The upstairs cafe was unique when it opened 30+ years ago but there are lots of other places doing that sort of thing better these days (though nobody else gets quite the cream of the local crop that CP does).

                  If you want to have the best time at Chez Panisse, stay at the French Hotel across the street so you don't have to schlep back to SF. They also have a cafe downstairs with great coffee.

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston
                    mariacarmen RE: Robert Lauriston Apr 9, 2012 11:50 PM

                    Warning - The French Hotel is a pit. I knew people who worked there for years, and I took a relative to stay there once and one look at the carpeting and we left. This was years ago, granted, but I've not heard that anything's changed. Same owner.

                    1. re: mariacarmen
                      wally RE: mariacarmen Apr 10, 2012 07:04 AM

                      It's very downscale.

                      1. re: wally
                        mariacarmen RE: wally Apr 11, 2012 12:17 AM

                        downscale would be one thing, but dirty is quite another.

                      2. re: mariacarmen
                        rccola RE: mariacarmen May 6, 2012 02:16 PM

                        I totally agree! The French Hotel is disgusting. I live only 4-5 blocks away and I'd NEVER tell anyone to stay there. Unless it was a (male) college student.

                        There are charming b&bs in Berkeley. Check them out on yelp, maybe.

                2. Robert Lauriston RE: princess00 Apr 5, 2012 03:39 PM

                  If you don't want to schlep to Chez Panisse, then Zuni.

                  12 Replies
                  1. re: Robert Lauriston
                    rockfish42 RE: Robert Lauriston Apr 5, 2012 03:47 PM

                    Seconding Zuni Cafe.

                    1. re: rockfish42
                      princess00 RE: rockfish42 Apr 5, 2012 03:50 PM

                      Oh, I've seen Zuni Cafe mentioned quite often. Checking menu right now!

                      1. re: princess00
                        sparky403 RE: princess00 Apr 5, 2012 03:57 PM

                        I third zuni - have the chicken bread salad

                        1. re: sparky403
                          princess00 RE: sparky403 Apr 5, 2012 04:06 PM

                          Okay - 3 for Zuni! I just looked at the menu and it looks super tasty. Gary Danko also looks appealing, too. Keep the recs coming!

                          1. re: princess00
                            mdg RE: princess00 Apr 5, 2012 04:27 PM

                            Zuni is the obvious choice in San Francisco for simple, artful California food. Gary Danko is fine but more complex and less specifically Californian. I think Zuni is closer to what you're looking for.


                            1. re: princess00
                              goldangl95 RE: princess00 Apr 5, 2012 05:04 PM

                              One thing I would add. Is make sure the atmosphere at Zuni is what you want for your splurge night. I think Zuni is the model of the SF cuisine/atmosphere that SF is famous for and is an excellent example of it. But it may read more casual for a "no-budget-limit" date night.

                              1. re: goldangl95
                                princess00 RE: goldangl95 Apr 5, 2012 05:18 PM

                                Thanks for the heads up on the atmosphere. It doesn't have to be fancy white tablecloths. We are more concerned with the food quality than the frills.

                                1. re: princess00
                                  princess00 RE: princess00 Apr 5, 2012 05:27 PM

                                  Okay, so here is my follow up question on Zuni. From what I can tell on Yelp, it is all about the roasted chicken. If we don't want to eat chicken, are the other dishes just as tasty?

                                  1. re: princess00
                                    goldangl95 RE: princess00 Apr 5, 2012 05:42 PM

                                    If you are OK with the bustling more casual atmosphere of Zuni, you may also want to check Frances or Baker & Banker.

                                    Range is another option (though Range is in the Mission - a less upscale/gentrified neighborhood - not sure of your comfort level on that).

                                    1. re: princess00
                                      Ruth Lafler RE: princess00 Apr 5, 2012 05:47 PM

                                      I just don't think Zuni is going to be your thing. It's maybe a little too simple for what I think you have in mind.

                                      The principles of "California cuisine" inform almost all of the mid-to-upper tier restaurants in the city, so it really depends on whether you want to experience it in a pure form or in one of the many ways it's influenced the local restaurant scene. If you what you want is to experience the pure form of California cuisine, then you should skip Zuni and go to the mother house (literally, since it's in what was formerly a beautiful craftsman house) at Chez Panisse (cafe rather than downstairs).

                                      1. re: Ruth Lafler
                                        grayelf RE: Ruth Lafler Apr 5, 2012 10:59 PM

                                        We loved our lunch upstairs at Chez Panisse Cafe (which just happened to be with Ruth and a couple other Hounds!). In the daytime you can sit at the back of the room and there are skylights. It's quite something. And the food deserves the kudos. Simple but delicious.

                                        Since you said you don't care much about the tablecloths, I'm just gonna go ahead and toss Canteen into the mix. I don't really know what California cuisine means but I think this might be a version of it. And you won't even have to splurge much. The menu is more limited than other places being mentioned, and it is in a converted coffee shop but the booths are cozy and the food is spot on. Some people have complained about feeling rushed (never us) but if you are worried about that, I just found out that they are not doing the final seating on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights (the website says Mon and Tues but it's gone on Wed also) so you can hang out a bit longer. The menu changes daily but you can get an idea from the samples one posted on their website -- note that Tues and Sat are prix fixe, and that they have a short list of wines. This is often our date night when we visit, though this trip that honour is likely going to Local Mission Eatery.

                                        Best of luck with choosing from the many great options and I hope you have a very romantic meal wherever you end up!

                            2. re: princess00
                              Robert Lauriston RE: princess00 Apr 6, 2012 09:09 AM

                              Zuni's menu changes daily, there are only a few constant items, such as the roast chicken for two, which I order maybe only one in five times I go there. The best things I've had were daily specials I've never seen again. The chef worked at Chez Panisse and has a very similar sensibility. The atmosphere is sort of an SF version of a Parisian brasserie. Best oysters in town.

                              Nothing against Gary Danko, as a local I'm glad to have that kind of slightly-older-school French food available, but its menu seems to me like something that could be served as easily in Hong Kong or Dubai or Dallas.

                        2. m
                          melvin RE: princess00 Apr 6, 2012 12:05 AM

                          Chez Panisse is THE classic. Mecca awaits you.
                          Go downstairs. It's fancy in an understated way.
                          Upstairs is too casual for an out-of-towner making a special trip, although it is a good choice for lunch.
                          Zuni is probably the classic in SF.
                          Neither one of these places is of the "no budget limit" variety.
                          I'd skip the fancier places if you really want the classic California Cuisine.
                          It's not really a fancy-dancy kind of thing.
                          If you really want a fancier example (why?) I'd consider Boulevard.
                          It's a perennial popular favorite for many years running.

                          8 Replies
                          1. re: melvin
                            princess00 RE: melvin Apr 6, 2012 01:24 PM

                            Hi! Thanks SO MUCh for the recommendations ... Y'alI are a great help! I tried to make reservations at Gary Danko and they only have 10pm seating for the days we are there. So, that's out since we are early bird eaters (last time I ate at 10pm in DFW, I found myself napping at the table rather than enjoying the food. LOL!) Zuni and Chez Panisse are still in the mix and it is good to hear that Zuni does things other than roasted chicken well. I'm still on the hunt, though. About to check Boulevard, Local Mission Eatery, and Canteen...

                            1. re: princess00
                              Robert Lauriston RE: princess00 Apr 6, 2012 01:43 PM

                              Canteen has great food in a slightly remodeled former hotel coffee shop. Great place and a great value but to me not a splurge place unless you're on a student budget.

                              Never trust Opentable that a place is full, phone the restaurant.

                              1. re: Robert Lauriston
                                Dustin_E RE: Robert Lauriston Apr 10, 2012 09:56 AM

                                gary danko isn't on open table.

                              2. re: princess00
                                foodeye RE: princess00 Apr 6, 2012 01:55 PM

                                Bix is classic SF and very good for a date night. http://www.bixrestaurant.com/index.html

                                1. re: foodeye
                                  melvin RE: foodeye Apr 6, 2012 04:59 PM

                                  I love Bix!
                                  So much fun.
                                  It's a great date spot.
                                  One of the most beautiful rooms in the city.
                                  Saw Sharon Stone come sweeping down the stairs in a sable cape once.
                                  Great place. Good for dress up. Oh, and good food too.

                                2. re: princess00
                                  mdg RE: princess00 Apr 6, 2012 06:53 PM

                                  Everything I've had at Zuni has been great. You don't have to order the roast chicken, and with just the two of you, you can try more things if you don't.

                                  Chez Panisse downstairs is indeed the classic mothership, but it sounds like hubby wouldn't enjoy it. Zuni is a better bet than Chez Panisse upstairs, especially for someone staying in San Francisco. It's lively and celebratory, but not formal and dressy.

                                  None of the other choices you're considering are as good a match for your description of what you want as Zuni. Make a reservation now; you can always change your mind later, but Zuni's popular and can fill up quickly.


                                  1. re: princess00
                                    moto RE: princess00 Apr 7, 2012 12:18 AM

                                    for some people, including myself and my spouse, the minimalism and simplicity of C.Panisse makes for a dull dining experience. good cooks are creating meals from vibrantly fresh, locally produced/harvested ingredients in a number of places, but if a restaurant's history and reputation influence your perceptions and enjoyment of a meal, going to C.Panisse could be uniquely satisfying.

                                    1. re: princess00
                                      Dustin_E RE: princess00 Apr 10, 2012 09:56 AM

                                      you could try grabbing a couple dishes at the bar of gary danko -- i like doing that a lot. i like their seafood dishes.

                                  2. m
                                    ML8000 RE: princess00 Apr 6, 2012 07:16 PM

                                    Surprised no one mentioned NOPA. I'd call Chez Panisse and Zuni the classic California cuisine and NOPA a younger version (under 35-40) for the hipster set. Good for a date night however.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: ML8000
                                      Robert Lauriston RE: ML8000 Apr 7, 2012 09:26 AM

                                      Nopa's kind of crowded and loud. To me it's more a place to go with a group of friends than on a date.

                                    2. nicedragonboy RE: princess00 Apr 6, 2012 11:21 PM

                                      Personally I'd see if your husband would reconsider Aziza. It's actually not so exotic as it sounds and the flavors that they put together can be amazing. Plus good cocktails.

                                      3 Replies
                                      1. re: nicedragonboy
                                        Ruth Lafler RE: nicedragonboy Apr 7, 2012 10:30 AM

                                        I was thinking that as well. It's a lot sexier for "date night" than Zuni or CP, the food isn't too exotic, and it's a really good representation of the way Cal-Cuisine sensibilities have informed other cuisines.

                                        1. re: Ruth Lafler
                                          princess00 RE: Ruth Lafler Apr 7, 2012 07:44 PM

                                          Yes - I thought Aliza looks yummy. Will maybe try to convince hubby. He's not normally this paricular. He nixed Chez Panisse due to location. I think I am leaning towards Zuni now since it is consistently good food, good atmosphere, and not too pricy. I may just stop asking him to look at menus and just pick something and tell him it is a surprise. Lol!

                                          1. re: princess00
                                            MagicMarkR RE: princess00 Apr 10, 2012 01:38 PM

                                            I'd vote for Zuni, as suggested by others. Or for more upscale, perhaps Masa http://www.masasrestaurant.com/

                                            Firstly, reading above, how is Aziza "classic" California (I love the place, but I do not think it really fits the bill)? From things you have indicated about your husband's preferences, I'd say a problem with some of the very high end places for him may be the time involved if you do a tasting menu: the meal can drag on for hours. Zuni may not be a fancy-shmancy as other places, but it seems to capture the idea of "Classic California" as well as any place. I have never had a bad meal there and only had the chicken once (which I loved). Just because you have an unlimited budget does not mean you have to spend it all, but at least at Zuni you could splurge in some areas like good wine and champagne, which could easily swamp a budget at the super fancy places.

                                      2. p
                                        princess00 RE: princess00 Apr 17, 2012 04:16 PM

                                        Hi Chowhounds!

                                        Well, we have made a decision. I have reservations at NOPA. I showed my hubby the menu for Zuni and Nopa and he went with NOPA. Can't wait to get to SF soon!

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