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Monday, December 20, 2010

The Year in Food: Big-Ticket Dining Surges

Posted By on Mon, Dec 20, 2010 at 4:03 PM

Prospect: High-end dining in San Francisco is not in danger. - JEN SISKA
  • Jen Siska
  • Prospect: High-end dining in San Francisco is not in danger.

Twelve months, ten storylines: It's SFoodie's annual look back at the year in food.

Back in January, people were talking about the San Francisco restaurant scene as if it were flagging fast. The fretting was fueled by two assumptions: first, that the recession was forcing chefs with high-end training into lower-priced restaurants specializing in populist fare ― namely, pizza, burgers, and sandwiches. Second, that San Francisco had become too expensive to open a restaurant in, one of the reasons why restaurateurs and chefs were flocking to Oakland.

click to enlarge Seafood course at Saison. - LARA HATA
  • Lara Hata
  • Seafood course at Saison.
There was evidence aplenty to support both assumptions. But then the city issued a strong rebuttal: Starting this spring and steamrolling into summer, dozens of expensive new places stormed into town. A few weeks ago, SF Chronicle critic Michael Bauer called 2010 "the best year ever for San Francisco dining." All talk of Oakland's dining scene eclipsing San Francisco's vanished, oh, around April.

At the most expensive end of the spectrum, pop-up poster boy Joshua Skenes turned Saison into a full-service restaurant serving a $108 prix fixe, plus $78 for wine pairings. Almost at the same time, former French Laundry chef de cuisine Corey Lee launched a bid for four-stardom with Benu, whose showpiece is a $160 prix-fixe menu with $110 wine pairing.

Other new restaurants where it's easy to rack up $80 or more a person: Prospect, Cafe Des Amis, Sons and Daughters, Alexander's Steakhouse, Bourbon Steak, Michael Mina (yes, downscaled from the St. Francis version, but no cheap date). And SFoodie can name-drop a few more new places where splurging is possible, even probable: Bar Agricole, Frances (a 2009 latecomer), Commonwealth, Thermidor, Baker and Banker, Heirloom Cafe, Wayfare Tavern.

What in the hell happened?

click to enlarge Chef Corey Lee garnishes eel wrapped in feuille de brick, one of 12 courses on Benu's $160 tasting menu. - LARA HATA
  • Lara Hata
  • Chef Corey Lee garnishes eel wrapped in feuille de brick, one of 12 courses on Benu's $160 tasting menu.

While some might say that the surge in high-end restaurants signals the end of the recession in San Francisco, SFoodie thinks that two other factors are at play.

As another food writer pointed out to us over

drinks this summer, a number of the new places are funded by existing restaurateurs like the Boulevard team and Bacchus Management Group.

More significantly, though, San Francisco has large numbers of the wealthy, who've been insulated from the economic downturn more than the working and middle classes ― in 2008, the Chron estimated that there were 163,000 households in the Bay Area who had more than $1 million in assets. While overall retail sales have been improving, sales of luxury goods have made a particularly strong rebound this year. It makes sense that the class of restaurants serving the recession-proof class of diners is flourishing.

While SFoodie is more than grateful for all the creative, indulgent, expertly wrought food our expense account has paid for this year, we're curious to see how the 2010 class of high-end 

restaurants fares in 2011. Will the new restaurants knock existing ones out of the top tier? 

Will the newcomers falter? Or will the scene continue to grow?

Just as we continue to worry over the welfare of San Franciscans in the lower income brackets, who aren't seeing the recession end in any significant way, we're more concerned about the survival of restaurants operating in the stratum that San Francisco has long excelled in ― small family-owned restaurants and moderately priced bistros. Rents and labor charges continue to rise, but the clientele of more affordable restaurants may not tolerate rapid price increases the way richer diners do.

Call us heartened but wary.
Other 2010 trends:
- Filipino Finds Its Voice
- Local Media Explodes
- Pizza Pizza Pizza Pizza

- Vegan Goes Mainstream

- Cocktails Get More Respect

- DIY Revolution

- Coffee Seeps Farther

- Street Food Gets Serious

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie. Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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Jonathan Kauffman


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