Visitors to San Francisco today would find it hard to believe that there were once three kosher restaurants, four Jewish bakeries, five kosher meat markets, and three Jewish delicatessens in the city. In fact, they were all within a two square-block area known as the Fillmore, once referred to as the Lower East Side of San Francisco.
However, the post-WWII exodus of Jews to the suburbs North, East and South of the city eventually left the area without an identifiably Jewish neighborhood or serious demand for kosher food. The Bay Area’s Jewish population is now the third largest in the United States (behind those of New York and Los Angeles), but its extremely low rate of community affiliation has dashed the hopes of anyone who had anticipated a new incarnation of the Fillmore.
A perk for many of the Jews who may have moved westward, has been the area’s well-known culture of organic and sustainable agriculture and locally-sourced cuisine. The region, with few kosher food businesses, is a challenging place to live or visit for those who keep strictly kosher. But, the new food movement (Jewish and general) and eco-kashrut have unsurprisingly taken firm root here, as is evidenced by major events such as the annual Hazon Food Conference, the Slow Food Nation Conference, and the Street Food Conference, which draw foodies from far and wide to San Francisco.
Best Kosher Meal: You can pick up a snack or light repast at a number of kosher places in the Bay Area, but if it is fine fleishig dining that you desire, then your only choice is The Kitchen Table about an hour south of San Francisco (you won’t be disappointed). Situated in the heart of Silicon Valley, the restaurant’s seasonally fresh menu attracts not only kashrut-observant families, but also the engineers and executives at local companies like Google, Apple, Yahoo and Facebook. What more, the food is prepared with not only care, but also comedy. Frum Satire’s Heshy Fried works in the kitchen as a line cook and mashgiach.
Best Underground Foodie Experience: It’s a fleeting experience, but it’s worth it. You need to get yourself on the right email distribution list, follow the right Tweets or “like” the right Facebook page, to know exactly when The Pop-Up General Store is going to next, well, pop up in Oakland, just across the Bay. This transient market, which is set up in an old streetcar terminal and is open only once every month or so for a mere two hours, plays host to 20 or so highly regarded chefs (almost all trained at one time or another in the kitchen of Alice Waters’ famed Chez Panisse). The chefs offer their specialty products, everything from boudin blanc sausages to bronze-cut rigatoni to artisanal breads to sticky toffee pudding and fleur de sel caramels, for sale.
Best Vegetarian Meal: It is not hard to find vegetarian cuisine in the Bay Area, but there are three restaurants that are consistently at the top of most discerning local vegetarians’ lists. Greens Restaurant, on the northern edge of the city, has been a longtime favorite for locally sourced vegetarian cuisine with Mediterranean, Mexican and American Southwest influences.
Many vegetarians prefer the downtown organic restaurant Millennium, which eschews genetically modified foods and practices composting. “Everything there is a taste sensation… the food melts in your mouth,” said one Jewish patron recently of the restaurant’s world cuisine-inspired seasonal harvest and raw food menus.
For those willing to venture north to Napa, there is the celebrated community-focused restaurant and yoga studio, Ubuntu, which has been awarded one Michelin star for 2011.
Best Foodie Site: Perhaps the greatest advantage of being a foodie in Northern California is the easy access to a wide variety of organic fresh fruits and vegetables year-round. There’s no need to worry that by oversleeping Sunday morning you’ve missed your chance to get to the farmer’s market for the week, there’s one every day. Visitors to downtown San Francisco on a Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday should be sure to stop by the popular Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market right outside the city’s historic Ferry Building, which itself is home to many artisanal food vendors and several restaurants.
Best Bagel: For Bay Area ex-New Yorkers and visitors from the East Coast who can’t survive without their daily bagel and a schmeer fix, nothing is ever going to taste quite like an H&H bagel, but one bought at Izzy’s Brooklyn Bagels in Palo Alto comes pretty close. The names of the bagel flavors may be different than in New York (Izzy’s calls an “Everything” bagel a “Combo” bagel), but the high $1.05 per bagel price is the same.