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    Zuni Café: A San Francisco Classic

    By David Landis–

    Sometimes, when it comes to choosing a fine dining experience, only a classic will do. San Francisco’s Zuni Café, an institution founded by Billy West in 1979 in a corner previously housed by a cactus store, fits the bill perfectly.

    I’ve been lucky enough to be a regular at Zuni Café since 1980, when I started working as the PR Director at the San Francisco Symphony a few blocks away. Back then, the buzzy “see and be seen” atmosphere, along with delicious and simply prepared food, made it a culinary destination. That quality, I’m happy to report, still reigns supreme today.

    A bit of Zuni Café history: in 1987, Billy had the foresight to hire chef Judy Rodgers, an alumnus of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, to take over the kitchen. She insisted that a wood-fired brick oven be installed (unheard of at the time) to roast chickens, fish, and more in the spirit of French cooking, with a delicate flavor of smoke. Numerous awards followed, including the James Beard awards for outstanding restaurant and chef. Gilbert Pilgrim (who also cooked at Chez Panisse) joined Judy as co-chef in 2006 until her untimely death of cancer in 2013. Luckily, he has kept the flame burning brightly at Zuni Café to this day.

    When dining at Zuni, in true classic fashion, I like to concentrate on the “tried and true.” We last ate there for a late lunch with our friends Mariusz and Barbara from Warsaw. We chose the delightful patio (yes, it’s clean and safe) because an added bonus is that you can watch the international streetcars pass by.

    Cosmopolitan cocktails like La Vie en Rose (Bonal with grenadine, lime, and prosecco) offer a tempting start to the meal, but we began instead with a crisp and dry, mineral-driven white Tiefenbrunner Pinot Grigio from the Alto Adige region of Italy. Crusty Acme bread arrives at the table with a pat of perfectly nuanced butter that is always fresh. I like to order the oysters at Zuni because they’re among the best in the city. At this meal, we split a dozen Beausoleil (from the East Coast) and local Kumamoto oysters with a tangy mignonette and lemon; the Pinot Grigio served as a perfect complement. While we were enjoying the oysters, we thought about the famous and tasty burger, but instead put in our order for the café’s famous roasted chicken, which takes an hour. More on that later.

    Next, we split an order of the signature shoestring potatoes, which we ordered “extra crispy.” An overflowing stack arrived piping hot and whet our appetite for the coming meal. Next, we shared the café’s famous Caesar salad, probably the best in the city. The long romaine leaves are perfectly dressed, with just the right amount of anchovy and crispy homemade croutons that are to die for. We simply had to lick the plate.

    Our conversation with our Polish friends, of course, steered towards the situation in Ukraine and how neighboring Poland is coping. It was an informative discussion, so that before we knew it, our chicken arrived. Well, first I should mention that San Francisco’s famous fog first arrived, so the host kindly moved us inside (be sure to bring your vaccine cards, they still check), where we still had a corner view of the lively action on Market Street.

    By the way, the service was impeccable. Our server was always on point, but never hovering—there when we needed him, but never intrusive. Just the way we like it.

    On to the famous roasted chicken. This dish might be what brings so many accolades—and return customers—to Zuni. The reason it takes time is because it is wood-fire roasted under a brick on a bed of delicious Acme bread, which soaks up the juices from the bird. There is no other dish like it anywhere in the world. It’s juicy, tender, flavorful—and four of us easily split the dish and still had more than enough to eat. Since we were literally busting at the seams, we opted for a simple Parmesan cheese and date final course, along with an herb-forward but smooth Amaro on ice with an orange twist (and a couple of espressos to boot).

    By the way, you can still take Zuni Café home with you: the Zuni Café Cookbook is available at the restaurant or online. A great gift idea for the foodie in your life.

    Wrapping up our 3-hour lunch, I was reminded: there’s a reason for classics. And we’re lucky enough that Zuni Café is still one of the best.

    Bits and Bites

    Waicoco at the Westin Maui: The Gay Gourmet had the pleasure of attending a media preview dinner for Waicoco, the new dining venture from Chef Mourad Lahlou (of San Francisco’s famed Mourad) and Chef Chris Kajioka. In two words, the food is absolutely stunning. Readers of this column know that I’m a regular traveler to Hawaii, and this restaurant is a welcome and inventive addition to the dining scene there. Our tasting included one of the best mai tais ever created (not too sweet but packed a punch), spiced nuts with harissa, three delicious spreads (including piquillo-almond, charred eggplant (I skipped, since I’m allergic), and dill-lebni—all flavorful and unique. Plus, a blood orange Hamachi (light and fresh), some of the best and freshest salmon ever (with fennel and apple and oyster emulsion), and a duck basteeya (with apricot and rhubarb) that was even better than Morocco. For those who are travelling to the Hawaiian Islands, make sure to stop in Maui. Don’t miss this newcomer that is sure to garner culinary accolades.

    Bernal Cutlery: I’ve been hearing good things about this store for kitchen tools and knives on the south side of the city. It’s run by the husband-and-wife team of Josh Donald and Kelly Kozak, and for those in the know, they’ve just received a shipment of Japanese cookware called donabe that can go directly from the refrigerator to a direct flame. The store also has a full complement of knives, kitchen shears, mortars and pestles, peelers, and more.

    Colibri Mexican Bistro at the Presidio: One of my favorite Mexican restaurants, Colibri Mexican Bistro, closed during the pandemic at Union Square and thankfully has re-opened in the Presidio at the Presidio Officer’s Club. Look for great guacamole and signature margaritas, along with mole poblano, chilaquiles, and pozole verde, among other tasty delights.

    The Academy in the Castro recently re-launched its new food menu, including such tasty morsels as: bacon mousse pâté, Sicilian caponata, and a summer sausage board. The food items are available all day and throughout the evening.

    Zuni Café:
    Waicoco at the Westin Maui:
    Bernal Cutlery:
    Colibri Mexican Bistro:
    The Academy:

    David Landis, aka “The Gay Gourmet,” is a foodie, a freelance writer and a retired PR maven. Follow him on Instagram @GayGourmetSF or email him at: Or visit him online at:

    Published on June 9, 2022