All photos courtesy of Le Fantastique

InterviewsSan Francisco

Raw Fish, Wine, and Vinyl: Why Le Fantastique Is One of San Francisco’s Most Exciting Restaurants


Meet Robbie Wilson, the chef and co-owner of Le Fantastique, your new favorite place in San Francisco to eat sliced raw fish, sip on fine French wine, and listen to Sade spin on vinyl all at the same time.

Partly inspired by Japan’s listening bars and fully informed by Wilson’s experience in both high-end French and Japanese restaurants, Le Fantastique has been getting a lot of attention lately, garnering a spot on Esquire’s Best New Restaurants in America list last year and a James Beard Award nomination this month.

Wilson and his wife, Emily Perry Wilson, also run the wonderful, modern Bird Dog in Palo Alto. We sat down with Robbie to catch up and learn more.

Resy: Before we get deep into it, let’s start here: Congrats on the nomination for a James Beard Award. How are you feeling?

Robbie Wilson: I’m happy to be amongst a list of people I respect in the industry. It’s an interesting feeling, because you think about all the great chefs in California that aren’t on the list. You have friends that you want to cheer on, but obviously I’m honored. This particular batch of nominees is great company to be with.

Why do you think you’re getting the recognition now, at this point in your career?

Energy is paramount. I wanted to create spaces and places that you’d want to go back to day in and day out. I think Le Fantastique is so different than Bird Dog, which is in its eight year. Le Fantastique feels more like a personal expression than Bird Dog. And maybe people feel that.

Let’s start from the beginning. Where’d you grow up? Where’d you go to school? 

I grew up in Texas — one side is a ranching family. I went to undergrad and have a degree in political science. Everyone else in my family is an attorney. I didn’t want to do that.

Did you go to culinary school?

I didn’t go to culinary school. I worked for a French chef in college in Austin. It was small. There were three cooks. In lieu of me going to culinary school, he sent me to France and got me into Troisgros — I was 22 or so. I spent a year at Maison Troisgros, and after that I spent time traveling in France and Spain. When I got back, I moved to New Yoirk and was part of Craft. It had been open six weeks. I bounced around a lot— I had nothing weighing me down.

What brought eventually you to California?

I was working for Nobu Matsuhisa in Aspen, and the Thompson Hotel Group hired me to do their restaurants. In 2007, they opened in Beverly Hills, and in ’08 the economy crashed. I went back to Aspen, doing consulting. While in Aspen I ended up meeting my wife, and we went to Nashville. We eventually had an opportunity to do something in Wine Country in Santa Barbara, and we wanted to make it back.

The thing I love about French food is when we look back, it feels a little bit more acoustic. Playing unplugged. That’s what I love about it. — Robbie Wilson, Le Fantastique

What do you think about the state of French cuisine in San Francisco?

I think lots of great restaurants are loaded in French technique. I don’t think of San Francisco especially excels in French restaurants per se —you see classics coming back in New York.

For a long time, I think it wasn’t cool. The thing I love about French food is when we look back, it feels a little bit more acoustic. Playing unplugged. That’s what I love about it.

What do you mean by that?

It’s not necessarily about the handmade plates — it’s really a pure expression of cooking and it’s so technically driven. There aren’t a lot of effects: We aren’t using hydrocolloids. We aren’t using a lot of modern techniques. It feels very acoustic and natural. It’s kinda cool to go back to classic mornay sauce. There are nuances that are comforting. That’s important — the balance of comfort and adventure.

And for Le Fantastique – where did the name come from? And where did the concept/idea originate?

I had a friend named Chris Robles — he was a guy I met in Santa Barbara. He worked in restaurants as a somm, a director of ops, a GM. He was a genius, all about food and wine. I met him through a mutual friend, and we shared the things we love the most: white Burgundy, sashimi, and being audiophiles. So we’d do that. Every time we’d have people over that’s how we’d eat. That’s when the restaurant started — it was just that. At the end of the day, it was just hanging out.

This was back in 2012.

Chris passed in 2018 of pancreatic cancer. He had it for seven years.

There’s a photo of him in the restaurant.

He’s above where we keep the wines. It’s also right above the vintage sound system, so it was a perfect place for him.

Tell us more about the sound system.

The sound system is McIntosh. It’s hand built gear from North America. It’s a tube amp which provides an analog sound, which is geared towards vinyl and vintage vinyl. 90% of the stuff we play are albums recorded for vinyl. There are six subwoofers buried into the ceiling as well.

If you’re listening to digitally compressed music, it has a different effect on the body that vinyl does. It creates this warm ambient feeling where it can be loud and you can still talk.

What are you typically spinning/playing?

We play everything. It’s kinda all over the place, depending on what time of day. We love jazz. We love old hip hop. We play lots of classic Parisian stuff from the late ’60s.

A lot of inspiration was the listening bars in Japan. Artists that you wouldn’t listen to in your car. The albums are really to affect the room in a sense, and not really to sing along to.

In a lot of ways, this restaurant is my greatest hits album. Pardon the metaphor. It is a Japanese restaurant; there are just no Japanese ingredients. I’m not leaning on shoyu and ponzu. It’s an amalgam of all those things I love the most. It all just made sense to me. It seems so natural to me.

What do you think is a perfect order at Le Fantastique?

For me I would go with all the fish. I would get a glass of Champagne. I’d try caviar. Start with the madelines. I’d dive into bread and butter, and I’d finish with the chicken.

I’d buy a bottle of Chablis and Mersault and that’d take you into bread and butter and chicken. You’re still floating, it’s not weighing you down. For me that’s the perfect meal.

I might do the caviar eclairs for dessert. 

This is of course your second restaurant alongside Bird Dog. What would you say is the most challenging part of opening and running two restaurants?

There’s only 24 hours in a day. It’s just time. You want to do so much and you can only do so much. The biggest challenge right now is supply chain issues and tourism, or lack thereof. It’s kinda never-ending. The city has really taken a hit. Tourism isn’t strong, and people are leaving. Staffing for sure.

What’s the most rewarding part about being a restaurateur?

It’s the lifestyle. It’s not a job for me; it’s a lifestyle. I feel fortunate that I have two completely different restaurants and I have the ability to be flexible. I need that stimulation in my life. Always being around food and wine. I’m one of those people who live to eat, and imagine getting to do that for a living!

Are there any sort of larger goals you have with the restaurant?

I think I’ve always said I’ll be satisfied when we’re part of the conversation. If a friend came in to town, that Le Fantastique is a place you have to go in SF while you’re in town. That’s how I’ll measure success. Can we be part of the conversation? 

Anything else new you’re working on?

2023 is exciting. It’s going to look and feel considerably different. We’re rolling up our sleeves for 2023. We’re going to start doing more collabs. I’ll be going to different cities, people will be coming here. We’ll be something called Sound Check where winemakers will take over the turntable and we’ll be doing fish. We’re going to have fun with it. We want to loosen up a little bit — it’ll be a bit more loud and energetic.

Anything you want people to know?

Just come see us.


Omar Mamoon is a San Francisco-based writer & cookie dough professional. Find him at @ommmar.