A national restaurant consultant, in the last decade, once said that "San Francisco gives great middle," referring to the fact that the city had not, for many years, been much of a fine dining town. But go to almost any neighborhood and you could find an excellent dinner at a decent price, with many of our middle-range restaurants putting other cities' nicer spots to shame with their farm-fresh produce and well trained staff.
The last several years of a new tech boom in SF have changed that, to some extent, and while we are still a town rich in neighborhood bistros and trattorias, taquerias, and Asian dives of many regions, we are now host for the first time since Michelin arrived here to two three-star Michelin restaurants in the city proper (Benu and Saison), as well as several brand new Japanese restaurants so expensive that Michael Bauer wrote an entire article explaining why his budget didn't allow him to review them. We have a museum restaurant, In Situ, in which the ever changing menu will showcase the greatest hits of Michelin-starred fine dining celebrities around the world and where a bowl of udon noodles and broth, albeit with a couple thin slices of Wagyu, will run you $38, and where the lounge menu features a grilled cheese for $32. The crazy thing right now, as we face a seemingly slowing economy, is that at least anecdotally, the mid-range restaurants (a category to which In Situ may actually qualify) are suffering, while the the high-end spots where you're guaranteed to spend upwards of $500 if not $1,000 per person, are full every night.
That's at least according to Daniel Patterson, speaking in this new piece in the New York Times that attempts to paint a portrait of the 2016 food scene in SF that feels semi-accurate and kind of alarming.
"Busy high-end places are doing fine because they have more ways to control their costs, but the mid-level is getting killed,” food writer Daniel Duane quotes Patterson as saying. "I’ve heard guys say they’re doing eight million a year in sales and bringing home less than 2 percent as profit."
We've been hearing for a while that the rapidly rising price of an entree in SF is due to rent pressures for new spaces and the high cost of doing business in SF (and paying for health care, etc). "Even nontrendy joints now ask $30 for a proper entree," Duane writes, "a price point, according to Mr. Patterson, that encourages even affluent customers to discover the joys of home cooking."
But how long can the $600 or $700 dinner spots thrive? Don't even the tech-rich and foreign foodinistas get bored once they've gone there once or twice, and go off in search of the next exciting thing?
I've said it here before: The fewer weeknight-meal type places we have, at least those that qualify as such for people who make less than $150,000 a year (because: rent), the more we're going to suffer as a city, and it's definitely beginning to feel like SF doesn't give great middle anymore at least not unless you think "middle" means dropping $100 on a Tuesday.
Meanwhile, those so-called midlevel restaurants by which I mean restaurants that cater to the merely loaded exhibit all the innovative exuberance and anxiety of the tech-employee class for whom money would be abundant if not for the cost of local living. On the upside, that cohort’s meritocratic multiculturalism, its “you do you” faith that anybody might have a million-dollar idea, has encouraged an inclusive culinary scene that supports fantastic upscale Mexican places like Cala and Californios, countless soothingly hip Japanese restaurants like Izakaya Rintaro, intensely flavored street-market Thai at Hawker Fare and what has to be the planet’s most interesting upscale Hawaiian comfort food at Liholiho Yacht Club. Nobody calls any of these restaurants “ethnic,” and taken together, they give San Francisco dining the most cosmopolitan feel it has ever had.
But as Patterson says, raising alarm bells, "The food has never been better and the business climate has never been worse and so we are speeding toward a cliff."