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San Francisco In Rare Restaurant Gold Rush

While many will cite this as one of the worst years for restaurant openings across the U.S., especially in such cities as New York and Los Angeles, this fall San Francisco is bringing some of the most anticipated debuts in recent memory.

The effects of the recession can still be seen walking the streets of San Francisco, even on posh shopping strips such as Post Street, where a Diesel flagship once stood across from a multilevel Gap and next door to a trendy Mango boutique. All three are now closed. But in the food world it's another story, one of a timely culmination of long-anticipated openings and hush-hush spinoffs of Michelin star chefs making their marks at the forefront of the modern American food movement.

BENU Benu is the most coveted of any dinner reservation in San Francisco right now. Its space at 22 Hawthorne -- in the city's once gritty, now gentrified South of Market neighborhood -- is set back from the street, with private valet and a wall of glass that frames chefs and assistants working in a cloud of white uniforms and stainless steel. Two steps onto the property but still outside, a man in black bearing a small clipboard asks, "Do you have a reservation?" From there it's through a small zen garden and glass doors that open to the breeze of busy workers seating diners without delay in a pristine dining room of Guggenheim-like design: sparely decorated walls, clothless tables and plush carpet, all by architect Richard Bloch of New York's Masa and Bar Masa.

Benu Kitchen
The chef of Benu, in San Francisco, has been lauded by James Beard and given three stars by Michelin.

The restaurant's chef, Corey Lee, has been lauded by James Beard and given three stars by Michelin; he was chef de cuisine at the French Laundry before opening Benu in late August. The restaurant offers a la carte and tasting menu options for $160, the latter requiring a 2.5-hour commitment on average but worth it judging by the oohs and ahhs for such dishes as creamy eggplant soup with semi-baked tomato; sea urchin risotto with sweet corn and black truffle; and artistically presented single lamb rack with homemade garlic sausage and cauliflower on dandelion-emblazoned Korean porcelain plates. The impressive staff of sommeliers and waiters was honed at local restaurants including Coi and La Toque. The service is so formal you wish you'd worn a jacket to what is sure to be a Michelin contender for years to come.
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