Zuni Cafe, since its birth in 1979, has grown into the blueprint for a timeless California restaurant. It has outlived its pioneering chef, Judy Rodgers, who joined in 1987. It has provided the setting for long lunches, birthdays, and for those in the industry like me, just a quick dinner after service. Over the past decade, dining there has meant so much to me.
Zuni — most leave off the “Cafe” — is a place that has it all: a beautiful space, divided into intimate rooms and across a few levels; precise but warm service; excellent food defined by excellent products from near and far; a carefully constructed wine list that casually gives you access to the world’s best producers; and a lively, energetic vibe. Whether you enter the restaurant or walk by it on the street, you can’t help but notice the lengthy and gorgeous copper bar where you can wait for a table or just simply “be.”
In my mind, these things add up to the perfect restaurant. Despite this, it doesn’t get too obsessed with its own ethos or grandeur, but instead does everything with an unpretentious and welcoming personality. Zuni is the dining room table of California cuisine, not a temple.
Eating at Zuni is like being invited to dinner at an old friend’s house. But this friend is well traveled, shops at the farmers’ market, has a wood-fired oven, and just happens to be an incredibly skillful and natural cook. This friend is a talented host that possesses a world-class wine cellar and impeccable taste in music.
But one thing really makes Zuni. You probably are already thinking about it. The Roast Chicken with Bread Salad with Greens, Scallions, and Currants. Forgive me, but allow me to give my take on the most yapped-about chicken ever. It really is the measuring stick of all Bay Area roast chickens by just the earnest straightforwardness of the preparation. It is a mascot of simplicity, wood-fire, craft, and the casual perspective of the restaurant. It’s the dish I think about anytime I roast a chicken at home. Or have a roast chicken anywhere. It’s so simple, so iconic, so unpretentious.
Most excitingly, the chicken is the perfect canvas for exploring the wine list. My mind usually goes to white Burgundy — something to look forward to as you start with an array of oysters and a shockingly simple plate of anchovies. The chicken may still not be delivered to the table yet, but this is the chance to move on to generous piles of shoestring fries and a perfectly dressed Caesar salad (with tableside cracked black pepper), and to soak in the atmosphere. The chicken takes time, so it forces you to wait, enjoy, and soak it all in. The ease of making you revel in the moment is part of what makes Zuni special. When you are there, you can’t imagine being anywhere else.
Zuni is currently doing to-go service (including that iconic bird), but I long for a time to sit in the familiar place because it truly feels like a home away from home. This is the intangible that makes restaurants special; they become part of your orbit.
Over the years, I found myself often at Zuni. If you ask for recommendations for dinner in San Francisco, Zuni is always included in my spiel that increasingly becomes an unapologetic roll-call of classics.
There was a time that I exclusively chased new, hot restaurants. Over the past few years, so many opened with varying levels of splash, yet, so many ended up being forgettable and overcomplicated. The buzz and energy seemed to fade and die. Not everything in dining needs to be about innovation. There are a few places that just feel immune to this dimming.
I know when I go to Zuni what the next few hours hold. Warmth. Energy in the room that is tangible, it always feels and tastes fresh, alive. You can feel the detailed passion of the entire staff, many of whom have been there for decades. Yet, it is also imperfect at times, just as people are, but you love them just the same. You can feel the restaurant’s humanity and soul.
As our industry is being tested and shaken by the unfair and untimely death of many restaurants all around us, I have continued faith in Zuni and its respect for comfortable elegance. The restaurant has an effortless ability to bring all elements of dining and people together. Hopefully it will not just survive, but thrive. I think we are all coming to accept home cooked meals being a bigger part of our existence. Zuni cooks and serves with that level of love.
Above all, it’s worth celebrating our storied, classic places, from dive bars to tasting menus. That’s what Bay Area residents should be doing to save and preserve. Restaurants and the people that make them up are something our local and federal governments need to value and save through action, aid, and a defined plan. We need to demand that action to save our best, like Zuni and many, many others.
I’m going to raise a glass of Meursault, a toast. Here’s hoping to 40-plus more years of Zuni Cafe. Hang in there and don’t ever change. I can’t wait to come over for your next, nightly dinner party. Cheers.
Zuni Cafe: 1658 Market St., San Francisco. zunicafe.com
Geoff Davis is the executive chef of True Laurel in San Francisco. He’s planning on opening a creative wine bar, as well as a modern yet nostalgic soul food restaurant, in no particular order in Oakland, hopefully soon. Follow him on Instagram at @geonate88.