The woman behind Che Fico’s host stand quoted me a three-hour wait. I wasn’t surprised. It was 6:45 p.m. last Friday at the hottest restaurant in San Francisco. I’d been traveling through California for nearly a month, and colleagues had urged me to visit the place before I flew back east. There were no reservations at any reasonable time during my stay, but Che Fico’s rambling dining room (stretched across the second floor of a building on Divisadero Street) includes a 21-seat communal table available for walk-ins.
I don’t know many people, save for the most gregarious Type-A chatters, for whom communal tables feel like anything but a last-resort dining option. They’re usually cramped, and claiming table space can be an act of territorial aggression: They create their own noisy ecosystem as everyone ends up shouting to the person with whom they’re trying to converse.
But I needed to do my job and check out this restaurant. Also, I was unhinged enough to just let the day take me where it would. That morning I had woken up in Carmel, 120 miles down the coast, to the food world — the whole world — spinning over the revelation that Anthony Bourdain had died from an apparent suicide. I took a walk, scrolling and scrolling through my phone. Carmel is idyllic in the West Coast extreme: a beach town in a nook of land right on the Pacific Ocean with mountains in easy view. Extreme natural beauty looks absurd, cruel even, in the wake of tragic news.
My Eater coworkers did an astounding job contextualizing what makes Bourdain’s death so terribly and broadly heartrending. I forced myself to turn away from social media and drove to San Francisco to continue my assignment. I’d made no specific plans with anyone, which is unusual for me, but decided upon arriving that I didn’t really want to eat alone. I reached out to my friend Peter Luong, who owns Song Tea & Ceramic. My tea-geek self has spent many hours in Peter’s shop, drinking steeping after steeping of the rich greens and fragrant, harmonic oolongs he scouts yearly in China and Taiwan. We’d talked about grabbing a meal many times but never had. He happened to be free that night.
We put in our name at Che Fico, wondered elsewhere for one drink and a couple of small plates, and returned to the restaurant around 8:15 p.m. The wait for a table would still be another hour and a half… but there were two spots at the communal table? Sure. Why not.
Chef David Nayfeld’s menu is the 2018 epitome of Northern California-Italian cooking: pastas buoyed by local farms’ daily harvests, pizzas gilded with shaved parmesan scattered around the crust, meats permeated with smoke from the wood fires, pastry chef Angela Pinkerton’s unfussy, flavor-first desserts.
From a section devoted to Jewish-Italian specialties came a simple-looking plate of cold beef tongue with salsa verde that was stirring in its acidity and textural contrasts. The kitchen cooks its pastas remarkably al dente; we tried orecchiette, almost dumpling-like in texture, with sausage, broccoli rabe, and goat butter (a smart, earthy addition to a classic combination) and cappelletti, shaped like pillbox hats, in fonduta with morels and favas.
Peter and I leaned across the wide oak table, but of course eating communally meant eavesdropping on conversations around us. It didn’t take long to glean bits about the couple sitting next to us: Charles (whose name I’d soon learn) is from Maryland, like me, and Anisha works as a private chef. When a pizza overlaid with pineapple, red onion, and fermented chile landed in front of them, Peter and I dove into conversation with them. Soon we were talking Baltimore crab houses, and our favorite San Francisco restaurants, and their recent trip to Rome, and where we all wanted to go next in the world. That led us straight to Bourdain, though on that subject we did more staring into the middle ground than talking.
Then we poured Charles and Anisha glasses from our bottle of Friulian orange wine, and they split a slice of pizza for us to share, and we combined our dessert orders. It was a fine meal, shared with even better souls. I left that night feeling less despairing about the world, happy that by submitting to a collective dining experience, I found the community I needed right at that moment.
Your roving critic,