Lunch at Zuni Cafe, San Francisco

by foodhoe on April 11, 2010

1658 Market Street, SF, CA  | 415.552.2522 | website | reservations

It’s hard to believe that Zuni Cafe has been around since 1979.  Mr. K and I enjoyed our first dinner date here, back in the days when maître d’s were cold and hostile, making you feel unworthy of entering the sanctity of its doors. I’m so glad that things have changed because despite the maltreatment, we’ve been coming here for over 17 years.  I don’t consider myself a regular customer because there have been lengthy gaps between visits and I don’t recognize any of the staff nor they us, but we come back to celebrate our anniversary once in a while.  We return because we love the food and the atmosphere and find that the experience has improved over time.  The lounge begins in a narrow wedge that expands to offer a shiny copper bar that is a lovely spot to hang out and wait for your table.  

The oddly shaped building expands into a rambling two story dining area with plenty of cozy nooks.  This James Beard Award winning restaurant serves a menu that is inspired by traditional Italian and French recipes and nearly all of the produce, meat, and fish is farmed and harvested in a sustainable manner.

I met Mr. K here for a late lunch last weekend on a day that was sunny and warm and everything felt fresh and clean from the recent spring showers.  We had a table in the cozy upstairs that offered interesting views of the kitchen and the wood burning stove.  Once we were lucky and seated right across from the wood burning stove, where we watched a woman hacking up roasted chickens throughout the night, the roast chicken with panzanella salad being one of their signature dishes.

And on the other side is an equally interesting view of the beautiful copper lined bar that overlooks Market Street…  Just sitting there makes me wax nostalgic as I cast back in time and think back to my first meal here with Mr. K who had pulled a tweed jacket of dubious background out of the closet with sleeves that didn’t quite cover his wrists… we had opted to cuddle together on the banquette and ordered random dishes off the menu, which had annoyed our server to no end…  eventually she huffed at us that she had no idea where we were in our meal, because we couldn’t get over the prices and were stuck with ordering tentative amounts of oysters and clams from the raw bar, along with copious amounts of beer.

We started off with an assortment of oysters and clams served on the half shell.  They were served with a simple mignonette, made from red wine vinegar, shallots and coarsely ground black pepper.

The manila clams were sweet and succulent, a real treat with just a squeeze of lemon juice and a dusting of freshly ground black pepper.

We split a bowl of the fresh Spinach soup ($8.25) that tasted green and fresh, popeye would have loved it.

I adore the rustic sourdough bread which is served with a slab of fresh sweet creamery butter.  It’s reassuring that this has not changed one bit over the years we have been coming here.

And then there’s the Caesar Salad ($10), which is the flavor profile that I compare against whenever I order one elsewhere.  The lettuce is always impeccably fresh and dusted with just the right amount of salty pungent curls of parmigiano reggiano.  We always split the salad, which means it is served on separate plates, so I don’t have to get competitive with the crouton count.  The leaves are served whole, which brings up a topic of interest.  Do you cut your leaves up or do you eat with your fingers?  After reading this article, I opted for fingers and am always interested to see what people do.  Most use a fork and knife…

The whole leaves are drenched in the gorgeously rich and zesty dressing, that shimmers and reveals silvery bits of pungent anchovy and lots of cracked fresh black pepper.

The Shoestring Potatoes ($6) were sublime, thin strings that were delicately crisp and tender and perfect.

We also split the House-ground hamburger (15), with swiss cheese, on grilled focaccia and served with garden lettuces, aioli and house made pickles.

I don’t know how it is possible, but the beef patty was deliciously juicy and had an ethereal beefy texture.  We ordered it medium and it was a perfect blend of well done on the outside and medium rare inside.  The pickles have very strong flavors, the onions are infused with the licorice tang of tarragon, which dazzled my tastebuds.

That was it, no room for dessert, but a very lovely lunch.  Now here’s the clincher, and this is why I think that Zuni Cafe gets mixed reviews… we paid about $60 each, which included quite a few bottles of beer and a 20% tip (and the 4% health surcharge). But as I said, we have history with this place, the food is radiantly delicious and we know it’s going to bite the wallet just as we so enthusiastically bite into the food.

Incidentally, the photo above which I took last year, flashed momentarily on national TV on the pilot episode of The Best Thing I Ever Ate on the Food Network.

ZUNI Café on Urbanspoon

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Rosa April 11, 2010 at 10:38 am

I’d love to go there! God, that burger looks soooo good!




hungry dog April 11, 2010 at 3:53 pm

I love Zuni. It’s one of my top 5 favorite restaurants in the city, no question. You ordered all of my favorites! I do love the chicken with panzanella too, we often order that. Once we the seat you mentioned with a clear view of the chicken-hacker. It was awesome.

Sounds like a perfect lunch date!
.-= hungry dog´s last blog ..Spring chicken, and a giveaway! =-.


Livin Local April 11, 2010 at 9:14 pm

Once again, you had me at the bread. The glistening Caesar salad with anchovy was just as it was meant to be, as opposed to what is often served in restaurants. Simply lovely!
.-= Livin Local´s last blog ..Slow Cooker Sunday Gravy =-.


mark April 11, 2010 at 10:56 pm

I’ve not tried zuni…someday I’ll get my lazy butt across the bay to give it a whirl.
.-= mark´s last blog ..i’m back =-.


grace April 12, 2010 at 3:26 am

spinach soup? pretty color, although i’d be hesitant to try it. i haven’t had shoestring fries in AGES and that massive pile looks amazing. nice spot.
.-= grace´s last blog ..sometimes you feel like a nut… =-.


Cookie April 12, 2010 at 11:28 am

We’ve been meaning to check this place out and I know my honey would LOVE that burger!
.-= Cookie´s last blog ..Can You Guess What’s in This Chili? =-.


Single Guy Ben April 12, 2010 at 1:53 pm

I totally agree with you that the early Zuni days had very standoffish front people. I haven’t been back in awhile and have been thinking about checking it out again. Your post is filled with all the classics (except I wanted to see that bread/roast chicken)so tempted to go back soon!
.-= Single Guy Ben´s last blog ..The Chinese Bolognese =-.


Juliana April 12, 2010 at 4:54 pm

Oh! Everything looks so delicious…specially the oyters 🙂 YUMMIE!


BeefNoGuy April 12, 2010 at 9:02 pm

Great shot of the burger! I remember coming here over 10 years ago, but alas my palette was not very refined at the time.
.-= BeefNoGuy´s last blog ..Mister Donut Taipei =-.


Daniel@CocinaSavant April 13, 2010 at 6:20 am

What a splendid lunch. And, I agree, who wouldn’t rather eat salad with their hands. The spinach soup and sourdough are a winning combo.
.-= Daniel@CocinaSavant´s last blog ..A Golden Surprise =-.


Gastronomer April 14, 2010 at 2:40 pm

Congratulations to you and Mr. K! I’ve heard so much about Zuni Cafe but have never read a blog post about it. That burger is lookin’ luscious!
.-= Gastronomer´s last blog ..Frost Doughnuts – Mill Creek =-.


Carolyn Jung April 15, 2010 at 4:55 pm

An oldie but goodie! You can never go wrong at Zuni. Their roast chicken with bread salad is awesome. And it’s totally doable at home, too. I’ve made it a few times with great results.
.-= Carolyn Jung´s last blog ..What Goes Into Judging the Pillsbury Bake-Off =-.


foodhoe April 16, 2010 at 8:37 am

rosa, the burgers are amazing
hungry dog, perhaps one day our paths will cross over there!
livin local, that caesar is the best
mark, you must!
grace, those fries are better than McD’s…
cookie, you really should
single guy ben, I love love love that bread salad, even more than the chicken!
juliana, this is one of my favorite raw bars
beefnoguy, it’s funny cuz I recently tried another highly regarded burger joint and it was greasy and not so good. quality makes a big difference
daniel, I love eating with my hands!
gastronomer, you should try it
carolyn, oooh yummy! I agree it’s do-able, but I’ll just wait for you to invite me over…


Bonnibella April 17, 2010 at 5:36 pm

How sentimental that you and Mr. K with a 17 year history at Zuni. The burger looks amazing especially the dripping juice.

p.s. I use my fork as the knife.
.-= Bonnibella´s last blog ..Chinese Wedding Traditions Customs and Symbols =-.


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