Friday, June 09, 2006

New York versus San Francisco on Restaurants & Dining Out

"Is New York Better than San Francisco?"

was the question Chronicle food editor Michael Bauer asked on his blog last week, resulting in more comment activity than I am lucky to get in a month. At the time he wrote his post I had literally only just arrived in New York for my first ever bite of the Big Apple. And as I ate my away around Manhattan over the six days following, I kept the question in the back of my mind: What exactly is it that sets New York apart from the Bay Area and is one better than the other? Here are my first impressions...

photograph picture 3 eggs benedict at normas and serafina in new york city

(Click to enlarge.) Versions of Eggs Benedict in New York City. Serafina's Healthy Eggs on the left and Norma's Artychoked Benedict with Truffle Porcini Sauce. A whopping three eggs in each dish!

Well, for starters, in New York their Eggs Benedict seem to come with three eggs instead of the California standard two. I don't know about you, but that is one large amount of food to get through, even for a hungry girl like me. Is this really the standard portion size throughout New York??

Secondly, it appeared that dining out was overall slightly more expensive than San Francisco, especially in the mid-range restaurants. There were some surprises, however: Babbo, a great place to go for a celebration, was less expensive than we had expected and the food at Gramercy's Tavern room went so far as seeming cheap, with most entrees a good deal under the $20 mark.

Thirdly I noticed much more lamb on New York menus. Personally I love lamb and tend to miss seeing it so often in the Bay Area, particularly on Californian menus. Every lamb dish I tried in New York was excellent.

But for me, the main difference between these two great dining cities was not the food, but the quality of the service. I have never had too many gripes about the quailty of our waitstaff in San Francisco and for the most part I think they do a good job. I wasn't prepared, therefore for such a marked difference in New York. The service in New York really shone. Almost everywhere we went, the staff seemed to go a little bit out of their way to make our experience extra special.

At WD50 we were quickly made to feel comfortable with the slightly unusual and challenging menu and were helped out by the waiter's excellent wine pairing recommendations, whilst at Gascogne where Fred made small-talk in French with the waitstaff we were treated to complimentary Armagnacs after our charming meal. At Balthazar, perhaps one of the most lively, buzzing and busy restaurants I have ever eaten in, they had the service down to a T. Every member of the team had the timing spot on and it was a joy to watch them work the large bustling room with such apparent ease, whilst our waiter managed to balance just the right amount of professionalism and familiarity. A few days later we ducked back into Balthazar to escape a splurge of afternoon rain and have a drink at the bar. The bartender (a humourous Santa Rosa guy), made my afternoon when he refused to allow me to pay for my drink on account of me mentioning I was choosing the Framboise Julep precisely because it had been unavailable when I'd visited for dinner. The service at Tabla's Breads of India, also stood out, in particular because we saw the staff deal smartly with a tricky customer situation. They were an excellent and friendly bunch of people. Babbo didn't know we were celebrating a special occasion when we visited, but they treated us as if we were anyway. Totally seamless, well-timed service and really great recommendations from the Sommelier helped make the experience so enjoyable. Finally, even at the casual Gramercy Tavern, the service was worthy of star status. In all, at most places we dined in New York we felt extremely welcomed, in a way that doesn't so often happen in the Bay Area.

Although I keep hearing that tired old argument about top ingredients (Bay Area) versus innovative cooking (New York), aside from the wonderful WD50 experience, I didn't really notice a huge creative gap between the two cities from my admittedly very limited experience. Conversly, I wasn't struck by any simple but excellent salads or blindingly fresh ingredients as is commonplace San Francisco. But does this make the food in one place better than the other? Nah, I don't think so, they just two different beasts, that's all and from this day on I am going to love them both.

Links, Resources and Further Reading

Michael Bauer | Is New York Better than San Francisco?
Which is Better for Food? | Slashfood
helloamylou | San Francisco vs. New York? Bwahhhhhaahhahahhh
Gridskipper | Restaurant Wars
Hedonia | That's What I'm Talking About

Archive Alert! On this day in 2005: How I got stuck in my pants

And on this day in 2004: Blowfish Sushi to die for?

| | | | |
New York versus San Francisco on Restaurants & Dining Out


  • At 9/6/06 11:38, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Great post Sam. I almost commented on Bauer's blog but was too lazy to sign up for the ability to do so.

    Having worked in both cities, although in NY only briefly, I can say without a doubt that even the best ingredients, by the time they get to NYC are tired.

    I think you've exposed something about NY that is a falsehood. Many have this picture of NYC as an uninviting place populated with rude aggressive people. That was never never my experience, perhaps because while I lived there I was one of those rude aggressive people.

    The GM on visiting was struck by how green the city was and how friendly the people. Provincial, yes. But friendly nonetheless. Perhaps that translates into the attitude about service as well.

  • At 9/6/06 11:49, Blogger Robyn said…

    I don't know if I've ever seen a three-egg plate for eggs benedict before! It's usually two, yeah? Three is ...a lot. :D Looks yummy!

    I don't think I usually go to restaurants with awesome service, wd-50 is the best I've ever had.

  • At 9/6/06 13:03, Blogger Rose said…

    Haddock: Yes, we are a provincial lot aren't we? I think being the center of money and media reinforces it.

    I've only had a short visit to SF myself, so i'm in no position to compare the two cities on restaurant service. I really only notice service when its either been truly exceptional (and my latest vacation was just that) or truly atrocious (a very rare occurence). Everything in between usually passes me by.

    I'm with Robyn on the 3 egg benedicts...mine have only come with two when I've had it.

    I'm happy that you got to make it to Norma's...the best pancakes I've ever had, hands down. Did you make it to the burger joint across the hall?

  • At 9/6/06 13:32, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Sounds lovely! And you hit on an important point, that I forgot to comment on: Service in New York is definitely superior across the board. I've so long given up on the standard of service here in SF, I don't even really think about it much anymore.

    I'm glad you went to Babbo, because in retrospect I forgot to steer you to Lupa, the resto that Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich co-own. We had a stellar meal there, and it was quite reasonable. It's where I stole the Apician date dessert idea from.

  • At 9/6/06 15:50, Blogger Tana Butler said…

    I once met some young chefs who, after volunteering for six months at Green Gulch Farm in Marin County, were having to return to NYC to work in restaurants. They both said the same thing: "You don't know how spoiled you are. The quality of produce available here to anyone is only available to the most expensive places in New York, like Per Se or Jean Georges. Everything but the fanciest places has stuff like greens from Costco."

    They literally dreaded their fate, though they were nonetheless the kind of "I HEART NY" people you run into everywhere.

    And I believed them, because I've seen it myself.

    And I also agree that service is better across the board in NYC. I'll give 'em that.

  • At 10/6/06 06:51, Blogger wheresmymind said…

    What did you think of the actual physical layouts of the restaurants...I find NYC restaurants are super cramped.

  • At 10/6/06 07:47, Blogger Kate Croft said…

    It's true! The Bug Apple is the place to be! You should have dropped me a note and come over for some *real* culinary hospitality...or at least hit some of the fantastic restauarnts in the East Village/Lower East Side. Next Time?

  • At 10/6/06 09:48, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    You hit the nail on the head when you said that, from this day on you're going to love them both. That's exactly how I feel. Sure there's differences (especially as you noted in the area of service), but both cities are uniquely wonderful food towns.

    What I love most about NYC are, as Kate mentioned, the quirky and friendly eateries in the Lower East Side, East Village and Brooklyn. Due perhaps to the much, much higher population density, it's possible for more personality driven restaurants. In SF we have a few, like Canteen or Bar Crudo, but in NYC there are zillions of unique little places.

    Like the Biblical Eve, I suspect you'll return often now that you've had a taste of the Big Apple.

  • At 10/6/06 16:30, Blogger christianne said…

    I've eaten loads of Eggs Benedict in NYC and have never gotten 3 at a time! Serves me right for overpaying at Pastis...

    I wholeheartedly agree with you that NYC restaurants do it differently than we Cali kids. While NY state will never be able to compete with the wide variety of fresh produce available in CA, they've got the whole "dining experience" down pat.

    Next time you're in the big city, try out Cookshop. They put out a fantastic meal.

  • At 10/6/06 20:00, Blogger the chocolate doctor מרת שאקאלאד said…

    This is a beautiful and well-done love letter to our city, Sam. Glad your visit all it was, and I hope you'll be back.

    I haven't seen the three-egg Benedict either.

  • At 11/6/06 05:26, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I definately agree with you on the service aspect of NY restaurants. There are more people in New York who are life long professional servers and consider it a profession – not just something you do inbetween vocations.

    I think both cities have fantastic authentic ethnic food although NY has more Eastern European representation and Cuban while we have more Mexican and South American.

    But we do have better ingredients in SF, there's no denying that. All in all I think both cities demand great food experiences.

    Seems like San Francisco has really just exploded over the last ten years! Doesn't it?

  • At 11/6/06 11:09, Blogger Guy said…

    Comments, Shmomments. One blog I enjoy reading and one doesn't inspire me to go.
    And speaking of going, mebbe some day New York, some day.


  • At 11/6/06 14:28, Blogger Rachel said…

    I agree that the service in NYC, even in little places is normally pretty great. I always thought the waitstaff really needs to be attentive to encourage big tips so they can afford their pricey apartments!

  • At 12/6/06 12:16, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    NY'ers obviously over-inflate the importance of their city in all of its respects, but their dining scene is generally better than SF.

    It really shines on the top-end. After having just complete a month-long trip to France & Spain, NY's top-end restaurants (Jean Georges, Bouley, Le Bernardin) can hold their own against most of its European brethren.

    In SF, we really only have French Laundry and Manresa (no, the Ritz, Fleur de Lys, Michael Mina, etc are not world class.)

    If i want ingredients, I stick to SF. If i want innovation or high-end, I go to NY.

  • At 12/6/06 16:40, Blogger Dive said…


    Can I rant? (not at you or anyone in particular)

    Here goes:

    Am I stupid or just missing something here?

    The foodie world seems to prize regionality when it comes to produce and wine. To some extent they prize it with certain cuisines, ie., cajun, bbq, etc.

    So then why is NYC or Chicago or SF or LA or Miami suppose to be "better" for food?

    I don't get this. I, for one, have always believed each town, no matter how big or small, each held it's own unique jewel that will never, ever, be someone else's.

    I don't get why people complain when they can't find Cuban sandwiches in Oakland, therefore, Oakland is somehow inferior(let's put aside for a moment that a "Cuban sandwich" is to Cuba what a Mission-style burrito is to Mexico).

    I like the fact that I can't get certain food here. Why? Because it pushes me to travel more.

    I like that NYC has the food it does and SF doesn't. I like that you can't find a good roadside barbecued mullet off of Highway 1, like you can in swamp infested parts of Florida, where I use to live.

    I don't want Chicago-style pizza in Berkeley. And I don't want San Francisco Sourdough in Minot, North Dakota.

    I get why people miss those things and want them. Really. I do. But, come on. If your life just isn't complete without a slice of NYC's finest or a tongue sandwich from the Second Avenue Deli, then have you considered that you're living in the wrong place?

    Let's face it, NYC will never match SF in certain terms and vise versa and neither of them will ever hold a candle to the Livermush Festival held yearly in Shelby, North Carolina.

    Isn't that a good thing?


  • At 13/6/06 14:11, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    glad to hear that you enjoyed WD-50. Folks seem so polarized at the mention of hte place. Personally, I dig it. And I'm kinda sick of the question. Now Alan Richman and John Mariani have pit Chicago vs. NYC (no mention of anything West coast). Frankly, I'm just relieved to have such a diversity of inspiration and motivation across the country. Whether its seasonal, ingredient-driven, or just sci-fi insanity, I'll take it. Just make sure there's passion and that it tastes good.

  • At 13/6/06 14:12, Blogger Sam said…

    thanks for all the wisdoms, opinions and views everyone.

    I guess my three egg bennys were both flukes!

    I din't notice anywhere we went being particularly cramped either. Balthazar maybe but that was part of its bustling charm and I wouldn't have expected it to be any other way.

    kevin - rant away! I think i agree with you. But I am not sure I'll be able to convince anyone if they go to Britain they'll get some fab English food! But they would...

  • At 13/6/06 19:07, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    What a lovely post, Sam. I'm glad you had so many good eating experiences here. The Bread Bar at Tabla and Gramercy Tavern are perennial favorites of mine, and they definitely set the standard for service. They're part of Danny Meyer's restaurant group, and quite honestly, he's taught the whole city a thing or seven about great restaurant service.

    And I've got to chime in here and say that during many years of eating eggs benedict at venues all over this city, never have I seen a three-egg benny. Just as well -- two are about all I can handle.

  • At 21/9/07 06:24, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    i know i'm kind of late on commenting on this, but I just found your post on NY vs. San Fran. I've lived in NYC for the past 8 years. I've lived all over - Upper East Side, Soho and now Brooklyn. I've lived here through many stages of income (mostly poor!) - being a young, single woman, being a late-20's woman living in one of the more expensive parts of the city (soho), being a VERY poor grad student w/ little income and now being a married 31 year old with 2 incomes. The one thing I can say about NYC is to stray from the places every tourist has heard of. Yes Babbo is fabulous, but what about Kombit, the Hatian restaurant up the street from us in Brooklyn? Brighton Beach w/ it's traditional Russian restaurants, Astoria, Queens w/ it's Polish neighborhood? Spanish Harlem (what's left of it) and it's cuisine? There's even a Burmese restaurant in the E. Village that's by NO means fancy (it's even kind of gross!) but the food is delicious. You need to venture out of the 'hot spots' of downtown/midtown and go to the neighborhoods that are no longer in Manhattan for it's unbelievably delicious, traditional and downhome cuisine. You just can't beat the diversity of the food. Hope this helps on your next trip here!
    Amy -

  • At 3/8/08 21:16, Blogger Manger La Ville said…

    This is an extremely difficult question. I grew up in San Francisco and have been living in NYC for the past 4 years. I do understand the argument of innovative vs. quality product, but both are becoming quite close. I am struck by the difference in the quality of produce (not at restaurants) but for the home cook. I guess it should be expected. I am not going to get amazing produce year round in New York, because they have distinct seasons. I will say, I do crave my San Francisco spots when I am gone, and I have just started to crave a few New York ones.
    Love the post!


Post a Comment

<< Home