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Why The Bay Area Is America's Top Fine Dining Destination

Spending $4,000 on five meals in America's boom town

About two-thirds of the way through a four-hour, 20-course dinner at the Restaurant at Meadowood, located on a lavish 250-acre Napa Valley resort surrounded by redwoods, an everyday-looking beeswax candle appeared at the far left corner of my place setting. I was sitting at a counter in the 3,000 square-foot kitchen, all steel and white-tile splendor, watching a dozen cooks in tan aprons navigate their labyrinth of work stations like Martha Graham dancers. The lit candle was, I assumed, another lovely touch in a meal rife with exquisite details.

Restaurant director Nathaniel Dorn sidled up, wielding a short cheese wire with wooden handles. Dorn began slicing through the candle with the wire. It wasn't easygoing, honestly. "It's our first night trying this, and it's worked at other tables," he said, grinning through his effort. A knife finally helped pull off the aha moment: Inside the candle was Crémeux des Cîteaux, a French bloomy rind triple cream lusciously runny and slightly warmed by the flame. Dorn scooped out a generous dollop and whisked the rest away. A server came by and I said, "Tell me you're not tossing the rest of that cheese." He said, "I see your point," and retrieved it for me, and I scraped the candle clean using dense, sweet bread made in-house with brown rice porridge.

After a quick trip to the men's room, I returned to find Dorn standing at the counter with another lit candle. "We're getting this right," he said. Voilà. The top, with the wick still flickering, came right off. I pretty much polished that one off, too.

The entrance and kitchen at the Restaurant at Meadowood; Mackerel marinated in melon with shiso leaf

The wacky wonderfulness of Meadowood’s cheese candle exemplified so much about dining right now at the finest of the Bay Area’s upscale restaurants: extravagance, earnestness, surprise, and perfectionism tempered by charm and warmth. San Francisco and the surrounding counties have been incubators for many of America’s food trends for four decades. We know the biggies by heart: respect for ingredients, coupled with an abiding love for the varied cuisines of the Mediterranean and an embrace of pan-Asian influences. But the chefs piloting the Bay Area’s top-flight kitchens have reached their own Space Age. The creativity is now unbound and borderless, built upon the fresh/seasonal evangelism of Chez Panisse and the Yankee wit of The French Laundry but more brazen and harder to peg.

If there is any spot on earth for a food obsessive to go on a bender — blow the bonus check, deplete the trust fund, ruin the credit score — San Francisco is it

If there is any spot on earth for a food obsessive to go on a bender — blow the bonus check, deplete the trust fund, ruin the credit score — this is it. New York’s grandest culinary beacons are generally more sumptuous in atmosphere, yes, and the kitchens turn out opulent, picture-ready landscapes. Chicago's loftiest vacillate between eccentric brilliance and expensive steak. Los Angeles is a food wonderland but its denizens don't much care about fancy dining. Right now the Bay Area is the most exciting place in America to go wild on fine dining: The produce from gardens and farms (drought be damned) really is more extraordinary, and chefs express more sense of freedom in their cooking than anywhere else in the country. Their flavors are clearer, their textural juxtapositions are more startling, and their imaginations reach farther.

Boom times drive the confidence. San Francisco’s richest people are, collectively, the wealthiest in the country; Silicon Valley tech executives are often restaurant backers as well as customers. Tourists come merely to pack in celestial meals. There is an audience willing to support creative extremes and luxury ingredients no matter the cost. Last year, during outstanding meals in San Francisco at Benu and at Saison, I remember noticing how steady and packed the weekday crowds were. It was the same on a recent jag through the Bay Area’s blowout destinations, during which Eater shelled out a cool $3,781.11 for my outing.

During these meals, I was reminded of the local expertise in precise yet wholehearted hospitality, a superior approach perfected in the 1990s by Laura Cunningham at The French Laundry and adopted as the region’s standard. Of course service excels at the Michelin three-star restaurants around the world, but an extra helping of conviviality informs Bay Area fine dining and reflects the sunniness inherent in the food. I was delighted but not really shocked to find that second candle waiting for me at the Restaurant at Meadowood, which does indeed hold three Michelin stars. As during every tasting menu extravaganza into which I disappeared that week, I felt someone not simply performing rote duties but genuinely attuned to my experience and pleasure.

Lamb in marigold sauce with plum and fresh beans with roasted avocado and epazote at the Restaurant at Meadowood

I will admit, in scarfing down all that molten cheese at Meadowood I was looking to get my money’s worth. The restaurant offers two dinner options: a $225 nine-course menu served in the dining room (Room & Board-esque clubby, with stone tabletops and studded leather chairs) or the kitchen-counter indulgence, coming in at around 20 courses, for $500 per person. When I called to make reservations, the latter was the only available choice so I ate solo. Absorbed in Christopher Kostow's meditations on vegetables, seafood, and meat, I felt no lack of company.

At Meadowood, one forkful can contain multitudes. Take a squat braised cucumber huddled in a nest of seaweed and edible coastal grasses, served with a sauce that took the whole thing out to the middle of the ocean. It included cod stock, cod liver butter, cream, crème fraîche, reduced white wine, grilled pieces of cod collar, shallots, and chives. It sounds like a busy blur, but on the taste buds it registered as gentle and uplifting.

My solo dinner at Meadowood rang in at $918, unseating last year's $863 Saison bender as the most expensive meal of my career

Right before the cheese course a lamb dish arrived. The circle of meat had been pulled from the ribs and grilled until it absorbed a backyard-barbecue smokiness. A single peeled half plum perched atop the lamb, cocked like those tiny hats worn by cigarette girls in old movies. A staffer spooned over jus glinting gold with crushed marigold petals and surging with cumin, coriander, fenugreek, and dill. The combination of meat and fruit evoked Middle Eastern traditions, while the sauce's jig of spices brought to mind the Bay Area's many Mexican and Asian restaurants, where Kostow must surely eat on occasional nights off.

Including the $350 wine pairing (a mix of Old World and California culties like "The Judge" Chardonnay from Kongsgaard), my solo dinner at Meadowood rang in at $918, the most expensive meal of my career.

But let's face it: Not everyone can afford such a splurge. The counter at Commis, James Syhabout's upscale Oakland flagship, also affords front-row views of the open kitchen's urgent, rhythmic production. Rather than Meadowood's Broadway-quality performance, sitting at Commis's counter more feels like watching a jazz band in a small club.

Commis’s more casual intimacy also comes at a lower price: $119 per person for an eight-course dinner with the requisite flurries of small extras, including caramelized onion financiers to begin and caramels with the salty intrigue of miso and Marcona almonds to end. Since Syhabout began the restaurant in 2009, a slow-poached egg yolk has been his signature. It peeped out of smooth soubise like the sun emerging from San Francisco’s morning fog. Chives and a pile of finely chopped malted grains huddled on one side of the bowl. A surprise gush of smoked date at the bottom sent a thrilling jolt that reenergized the palate. It worked as the ideal modern mid-course, dividing the clean, seafood-focused dishes that came before it and announcing richer pleasures to come: king salmon in a moat of sorrel juice with avocado, yogurt, dill, and an orange landslide of smoked salmon roe; roast duck with pickled cherries; and a gentle strawberry dessert with elderflower and ice cream infused with peppery grains of paradise ice cream.

James Syhabout of Commis and the restaurant's caviar snack; tomato salad and the interior of Quince

At Quince near San Francisco's Financial District, the dining room lately rivals the food. Michael Tusk and his wife Lindsay closed the restaurant for two months of renovations last year to create one of the country's most stunning restaurant interiors. Plush patterns in browns, grays, and oranges offset the grit of exposed brick walls; earthquake support beams have never looked so elegant. Massive, tapered chandeliers resemble blindingly lit spaceships readying to make landfall. If we feast first with our eyes, Quince serves a Roman banquet of furnishings.

Service mirrors the surroundings: polished, inviting, serious. The same adjectives could be used to describe the cooking. It might sound very 2003 (the year the restaurant first opened in a smaller, more conservative space) to label Tusk's cooking "Californian-Italian." Nothing about the cooking at all felt dated, though of these five high rollers Quince is unquestionably the most approachable. Michael Tusk's pastas were the showstoppers. Saffron-colored strands of tagliolini "Carbomare" cradled Monterey Bay squid, clams, and agretti, a plant with needle-shaped leaves and a spinach-like taste that's all the rage in Italy. Black truffles covered crimped bundles filled with pureed sweet corn.

Tusk can startle with the occasional wild idea — dinner began with caviar with a fascinating combination of avocado, shaved wasabi, and lime — but the mooring of Italian cooking makes the restaurant feel recognizable and trustworthy.

If Quince appeals to the broadest appetites, Atelier Crenn tends to attract the most seasoned food lovers. Dominique Crenn is a polarizing chef, really the only one (when Atelier opened in 2011) to surmount the Bay Area’s disinterest in blatant modernist techniques and abstract plating. But self-invention has always been one of the cornerstones of San Francisco culture, and Crenn found the right home for her brand of genius. It didn’t take long for me to try and stop matching up the fast sequence of dishes with lines in the airy poem that replaces a traditional menu ("Strolling on the beach, in its whimsically ebullient innocence/I remember an oceanic feeling"). I was much happier giving myself over to the experience.

At the start of her $220-per-person menu, a sheer globe of cocoa butter shattered and spilled apple cider and a hint of crème de cassis — as restorative as a sip of Kir Breton. Next, a thin slice of omelet rolled around hunks of crabmeat. Then something strange and glorious: a nugget of banana mounded with caviar, pecans, and gold leaf. Imagine a salted caramel banana split catapulted into the most luxurious stratospheres. Three bowls filled with piscine raptures — grilled and smoked bonito with avocado and pickled garlic, seared seabream with fried cherry leaf, and (the most startlingly wonderful) cured and smoked sea perch with uni and a sliver of peach — followed.

The interior of Atelier Crenn, and an interpretation of the forest

Seafood and vegetables dominated the meal, though meaty diversions showed up, including a signature bone marrow custard rolled into a log and accented with caper and nasturtium. Pastry chef Juan Contreras’s flamboyant showstoppers lived up to their fame: a varnished wood sculpture cradled a forest-like jumble that included pickled mulberries, sorrel mousse, pine nuts, and stray baby lettuce leaves. After a procession of savories that displayed fierce intellect, it was fun to rummage through a finale that felt like an edible version of "Where The Wild Things Are."

I happened to eat at Atelier on the opening night of Crenn’s second restaurant, the dinner party-themed Petit Crenn across town in Hayes Valley. True to the spirit of Bay Area hospitality, Crenn still managed to sweep into her crown jewel around 8:30 p.m. and greet every table.

Without consciously planning it, I had scheduled my five Bay Area blockbusters sequentially from north to south, starting in Napa and ending in Los Gatos 55 miles down I-280 from San Francisco. Eight months after Manresa reopened following a devastating fire, two of us sat in the near-windowless dining room to the left of the restaurant’s foyer. Tomato and garlic custard in tomatillo broth with peeled tomatoes, basil, and wisps of crisped bread brought the balmy summer evening inside. A soothing bowl of cioppino, San Francisco’s hometown fish stew, winked at local culture. The menu veered overtly global, too, with a chunky version of green gazpacho and then a sultry tangle of melon, lettuce, and glass noodles dangling on the edge of a green curry pool. Eating the food of David Kinch, Manresa's chef-owner, each course left the impression that I'd never tasted truly fresh food before — even after a week of the Bay Area's finest. It was otherworldly and a little unhinging and exhilarating.

Last year after an epic lunch at The French Laundry, I wrote that diners looking for a more next-gen approach to the modern dining pioneered by Thomas Keller might want to try Benu or Saison instead. Similarly, if you’ve ever come to California to bask in the radical sense of place and to understand the meaning of California cuisine, you’ve likely dined prix fixe downstairs at Chez Panisse . These days, though, the pilgrimage site for such revelations has shifted south to Manresa, a temple of produce where Kinch is the high priest. He’s been interviewed, filmed , and heralded relentlessly.

Halibut with eggplant, lemon verbena, and licorice at Manresa Bill Addison for Eater

Halibut with eggplant, lemon verbena, and licorice at Manresa

If pressed to name my favorite of these money-be-damned joyrides, I will choose Meadowood, which turns hedonism into the highest art form. But I'll also say this: If you want to taste and understand the pinnacle of California cuisine right this moment, pony up the $210 a head for Kinch’s masterworks. He opened Manresa in 2002, gradually bridging an obsession for the finest ingredients with progressive approaches to technique and flavor layering. It’s no stretch to say he’s become one of the most influential chefs of his generation, giving his colleagues in the region permission to strain the fringes of their ambitions and abilities and playfulness. One might even say that he lit the way for a cheese candle in Napa Valley.

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