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April 6, 2023

I still think of Oakland as home. The Bay Area is where I learned to cook, and its food culture is mostly to thank for my love of restaurants. So when I read the news last week that Bay Area restaurants had netted only three James Beard nominations for the 2023 Chef and Restaurant awards—the fewest the region has received since the awards were introduced in 1991, according to the San Francisco Chronicle—I was disappointed. But I wasn’t entirely surprised. 

I return to the Bay Area several times a year. And every time I’ve gone to find contenders for our annual Best New Restaurants list, or just to visit family and friends, it’s been impossible to ignore: New restaurants in the Bay Area aren’t driving national dining culture anymore. 

It isn’t that there aren’t any compelling new restaurants. Some eclectic bright spots have opened recently, taking the best of Bay Area restaurant culture and building on it—treating their staff better, taking more culinary risks, trying something new. But in the case of many newcomers, the area’s famed farm-driven ethos now exists largely against a backdrop of splashy investor-backed restaurants and all too homogenous “small plates, meant for sharing.” Many feel similar to spots I encounter in New York, Texas—anywhere with a serious restaurant scene, really. A spate of New York–style slice shops. A fast-casual fried chicken sandwich spot with an iPad for ordering. A downtown restaurant bathed in marble and gold, with more than a few expressions of uni and caviar. They’re not bad. They’re just not distinct.

It’s a shame, considering this region used to lead national restaurant culture in new and exciting directions. This is the same place where Preeti Mistry’s now closed Juhu Beach Club began to define a generation of queer restaurants across the country and put a bright, joyful spin on Indian street food. It’s where Tanya Holland ran her iconic soul food restaurant Brown Sugar Kitchen. At my summer job selling produce at a Berkeley farmers market, I remember meeting Sylvan Mishima Brackett, who would haul boxes of fresh produce back to his Japanese izakaya Rintaro in San Francisco. I’d open Instagram hours later and see how he’d expertly transformed seasonal, just-picked vegetables through what felt like an act of magic. Brackett, along with Reem AssilDominica Rice-CisnerosRavi Kapur, and other stars of the Bay Area dining scene, are still turning out delightful food at their restaurants. 

Yet it’s becoming increasingly difficult for a new generation of chefs here to break out, to introduce themselves and their cooking, to even stay open for more than a year or two. I don’t blame chefs and restaurant owners for investing in concepts they know will succeed—and really, I commend anyone who still feels inspired to open a restaurant in 2023. These might be the only businesses that can afford to bet on the Bay these days. The truth is, it’s near-impossible to take risks here anymore. Especially when there’s money involved. 

Even seasoned chefs face challenges. Holland closed Brown Sugar Kitchen in early 2022 after nearly 15 years of service, saying her business was under-resourced and operating in downtown Oakland was no longer tenable. Meanwhile, anticipated new restaurants seem like they’re shutting down before they’ve really been able to open. The closings come with no explanation, or restaurateurs cite a dining public that didn’t understand the “vision,” or sometimes they just can’t afford to keep paying rent. Nigel Jones, the beloved Oakland chef who decided in March to close his Jamaican restaurant Kingston 11 after a decade, recently opened a new restaurant called Calabash. But he tells me that throughout the process of opening the Northern Iranian-Jamaican restaurant, “I was fucking nervous as hell.” 

After investing more than $1 million into the space, Jones moved forward with opening Calabash near downtown Oakland. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation isn’t what he thought it would be when he committed to the concept three years ago. “I see other restaurants closing and teetering,” he says. “And folks are not going out to the downtown area. People are not back in their offices. Back in the day, folks used to get excited about trying all the new restaurants.” 

When I ask Jones if he thinks all of this anxiety and risk has led to “safer-bet” restaurant openings, his answer is immediate: “One hundred percent.” But as Jones sees it, it’s not just about the cultural shifts of the pandemic, or inflation, or staffing and labor issues. It’s about who has access to resources in the Bay Area. “Rent’s expensive throughout the Bay Area. And [landlords] don’t rent to any and everybody just because you want to open a restaurant—even if you have the money,” he says. “It’s stacked against a lot of people.” In other words, not everyone who wants to open a restaurant in the Bay is necessarily able to do so. “Developers aren’t placing bets on new blood,” says Soleil Ho, the San Francisco Chronicle’s former restaurant critic and current opinion columnist and culture critic. “They’re playing it more conservative in terms of who they’re bringing into developments, who they’re offering leases to in restaurant spaces.” 

That means that we may not even be hearing from some of the Bay Area’s most exciting new chefs—the ones who sell food from pop-ups, or as oft-criminalized street food vendors. “There are vendors out there who are making amazing food, that have to do it on a gray or black market level,” says Ho. “Because it’s been so hard, that section of our food culture just hasn’t been able to innovate or thrive.” These are all would-be restaurateurs that could expand on the Bay’s food culture in new and thrilling ways. But since pop-ups and street vendors by nature have more erratic hours and locations—and may stop operating or pivot their concepts with little notice—many national awards hesitate to recommend them to diners. “They don’t have the capital to pay $10,000 for rent and then also buy equipment,” Jones says. 

It doesn’t help that, as tech companies have abandoned the cities they transformed, and their workers splinter off, a rebound from the pandemic has been painful in downtown SF and Oakland alike. Rents, though softening a bit, are still high for business owners and workers. Then there’s the bureaucratic fever dream of securing permits. Some downtown Oakland restaurateurs say the cost of recovering after burglaries and other crimes has become significant, too, leading them to question their choice of location. In 2021, in a meeting to discuss a proposition aimed at making permitting less challenging for small businesses, a member of the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development concurred that SF is one of the most challenging places in the country to open a small business. It’s probably a reflection of all these factors that the number of new restaurants opening each month in SF has yet to return to pre-2020 levels.

Which is all to say, this culinary crisis isn’t happening because there’s a lack of visionary chefs ready to take on the task. Risk-taking in the Bay Area has just gotten too…scary. “I think we’re just not to the point where everyone is able to fully express their point of view, because of the state of our comeback,” Brandon Jew, the James Beard Award–winning chef-owner of Chinese American restaurant Mister Jiu’s, recently told the San Francisco Chronicle in regard to the pandemic. “It’s not the same as other cities.” Charles Chen, who started his business Basuku Cheesecakes during the pandemic, echoed Jew. “Operators are now forced to operate in a way that will encourage them to be full and busy every day rather than pushing the culinary envelopes,” he told the newspaper. “It’s simply too expensive to take risks in the Bay now.” 

San Francisco isn’t the only city where restaurants are having a tough time. The pandemic reshaped how restaurants operate everywhere, and as determined as we are to move on and leave that era of anxiety and uncertainty behind, a lot of restaurants are still struggling. 

But I am particularly sentimental about the dining scene in the Bay Area because this is the place I first fell in love with restaurants. It also marks a big shift for the national dining scene—the region has been a driving force of evolution in the restaurant industry at least since the 1970s, when Alice Waters and a cohort of Chez Panisse cooks began to redefine American cuisine

Awards can get it wrong, and it is certainly possible the James Beard Foundation overlooked some admirable Bay Area restaurants (I, for one, do not understand how James Syhabout, of Oakland’s two-Michelin-starred Commis, was passed up on the finalists list). Still, it says something about the state of the region that so very few restaurants were able to break through the noise and leave a lasting impression this year. Ho still hears from restaurateurs who feel that their mental health is “in the dumpster” as they fight to stay above water, and as long as that’s the case, the Bay Area will be in a sort of culinary holding pattern. “When people are suffering and when they’re terrified, they’re not going to be making good art,” Ho says.

Despite it all, there are still delicious and exciting restaurants opening in the Bay Area. There’s Oakland’s psychedelic, fermentation-driven, staff-first Daytrip; SF’s mission-focused Good Good Culture Club; and the no-food-waste haven Shuggie’s Trash Pie + Natural Wine, which looks like it was dragged through a painter’s palette. These restaurants are delightful and daring. They are also weird, which makes them feel, in this landscape of safe bets, very brave.

Call me greedy, but I desperately want more restaurants like these. And I think the Bay Area can do more to support them. It’s on local governments to find solutions to hurdles such as unmanageable rent and overwhelming permitting processes. But it’s also on us as diners to treat restaurants that are pushing boundaries with reverence and adoration. Because otherwise they might not make it. And the Bay has never needed them more. 

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