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SF

Review

Krescent Carasso

Zuni Cafe

Written by
Krescent Carasso

Zuni Cafe is the San Francisco restaurant that gets talked about with the same reverence as Greek gods, or you after your first time seeing Hamilton. Which makes sense - it’s a legend. Since Zuni opened over 40 years ago, it’s had a big part in defining California cooking. In the past four decades, the restaurant world has changed around this place, and in some ways, surpassed it. It’s been a long time since Zuni was making the most exciting food in San Francisco, but we’ll continue to come here until we no longer have a pulse. And, probably for a few weeks after.

We last reviewed Zuni in 2014, back when the Giants won their eighth World Series and Google Glass was trying to take over our lives. It’s been our highest-rated restaurant (9.5) since, which is why you may notice that we’ve taken Zuni down a few notches. The reason is simple - the food doesn’t always live up to the restaurant’s legendary status.

Krescent Carasso

Zuni’s most iconic dish is a wood-fire roasted chicken served over a warm bread salad. This thing has achieved a level of fame even outside the restaurant, and it’s the reason why, when you visit during the holidays, you’ll find the Christmas tree covered solely in poultry ornaments. The menu warns you it’s going to take 60 minutes to cook - and it really does take about an hour - during which time the anticipation builds. But on our recent revisits, when the chicken finally landed on our table, we were disappointed. $64 is a lot to spend on a chicken that’s sometimes too dry, or too salty. Even if it is the famous Zuni chicken. Other dishes, like the roast rabbit leg or lamb with Merguez sausage, are made with textbook precision - but they’re not the kinds that you’ll wake up thinking about.

But there are moments when the food still shines. The Caesar is a perfect mix of anchovy, cheese, romaine, and dressing. It continues to be one of the best salads to ever touch a plate. The burger is served on a piece of grilled rosemary focaccia and is so good that it could bring a Pixar writer to tears. Small dishes like the house-cured anchovies with olives and celery, and the blood oranges with Marash pepper, highlight how great the simplest things can be. It’s those things that Zuni does best.

Krescent Carasso

There’s another big reason why this restaurant’s been going strong for over 40 years, and will probably be around for another 40. Zuni has such incredible staying power because there are so many ways to do this place right. The impressive two-story glass triangle is an ideal backdrop for big moments, like anniversaries, birthdays, and dinners with the in-laws. We also love casually dropping in for wine during the day (which always turns into a long lunch involving oysters or burgers), or grabbing martinis at the copper-top bar after work. At night, the big open space becomes warm and intimate, and you’ll want to have deep conversations with friends over small plates in a room upstairs. Everyone can find their perfect time to come here and experience this San Francisco classic. As long as Zuni keeps being Zuni, we’ll keep coming back.

Food Rundown

The menu at Zuni Cafe changes daily, but some things never leave - like the roasted chicken or the Caesar salad.

Chicken For Two Roasted In The Wood-Fired Brick Oven; Warm Bread Salad With Scallions, Garlic, Mixed Chicories, Dried Currants, And Pine Nuts

If you’ve never been to Zuni Cafe you need to get this dish at least once - it’s historic. But despite how famous this chicken is, it can also be kind of dry.

Navel And Blood Oranges With Jerusalem Artichokes, Marash Pepper, Ginger, And Olive Oil

The spicy and refreshing blood oranges are a great snack while you wait for larger items like the chicken to arrive. We recommend them alongside the House-Cured Anchovies.

Poached Pears With Belgian Endive, Hazelnuts, And Pleasant Ridge Reserve Cheese

The sweet pears almost make this taste like a dessert (in a good way), and the endive and hazelnuts add a nice contrast. This won’t be on your list of Best Salads You’ve Ever Had, but it’ll be a notable runner up.

Zuni Caesar Salad

The romain is tossed with the perfect amount of anchovies, cheese, croutons, and dressing. All salads should aspire to be this.

Risotto With Black Trumpet Mushrooms And Nettles

This risotto isn’t creamy, and other dishes like the ricotta gnocchi from this section of the menu, which we’ll define here as the carb-y section, are also a bit underwhelming. Skip them all.

Grilled Lamb And Merguez-Style Sausage With Crispy Sweet Potatoes, Cabbage Slaw, Preserved Lemon, Cilantro, And Harissa

The highlight of this is the mild Merguez sausages. The lamb leg is tender and good, but won’t be the best lamb you’ve had all year.

Rabbit Leg Roasted In The Wood-Fired Brick Oven With Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes, Brussels Sprouts, And Parsnips

There’s nothing over-the-top going on with this well-herbed rabbit, and that’s OK - it’s still good. However, the tangy buttermilk mashed potatoes are very good. We want them as a side with everything we order here forever.

Shoestring Potatoes

Trust us when we say that this giant hay bale of thin, crisp fries will disappear as soon as you start eating them. You know what to do.

House-Ground Grass-Fed Hamburger On Grilled Rosemary Focaccia With Aioli And Zuni Pickles

You can dress this up however you like with cheese or tomatoes (if they’re in season). Either way, classical music will play in your head after you take the first bite of this burger. It’s one of the best in the world, and we’d carry a photo of it around in our wallets if it was socially acceptable.

Chocolate Cream Tart With Pistachio Cream

The crust is flaky, the chocolate is silky, and the pistachio cream adds another good layer to this dessert. We wouldn’t end a meal any other way.

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