Steak, Pizza, and Lots More Casual Eating: Our Fall Trend Watch

Photo: Hannah Whitaker/NY Mag

It’s Fall Preview week here at Grub Street, and yesterday we
discussed all the upcoming openings you have to look forward to. Now let’s take a selective look at the trends we’ve seen take shape this year.

We’ll say it for the umpteenth time: People who love to eat, especially those who eat out a lot in a hard-eating city like S.F., aren’t so interested anymore in the austere, hyper-civilized, old-school sort of fine dining that our grandparents preferred. Places like Saison and Quince are responding by opening more casual, à la carte concepts this fall, and Michael Mina is throwing out the white tablecloths altogether and trying something new in the former Aqua space. Also, the economy still sucks, but San Franciscans are still dining out in droves, just maybe at lower price points. Thus it works out well that the biggest themes this fall are steak and pizza — particularly the smaller, wood-fired Neapolitan variety that hit New York two years ago.

Pizza & Steak

Until the last couple of years, you’d likely hear friends complain about never being able to get good pizza (outside of, say, Pizzeria Delfina, Little Star, or slice joints like Arinell), or an excellent steak (outside of chains like Morton’s or Ruth’s Chris).

Now comes the glut of folks answering the call. For pizza, we’re most looking forward to Una Pizza Napoletana (11th and Howard) and Ragazza (301 Divisadero), with the former bringing S.F. some very authentic Neapolitan crispness and flavor that no one’s likely to argue with. And everyone who’s heard about Gialina but can’t hoof it out to Glen Park will have no excuse, now that owner Sharon Ardiana is opening in the Western Addition.

But of course, we’ll also be getting a new Arizmendi, a new Pizzeria Delfina (on Octavia), Farina’s offshoot called Antica Pizzeria Napoletana, and Lark Creek Pizza to round out the mix, and both Bruce Hill’s new Zero Zero and Tony’s coal-fired off-shoot are doing brisk business with this pizza-starved populace. Also, Quince’s casual cousin Cotogna will be doing wood-fired pies as well.

For steak lovers, you’ll soon have the Alexander’s chain moving in to the former Bacar space, followed by Mina’s Bourbon Steak at the St. Francis, Tyler Florence’s El Paseo in Mill Valley, Douglas Keane’s Shimo Modern Steak in Healdsburg, and Alex Jackson’s Sympathy for the Devil coming in around the New Year. (See details about each here.)

Cheap and Plentiful Wines By the Glass

Restaurants make their margins on booze, right? Well, many have responded to the recent economic slump by offering more and cheaper wine options for the budget-conscious wino, letting you taste your way through large lists without ever committing. This includes the recent B-Cubed, where former Bouchon dude Johnny Gato and partner Ron Elder are offering a few dozen small-production, hard-to-find California wines starting at $6 and $7 a glass, with the option of tasting all of them in healthy pours starting at $2, or taking bottles home at retail prices.

Zero Zero
and Healdsburg’s Spoonbar are part of a growing collection of restaurants offering high-quality wines on tap, starting at around $6 a glass.
Frances has gotten plenty of great press, even from the Times, about their pour-what-you-wish, dollar-an-ounce house wines. And Barbacco, though not always cheap, has 100+ Italian choices by the taste or glass (and you can browse tasting notes via iPad).

Ember Cooking

Chef Joshua Skenes is making full use of his new outdoor hearth at Saison, preparing a number of items directly in the fire. But unlike the long-established wood-oven practices at places like Chez Panisse, Lulu, and Camino, Skenes and a few of his chef friends are using an equally ancient technique of burying root vegetables in the embers of the fire. The result is evenly roasted beets and potatoes, subtly flavored from almond wood, with their own flavors somehow intensified too.

chef James Syhabout mentioned ember cooking as the next thing he wanted to try in the Food & Wine Best New Chefs issue. And in an effort to make vegetables always the star of his plates, even when meat is present, Jeremy Fox is big on experimenting with ember cooking as well, and at a one-off dinner at Commis last spring he prepared a brilliant dish of pork trotters and beets roasted roscoldo-style, a preparation he credited to Argentina. Look for more such dishes when Fox opens his own restaurant – name and location TBA – soon.

Bone Marrow

Bone marrow is nothing new to Italian menus, and osso bucco is as classical a dish as they come. But recently chefs have been putting new twists on serving bone marrow, both as a starter – as at Wayfare Tavern and the delicious, gremolata-covered version at Alembic – and as the protein/fat component of more refined main courses at Saison and elsewhere.

Simple Drinking

After a good decade of ofttimes over-precious mixology and long bar lines held up by frequent muddling, a number of cocktail programs have shown up in town where speed and simplicity are king, with a nod toward the simple pleasures of old-time favorite drinks. Hog & Rocks features a number of no-nonsense drinks like boilermakers, Manhattans, and Hurricanes. Thermidor’s list, created by Brooke Arthur, is 60s focused with Mai Tais and Harvey Wallbangers, while Brooke’s list at Prospect is light on muddled drinks too. And Comstock Saloon offers a selection of un-fussy, spirit-driven drinks as well, true to the pre-farmers’-market days of the Barbary Coast.

American Regional Cuisine

As Grub Street noted earlier, we’re seeing a move by local chefs to embrace and put new twists on American dishes from various regions, which we mark as a backlash of sorts against strictly local Cal-Med orthodoxy that’s ruled the roost for so long.

Places like Citizens’ Band, Hog & Rocks, and Starbelly have put together menus that embrace both specific regional, and pan-regional traditions, like the East Coast grinder, kentucky hams, and fish pie at Hog & Rocks; or Starbelly’s southern, Cajun, and southwestern-themed picnic dinners. Also, new food truck 51st State is taking the revival of specific regional dishes seriously, serving up Brunswick stew and Texas caviar (a.k.a. black-eyed pea salad).

Throwing Out the Tablecloths

The trend toward casual settings is also not new, but with this season’s closing and casual-izing of Michael Mina, not to mention the new paradigm of bare-tabled, open-kitchen fine dining being practiced at Benu and Saison, 2010 is certainly the year when S.F. found a new wave of expensive eating without the stuffiness associated with “fine dining.”

And Josh Sens recently noted in SF Mag a larger trend taking shape this year in which this same generation of chefs — Skenes, Syhabout, Fox, Corey Lee, as well as Ravi Kapur at Prospect and Kim Alter at the upcoming Plate Shop — are applying more technique and imagination to the farm-to-table movement, letting ingredients shine but also treating them in more inventive and modern ways, as opposed to, say, putting a fig on a plate. Also falling into this category of chef is Dominique Crenn, whose December opener Atelier Crenn should further cement her reputation as a California chef with plenty of modern flair. And also the chef team of Teague Moriarty and Matt McNamara, who have already caught critical attention for their small but ambitious restaurant Sons & Daughters.

We’re sure we’ve missed a trend or two, and tomorrow we’ll be highlighting a specific trend that started here in the Bay Area but is spreading nationwide: the new-found love of goat meat.

Steak, Pizza, and Lots More Casual Eating: Our Fall Trend Watch