SF as a Fine Dining Destination? Not So Fast.

Why We Should Reject this Exclusionary Title

IF you heard distant screams echoing off of stainless-steel cookware yesterday, it was the sounds of Bay Area chefs celebrating the many 2016 Michelin stars announced throughout the region. Most notably, Los Gatos’s Manresa finally joined last years list of lucky three-star winners, bringing the total number of Bay Area restaurants touting the Guide’s highest rating to five — just one restaurant behind New York.

Local chefs, writers, and foodies, myself included, reveled at the remarkable achievement and agreed that the region is finally getting the culinary accolades it deserves. But as headlines like “San Francisco: The New Fine-Dining Destination” popped up throughout the day, a growing sense of unease began to creep in. In the face of San Francisco’s mounting economic disparity waging war throughout the city, such fanfare over triple-digit tasting menus can leave a bad taste in a diner’s mouth.

Class struggles have become an uncomfortable cause célèbre of the city, most notably played out in housing, leading this self-congratulatory sentiment on fine dining feeling ill-timed and insensitive. Allowing these types of restaurants to define the broader culinary landscape of the city not only adds to the fire of socioeconomic divergence, but also undercuts the efforts of chefs and restaurateurs feeding into a growing community-based culinary scene.

This conflict reaches its apex in the Mission District, which is at once the heart of the city’s restaurant culture, and ground zero of the affordable housing battle. The answer to this clash is complicated, but it is certainly not in a focus on promoting the city for its high-end exclusionary establishments.

Announced just a few days earlier to far less publicity, the Michelin Guide’s list of ‘Bib Gourmands’ honored those restaurants serving up excellent meals at affordable prices. Some of these restaurants included Oakland’s Wood Tavern, Anchor Oyster Company in The Castro, and Z & Y restaurant in Chinatown. These restaurants serving good food at an accessible price contribute to what many people are fighting for — maintaining an inclusive community.

Pushing this community dining effort even further, restaurants like The People’s Kitchen in Oakland have established a pay-what-you-can menu for its monthly dining experiences. Any restaurant model that encourages such community involvement should be cultivated as a true accomplishment of the area’s dining scene, especially in stressed neighborhoods like Oakland or the Mission.

This isn’t to say there’s no place for high-end restaurants. There certainly is a place, for its wanting patrons, but also as fertile ground for artistic culinary exploration and innovation. However, accessibility and affordability are key words that should not be left out in the larger conversation on dining out. A city cannot stand on tasting menus alone.

The Bay Area should embrace its larger egalitarian culinary identity and reject being defined by its handful of restaurants catering to the 1%.

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