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.

LUCE When it comes to hotel-based restaurants, Americans certainly lag their European counterparts. The Plaza Athenee in Paris is home to Alain Ducasse, and London's Claridge's is home to Gordon Ramsey, both rated with three stars by Michelin. In San Francisco, there is only one hotel that has the type of restaurant worthy of checking in, and that's the Intercontinental San Francisco, home to chef Dominique Crenn. The one-star Michelin chef and August winner of Iron Chef America recently announced that she'd expand her culinary prowess to Atelier Crenn in the former-Plumpjack space along SF's posh Fillmore Street this year.

Until then, there is Luce, part molecular gourmand in attitude and part feel-good ode, offering a new $90 prix fixe tasting menu that begins with a two-way foie gras served seared and as a terrine that is perhaps the best rendition of the dish anywhere in the U.S. The menu continues with creamy chilled corn soup that's actually entirely cream free, and locally harvested summer garden salad that feels as though it was plucked from the farm that day. Ambitious presentations with sorrel mushrooms and prune gelee make fans of the fearful rabbit eater, and later comes medallions of venison with beets and wild herbs. Dessert is one of the prettiest and tastiest we've seen. It appears to be a simple bunch of grapes, but on actual grape stem is goat cheese in a candied concord coating and smooth gelato that melts together to create something sugary and sublime.

DEL AMI, PLUM and SONS & DAUGHTERS Switching from obscure molecular master chefs to more recognizable fine dining, the scene includes fall newcomers Del Ami by Spruce owners The Bacchus Group, in a glossy black lacquer space on Union Street; still-to-prove-itself Plum in Oakland by Coi creator Daniel Patterson, who lost his star chef just a few weeks before opening; and Sons & Daughters, which finds its postcard-ready restaurant space on Bush Street a cable car ride up from Union Square below Nob Hill.

Sons & Daughters co-chefs Teague Moriarty and Matt McNamara, one bearded and one tatted, summon a menu of emulsions and blended foams from this small-kitchen operation with big league talents. The restaurant is part Victorian and part indie rock 'n' roll, one of the few new uniquely S.F. spaces. It incorporates the city's younger sprit and evokes another time, combining checkerboard floors and crystal chandeliers with the backbeat of Bob Dylan anthems.

Expect a thoroughly gourmet menu: oxtail tartare with miso and juniper berries; sweetbreads over purpled potatoes; honey squab au jus followed by dark chocolate truffle cake; and a sensational sheep's cheese risotto with summer truffles and egg that's refreshingly runny, given the current fear of the yolk. There's a prix fixe menu of three or four courses refreshingly priced at $36 to $48 per person that proves the city's next generation of gourmands has ears to the recession and eyes on the future.

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Michael Martin is the managing editor of, a luxury travel and lifestyle guide based in Los Angeles and London. His work has appeared in InStyle, Blackbook, Elle, U.K.'s Red magazine and on ITV and the BBC.