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Food & Drink

Zuni Café turns 45 next year. Here’s the San Francisco institution’s story

In episode ten of Pretty F*cking Good, food writer Omar Mamoon visits San Francisco’s storied Zuni Café. From the oyster shucker to the head dishwasher, some of the folks who run the acclaimed restaurant have been there for decades.

San Francisco’s storied Zuni Café—which opened in 1979 in a building that was then mostly occupied by a cactus shop—turns 45 next year. People have come from around the world to feast on its golden mountains of crispy shoestring potatoes and wood-fired roast chicken. Zuni is an institution, a temple of deliciousness. It’s PFG.

But Zuni would not be its PFG self without its people. Apart from its late founder, Billy West, who died in 1994, Zuni became what it is thanks to the late great Judy Rodgers, a Chez Panisse alum who became head chef in 1987 and shepherded the restaurant into culinary greatness, earning it multiple James Beard Awards. She transformed the restaurant into “a San Francisco institution, a social hub for artists, political activists and food pilgrims,” as the New York Times put it in Rodgers’ obituary in 2013. 

The Pretty F*cking Good logo is a a hand serving up the title on a plate.

Also essential was partner and co-owner Vince Calcagno, who is now retired, and the colorful and charismatic Gilbert Pilgram, another former Chez Panisse chef who now owns and runs Zuni Café.

A person smiles for a portrait outside over an awning area at a restaurant.
Owner Gilbert Pilgram has a deep affection for both the cafe and the employees who work to keep the iconic restaurant running on a daily basis. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

But it takes a village to run a restaurant. Some of the folks who make sure the Zuni machine runs smoothly have been with the restaurant longer than I’ve been alive.

“The whole place feels like family,” Pilgram said.

At the oyster station near the front of the kitchen, Juanito Ayala shucks hundreds of beautiful bivalves daily. “He’s the best shucker this side of the moon,” Pilgram said. Ayala has been with Zuni for almost two decades.

A person poses for a portrait in front of an oyster counter.
Oyster shucker extraordinaire Juanito Ayala dishes up dozens of perfectly presented oysters for hungry diners as fast as they can order them. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

So has Melquiades Mendoza, who’s in charge of the dish room, a behind-the-scenes department that is crucial to the workings of every other part of the restaurant.  “When the dishwashers stop working, you have to close,” Pilgram said.

Mendoza also helps prep the shoestring french fries and, when needed, removes graffiti  from the outside of the building, an inevitable hazard of the restaurant’s busy Market Street location.

A chef operates a potato press for the shoestring potatoes in a kitchen area.
Melquiades Mendoza wears many hats behind the scenes at Zuni Café and is crucial to its daily operations. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Hired by Billy West back in 1982, Quang Nguyen helps with prep, butchery and many other tasks. Pilgram described him as a “jack of all trades” who is “the heart of Zuni.”

A chef speaks to a person in a kitchen area with parsely on the cutting table.
Pilgram, left, claims that longtime Zuni employee Quang Nguyen, right, can fix anything that needs to be mended at the restaurant in addition to his many other responsibilities. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Head host Adrien Harrison, who’s been with the restaurant for 25 years, is usually the first person to greet you after you walk through the doors—sometimes even before. She helps with reservations and is “the face of Zuni,” Pilgram said.

A hostess stands behind a counter while smiling.
Head host Adrien Harrison, left, has greeted thousands of diners and stewarded the front-of-house operations for more than two decades at the restaurant. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Since July 2021, Chef de Cuisine Anne Alvero has run the kitchen. She is in charge of going to the farmers' markets and writing the menus, which change daily.

A chef smiles whiles clasping her hands in the back on an active kitchen.
Chef de Cuisine Anne Alvero oversees the direction of Zuni's different daily menus while maintaining the quality of its iconic longtime dishes. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Which brings us to the food.

If you’re experiencing Zuni for the first time (or the 50th)—allow me to help. You can go for lunch or dinner, but if you can swing it, I recommend a long, lingering lunch where you can forget about the rest of the world for a few hours and maybe indulge in some day drinking. 

A meal at Zuni should not be rushed, especially if you plan to order the roast chicken, which is cooked to order and takes an hour to prepare. Sure, you can pop in for a drink and a few small plates, but whenever I’ve done that, I’ve always regretted not getting the chicken. I dream of the juicy, crispy-skinned bird served atop Zuni’s legendary bread salad, which soaks up the chicken drippings like a sponge. It’s a PFG delight.

A tight detail photo of Chicken for two roasted in the wood-fired oven served with a warm bread salad with scallions, garlic, bitter greens, dried currant and pine nuts on a white table cloth.
Chicken for two roasted in the wood-fired oven served with a warm bread salad with scallions, garlic, bitter greens, dried currant and pine nuts is Zuni's most iconic dish. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

It’s best to place the chicken order right away. In the meantime, you’ll want to order a few things to snack on.

I like to keep it light to start out. A half dozen oysters per person, expertly shucked by Ayala, does the trick. Pair them with a glass of champagne, a martini or both. (I’m a big fan of enjoying a cocktail and a glass of wine simultaneously; alternating sips after bites keeps things interesting.)

An over head view of a person taking orders at an oyster station.
Juanito Ayala takes orders and shucks the different varieties of oysters at his station overlooking the main dining area. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

The house-cured anchovies are also a nice move. Served with a few slices of crunchy celery, earthy Parmigiano-Reggiano, and salty coquillo olives artfully arranged, they make for a sophisticated snack, something you can pick at while still saving room for the main event.

An over head view of a plate of house-cured anchovies with celery, Parmigiano-Reggiano and coquillo olives at Zuni Café.
Diners can snack on house-cured anchovies with celery, Parmigiano-Reggiano and coquillo olives while they wait for their main dishes to arrive. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

The shoestring fries are also a requisite. I like to request a side of ketchup and one of aioli in which to dip the seemingly never-ending pile of potatoes.

You could add a Caesar salad—Zuni’s is excellent —or a pre-chicken pizza. Just make sure to save stomach space for the bread salad. 

A bowl of creamy polenta makes a nice side. Like the chicken, it never leaves the menu. A bottle of white burgundy is my preferred pairing—something silky and elegant you’ll want to sip slowly. There’s a time and place to splurge on wine—and Zuni is just the spot.

An overhead view of bowl of polenta with mascarpone, oysters, shoestring potatoes, house-cured anchovies with celery, Parmigiano-Reggiano and coquillo olives, bread, and chicken for two roasted in the wood-fired oven served with a warm bread salad with scallions, garlic, bitter greens, dried currant and pine nuts at Zuni Café .
The Zuni Café menu evokes classic French bistro fare and is meant to be enjoyed as a lingering meal to allow the customer to fully immerse themselves in the experience. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Omar Mamoon is a San Francisco-based writer & cookie dough professional. Find him on Instagram

Zuni Café

️ 🗓️ Wednesdays-Fridays | 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m, 5p.m.-9:30 p.m., Saturday & Sunday | 11 a.m.-4 p.m, 5p.m.-9:30 p.m.
📍 1658 Market St, San Francisco

Video editor Rhea Bergazo contributed to this report.