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Public Consumption: San Francisco Gets on Food Trend as Old as Civilization 

Tuesday, Oct 28 2014
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Chen has long been a staple on the San Francisco restaurant circuit, having cooked his way through influential S.F. Chinese restaurants like the Mandarin before opening Betelnut in Cow Hollow. He's spent most of the past decade in China tending to restaurants he owns there, and noticed the huge discrepancy between the quality of Chinese food in America and Chinese food in China.

"We're trying to demystify, educate, and show people what seasonal, ingredient-driven Chinese food can be," he says. "The cuisine has really gone farm-to-table."

His new place, the nearly 30,000-square-foot China Live set to open in April 2015, will be an immersive experience showcasing Chinese food. One half of the ground floor will have a retail section with imported, hard-to-find ingredients like Sichuan peppercorns and variations on soy sauce; the other side will have a cafe offering everything from panfried soup dumplings to roasted duck to noodles. The second floor will have a bar and upscale restaurant, and as at Eataly, there will be a rooftop bar.

Like the rest of these developers, Chen is looking at the neighborhood's future instead of its present: With the repaving of Broadway, the opening of the Chinatown Central Subway, and the construction of more condos, the area will likely look significantly different in a few years. And if it's a success, China Live will be part of the neighborhood's transition, a destination not only for its new neighbors but for anyone with an interest in Chinese food, local or tourist alike.

A few weeks back, a tech dude published some thoughts on the internet and in the process exemplified people's worst fears about the cluelessness of life in the bubble. In the tech industry blog The Information, former Facebook VP of product management Sam Lessin wrote a nostalgic post about how much he missed the cushy, coddled life of the Facebook campus. The real world, he was finding, was taking up a lot more time and energy.

"At Facebook, my meetings, the gym and food were all within a one or two minute walk," he wrote. "Now, my gym is a few minutes ride away from where I am working. Food requires leaving a building. These little bits of friction add up quickly."

His article was quickly and mercilessly mocked by sites like Valleywag, where it was seen as a parable of how tone-deaf and out of the loop living in the tech world can make you — especially if you were recruited in college and simply graduated from one campus to another. Amenities like free lunch are now the norm at many large companies in the city, and businesses like Off the Grid and Zero Cater mobilize small food vendors to feed the masses when companies don't have on-site kitchens. Off the Grid owner Matt Cohen says that two-thirds of his company's business — which organizes food trucks to appear at public and private gatherings — comes from corporate catering.

As the city becomes more dense, with ever-taller condo towers that could stretch the downtown skyline into Mission Bay, and more of a company town, as tech companies prove that they're more than a glimmer in a venture capitalist's eye, it seems logical that these new developments will try to re-create the kind of lifestyle that these companies provide. That's one of the factors that Foley of Market on Market hopes will bolster his businesses, which are going into transitional neighborhoods like mid-Market. "Homes are getting smaller because really the neighborhood is the amenity, not the apartment," he says. "It's all Millennials and common space."

In this sense, the market halls represent some of San Francisco's worst fears about itself: that this newfound density and influx of young tech workers contributing to it will somehow change S.F. into a giant college or tech company campus rather than a complex, unpredictable, freak-embracing city. That tech and corporate interests will close the city in, create enclaves that are the urban version of gated communities — or worse, they'll transform S.F. into one giant, sanitized mall. It's temping to look at Foley and his developer peers as unabashed capitalists making profit on the city at the price of its famously eclectic soul.

But the owners of these market halls are serious about embodying many values that the city holds dear. They put local, seasonal, sustainable food at the forefront of their ethos. They're acting as patrons, in a way, to culinary entrepreneurs. And through planned events, guest lectures, movie nights, cooking demonstrations, and other programming, they have the potential to bring neighborhoods together in a way that food halls have been doing for thousands of years.

The market halls might represent the most elegant function of the "sharing economy" we've seen yet: a way for people struggling in this increasingly expensive, increasingly crowded city to create a bit of room for themselves, and grow from there


About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.

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