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Friday, November 6, 2009

Daniel Patterson: S.F. is Killing the Upscale Neighborhood Restaurant

Posted By on Fri, Nov 6, 2009 at 12:50 PM

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We started out seeking to challenge the current meme that Oakland is the new locus of Bay Area chef talent. (In the East Bay Express, Carolyn Jung even called it America's next great dining destination.) We thought, sure, a handful of chefs are opening second restaurants in O-Town. And despite Commis, could the East Bay city we love for taco trucks and Lao food ever really challenge San Francisco's fine-dining dominance? We turned to Daniel Patterson, Coi chef and owner, Cane Rosso co-chef (with Lauren Kiino), and -- when Bracina (another Kiino partnership) opens in Jack London Square sometime in early 2010 -- a bridge straddler. Patterson lives in Oakland, too.

Our question: Though Oakland might be prime ground for the casual eatery Bracina is planned as, could the city support a place with cooking as finely honed and deeply thought as Coi's? Frankly, we expected Patterson to say no. His actual answer was more nuanced -- and more disturbing for S.F. diners -- than we ever imagined. According to Patterson, city policy decisions like minimum wage and Healthy San Francisco have doomed all but a tiny handful of fine-dining restaurants -- something N.Y. chef David Chang recently seconded. It's depressing: Daniel Patterson, a guy who's arguably San Francisco's most intellectually rigorous chef, thinks the city is annhilitaing the upscale neighborhood restaurant.

Hey, S.F. diners: Get your FasTrak transponders here. Looks like you'll be making more than a few trips to Oakland.

SFoodie: Would you ever open a restaurant like Coi in Oakland?

Patterson: It would be hard to open a restaurant like Coi in San Francisco today. When Coi's gone I would be really surprised to see another one like it.

Because the economics of fine dining don't make sense anymore?

I'm sure Thomas Keller could always make it work here. I have 10 people in the kitchen, about a one-to-two ratio of staff to diners. San Francisco has become a very difficult place to have any restaurant, because of the policies that the Board of Supervisors put in place. They didn't anticipate what would happen with things like the minimum wage increases, with no tip credit. What happens when the minimum wage is $12? Or $15? Product costs keep rising, especially for things like pastured meats and organic vegetables. Rents are still pretty steep. The restaurant model that we all knew no longer exists -- the Supervisors took it and crumpled it into a little ball.

For us [at Coi], we're a little bit more protected. I can't complain -- we've done fine all through the downturn. I've been so grateful and a little bit surprised at how strong the local support has been. But I'm more concerned about neighborhood places, which are the heart and soul of our dining scene. What happens when they all have to charge $30 for a chicken dish? Can they all afford to keep using the best ingredients? Or to have enough staff? There's going to have to be a fundamental rethinking of how restaurants in San Francisco are run. In the meantime, we're operating in a no-man's-land, and I don't see a clear path out of it.

So what sort of adjustments do you think you'll have to make to cater to Oakland diners?

I get Oakland diners now: They come into my restaurant in San Francisco.

It's not like they're some strange species.

But Bracina is going to be a lot more casual than Coi, right?

It's going to be Northern California cuisine, according to our definition. For us it means using the flavors of our place, both wild and cultivated, and it means focusing on flavor profiles that at least reference something familiar. I don't think it's necessary to reproduce ad infinitum the same beet and goat cheese salad that everyone's been doing for the past 30 years. But it is important that people get something they know, and then something surprising.

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