It still seems unfair to pass judgment on restaurants, or a restaurant scene as a whole, when it feels like just a minute ago we were all wondering if the world was ending or if we'd ever get to eat inside a restaurant again.
But judgments shall be passed. And the recent major snub of the Bay Area from the James Beard Foundation people — or the nominating committee for the Chef and Restaurant Awards, specifically — has people freaking out. San Francisco has long held a prominent place on the national restaurant scene, and the Chronicle lamented that with just three nominations for James Beard prizes, this is the least recognition the region has seen from those awards since they began being given out in 1991.
These things come in waves, though, and annual magazine lists and the James Beard Foundation have, in the last couple of years, put a greater emphasis on seeking out diversity, in geography as well as cuisines. That may be one reason for the Bay Area's paltry showing.
Bon Appetit restaurant critic Elazar Sontag writes this week that the few nominations shouldn't be seen as a snub, because the Bay Area is currently in "a sort of culinary holding pattern" thanks to economics and the general state of things here. "New restaurants in the Bay Area aren’t driving national dining culture anymore," Sontag says.
Sontag suggests, with quotes from others including former Chronicle critic Soleil Ho, that landlords may be driving the dearth of innovation, only taking bets on sure things which tend not to be that weird or interesting — with places like Shuggie's Trash Pie & Natural Wine and Oakland's Daytrip being recent exceptions.
And, chefs and restaurateurs may not be looking to go out on any limbs because the mood is still just one of caution and fear. "When people are suffering and when they're terrified, they're not going to be making good art," Ho says.
Thad Vogler, a Beard Award winner for Bar Agricole who just reopened his restaurant in new digs last year, tells the Chronicle, "I think the restaurant business in the Bay has been governed by fear for a while now. High operating costs and anxiety about public opinion have left operators reluctant to take chances."
Chef Brandon Jew, who took home a James Beard Award last year, echoed that, telling the paper, "I think we're just not to the point where everyone is able to fully express their point of view because of the state of our comeback. It’s not the same as other cities."
It may be good to remember that San Francisco was on kind of a run a decade ago. After the slump from the Great Recession, the restaurant scene came roaring back in 2010-2011, with former Chronicle critic Michael Bauer proclaiming that it was the greatest and most fruitful year, in terms of new restaurants, that he'd scene in three decades.
Just prior to that, San Francisco had exactly zero Michelin three-star restaurants in the city proper — at one point, when the guide first started covering the region in 2006, the Bay Area had only one, which was The French Laundry. The region was known for casual, Mediterranean fare, the farm-to-table ethos of Chez Panisse having pervaded many corners. We had no great pizza, no decent bagels, and no particularly great fine dining. People said things like "San Francisco gives good middle" when it comes to cuisine, because we had excellent neighborhood restaurants and things like Chez Panisse, but there was no Saison or Quince or Benu.
All that changed just in the last decade, if you subtract three years of pandemic. And meanwhile, the food scenes in many second- and third-tier cities have enjoyed their own waves of creativity, fresh talent, and a new national sophistication about food thanks to an endless stream of chef competition shows and Netflix series. San Francisco was ahead of that curve for many years, but maybe not so much anymore.
Much as the city isn't likely to stay dormant or completely sleepy forever, the food scene will probably come into its own again too. And it's not like you can't get an incredible meal in San Francisco or Oakland or Sonoma several times a week for a year and never return to the same place twice — we have a lot of riches, foodwise, still. So maybe stop with the obsession about everything new and innovative for a minute. (This Grub Street column about the monstrous campiness and lack of delights at several new restaurants in Manhattan should make anyone happy to stick to Zuni for a while.)
And does anyone outside of chef-world really pay that much attention to the Beard Awards? As Cyrus chef Douglas Keane tells the Chronicle, scoffing at the awards (he says he saw no change in business after winning one himself), "Was I any better than the five chefs that year? I don’t think so. Best chef of California? Like, really? It’s a big fucking state."
Photo: lasse berqvist