What pricey plates say about pandemic-era S.F. restaurants

From $72 fried rice and $160 porterhouse steak to artistic flare and fair wages

By Paolo Bicchieri

Special to The Examiner

When Lily and Lucy Lieu, the owners of Lily on Clement, told Robert Lam to make a $72 fried rice, he thought they had lost their minds.

“It’s almost been a year since they said, ‘We should do something,’” remembered Lam, head chef of Lily. “I thought, ‘What the hell do we do?’”

The pricey dish was a chance to increase revenue during the pandemic through an unusual takeout option, and it worked. Lam created a barricaded billionaire’s version of fried rice with white sturgeon caviar, black truffles, trout, sea urchin roe, rock shrimp, Miyazaki Wagyu sirloin and jidori egg yolks. Many came for the dish, as did the gawking media.

But the folks at Lily are not the only restaurateurs to offer expensive delicacies before or during our COVID era.

Tyler Florence has made headlines with a $160 porterhouse steak at his new Chase Center restaurant, Miller & Lux, which opened in September. In San Mateo, one can work through a $79 lobster pho, courtesy of chef-owner Viet Nguyen of Gao Viet Kitchen.

To Lam, California’s price elevation craze started in 1982 with Wolfgang Puck’s smoked salmon pizzas. Spago, Puck’s restaurant, carved a riven between casual and fine dining; upon opening, the most expensive entree he offered was $15. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that would cost just shy of $43 today.

Lam says his accidental signature dish is pricey but grounded in inventive cooking.

“That dish was so popular because people tried it and realized there was serious thought put into it,” Lam said.

As long as the craft is there

Rogelio Garcia wants you to try the white truffles. Not any white truffles — the ones in season. The Mexican American, Napa-raised cook is the head chef at Luce, a San Francisco restaurant in the InterContinental Hotel that has held its Michelin star for 10 consecutive years. Garcia also competed on season 15 of “Top Chef.”

“I love white truffles,” Garcia enthused. “They’re elegant.”

Luce reopened in October after a renovation and COVID-related closure, and Garcia joined the business in 2020. An eight-course tasting menu at the restaurant runs $185, just five bucks more than the Chase Center porterhouse.

That said, Garcia is a firm supporter of the expensive single plate.

“It all has its place in the market,” he explained.

Take white truffles. Garcia likes that the aroma doesn’t need to be manipulated and that the autumn mushrooms can be shaved tableside for customers. At Luce, one could order the white Alba truffle taglierini with 12-month aged Parmigiano-Reggiano for $80 per 5 grams. To Garcia, the offering is a culinary expression: “If it has a beautiful story to tell, then why not?”

Lam agrees that there are plenty of examples of high priced plates that are legitimately inventive, not just wallet gouging.

“It’s taking something totally plebeian and making it totally luxurious,” Lam said. “Puck put those ingredients on something familiar and then raised the scale. That’s what I’m doing with my food.”

Kevin Madrigal, founder of nonprofit Farming Hope, said over email that fine dining in San Francisco really is an experience.

“I think chefs are artists in their own right,” Madrigal explained. “They like to cross lines that people perceive exist.”

Farming Hope employs formerly homeless and incarcerated people to grow food and prepare it for community meals or at various partner locations, such as Manny’s on Valencia. In 2021, the organization cooked food for roughly 1,200 people who rely on the free meals. Madrigal said some of these folks live on the same block as The City’s Michelin restaurants, which he finds unacceptable.

“This alone isn’t going to fix the problems of expensive food and exploited food labor,” Madrigal said. “But at least it’s an effort in the right direction.”

As long as the cost is fair

When I called Lam again, he was eating at Fog City on the Embarcadero.

“It’s my old haunting grounds,” Lam laughed.

He wants to keep making what he called “the food he grew up eating day-to-day” and making it at a higher and higher quality. He wants people to be talking about it. He wants it to be as “culturally accurate as possible, but with his own funk.”

In doing so, he knows that price point is sometimes controversial. But he works to keep gorgeous ingredients alongside fair prices.

Jay Foster, marketplace manager at food business incubator La Cocina, is no stranger to pricing issues. The Tenderloin food hall came under fire when it announced its menu would sport $16 tacos, but the folks at La Cocina were quick to defend themselves.

“In some cases you have to charge these prices,” Foster said. “What determines those prices is the exorbitant rent and cost of living in San Francisco.”

He recognizes that many who once thrived here have been driven out of the food game. Foster birthed several local restaurants, but the only one that remains under his ownership is the soul food favorite Farmerbrown at SFO. Still, he’s excited to be working with the immigrant women of La Cocina to amplify their stories and businesses. When he thinks about The City’s uber-expensive options, he shudders.

“If you’re paying $72 for fried rice,” Foster said. “It had better be in a very interesting, unique situation. That’s more money than many San Franciscans live on in a week.”

He agreed, though, that San Franciscans pride themselves on getting better quality and paying the higher cost. Whether it be cage-free chicken, farm-raised eggs, grass-fed beef or carbon-neutral oat milk, the Bay Area has long been known for eating its values. We are in the birthplace of Chez Panisse, after all. Lam and Garcia are on the same quest, as are the Viet Nguyens and the Tyler Florences of the area.

Madrigal said the Bay Area’s acceptance of high-price meals shows San Franciscans’ willingness to support working-class people with their money. He believes the influx of cash can lead to new opportunities for historically underrepresented people in the culinary world.

“[It’s] the reality of paying people a fair wage throughout the food supply chain,” Madrigal said. “Even with recent changes around gentrification and displacement, there is still a lot of diversity in the Bay Area. I think we’re just beginning to see what that diversity craves in terms of high-end cuisine.”

There are other trends to note when considering what is fair cost. Garcia pointed to a rising minimum wage. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of June, restaurant workers’ wages went above $15 on average for the first time.

Value of items and goods are following suit. San Francisco is a long-term experiment in wild costs, from housing to health care; the $20 bill can feel like it’s just one dollar in disguise.

“Chefs have always tried to make a dollar out of 50 cents,” Lam said.

Foster said he sympathizes with these owners. San Francisco can be a city of excesses, but he pointed to what he called the national trend of inequality.

“The gap between the rich and the poor is growing,” Foster said. “It makes me think that the stuff that makes San Francisco culture awesome is evaporating.”

And the debate rages on. To some, high price food options are a beautiful and significant part of the restaurant world. To others, they are symptoms of a failing market system.

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