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4 Dec 2013

4 Dec - We are re-publishing this article written by Nick for the Financial Times in July 2008 as a tribute to Judy Rodgers, co-proprietor of Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, whose premature demise was announced yesterday. She was a chef and restaurateur of enormous integrity and it is absolutely typical of her that her image is nowhere to be found on the Zuni website. May she be enjoying a heavenly roast chicken and her famously perfect Caesar salad - JR.

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. ZuniZuni_Cafe_in_San_Francisco 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 cafe 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 l