At 5:25 p.m. on a Wednesday in January, the line outside State Bird Provisions is 40 people deep, populated by as many tourists clutching guidebooks as locals immersed in New Yorkers. Everyone's waiting for one of the walk-in seats at the Fillmore restaurant that remains, nearly three years after it opened, the hardest table to get in town. State Bird's popularity has been fueled by an avalanche of glowing press and awards — a Michelin star, a James Beard Award, a nod as Bon Appetit's Restaurant of the Year in 2012 — and it is one of those cases where the relentless hype is deserved. Reservations are notoriously tricky to secure and waits for walk-in tables often top three hours, but the restaurant's playful, innovative, often beautifully composed vignettes of flavor, served dim sum-style from carts, make the acrobatics worth it.
Right now it's still possible to wade through the line and walk right into The Progress, the much-anticipated new restaurant that State Bird owners, chefs, and spouses Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski opened right next door. While State Bird is a highly interactive and occasionally frenetic experience, The Progress is more stately and fine dining-like, better for a date night or special dinner. Instead of small bites arriving by cart, courses are served family-style and portioned by the number of people in your party (you can also order a la carte at the bar). And though it's easy to think of The Progress as the new State Bird, the two are really extensions of each other. The Progress is State Bird Provisions' more mature sibling, and if it doesn't deliver moments of mad genius as frequently as its sister restaurant, it does deliver a more consistent dining experience.
That's not to say that the menu and format avoid taking risks. Family-style dining is trending at new restaurants all over San Francisco, but those meals often follow a tasting menu set by the chef. At The Progress, the table decides on six dishes from a menu of 17 or 18 choices, a subtle but important difference that shifts the power to the diner. (It costs $65 per person, and you can add on extra courses for $10 per person, per dish, although you don't need to; the portions are perfect and six courses is enough.) Narrowing the options can be stressful, especially as a group — a thing that also comes up at State Bird — but The Progress' excellent waitstaff is there to make recommendations and steer you toward a thoughtful meal.
And it's a nice room to spend time in. The building started life a century ago as a theater called The Progress, a fact reflected in its soaring ceiling. Though the restaurant has a plain concrete and wood aesthetic, it feels less stark than State Bird's pegboard décor, which a friend once said made her feel like she was in a kindergarten classroom. The ceiling and one wall expose the building's original wooden lathes to stunning effect. The room is anchored by the bar in front and open kitchen in back, and two semiprivate dining rooms in mezzanines above them.
The food here plays it safer than State Bird, but that's not saying much; this is still food from Brioza and Kransinki (he handles savory, she handles sweet), who both have a gift for combining ingredients and techniques in ways that you'd never imagine. Their best dishes have bold bursts of flavor. "Pig fries" are a remarkable tangle of warm, crisp, deep-fried pig's ears and pork belly mixed with shaved romanesco and tossed in a bright mixture of fish sauce, fresh herbs, and lime juice. It's got that mysterious synergy of a really great dish, the kind that makes you sit up and take notice. That magic also came through in the roti, fried bread draped on a plate with a buttermilk sauce loosely based on ranch dressing, with high notes of pepper and black truffle, that was so delicious I wanted to drink it straight.
Every meal starts with a round of amuse bouches, one-bite items delivered on a huge earthenware plate that ease you into the mindset of the meal. I loved the lightness of the tempura mussel with Seville orange sauce, and the cheddary roundness of a crumbly sourdough cheese cracker. Pork jerky had a spiciness that unfolded in the mouth long after swallowing it, and echoed some of the vivid housemade sausages that would come later in the meal. The beauty of a coursed, family-style dinner like this is that the table experiences everything together; it's a kind of journey that unfolds over the course of a few hours.
Though none of the other dishes delivered the same punch as pig fries and roti, there were many pleasant surprises. Roasted squab came to the table with its feet intact, claws sticking up into the air. Its juicy meat was infused with an aromatic spice blend that highlighted the bird's musky flavor, and worked wonderfully with the salted chili paste and lettuce wraps that accompanied it. An early course of freshly made ricotta, local kiwi, almonds, and pickled sunchoke had an earthy sweetness. Krasinki's desserts are works of art — like a rich chocolate sorbet, or a refreshing riff on a floating island made with bergamot citrus. And the short, well-curated wine list and cocktails like The Concession, made with popcorn rum, house cherry cold syrup, and vermouth, extend the kitchen's mission.
Even dishes that missed the mark for me still had a lot to recommend them; there weren't any duds, just things that weren't as good as other things. I didn't love the fat pot stickers filled with Mt. Tam cheese and porcini mushrooms — something about the texture reminded me of an undercooked pancake — but I did like the tangy nettle salsa verde that accompanied them, and the subtlety of the porcini. And though I wanted the surprisingly bland pork broth in the ramen-esque "Treasure Chest" to have more flavor, I loved its cirtrusy Thai fermented sausage and mochi-like pumpkin dumplings in the bowl.
All of this genre- and cuisine-bending can be exhausting in the wrong hands, and even when it's done well, it can be hard to find a point of view — an issue The Progress shares with many of its new Northern California brethren. Experimentation doesn't work out sometimes, which is part of the game of eating at State Bird, where each item is one or two bites and missteps don't matter as much. The Progress was actually the restaurant that Brioza and Kransinki wanted to open first, but put on hold because of permitting and State Bird's runaway success. If it had opened instead three years ago, it certainly would have been hailed as one of the city's most interesting restaurants. Now, to its disadvantage, it has State Bird Provisions to compete with.