California Road Trip 2010: Playing the reservations game in San Francisco

See that view up there? Well it’s what you get to see when you are lucky enough to be seated at the window seats at The Slanted Door in San Francisco’s Ferry Building.  And the view I ultimately really wanted to have when we dined there on our brief stop in San Francisco last month.  Alas, it was not meant to be, because whilst I was able to score a reservation for us at a reasonable hour, they seat you as tables become available, meaning you can’t request a window table.  I had actually asked for one for two reasons – the light, so I would be able to take pics of the apparently awesome food as discreetly as possible and secondly, so that we would not be surrounded on all sides by people and tables.  My dad can’t stand overly noisy restaurants and we were dining with Neil’s mum who is 85 and very softly spoken, so I wanted to alleviate as much as possible the prospect of a dinner where we couldn’t hear ourselves think. Again, not meant to be.

We were seated at a table very close to the back of the large room, where we were surrounded on all sides and in dim lighting. (It’s atmospheric, yes, but failed on both the noise and lighting factor). I spotted a small table for 2 and a table for 4 empty near the window and requested that we be seated there but they insisted that 5 people could not occupy space for 6. Then proceeded to seat 2 at the table for 2 and 3 at the table for 4.  Who were all there as long as we were so really, we could have sat there, no problem. Many of the wait staff treated my request with disdain, even though I had requested both at the time of booking. I guess rules are rules but as the night wore on, the “cool factor” of the restaurant (i.e. turning as many tables as they humanly could) became a little wearing…  The table for 4 behind was given to a party of 7, making the noise factor nearly unbearable.  So, ok, maybe I am not cut out for cool restaurants anymore which is not your problem dear reader, but I hear you wanting to know about the food…

Thankfully, the food was phenomenal. Some of the best Asian food I have had recently, and considering the cool factor and the location (and potential view), it was pretty good value too.

Starters from top left: Crispy imperial rolls with shrimp, pork, glass noodles and peanuts ($10), Dumplings  steamed in banana leaf with shiitake mushrooms, pork and dried shrimp ($12), Daikon rice cakes  with shiitake mushrooms and shallots ($12), and complimentary Chilled greenlip mussels mussels  steamed in white wine and lemongrass with roasted chili aioli. A nice gesture, the mussels to make up for our disappointment at lack of window seating. Pity I don’t like mussels. Apparently they were lovely.

Of these apps, the spring rolls were superb. Crispy and flavourful.  The rice cakes were surprisingly tasty and we were universally underwhelmed by the dumpling. Too slimy.

For mains, we ordered a selection of dishes and to be fair to our server, he was super observant to the point of a couple of dishes in, suggesting he halve a couple of the upcoming dishes as it might have been too much. A thoughtful touch that was appreciated. He was very professional and we found him very attentive.

I apologise for the awful photos. Yes. there was a flash involved at some points.

Our mains, from top left: Green papaya  salad with tofu, rau ram and roasted peanuts ($11), Cellophane noodles  with fresh Dungeness crab meat ($18),  Chue farm baby bok choy  with baby shiitake mushrooms ($10), Caramelized tiger prawns  with garlic, onions and chili sauce ($20).

We loved all these dishes. The Dungeness crab did not fail to disappoint (I had many people telling me it was a “must”) and the prawns were cooked to perfection.

Chicken claypot  with caramel sauce, chilies and fresh ginger ($19), Chue farm Japanese eggplant  with green onions and coconut milk  ($10) .  These two dishes were pretty tasty too. I especially love the way the Heath Ceramics bowl coordinates with the Japanese eggplant!

By this time, we were totally replete and couldn’t fit in a dessert if we tried.  We were given a complimentary tapioca dessert (again, something I don’t eat, especially when I am already pleasantly full from dinner!) which was a nice touch but didn’t make up for the fact that there we were so close to the lovely view, but so far, and not for want of trying.

So it it worth it? Worth the wait, worth the random seating? Does it live up to the hype? If judging solely on food, I would say yes. Unfortunately, for me, dining is also about the atmosphere, the experience, so on both those counts, not so much.  It’s hard to really enjoy even outstanding food when at least one of your party can’t hear the conversation and another speaks in a whisper rendering her impossible to hear above the din.  We might have been better off heading there for lunch, although I suspect it’s jam-packed at all times.  Go for the food, not the view, and certainly don’t go for a romatntic tête-à-tête, unless you don’t care about conversation.  The food?  Guaranteed fabulous. The view, not so much guaranteed.

The Slanted Door
Financial District
1 Ferry Building
San Francisco, CA 94111
(415) 861-8032

Slanted Door on Urbanspoon

Apparently, a trip to San Francisco without a meal at Zuni Café would be a big no-no for a foodie so I made a reservation there for our last night.  I was only able to book for 4 on the website and as we ended up being a party of 5, I phoned them to see if I could add the extra person. Apparently, no, this was not possible. That table for 4 simply couldn’t take 5 people and there were no others that could at that time either so we would just have to show up for our 8pm reservation and take our chances. Seriously?  Since we ended up being seated at a table more suitable for 4 than 5 anyway, this made no sense to me.

We arrived at 7.50pm and waited at the bar with some lovely drinks.

Neil ordered a Negroni and I chose an elderflower and prosecco cocktail which was delightfully fresh and not at all sweet the way some sparkling wine cocktails can be.

And we waited. And watched the open kitchen at work…

And we waited…

We were finally seated at 9.10pm. I have a very hard time believing that there were no tables at all that could have seated us before then.  It’s a huge space and I still can’t wrap my head around the difference between a table for 4 and a table for 5 (since in the area we were seated, the tables were the same size for either sized party).  Thank goodness they allowed Neil’s mum to sit at the end of the bar as we waited.

This put paid to our plans to order Zuni’s famous “Chicken for two” since that needed at least an hour’s notice. No way were we waiting until nearly 10.30 to eat a main course (I had a 3.30am wakeup call the next morning).

We were pretty happy with our starters – we got some of the famous shoestring potato fries to share, I ordered an heirloom tomato and beet salad and Neil had the classic Caesar with fresh anchovies (below, top row).

Our mains were very very good, with the exception of the rabbit (middle row, far left). Not a meat that lends itself to roasting as it tends to dry out, this dish was tasty but terribly tough. The salmon and beef (middle row) were both excellent and I ordered a small portion (a starter) of fried fish which was melt-in-your-mouth tender and delicious with a perfectly crispy batter.  Neil ordered the lamb tajine (not pictured) which was North Africa in a bowl.  The desserts were also exceptional – a honey ice cream with a sesame brittle and a “gâteau Victoire” with whipped cream (what I would call a moelleux au chocolat in France – lightest chocolate cake ever).

So yes, the food was good. Great, even. But this whole reservation shenanigans? I am so over that.  Call me old fashioned, call me uncool but having to wait over an hour for a table that was reserved (albeit a reservation that I changed after the fact, though it’s not as though I added 5 people to the table, it was one) is just not ok with me.  Doesn’t matter how great the food is.  But who knows? Maybe I am on my own here?

What about you? Does it bug you when restaurants have quirky reservations policies?

Zuni Café
1658 Market St
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 552-2522

ZUNI Café on Urbanspoon

38 thoughts on “California Road Trip 2010: Playing the reservations game in San Francisco”

  1. Good review, Mardi – all around.

    Food delightful at both; wait staff professional; reservations dealings dreadful. (At Zuni we felt the waiting game was a [shameful] calculated ploy to increase bar tabs a hundred dollars per reservation.)

    I’m all for being a “foodie”, but personally have little patience for the arrogance displayed by such places today – something the blogosphere has no doubt added to. These two are so popular I’m sure they don’t care, but if I lived in SFO I’d despair that I could not enjoy their great food as often as I’d like, as I would not be content being treated with contempt. (Mardi did not mention at Zuni we were five crammed into a table four four – but right across from us was a table for six, where five were seated just a few moments after we were seated.) Too many restaurant choices. For repeat visits, would rather have a slightly less wonderful meal, but a wonderful experience.

    Re the noise factor. Alas, I don’t think I can hold this against either of these establishmetns per se: it just seems to be the norm in America these days, even in fine restaurants. Slanted Door especially was dreadful in that respect. Makes for a tiring dining experience at times, though. (Eating inside at the CIA would have been unpleasant, for example.)

    Glad we were able to try these places, though – thanks Mardi for the work on the reservations!

  2. I’m prepared to wait at places that do not take reservations. Well, up to a point really. Depends on how many people I’m with, how hungry we’re feeling, and how determined we are to have that eatery’s food.

    If I’ve made a reservation then I want my table at that time – perhaps a 15 minute delay is acceptable? – as otherwise it defeats the purpose of having a reservations system altogether.

  3. I totally agree with you and Mr Neil about this whole “reservations” game. The arrogance is somewhat off putting. I’m not so much into the latest, greatest, most hip dining option. I’d rather go to a fun, quiet[er] place where I can talk to the people I’m dining with without being angry most of the dinner. 🙂

  4. A good read! I am with you on the stupid reservation dance some places seem to think is a part of being at the top of their game. Having a reservation should make the dining process more relaxed, but both of these places seemed to bring unnecessary stress into the whole thing. I also hate finishing a meal and having a sore throat from yelling to try and hold a conversation.

    I’m surprised The Slanted Door didn’t try and give you some salmon tartare to apologise as well, seeing as they seemed to have such a good idea of things you don’t eat.

  5. Aaahhhh yes! The old ‘your table is not quite ready yet, would you care to enjoy a drink in the bar’ trick. Shame., that this ploy ruins the night for a lot & defeats the customer service.
    The food however did look pretty darn magical – saving grace ‘n all.

  6. Oh the joys of dining out! Reservation issues aside (how annoying!) you did very well considering the lighting conditions indeed. Rabbit? You are so adventurous! And I love anything with elderflower, one of my favourite things in the world. Thank you also for your kind words on my blog today. It’s been a rough month. Thankfully my husband comes home in a couple of days, just have to keep myself together for a bit longer.

  7. I find it amazing that restaurants STILL do this – what’s the point of a reservation if it isn’t honored??? As for an extra guest I don’t understand that either. Sometimes I think more famous restaurants get a tad arrogant – it’s as if they are doing you a favor by allowing you to spend money in their establishment!

  8. I think the food at The Slanted Door is phenomenal as well, as is their service. The noise at this place is consistently the top complaint at this restaurant. On a good day it’s tolerable, on a bad day … well you know.

    It’s really a shame what happened Cafe Zuni. I would be so furious hitting the hour mark that I would just leave, and if I didn’t it would have ruined my entire perception of the meal.

  9. Great (and accurate) post Mardi.
    Whether the delay in being seated is down to a sly deception aimed at boosting the bar bill or whether it’s genuinely because there is no table, it boils down to the same thing. These people somehow believe that their time is more important than yours. Memo restaurateurs – it isn’t.
    As for noise – I’m the offending “Dad” mentioned in the post. Whether it bothers you or not surely depends on why you’re eating out? If you just go for the food, fine… but for many (most?) people eating in a restaurant is a more wholistic experience involving food, atmosphere, service and enjoying the company of the people with whom’re you’re dining out. At The Slanted Door it is possible only to enjoy the food, nothing else. I will back the professionalism of the waiter – he was a saving grace that evening but that was cold comfort surrounded, as our table was, by about 50 people within four or five metres.
    Zuni Cafe food was good, as Mardi asserts, but if it had not been for the fact that we had 85 year-old with us, I would not have waited past 30 minutes. Stuff ’em.

  10. I am really surprised that Zuni was that uncooperative about the one extra person seating. When we were there – we had made our reservation for a certain time and were driving back from Carmel and were going to be a bit late… 30 minutes or so – and they were very easy with us. “No problem!” The service was excellent and the table we sat at was in the second room by the door that isn’t used in the corner by the window. I loved that corner as we could also watch the kitchen. And, yes – the tables are all sizes! I always ask for a kitchen tour and got one there which I really appreciated. Judy Rogers was in and out too briefly for us to meet her that evening, but I did see her. The chicken was good. The presentation fantastic with the stuffing salad – but there is so much else on the menu I liked better. Chez Pannise cooked their chicken much better… well, not sure about the cooking – I think they just had better chicken, actually. ANyway, I look forward to hitting ZUni again and doing smaller plates, and more of them.
    You might want to take a look at our post to see the kitchen tour.

  11. I just moved from the Bay Area 4 months ago back to L.A. – UGH!
    Miss everything about SF and surrounding areas! Love The Slanted Door – I had a pastry chef friend that used to work there – lots of good things to eat and drink! The city (SF) always is like that about reservations in general – it’s unfortunate but it’s the way of the world!

  12. I enjoyed your review of the S.F. eateries and your pix are excellent. As for the awful behavior of the two places: One more example of very good food and truly shameful service! In the case of the first place, when denied the appropriate seating, I would have thanked them and walked out. If it is REALLY important, sometimes a little green can solve your seating needs, but this not a recommended practice. Better luck next time.

  13. Having lived in SF for 30 yrs. I understand your posts on rez’s and such. Mama Zuni, as we call it, and one of our long time fav’s, Slanted Door, have DIVINE- DEVOTED owners/ chefs and suppliers. Even poultry suppliers. The reservations game Sucks. Those of us that have been spending money in these establishments since they opened can, and will, still be treated horribly with the wrong front of house staff. Even when they claim dining is down by 45% you still get the run around. I only go during off hours- if possible.
    P.S. You’re photo’s are good. But only post the really good ones.. not every dish. It takes away from the beauty.

    • Thanks for stopping by and I am glad to know that it’s not just out of towners who have difficulties getting into places… And re: the pictures, thanks for the advice. Unfortunately, I have *no* decent photos from either restaurant 🙁


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