Restaurant Gary Danko is a fine dining restaurant located on the corner of North Point and Hyde in Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Its chef-owner — that would be the Gary Danko — opened his eponymous restaurant in 1999 after running kitchens all over the bay, including Beringer Vineyards and the Dining Room at The Ritz Carlton. The restaurant has received just about every major accolade over its two-plus decades of business, including James Beard awards for Best New Restaurant, Best Service, and Best Chef.
The last time I was at Danko was maybe 10 years ago. The visit marked a special occasion: My old roommate from college, who had become my roommate in San Francisco, was moving to Los Angeles for work. So, we had to send him off proper. At the time, Danko seemed like the most appropriate option (note: it had $$$$ on Yelp, which translated to “fancy” in our young and naïve minds).
I remember shiny black interiors.
I remember servers in suits.
I remember lobster risotto and foie gras.
But what I remember the most — what I truly loved about Danko back then — was the choose-your-own-adventure menu format. That is, instead of having one long tasting menu designed by the chef like at other fancy fine dining restaurants, you also have the option to pick whatever you want. You get to choose your own adventure.
Now I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t this just a prix fixe menu with choices? That’s where Gary Danko differs. In most set menus, you’re limited by what you can order. For example, you usually choose one item from the first course section, and then you choose another item from a list of second courses, and so on.
But with Danko, there are no limitations, and that’s what makes it so unique and fun. You could order a meal entirely off the meat and game birds section, if you wanted to. If you really like lobster, you could order three lobster dishes. Have an insatiable sweet tooth? Go crazy and get five desserts. At Danko, you get to be the master of your own universe (…for the duration of one dinner, at least).
I recently revisited the restaurant — and it’s still incredibly fun, especially if you go with someone you love. It was just as I remembered: Still shiny and sleek, polished black with tinted windows.
Stepping inside the dining room is like being transported to another dimension, where time stops completely. Is it light out? Is it nighttime? Who knows. One thing is for certain: The floral décor in the main rooms corner are truly beautiful and impressive. (Note: I mention all this about the ambiance and vibe, because it’s the second major thing I truly like about Gary Danko.)
We shared two different menus. That meant a meal that hit all the right notes, for us, at least: Glazed Pacific oysters and Osetra caviar, where the oysters are just gently cooked so that they retain a firmer texture when nestled in leek fondue, cream sauce, and zucchini “pearls.” Maine lobster salad with lettuces and citrus, held up over a cylinder of quinoa. A crispy, deep-fried buckwheat blini with salmon and caviar. And so on.
To end the meal, the legendary cheese cart is still very much in action and is a must; they’ll happily cart over to you, even if you sit at the bar.
Whatever else you get, do not snooze on the soufflé for dessert. It reminds you of what you already know: Classics remains classics for a reason.
Omar Mamoon is a San Francisco-based writer and cookie dough professional. Instagram: @ommmar