The Guide to Dining in Style Across the Bay Area
The table may or may not be covered in white linen, but these spots have a new take on the meaning of “haute cuisine.”
There will come a day when the novel coronavirus becomes just “coronavirus,” when herd immunity will take over and our lives will resume something resembling normalcy. And when that time comes, we will return to dining, not just eating. We will want a comfortable chair and a great environment in which to enjoy a great meal. We will savor sitting across a table in a room that is not inside our houses. As something to look forward to, may be suggest a few Bay Area restaurants for your dining pleasure? Restaurants that, not so long ago, were redefining what it meant to be “fancy.”
From the marble staircase at the entrance, to the metalwork chandelier dangling in the main dining room, to the crackling fireplace framed by black panel walls and abstract artworks, Selby’s is a striking restaurant. Used as a fine dining venue since the 1930s, the cavernous 10,000-square-foot interior is a visual feast, kitted out by interior designer Stephan Brady and Lost Art Salon owner Rob Delamater. The cuisine by Michelin-starred executive chef Mark Sullivan is equally sophisticated. There is Kelgua caviar perched delicately atop cured Hokkaido scallops, or dry-aged roast crown of duck with sauternes-poached local plums. The Alaskan Halibut in beurre rouge sauce has a particularly heavenly texture – it’s as rarefied as the surroundings. After dinner, adjourn to the bar, with its photos of Audrey Hepburn and Truman Capote adding a touch of Hollywood glamor, and enjoy a glass of rare bourbon or wine from the cellar, which boasts a selection of 3,000 – 4,000 wines. The most unusual touch is the restaurant’s private card room, which is occupied by a sturdy marble table, chestnut chairs, and of course, playing cards and poker chips. You can even get signature martinis served there on a martini cart, designed to resemble a 1930s Parisian bar trolley.
There are no coverings on the natural-grained walnut tables at Madcap where chef Ron Siegel unabashedly delivers upscale cuisine in one of Marin’s most romantic restaurants; its two small rooms are perfectly sized for intimate conversations. The bespoke tableware and warm glow from each table’s candle radiates the “fine yet casual’ vibe that warms the hearts of local diners. The tasting and a la carte menus, too, offer a two-course night out or a more complete flavor experience. Dishes change daily, featuring showstoppers like the Mt. Lassen Trout with cauliflower puree and pickled radish, finished with a warm dashi broth which is poured tableside. It all makes for a fancy restaurant experience a la 2020.
Step into the bold theme (it changes every few months) that defines a historical culinary moment. In a recent edition, a room bedecked with glowing candelabra, custom ceramics, and places marked with peacock feather fans honored Victorian opulence. Swan gougères, prawn consommé cooked tableside in broth and a torchon of foie gras done up as Snail Wellington lead to a 21-layer chai Napoleon, a perfect ending to this 19th century-inspired meal.
The stunningly dark interior is a foil for chef Mark Sullivan who plates dishes like dry-aged duck breast with Tokyo turnips and apples to catch the gleam from the perfectly positioned spotlights above each table. The ingredient-driven menu shines in these individual spotlights, the burger (only available at lunch) aglow with ruddy color, the kampachi glittery with oil and the warm hues of citrus. Tables are dressed with classic white linen and the comfortable chairs are designed for lingering over a glass of vintage port. Why not?
Located in the former bank vault of the iconic high-rise at 555 California Street, the bar at the Vault is the casual, chatty partner, complete with a giant arrangement of ferns to the dining room’s steady quietness. Though the dark wood tables are bare, the tableware may be flecked with gold to properly showcase chef Robin Song’s ambitious food. Select the Raw Platter for a tour through America’s seafood like Maine lobster salad and Fort Bragg uni over egg custard. Or the Iacopi Farm Artichoke for a riff on mille feuille such as you have never seen before. But the Wagyu Beef Shortrib reimagined the Swiss dish of raclette and potatoes into a beautiful forest of mushrooms, engaging the eye while tricking the senses, making for a sensory experience that is rare and enjoyable no matter where you find it.
French chef Claude Le Tohic built a six story ode to food near Union Square, each floor representing a different experience of French cuisine. Stop on the third floor to experience the elegant craftwork at the bar. Designed to be handheld, a glass arrived perched on its own branch is the mark of The Book Burner while fresh flowers perched atop a classic coupe indicates the Pick Flower not Fights. Though you may choose to dine one floor up at the more casual bar overlooking the kitchen, the food, including a rendition of the Sicilian classic bluefin tuna and roasted eggplant, is as modern expression of French cuisine today.
It can feel a bit strange to not be provided a menu, asked only to clarify your budget ($89 to $189 per person), at this Japanese omakase with neon pink signs and a rockin’ vibe. But the morsels that emerge are the stuff that food memories are made of. Wagyu topped with a frozen foie gras “snow” is a standard bearer of delight and the fish, much of it locally and sustainably harvested, is legendary for its freshness.
With attentive service and bright white linens, Alexander’s appears to be a very traditional high-end steakhouse. The new hitachi menu, which utilizes every part of a whole Hitachiwagyu cow, and seasonally-changing cocktails bridge the refinements of the old-school with the energy of the new. The vegetarian menu, too, is more than just a nod to plant eaters. The five course tasting menu showcases the verve, energy and exceptional techniques that chef Eric Upper brings to the table and brings the steakhouse concept in line with the times.
Spanish for magician or wizard, mägo (it is pronounced with a long “a”) is chef Mark Liberman’s nickname but it also helps define the hi-lo vibe at his latest restaurant. “We source fine ingredients and craft great cocktails,” Liberman says “and we still believe hospitality is a part of fine dining.” A dish of barbecued carrots sounds simple but, according to chef, it is first cooked in own juice in sous vide, then smoked, then grilled, and finally sautéed in brown butter, involving many hands and many days worth of work in that carrot. “That effort is what makes it fine dining and what we are all about.” The 12-foot ceiling give the space a light and airy feel, the natural cotton linens and locally made plates are the right components to give a meal here the elegance it deserves. And the leather chairs mean a meal can comfortably stretch beyond the two hour mark. Because food this finely tuned should never be eaten in a hurry.
This intimate restaurant wears a disguise of neighborhood watering hole and that’s just the way owner/chef Scott Eastman likes it. “We have it all here,” he says. House-made udon and Italian pasta sit cheek by jowl with fresh pupusas and steamed dumplings. The menu changes daily and has found a loyal following, eager to try the next thing from the kitchen. Here the term “fancy” means that everything is made in house with the attention and care of small production, the flavors emerging, ethereal and sylph-like, from the kitchen. It’s inclusive. It’s real, slow food served on walnut tables set with linen napkins and oil candles. That, you see, is all you need for a fancy dinner, San Francisco style.
Christina Mueller is a long-time Bay Area food writer. She hails from the East Coast and has spent way too much time in South America and Europe. She discovered her talent as a wordsmith in college and her love of all things epicurean in grad school. She has written for Condé Nast Contract Publishing, Sunset, and the Marin Independent Journal, among others. She volunteers with California State Parks and at her child’s school, and supports the Marin Audubon Society, PEN America, and Planned Parenthood. When she is not drinking wine by a fire, she is known to spend time with her extended family.