Where to Catch Your Favorite SF Chefs in the Country
Food just tastes better on a farm.
The approach to the Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. winds east from Tomales Bay, through sun-browned hills, narrowing into a bumpy dirt road. The smell of cattle hangs in the air. And on a recent Friday afternoon in August, the temperature neared 100 thanks to a record-breaking heatwave.
Still, all of the tables were booked for the prix fixe lunch slots, showcasing the seasonal Italian cuisine of beloved Fillmore Street restaurant SPQR. Helmed by chef Matt Accarrino, SPQR had spent the past five months engaged in the mind-melding contortionist act of attempting to stay in business that most all restaurants around the country have been attempting—offering takeout, meal kits, and limited outdoor dining outside the restaurant’s modest storefront. But this—this was an attempt to more fully recreate the SPQR experience, complete with a four-course lunch showcasing the creamery’s cheese, optional wine pairings, and a decided emphasis on the producers and purveyors that have been the calling card of the Bay Area restaurant scene for decades.
And in spite of the heat, and of the subsequent thunder and lightning storms that followed, that first sold out weekend proved to be a success (after paying the staff and purchasing products for the meals, all proceeds went to Outride, a nonprofit connecting at-risk youth with cycling). “This kind of experience is appealing to people right now,” he said the following Monday. “We were able to make it feel like a vacation for someone.”
Let’s be honest: We could all use a vacation right now thanks to 2020, this dumpster fire of a year that’s upended everything from our day-to-day lives to our perception of what “normal” can and should mean. And SPQR’s “On the Road” pop-up isn’t alone in concept or in popularity—Quince and Avery in San Francisco and SingleThread in Healdsburg, have created farm-based pop-up experiences of their own that allow customers to experience a meal that’s both a unique destination, and simultaneously comparable to the in-restaurant, fine dining experience.
Ultimately, though, the farm meals are yet another iteration of restaurants’ attempts to prop up the tenuous ecosystem of the food world—by creating these appealing, and often, expensive, experiences for diners, they can provide more employment opportunities for staff and further support purveyors who, thanks to a sharp decline of demand from restaurant clients, are struggling to stay afloat. Some, like SPQR and Avery, are doing limited pop-ups at changing locations. Others, like Quince and SingleThread, are doing repeat meals at the same properties—SingleThread at Kistler Vineyards in Forestville, and Quince at Fresh Run Farm, Peter Martinelli’s organic farm in Bolinas, which grows produce and flowers for Chef Michael and Lindsay Tusk’s restaurants, and McEvoy Ranch, an olive oil producer in Petaluma.
“It felt like a natural fit,” says Michael Tusk, chef-owner of Quince. “Being able to get people out to a working farm and actually see how the team and I work together. And getting people out into nature... you can see the smile on their faces.”
The opportunity to eat a professionally made meal at a bucolic creamery/farm/vineyard feels, reasonably, like a blessed escape: from the news cycle, the death statistics, the worries about what else might be coming our way. And while fine dining in farm settings is certainly not new, per Outstanding in the Field and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, it makes a particular kind of sense in the Bay Area, where chefs and diners alike speak about produce in near reverential terms (this, coming from someone who gets misty-eyed about peak tomato season); both Quince and Avery had plans to do events similar to this long before “pandemic pivot” became a part of our restaurant lexicon.
But we’re in a moment where it’s important not just to question the sustainability of our products, but also our systems—how we treat the people who grow, cook, and serve our food. What place does this kind of escape have in a time when unprecedented numbers of people are facing food insecurity, evictions, and unemployment? What about the safety of staff, and guests alike? (There’s a range of costs here—SPQR’s pop-up starts at $115 per person, Quince at $350 per person, SingleThread at $375, and Avery at $289, with possible add-ons that include a champagne pool party, a sleepover at a villa, and a catered brunch. Unsurprisingly, some of the more over-the-top aspects of these experiences have inspired a wave of backlash on social media.)
All of the chefs are quick to point out that safety of guests, certainly, but perhaps their staff most of all—is the highest priority. Masks are required, per county ordinances (Marin or Sonoma, depending on the set up), and the settings make keeping parties distanced markedly easier than on city sidewalks.
Chef Rodney Wages of Avery recognizes that the price point isn’t for everyone, but that the pop-ups are meant to keep his staff employed, and to keep his business afloat. “The world’s not going to completely end; we need to be thoughtful in order to come out of the other side of this,” he says. “And the restaurant’s main clientele is still working. It doesn't make sense for me to lower the standard of my brand.”
In addition to keeping staff employed, farm meals are an attempt to support farmers and purveyors themselves, whose supply chains have been upended.
“Any purveyor I can talk to has a horror story,” Accarrino says. “In Point Reyes, they were basically dumping milk; they couldn't sell it. We all have to understand how fragile our food systems are, and how important our regional and local food systems are.”
Shining a light on the importance of local food systems, and educating diners about alternatives to industrial agriculture, is a driving force of SingleThread, run by Chef Kyle and Katina Connaughton—the restaurant is supplied, in part, by their own no-till farm, run by Katina, where she focuses on biodiversity, soil health, and carbon sequestering.
“Our mission is to take care of guests, and to support sustainable agricultural systems that are important to us,” says Kyle Connaughton. As long as we can do it safely, and do it in a way that’s safe for our guests and our staff, we will.”
But he recognizes that SingleThread, and fine dining overall, only play one part in this equation.
“A restaurant like ours who can afford the best ingredients and afford to support food systems that are expensive... that’s all well and good for us. But that’s such a small small amount of the food industry,” he says. “We need to be coming at this from all sides. Anything that educates the consumer, the chef, the farmer, is an important part of this conversation.”
A major part of that is increasing accessibility. And while much of the news around restaurants these days veers dire, there have been some sparks of hope—hope that, maybe, whenever we are on the other side of the pandemic, we can create a better model of restaurant.
“As restaurants, could this be our silver lining?” wonders Accarrino. “Could we envision ourselves a bit differently?”
Chef Preeti Mistry, formerly the chef-owner of Oakland’s lauded, since closed Juhu Beach Club, has been envisioning a different kind of future for restaurants, and farms, for years now. And they want to create a farm-based dining experience that breaks from the high-end, Eurocentric model that has, perhaps unsurprisingly, dominated the conversation until now.
“As it stands, these farm dinners are inaccessible to most people. They sort of fetishize this thing, farming, that’s really hard work, the majority of which is done by brown people,” they said. “There’s just so much contradiction in the experience.”
Mistry views this wave of high-end farm dinners similar to how they perceive fine dining in general: It’s not that these models shouldn’t exist, but why do they need to be continually lionized, and held up as the ultimate goal? Why shouldn’t there be more, and more diverse types of farm dining, available, and celebrated?
“Clearly, there’s a demand for these types of experiences. And there’s an opportunity for education in all of this. But if it's only an opportunity for the one percent, only the elite, only European cuisine... we’re losing out,” they say. Mistry, who has been interning on Radical Family Farms, is working on a concept for a collective farm project, one that’s accessible, educational, and showcases all kinds of cuisines—ones that, wrongly, aren’t automatically associated with the farm-to-table ethos. While in the very early stages, they hope to begin fundraising in the next few months.
“The idea that I could go to a restaurant on a farm and eat Nigerian cuisine in California from a chef that has Nigerian heritage... that sounds fucking dope! You ask me if I want to do that or eat French food... I’ve done that! What’s next, what's new, what’s interesting?”
Future thinking feels important in a year when the hits keep coming. In the days after I spoke to Accarrino, Tusk, Wages, and Connaughton, a wave of devastating fires engulfed the entire west coast. Mistry had to evacuate from their home in Guerneville. Air quality in California was rendered unhealthy for weeks, making the potential health risks of outdoor dining all the more fraught. Accarrino cancelled the second weekend of lunches up in Point Reyes, while Quince temporarily paused operations at Fresh Run Farm. Beyond fire season, everyone is worried about what will happen when winter arrives which, while mild in comparison to much of the rest of the country, still promises to render outdoor dining more difficult.
Still, there’s momentum to keep these farm meals going, both through the pandemic and after. No matter the context, or the price tag, everyone can agree that the experience of seeing where your food comes from is a joyful, and hugely impactful one. And the necessity of creating that impact feels all the more pressing.
“There's a lot of work that has to happen to reverse this dynamic that makes healthy choices, for the health of the planet and the health of the people, economically impossible,” says Connaughton. Being able to see and taste it for yourself—the difference it makes when produce is grown with care, when products are made with best practices in mind—could be a major part of that sea change.
“I remember the first time I went to a farm in a rural area. I was already a chef and I thought, ‘Wow, this is why I do this!’ I I was fucking affected,” Mistry recalls. “There’s a real desire for young people to really connect with growing stuff. Everyone’s growing scallions in their windowsill. We have a real opportunity to redirect the younger BIPOC generation, to influence in a positive way. And take the power back, and say this is who we are, too.”
Reservations for Quince On The Farm can be made online through October starting at $350 per person.
Reservations for SingleThread at Kistler’s Trenton Roadhouse are available online through October, and start at $375 per person.
Reservations for Avery on the Farm are available online, and start at $289 per person.