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Apr 5, 2012 01:56 PM

Date Night - Classic California Cuisine?

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

    1. 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

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

        1. re: princess00

          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

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

      2. 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

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

          1. re: Civil Bear

            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

              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

                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

                  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

                    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: wally

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

                      2. re: mariacarmen

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

                  12 Replies
                    1. re: rockfish42

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

                      1. re: princess00

                        I third zuni - have the chicken bread salad

                        1. re: sparky403

                          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

                            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

                              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

                                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

                                  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

                                    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

                                      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

                                        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

                              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. 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

                            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

                              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: foodeye

                                  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

                                  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

                                    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

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