In a city where innovation is as ubiquitous in the culinary world as it is in a thriving tech industry, it is no small feat for a San Francisco chef to rise to the top and stay there. And yet, chefs Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski have done just that.
After meeting in a college darkroom, the two went on to cook together for years, winning accolades before they even opened their first restaurant, State Bird Provisions, in 2011. SBP garnered immediate recognition for its dynamic, globally inspired cuisine and unique dim sum service. The establishment even earned a James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in 2013.
After opening The Progress right next door — this eatery focuses on family-style service in a more refined setting — Brioza and Krasinski went on to win another James Beard Award, this time for Best Chef in the West in 2015.
There’s perhaps no one better to give Bay Area recommendations than Brioza, who grew up 50 minutes outside of the city, in Cupertino, and began working in kitchens when he was 15 years old. After attending art school, a foundation which has undoubtedly influenced the interior design of both restaurants, Brioza attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park.
Upon graduation, he honed his fine-dining skills in Chicago and Ellsworth, Michigan, for some years, but returned to San Francisco in 2004, saying he was drawn back by, “the wonderful community of chefs, artisans, farmers, diners and forward thinkers.”
This community has helped the Bay Area become one of the globe’s true epicurean capitals. And while you could go at it alone in a tour of all the city’s great tastes, it’s probably best to let Brioza point you in the right direction.
The chef recommends starting your San Francisco sampling with 20th Century Cafe, a retro Hayes Valley eatery inspired by owner Michelle Polzine’s love of vintage cookbooks and travels throughout Vienna, Budapest and Prague.
“I don’t understand why there’s not a line out the door every day,” says Brioza of the cafe, which is known for its homemade bagels, Hungarian-style knishes and Russian honey cake.
Other current favorites of Brioza’s include the nearby Rich Table, where chefs Evan and Sarah Rich have fine-tuned inventive family-style dining in a rustic-but-refined setting, and Liholiho Yacht Club, where chef Ravi Kapur creates innovative, playful dishes inspired by his native Hawaii. “These are restaurants in which the chefs are producing really impressive flavors in unique environments that convey the warmth and friendliness of the Bay Area,” say Brioza.
He counts the celebrated Bar Tartine as another essential culinary destination for visitors. Opened in 2005, several years after the lauded Tartine Bakery opened its doors, co-chefs Cortney Burns and Nick Balla use the seasons’ bounty as their palette, showcasing and preserving the Bay Area’s best ingredients in wholly original dishes with nods to Nordic, Japanese and central European cuisines.
However, you’d be just as likely to catch Brioza getting pho at Turtle Tower, tacos and burritos at La Palma Mexicatessen or a package of freshly wrapped dumplings to go at Yummy Dumpling. San Francisco’s culinary talent extends far behind the classically trained to include a diverse representation of family-owned establishments cooking time-honored dishes.
North Beach, the city’s historically Italian neighborhood and epicenter of the beatnik scene, is Brioza’s favorite neighborhood for enjoying a few after-work tipples. His go-to spots range from BIX (a sleek martini bar with nightly jazz) to Comstock Saloon (a refurbished Barbary Coast address committed to perfecting classic cocktails) and Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum cafe (an alleyway institution as divey as it is welcoming).
Brioza’s hotel recommendations also span from the high-end to the more approachable (a theme that makes complete sense once you visit his restaurants, which are equal parts refined and playful, upscale and unpretentious). Located directly across from the iconic Ferry Building, Hotel Vitale is a luxury boutique property offering 180-degree views of the Bay, best enjoyed from a private terrace or soaking tub.
Hotel des Arts, located just outside Chinatown, in the heart of the city’s French Quarter, is an affordable boutique hotel where the focus is on creative expression. Each room showcases work by a contemporary artist from around the globe, and most of the rotating pieces hanging in the hallways are for sale.
If you find yourself needing to escape the city, you are not alone — nor are you short of options. The Bay Area affords a plethora of lovely destinations, all accessible by car or ferry. Brioza prefers escaping to Rodeo Beach, a picturesque red- and green-pebbled getaway located in Marin County, just a couple miles northwest of Golden Gate Bridge. Sheltered by cliffs, this stretch is best for surfing, sunbathing, bird-watching or simply listening to the calming sound of the Pacific lap against the earth as the golden sun lowers to meet it.