The late Judy Rodgers took over Zuni Café, a legendary and essential San Francisco restaurant, in 1987, but it’s somehow still completely of-the-moment, quite possibly because it’s been defining the moment all along. I paid a visit when in San Francisco last weekend, and it was nothing short of stellar.
The 140-seat restaurant is triangular, and slightly oddly constructed, with a loft, a large bar, and a few different seating areas. Its legendary wood-burning oven is within full view of the dining room, and their roast chicken for two adorns nearly every single table: It’s truly the stuff of legend, and is not to be missed. The menu changes nightly, but that roast chicken isn’t going anywhere.
Another item that’s not going anywhere is their Caesar salad, which I ordered as my appetizer. Surprisingly, it was overdressed when brought to my table, but at the slightest mention of it a new one was brought, which had just the right balance of crisp whole romaine and lemony, umami-rich dressing. For my entrée, I had to try something from the wood-burning oven, so I opted for a roasted quail with black Mission figs, Bronx grapes (which are sold at the Ferry Building farmers market during the month of August but are otherwise hard to find), polenta, fennel seed gremolata, and marsala sauce. The quail was perfectly cooked, juicy and crispy skinned, and the polenta triangles picked up a smoky note that perfectly complemented the fresh figs and grapes.
Service was flawless, the dining room was buzzing and lively, and the food took advantage of what was fresh and seasonal in an unforced way. Zuni Café continues to be at the vanguard of Bay Area dining, and can be easily mentioned in the same breath as Chez Panisse as one of the area’s absolute best restaurants.