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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Queer Food Capital: Four Restaurants That Just Feel Like Us

Posted By on Tue, Jun 16, 2009 at 12:09 PM

Today, SFoodie launches Queer Food Capital, a daily countdown to Pride on June 28. We'll be taking a look at the city's LGBT dining, wine, and bar culture, featuring interviews with prominent out chefs and other foodies, guides, even notes on history.

First up? For out-of-towners seeking a night out beyond the pink ghetto of the Castro, a four-pack of slightly splurgy, gay-friendly (though not necessarily gay-owned) restaurants. Leave your camo cargoes in the hotel room and dress up a little, bitch: We're takin' you someplace nice.

Staff cluster at Zuni. - ERIC ROLPH/FLICKR
  • Eric Rolph/Flickr
  • Staff cluster at Zuni.
Chez Papa Resto 414 Jessie (at Fifth St.), 546-4134.
Half a block from the dense retail mecca of Westfield San Francisco Centre, Chez Papa feels like a total refuge with a whiff of Euro modern. Dump your Abercrombie bags, grab a cocktail, and sink into the black-and-persimmon ambience. If Catherine Deneuve were a restaurant, she'd feel like this: alternately kittenish and sophisticated, accessorized with glittery black bling. The food skews Provençal modern without abandoning the bistro classics: duck confit, steak tartare, profiteroles. Go crazy, only check your faulty gaydar at the door. Sure, the waiters totally seem gay, but many are just, well, French. Translation: man jewelry, hair gel, and a rugged flirtatiousness not necessarily aimed at you. Merde!

Staff cluster at Zuni. - ERIC ROLPH/FLICKR
  • Eric Rolph/Flickr
  • Staff cluster at Zuni.

Zuni 1658 Market (at Franklin), 552-2522.
Back in 2004 during the so-called Winter of Love, when Gavin Newsom opened the floodgates to same-sex marriage, it was hard to tell what was more moving: the weddings going down at City Hall, or the celebration dinners at Zuni afterwards. Whether it's the very open layout conducive to the big check-out, the location within walkable distance of Hayes Street and the Castro, or the fact that any gay waiter in town sooner or later works here, Zuni feels like home. Lucky for us, Judy Rodgers' cooking is some of the most characteristic of Northern Cali style: ingredients chosen for taste, cooked in a way that lets them shine. Like a ride on a cable car or the sea of assless chaps at the Folsom Street Fair, the roast chicken for two with bread salad is something you gotta experience once.

Orson 508 Fourth St. (at Bryant), 777-1508.
Owner Elizabeth Falkner is the Martina Navratilova of local chefs: fiercely individual and fearlessly out. Her SOMA restaurant fuses clubbiness and fine dining in a way that maybe only the gays can fully grasp. Falkner's epic style matches the soaring contours of the dining room, a mashup of the pastry chef's eye for composition with an executive chef's deft palate. Orson's evolving: When it opened nearly two years ago, the emphasis was on fine dining, including juxtapositions of sweet and savory that didn't always satisfy. Nowadays -- as Falkner herself has become a bigger presence in the kitchen -- the food is more relaxed, including even sandwiches at the newly launched lunch service. Still, Orson stands as the country's best example (if not the only one) of what happens when queer gets seriously uninhibited in the kitchen.

Delfina 18th St. (at Guerrero), 552-4055.
Craig and Annie Stoll's seriously popular restaurant anchors a post-gay swath of Mission District real estate. Call this stretch of 18th Street S.F.'s gourmet ghetto, bridging the Castro Street and Valencia Street with a miracle mile of food destinations and chill spaces: Dolores Park (look for street-food carts), the Bi-Rites (market and ice cream shop), Tartine bakery. Forget any old-school notion of gaydar: It can be hard to tell who's gay and who's not along this stretch, and who cares? Instead, it feels authentically queer, a promenade of individual style, not afraid, on sunny weekends, to show off skin. Craig Stoll's cooking feels just as relaxed: a fusion of mostly Tuscan technique with pristine local ingredients, the chef coaxes astonishingly complex flavors from such simple dishes as slow-cooked duck or deeply caramelized pork shoulder. Prepare yourself for some of the city's best people-watching, combined with some of its best dishes. How often do you get both in one place?

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