1658 Market St
San Francisco, CA 94102, United States
It is interesting how some restaurants end up polarizing an entire community. People love it or hate it. There are the staunch supporters, who spend copious quantities of time and energy convincing anyone who will listen that the restaurant is the best restaurant ever. There are the haters, who never pass on an opportunity to tell the story about how such a famous restaurant screwed them, messed up, or did just a plain bad job. Generally speaking, in a rational examination of it, I assume the truth usually lies somewhere in between. I guess that’s just what happens when people go in with high expectations – they either are very impressed and satisfied, or highly disappointed. For me, Zuni Cafe falls on the disappointing side of the ledger.
Zuni Cafe is an eatery in the Hayes Valley near downtown SF. Famous for one dish in particular, their Roast Chicken and Bread Salad, they moved from a quiet “for those in the know” restaurant to San Francisco institution after the chef owner, Judy Rodgers, published a very well regarded cookbook featuring many of the cafe dishes. She worked with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, so my expectations going into this meal is things would be done local, fresh, and extremely tasty.
We made a reservation for 9pm, and showed up a few minutes early. We waited on the bar side, which was definitely busy, especially for a Sunday evening. I was a bit surprised, but took it as a good sign. We ordered the chicken immediately while we sipped on some drinks, mostly because they warned of a one hour wait post-order. We didn’t want to wait any longer than necessary. The drinks were tasty and they definitely did not short on the alcohol. Without any food in me, I did have a slight buzz when we were done.
After a 10 minute wait, we were seated. The space itself is quite nice – divided into essentially three different seating areas, there is the bar, the “action” tables with a view of the open kitchen, and the tables in the dining area. All areas are well appointed, and conducive to good flow. It was a very well thought out space.
Knowing we were already hungry, they quickly started us with a bread starter – an excellent San Francisco sour dough, complete with a generous pad of butter. Very tasty.
Having read about their excellent oysters, I ordered some oysters and clams as an appetizer to tide me over. These were fantastic and very fresh – Pacific, Marin Miyagi, and Drake’s Bay were the highlights, while I was particularly enamored with the little neck clams. Polished off quickly, I was very satisfied.
This is when our evening took a downturn for the worse. First off, we had ordered the chicken around 8:55pm, and told it would take up to an hour. I put my oyster order in at 9:05, and received them 3 or 4 minutes later. After the delivery of the oysters, our server promptly disappeared. Most of the time was spent hanging out with a table that she knew personally (they gave her a gift of some sort… I figured that meant she knew them unless these were the kindest people on the planet bringing random gifts for their server). She also disappeared for chunks of time. Our water was kept refilled by a busser, but otherwise we sat their waiting for our dinner. And waiting. And waiting. At 10:15pm ,we tracked down a manager who said they would check on it for us (all the while, we had a view of many chickens left resting on the board). The server finally came back and told us the kitchen had made an error, and they would have to cook us another one. Which, if you believe the one hour cooking time, would’ve taken us past closing. Of course, 20 minutes later, our chicken showed up. It took over 100 minutes to arrive at our table. And she blamed the kitchen. Pretty weak in my mind.
Was the wait worthwhile? No. The skin was soggy. The flavour of the chicken was nice, definitely an excellent quality bird. But that was about it. The bread salad did soak up the grease, but did not add a lot to the overall dish in my opinion. My dining companion compared it to Costco roast chicken we’d had before. I think it was a bit harsh, but not unnecessarily false. For $48 for two, it was overpriced.
The final straw for me was that the server came over and apologized for the wait again and said the manager would like to comp us dessert. She threw the kitchen staff under the bus some more (which is never big with me), and proceeded to take our dessert order. I ordered the Brioche, companion ordered the apricot ice cream.
Now, I’m a big believer in the fact that mistakes happen. And when they do, all you can really do is rectify the situation. I believe I am very understanding of these types of occurrences.
However, I also believe one should take responsibility for one’s mistakes. AND, when trying to make up an for a mistake, that it should be a genuine effort. Not an effort to rescue one’s tips. She brought out our complimentary dessert. And of course, she had brought the wrong dessert. I had the Brioche, which was not very good, but my companion actually got the berry sorbet instead. The server disappeared after dropping off the dessert, and never check on us again so we could point out the error. When the manager brought us the bill, we just paid it and left.
At the end of the day, there are many components that make up a dining experience – it really is a value equation. Even if the food is good, little errors add up into issues if not resolved properly. I know Zuni Cafe is an institution, and can do no wrong in many people’s eyes, but i would not repeat my experience there. The food was average, and slightly over priced. The service was extremely good in some ways, and extremely bad in others. I just feel, especially in a food city as good as San Francisco, that there are far better places to spend one’s money. Zuni Cafe is not one of them.