There's really no reason for this posting. I haven't been in a few months, I have no immediate plans to visit San Francisco other than photographing some cheesemakers in the Bay Area in the next few weeks, and I'm no restaurant critic. But what I am is a man madly in love with the food, the experience and the legacy of Judy Rodger's Zuni Cafe. And it's been 10 years this month that Zuni has etched its delicious goodness into my consciousness.
I should let you know that I'm not a restaurant groupie. I do like checking out the popular spots to see what the fuss is about, but I don't believe food needs a celebrity investor and its own limited edition tableware in order to be enjoyed. Most of the time I just like to keep it simple. Simple man, simple pleasures... that's me.
Enter Zuni. For those who may not have ever been I have no doubt you've heard or read about it at some point. It's a Bay Area institution, wait, a California institution. It opened in 1979, which is ancient in restaurant years. Zuni has been the recipient of countless awards, even gathering rave reviews to this day, like her 2004 James Beard Outstanding Chef Award. My guess is that she does it by letting the food speak for itself, featuring honest, high-quality ingredients. The menu is a bit eclectic but keeps its roots in Mediterranean, and there's absolutely nothing on that menu I don't love passionately or have ever been disappointed by.
My first experience at Zuni was in 1996. I was 26 years old and had just taken a job as a designer in San Francisco. It was a reverse shock to leave a Chicago winter and step into a west coast February, but I loved it and knew there was no turning back. I contacted an old friend who just left a job at Zuni to pursue his music career, and he suggested we meet at the cafe to catch up. I'd only read about Zuni at that point but was clearly excited – no, THRILLED– to experience it firsthand with someone who knew Judy, the menu and the staff.
We hugged and laughed and talked about Austin (where we were both originally from) over fresh Malpeque oysters and cosmopolitans at the bar. After my third cosmo (hey, I was in my 20's, I could do it then!) I summoned up enough courage to ask about everything else on the menu. And it was at that single moment that my life changed. You see, my friend Mark could sense what I was asking and threw caution to the wind and proceeded to order a caesar, house-cured anchovies with parmesan shavings, shoe string fries, a burger with gruyere and pickled onions and Zuni's famous roasted chicken, just for me to taste. I was officially inducted into the world of Gluttony at that point, and I savored every minute of it.
After we rolled out hours later I felt as if I had found a home away from home. Over the next 5 years of living in San Francisco I found any and every excuse to eat at Zuni. I've even celebrated my birthday dinner at Zuni every year. And no, I was never tired nor bored. I found I could have a mimosa and breakfast and read the paper with a friend on a Sunday morning at Zuni, or take my visiting friends and family for long, delicious laughter-filled dinners. But the culmination of my obsession came when I accepted a position in Los Angeles and had 4 different friends take me out for a farewell dinner on four separate nights. Yes, people, it was Zuni four nights in a row. What can I say?
I once remember a 9-year old girl telling the adults at the table what she recommended from the day's menu; she ran down almost every single item, describing its preparation and ingredients and whether she suggested ordering it. I wonder where that girl is today, probably off cooking and writing somewhere. But it was at that point that it made me realize that Zuni is much more than a quirky California restaurant but a place where we can connect with each other but also with the food; that seems pretty rare if you ask me.
Zuni and Ms. Rodgers, how I love you so.