Throughout the year, Restaurant Editor Bill Addison will travel the country to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.
Repetition can lead to perfection, but the cooks assigned to make the Caesar salad at Zuni Cafe must certainly weary of the task: the endless rinsing and drying of fluted romaine leaves (left whole); baking bread cubes to an exact degree of chewy-crispness; constantly balancing the dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, red vinegar, beaten egg, and house-cured anchovies; applying the final flurry of Parmigiano-Reggiano and black pepper in portions somewhere between judicious and generous. So much mindfulness goes into that seemingly simple salad. The peerless results, though, are why the restaurant's customers order it again and again. It's true of many dishes honed by the inimitable Judy Rodgers, who died last December after a yearlong fight against cancer of the appendix.
Zuni Cafe is the nation's neighborhood restaurant. Rodgers built it into a guidepost of physical and culinary comfort. The two-story room—with its mix of woods and metals, a dapper zinc bar, and tasteful watercolors (Rodgers studied art history at Stanford)—feels instantly familiar because it's so often imitated. But there's no replicating the sense of place. Triangular glass walls enclose the building: It makes an ideal haven from which to watch the ever-shifting moods of the San Francisco weather.
Zuni Cafe is the nation's neighborhood restaurant.
Zuni began in 1979 serving Southwestern cuisine, the thematic extension of a store next door that sold cactuses. The restaurant eventually absorbed the plant store. In 1987, after chef Kathy Riley left to have a baby, the owners convinced Rodgers, who was then cooking in Manhattan, to take over the kitchen. By kismet, Rodgers had been placed with the famed Troisgros restaurant family in France as a high school exchange student; it sparked her curiosity for French and then Italian cooking. She came to care more about the foods that people consume daily than the twinkling pinnacles of the Michelin three-stars. Her specialties reflected it. She realized the potential of the restaurant's Caesar salad, and she roasted chicken in the brick oven that the owners installed soon after she came on board: It became her defining dish. She was among the first to go gourmet with the humble burger, grinding the meat in-house and sandwiching the patty on grilled rosemary focaccia with just-garlicky-enough aioli.
A meal at Zuni feels like a homecoming, even if it's your first time. I'm relieved to say that hasn't changed. Gilbert Pilgram, who came aboard in 2006 after cooking for many years at Chez Panisse, shares Rodgers's aesthetic and is keeping her vision alive. The eclectic crowds haven't thinned. The menu still combines universal solace with California spunk.
The Caesar is as consummate as ever. I've made the recipe from Rodgers' invaluable cookbook, but it always tastes better in the restaurant—the ingredients are finer, the hands that unite them more practiced. Same with the roast chicken, a blur of herbs, salt, and campfire scents against the bird's primal succulence. The warm bread salad underneath—zinged with currents and pine nuts and scallions—slurps up the chicken's juices like turkey stuffing. Thanksgiving every day.
It takes an hour to roast the chicken. My friend and I ordered a few other dishes while we waited. Burrata over smashed English peas on toast with mint and black pepper. A straightforward, feel-good spinach soup with crème fraîche and tarragon. A second salad, this one a tableau of roasted sardines, kumquats, cactus paddles (a nod to the restaurant's past?), and little gem lettuces in a fragrant cumin vinaigrette. We opt for a low-key finale: huckleberry granita served in a glass and strewn with torn grapefruit segments. After listening to a pianist riff on jazz tunes and waiting while a soft rain turns to mist, we leave calmer and lighter than when we arrived. Which, I think, is exactly the effect Rodgers hoped to have on those she fed.
I was living in San Francisco when Nopa ("North of the Panhandle," a hip area that's part of the Western Addition neighborhood) opened in 2006, and the town's food community quickly recognized it as the Zuni Cafe of its generation. California-Mediterranean flavors, often mingled in a wood-fired oven, dominate; the food and the beverage program venerate small producers; and much of the cooking revels in seasonal simplicity.
But perhaps more importantly, the restaurant fills diverse needs in the same way Zuni does. It's a place to celebrate with blowout Burgundies and a spread of entrees, or to swing by the long bar for an after-work cocktail and burger. It has a kindred spirit of hospitality. "Zuni was not just a physical predecessor to Nopa, it was the emotional and philosophical foundation of our restaurant," wrote wrote former Nopa manager Stephen Satterfield on the restaurant's blog shortly after Rodgers' passing.
Still, they are their own creatures. If the two share a spiritual sisterhood, Zuni is more Venus Williams, personality-wise, and Nopa favors Serena—feistier, more raucous. Nopa's soaring, bustling dining room resides in a former bank. (The cave-like vault, still in tact, keeps wines at an even 56 degrees.) And chef Laurence Jossel, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Allyson, and Jeff Hanak, tends to wield more acid and richness in his cooking. Avocado toast, for instance, may zap the taste buds with threads of pickled jalapeño; strips of mezzo secco (aged Dry Jack cheese) atop the toast's tuft of salad greens ease the heat. Sardines draped over asparagus ribbons pal around with the equally loud flavors of preserved lemon and olive tapenade.
The kitchen grasps that we all don't crave the same comfort foods; it obliges a spectrum of tastes. Warming succor comes in the form of macaroni and cheese, the blanket of dairy offset by spicy pickles, or a poached duck egg, its yolk saucing farro, trumpet mushrooms, and shreds of braised duck leg. For meat-and-potato types, there's a massive grilled pork chop that retains its lushness better than most. Contemplative food lovers will appreciate dishes like seared rabbit loin matched with quinoa, roasted whole carrots, thinly quartered black radish, and blueberries—it comes with the ingredients jumbled together so they all bleed into one amazingly cohesive whole. Everyone will be happy grabbing slices of charred flatbread scattered with arugula, bacon, apricots, and melty blobs of Cowgirl Creamery's Crescenza cheese.
A word of advice about the burger: Skip the optional and unnecessary bacon, which often arrives flabby. And veer toward the quieter pleasures for dessert, like olive oil cake gussied up with the ripest strawberries and whipped cream scented with sherry.
It takes years for a neighborhood restaurant to reach the iconic status that Zuni maintains.
It takes years for a neighborhood restaurant to reach the iconic status that Zuni maintains, but Nopa is on course to achieve similar standing. By the way, if you find a table at Nopa hard to secure, consider a visit to either of its two sibling Mexican restaurants, both named Nopalito: A margarita along with plates of squash blossom quesadillas or mole Coloradito provide comfort in their own winning styles.