I have always marked my arrival or departure in San Francisco with a meal at Zuni Cafe on not so glamorous Market Street. This trip was no exception.
Within 30 minutes of leaving the airport, we were sitting down in Zuni's bright interior to a meal as good as any I have eaten there. Home cured anchovies with Parmesan and olives; a little gem salad with radishes and devilled egg crostini; a wafer thin pizza with mozzarella, ricotta and lemon; and, the star of the show, the tenderest Watson Ranch lamb chop, sausage and brochette made from shoulder meat with Sungold tomatoes. With dessert but without wine or coffee, this lunch was great value at $100 for three.
The following morning I was back at Zuni at 11.30, just as the lunch crowd was gathering, to take Judy Rodgers, its chef and part owner for the past 22 years, out to lunch. Tall, athletic (when she is not cooking she is hiking or biking around Lake Tahoe) and with a pencil through her long auburn hair, Rodgers had readily accepted my invitation. "This will be a lovely break from writing our daily changing menu and it'll only be the second time I've been out to lunch since I started here."
Before we set off, I asked Rodgers to explain the restaurant's unusual layout. Zuni occupies a two storey, triangular building with a large copper bar down one side and a grand piano opposite. In the middle of the open kitchen at the far end is a tall, wood-burning oven that produces the pizzas and their signature dish, a roast chicken for two. Around the oven is the stack of mesquite wood that feeds it and a row of delicious sourdough loaves from the Acme Bakery. To the right is their equally popular oyster counter. The name Zuni, that of an indigenous American tribe, dates back to when the café was originally attached to a cactus shop and specialised in south western American food.
"Zuni was built in 1913 shortly after the earthquake and there is nothing romantic or ergonomic about it. Because of the two floors and the various sections we reckon our labour costs are 40% higher than if we were on one floor. In fact we have had design students come here to look at the place just to learn how not to design a restaurant. But my customers love it, we now own the freehold and so we'll just live with it even if we seem to spend a lot of time fixing it," Rodgers explained.
By this time we were standing on the pavement and Rodgers turned to the question of lunch. "Because people in this city have now stopped drinking at lunchtime there aren't that many good restaurants open. The waiters don't make the tips so they don't want to work then so a lot of places are only open in the evening," she added. "But there is always Swan's." And with that and a final damning of the city's cabs Rodgers strode off.
A few blocks away, Rodgers spotted a new sign offering artisanal chocolate that showed to her how this particular area of town was finally improving. "It seems as though we are now moving from artisanal crack to artisanal chocolate," she said with a smile, "because although Market may not be the nicest part of town, Zuni's location, no more than a ten minute walk from City Hall, the opera and concert halls, has been a great boon. We have had a lot of parties come here in the afternoons after their civil ceremonies and this has increased significantly since June 17th when San Francisco became the centre for same-sex marriages in the US. Being so close to the entrance to the freeway has been an unanticipated boon too."
By this stage, we had joined the queue outside the Swan Oyster Depot on Polk Street which has been a San Francisco institution for even longer than Zuni. It occupies a narrow building with a wide marble counter separating 15 stools on one side and half a dozen men of varying ages on the other who take the orders, shuck oysters, and crack crabs and as many jokes as they can get away with. It is rough, ready and great fun.
Once seated, Rodgers cast her expert eye over the dishes that are written up on the far wall and warned me off the crab. "The local crab season is over now." She then proceeded to put our young waiter through a series of questions on the sources of their Blue Point, Miyagi and Kumamoto oysters. Having ordered a dozen mixed oysters, some local crayfish for me to try and a shrimp and prawn salad with their famous louie sauce, she revealed how she had accidentally become a chef.
"I grew up in St Louis, Missouri, where I enjoyed French at high school. My parents went to a cocktail party one evening and met a neighbour who travelled to Roanne in France on business three times a year and had got to know the Troisgros family who run the very famous restaurant there. This was the mid-1970s and Jean and Pierre Troisgros had begun to appreciate quite how important the nascent American market was going to be and were going to send their daughter to stay with our neighbour to learn English. He said that he was sure they would take me for a year and so it was all agreed. I had very little say in the matter," Rodgers added, downing another oyster.
During her year with the Troisgros family Rodgers ate, watched and logged everything she saw and ate. This sojourn inculcated her with a love for the simpler French dishes, her ongoing respect for ingredients and an insight into how to manage a top kitchen. "Their approach was tough and rigorous but always fair. There was no bullying," she added.
Rogers returned to the US as a student in San Francisco, where the emerging wine industry fuelled her passion for cooking, as did an introduction to Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, which led to a stint as the lunch chef there before the call to join Zuni in 1987.
Now 51, Rodgers seems to be enjoying her role at Zuni more than ever. She still drives every morning from her home in Berkeley to the restaurant via a rendezvous with Bill Fujimoto, who runs the Monterey Market, where she buys the best of what the local farmers have delivered earlier that day and loads it into the back of her car. Eighteen months ago she took on Gilbert Pilgram as an equal partner in the business and so integral a part of Zuni has he has become that she refused to be photographed without him. And, despite numerous offers, there will never be a second Zuni. She insisted, "when I think I may have the time for a second place, I realise we could go travelling and learn more about how people cook."
A meal at Zuni Cafe, it seems, will always involve a trip to San Francisco.
Zuni Cafe, 1658 Market Street, San Francisco. Tel 415-552 2522.
Open 11.30am-midnight. Closed Monday.
Swan Oyster Depot, 1517 Polk Street. Tel 415-673 1101.