Food & Drink

Meet the Women Who Rule SF's Best Kitchens

Published On 10/19/2016 Published On 10/19/2016
Melissa Perello
Melissa Perello | Aubrie Pick

Beyoncé already knows that girls run the world, and they’re definitely running the world of cooking and dining (perhaps with fewer choreographed dance moves). Women are responsible for some of the Bay Area’s most celebrated and highly acclaimed restaurants, but despite Queen Bee’s proclamation, the spotlight doesn’t seem to be chasing women the same way it does male chefs.

So let's hear it for the badass ladies of San Francisco's best kitchens. From head chef to wine merchant, we’ve highlighted the top women in Bay Area cuisine.

1. Melissa Perello

Frances (address and info) and Octavia (address and info)
Castro
Melissa Perello is one of the few chefs for whom, it seems, everything they touch turns to delicious gold and the proof is in the, er, applewood smoked bacon beignets. In 2009, Perello opened her now Michelin-starred Frances, which offers a daily rotating menu focused on seasonality and availability. Although she no longer helms Frances, Perello’s latest venture, Octavia, shares Frances' focus on seasonal ingredients. There, Perello showcases her delicate and thoughtful skills in dishes like the deviled egg (fresno chile relish, dolcini egg, marash pepper & spice), which are as tasty as they sound fancy, and rely upon simple, well-thought out flavors.

Before opening her own spots, Perello worked as an executive chef at Fifth Floor, which won a Michelin Star when she was at its helm. She's also been nominated three separate times for the James Beard Foundation's Rising Star Chef of the Year award and was named Best New Chef in 2004 by Food & Wine.

melissa king | Albert Law

2. Melissa King

Co+Lab (address and info)
Traveling
If Melissa King looks familiar, you probably remember her as a finalist on the 12th season of Top Chef. Well, it’s either that or you may have recently seen her face gracing the hot bars of some NorCal Whole Foods stores, where she’s developed eight different recipes and dishes. Or perhaps you saw her as the celebrity grand marshal of this year’s San Francisco Pride.

If you know anything about King, it’s that she’s the queen of all things Bay Area culinary. A roaming chef of sorts, King has become a San Francisco fixture, acting as a private chef, consultant, and speaker, as well as leading her own experimental pop-up dinner series called Co+Lab (where if you’re lucky, you’ll also get to spot other Top Chef talent). King occasionally travels to SoCal to host events (it pays to keep an eye on her events page to see when you can catch her), but sometimes goes further for food: one of the chef's most recent projects is working and consulting with Elle Japan to open a cafe in the heart of Tokyo’s bustling fashion district.

Before duking it out on Top Chef: Boston, King worked in several Michelin star kitchens alongside chefs  Dominique Crenn (more on her later), Craig Stoll, and Ron Siegel.

Belinda Leong | Vanessa Yap-Einbund

3. Belinda Leong

B. Patisserie (address and info)
Lower Pacific Heights
Where there’s a line for pastries, there’s probably Belinda Leong. She made the round, crusty kouign amann cake famous in the U.S., and is responsible for creating a city-wide craving.

Leong is behind the immensely popular B. Patisserie -- which has tourists and natives alike spilling out of the doors, waiting to satisfy a craving for Leong’s kouign ammans, croissants, and chocolate chip cookies. The airy and casual pastry joint is a San Francisco-ized version of the more formal and polished French bakeries that Leong likely frequented while staging in France, honing her craft and growing her love for pastry.

Leong was previously named a finalist for outstanding pastry chef by the James Beard Foundation. She got her start in San Francisco working in savory at Gary Danko, but had also cut her teeth working at some of the most pioneering establishments in the world, including Noma, Manresa, and Pierre Herme.

Make sure to mark June 20 on your calendars for Kouign Amman Day -- you have Leong to thank for that.

Melissa Perfit | Rebecca Goberstein/Menu Stories

4. Melissa Perfit

Bar Crudo (address and info)
Alamo Square
As the head of Alamo Square seafood hotspot Bar Crudo, Melissa Perfit is responsible for many San Franciscans’ addictions to lobster salad and chowder. Originally joining the kitchen straight out of culinary school, Perfit left briefly only to return and revamp Bar Crudo’s menu (don’t worry, the lobster salad and chowder made the cut) to much acclaim.

Perfit's path to chef badassery was an unexpected one. She was always fascinated with cinematography, but found that food -- just like a beautifully framed shot -- is more like filmmaking than she expected. One can always expect a dish to not only taste good, but have looks to match, when Perfit is in the kitchen.

Brenda Buenviaje | Rebecca Goberstein/Menu Stories

5. Brenda Buenviaje

Brenda’s French Soul Food (address and info)
Tenderloin
Brenda Buenviaje’s trio of restaurants -- Brenda's Soul Food, Libby Jane, and Brenda's Meat & Three -- are brunch institutions in San Francisco. From her beignets to her shrimp and grits, to her perfectly seasoned and flaky fried chicken, you'll be hard-pressed to sneak a seat without a lengthy wait, especially on a weekend.

The New Orleans native has been candid about the roadblocks that resulted from her gender and ethnic background, both inside the kitchen and out. Buenviaje was bullied for her Creole and Filipino mixed heritage, and literally shut out of kitchens because she’s a woman. Luckily for us, she didn't give up, made her way to San Francisco, and now she and her wife have given the city three different restaurants to enjoy New Orleans fare without actually being there.

Like Perfit, Buenviaje, enjoyed a career in the arts before transitioning her creative (and very tasty) juices to cooking.

Nicole Krasinski | Ed Anderson

6. Nicole Krasinski

State Bird (address and info) & the Progress (address and info)
Western Addition
The success of uber-popular State Bird, and more recently, the Progress, is due in no small part to partner and chef Nicole Krasinski. Krasinski leads the pastry programs at both restaurants, which have been lauded for their inventive menus. State Bird serves up their “provisions” in the form of roving dim sum carts, but you would be remiss to not try the apple mochi marzipan cake, with figs, rosemary, and umeboshi syrup, or the cookies n’ cream mousse with roasted strawberries, plums, and tarragon. At the Progress, you’ll be served up a rotating tasting menu of Californian-fusion dishes alongside desserts like the quince floating island, where the pear-like fruit sits atop pomegranate, apple-clove gelatina, and spiced rum yogurt.

Alongside her husband and State Bird collaborator Stuart Brioza, Krasinski won the James Beard Foundation’s best chef: west award in 2015.

Gabriela Camara | Marcus Nilsson

7. Gabriela Cámara

Cala (address and info)
Civic Center/Hayes Valley
Gabriela Camara has already built a mini-empire of successful restaurants in her native Mexico -- but if the honors and awards she’s earning here in the States is any indication, her empire shows no signs of slowing down. Camara opened her first stateside restaurant (her tenth in total), Cala, late last year and her first foray is a formidable one. Cala landed on Bon Appetit's 50 Best New Restaurants list and Eater's 21 Best New Restaurants in America list.

The now very hard to get into Cala focuses on sustainability and seafood, which also has a grab-and-go taco stand. What won't be offered though are burritos, as Camara wants to make a concerted effort to challenge and change people's perception of what Mexican cuisine should taste like.

After working with the legendary Mexican cookbook author Diane Kennedy, Camara's success shouldn't be surprising to anyone who knows about her past. The wildly popular Contramar (which Camara opened while studying art history in college) and Merotoro, both in Mexico City where Kennedy and Camara first met, are rave-worthy.

Pim Techamuanvivit | Eric Wolfinger

8. Pim Techamuanvivit

Kin Khao (address and info)
Union Square
Pim Techamuanvivit has thrown herself into -- and succeeded in -- several different facets of the food world. She ran a popular blog called Chez Pim, contributed recipes and photos to big name publication like the New York Times and Food & Wine, crafted award-winning jams, and somehow found time to open her own restaurant, Khin Khao, in 2014.

Techamuanvivit doles out unadulterated Thai cuisine -- you’ll be hard pressed to find Pad Thai or Pad See Ew -- at this gem inside the the Parc 55 hotel. Instead, she serves dishes such as Khao Kan Jin, a steamed rice with pork and blood sausage, wrapped in banana leafs, and Plah Pla Muek, a charred squid with a tangy sauce Locals, Thai natives, and world class chefs like Rene Redzepi of Noma have all paid their compliments to Techamuanvivit.

Since opening, Kin Khao has ranked among the best places to eat by GQ, the San Francisco Chronicle, and won its first Michelin star this year.

Dominique Crenn | Stephanie Hua

9. Dominique Crenn

Atelier Crenn (address and info) & Petit Crenn (address and info)
Marina/Hayes Valley
It seems almost silly to try and introduce Dominique Crenn, because she continuously seems to be thrust into the spotlight for her culinary achievements. Crenn was recently named world's best female chef by San Pellegrino's World's 50 Best Restaurants list, was nominated for best chef: west by the James Beard Foundation, won best chef of the year by Eater, and was featured in the most recent season of Netflix's culinary odyssey, “Chef's Table.”  

Originally from Versaille, France, Crenn is responsible for the two-Michelin starred Atelier Crenn and more recently, Petit Crenn in Hayes Valley. A meal at either of the upscale Crenn restaurants is an intimate experience, with Crenn’s own poems acting as menus. The dishes change regularly and each course corresponds to different lines of Crenn’s poetry.

Crenn's story is not only impressive here in the States-- she made history in Jakarta, Indonesia as the first female executive chef in the country, leading the kitchen at the Intercontinental Hotel.

La Cocina | Rebecca Goberstein/Menu Stories

10. The women of La Cocina

La Cocina (address and info)
Mission
It's difficult (and frankly pretty unfair) to choose just one woman to highlight from La Cocina. Since its founding in 2005, La Cocina has helped to create more than 30 businesses, run by hundreds of women who used its rentable kitchen space to grow their operations. The organization also has an incubator program to turn once illegitimate home restaurants and businesses into a stable source of income and a stable career path.

Although anyone is welcome to apply to its incubator, La Cocina focuses heavily on female communities of color, inspired by the neighborhood in which it was founded: the Mission. Many success stories have La Cocina to thank, including Azalina's, El Huarache Loco, and Kika's Treats.

In fact, without even knowing it, many San Franciscans have probably stumbled upon the restaurants that La Cocina has helped launch, or bought a lot of the products that were once part of the La Cocina incubator.

Jennifer Puccio | Jennifer Puccio/Marlowe

11. Jennifer Puccio

Marlowe (address and info), Park Tavern (address and info), The Cavalier (address and info), and Leo's Oyster Bar (address and info)
Soma/North Beach/Soma/Financial District
Resistance is futile: Chef Jennifer Puccio will eventually run all of the coolest restaurants in San Francisco. But for now the executive chef for each of Anna Weinberg’s Big Night Group restaurants has to be content with merely helming four (well, five if you count newly opened to the public Marianne’s).

Known for taking classic dishes and elevating them to ridiculously delicious levels (her baked oysters, various deviled egg creations, burgers, and poulet “vert” are all so, so glorious), Puccio earned her stars both back on the East Coast working under Cambridge legend Ana Sortun at Oleana. She then moved west to work under Daniel Patterson, and refined her vegetable game at Napa’s famous vegetarian Ubuntu. Currently, she’s mostly found in the kitchen at Leo’s Oyster Bar, complementing the most aesthetically pleasing restaurant in SF with equally handsome dishes like their gorgeous New England lobster roll with cultured uni butter, and a “tater tot” with brandade and tapenade that is only spoken about in awed/hushed tones.

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Patrick Wong is a recent contributor to Thrillist. He was raised as essentially the only dude in a female household of food lovers and chefs. See why he’s such a mama’s boy: @peewong

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
1. Frances 3870 17th St, San Francisco, CA 94114 (The Castro)

Located on a quiet residential block in the Castro, Frances is a tiny Michelin-starred restaurant helmed by the superbly talented chef Melissa Perello. The seasonal, market-driven menu changes often but you can always expect an appearance from Perello's smoked bacon beignets, a house signature featuring delicately fried balls of dough studded with bacon and served with a creamy maple creme fraiche dipping sauce.

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2. Octavia 1701 Octavia St, San Francisco, CA 94109

Much like The Empire Strikes Back only made you appreciate “Star Wars” that much more, Octavia, the sister restaurant to Frances, will make you appreciate Chef Melissa Perello the most. The concept is similar: refined home cooking. In this case, home cooking just means simple, without any fancy tricks, and utterly delicious. The menu changes every day, but look/plead for things like chilled squid ink pasta, Atlantic sea scallops with crispy prosciutto, and chili-doused deviled eggs.

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3. B. Patisserie 2821 California St, San Francisco, CA 94115 (Pacific Heights)

You may have noticed that buttery, sugary Breton pastry, kouign amann, in just about every bakery these days. Well, you can thank B. Patisserie's Belinda Leong for introducing it to pastry-crazed San Franciscans several years ago. Beyond said sweet standout, you can also hit this Pac Heights institution for other Gallic treats like colorful macarons and impeccable croissants (plus more American creations like key lime tarts and chocolate banana bread). Feeling more savory? Tartines like mushroom ragout with goat cheese or ham and gruyere are equally covetable.

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4. Juhu Beach Club 5179 Telegraph Ave, Oakland, CA 94609 (Oakland)

Lined with frilly pink wallpaper and framed Bollywood posters, this north Oakland restaurant juxtaposes a dolled-up atmosphere for its grungy menu of Indian street food-inspired food. Spiced up dishes like guju chili and manchurian cauliflower harken to authentic, lesser-known flavors native to India, while other items like Pav compare to familiar American sliders. Wine is on tap, but diners are encouraged to pair their savory meals with a glass of refreshing local beer.

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5. Bar Crudo 655 Divisadero St, San Francisco, CA 94117 (Alamo Square)

If Nopa made the Divisadero neighborhood what it is today, Bar Crudo solidified its status as a golden dining destination. For over a decade, Bar Crudo has been serving up a seriously good happy hour and dinner that’s ideal for family visits. It’s perpetually packed and one of the city’s most underrated restaurants, with a bumping happy hour that features dollar oysters, fish tacos, and sumptuous seafood chowder. Don’t miss the crudo sampler, uni avocado toast, and lobster burrata salad at this small restaurant that packs a punch.

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6. State Bird Provisions 1529 Fillmore St, San Francisco, CA 94115 (Fillmore)

State Bird Provisions opened in the Fillmore in 2013, won the James Beard Award for best new restaurant, earned a Michelin star, and has been one of city's hottest spots ever since. After you score a reservation, State Bird will likely be one of your most memorable meals ever thanks to the fact that creative Northern California small plates are served from dim sum carts. The atmosphere is fun, the food is affordable (plates range from $3 to $20), and the dining experience is anything but ordinary.

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7. The Progress 1525 Fillmore St, San Francisco, CA 94115 (Western Addition)

With lines out the door every night at State Bird Provisions, it’s no wonder the team launched a follow-up to the perennial hotspot spot. If State Bird is all about small plates, The Progress emphasizes communal eating. Snag a seat at the lazy Susan-equipped Balcony Table that perches above the restaurant and get ready for a six-course, family-style feast of classic Californian food.

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8. Cala 149 Fell St, San Francisco, CA 94102

For your upscale Mexican needs, book a table at Civic Center’s Cala, a trailblazing & authentic spot. So, so much more than a taqueria, Cala hails from renowned Mexico City Chef Gabriela Camara and features fresh, exciting dishes that focus mainly on seafood. The gorgeous, spacious, and light-filled space will delight you with fresh ceviches, tostadas topped with salmon, smoked trout croquetas, and, of course, mezcal margaritas and palomas. Don’t miss its casual back-alley taqueria, either, which serves weekday tacos for lunch.

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9. Kin Khao 55 Cyril Magnin St, San Francisco, CA 94102 (The Tenderloin)

Located above the Wyndam Parc 55 Hotel, Kin Khao might be hard to locate, but its menu of even harder to find Thai dishes justifies the journey. The kao mun gai features the single best taste on the menu: a profound chicken consommé that will solve your sniffles and brighten your Tenderloin walk home. But also worth a try are the sour gaeng som curry and rare Crab sen chan made with Dungeness crab and rice noodles. The low-ceilinged space is furnished with austere wood tables and burgundy carpeting, evidence that even familial, homey restaurants like Kin Khao are worthy of a Michelin star.

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10. Atelier Crenn 3127 Fillmore St, San Francisco, CA 94123

A meal at the Michelin star-earning, fine-dining establishment Atelier Crenn is more than a culinary stop -- it's an artistic experience, a journey through a poetic collection of flavors as titillating to the taste buds as to the eyes. Diners here are escorted through 14 to 17 French dishes, each amounting to little more than a bite or two. A meal might start with caviar-topped banana bread, then progress to trout with salmon roe, and braised cauliflower. While the base of each course might seem basic, chef Crenn enrichens the meal by masterfully teasing out new flavors and textures. And it's not a fine dining experience without suited servers, who indulge your every curiosity and contribute to a perfectly orchestrated event.

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11. Petit Crenn 609 Hayes St, San Francisco, CA 94102 (Hayes Valley)

This Hayes Valley restaurant looks more like an American cafe than a French spot, but that's kind of the point. Pulling from the freshest farmer's market and seafood spoils of the day, Petit Crenn offers an accessible, all-day menu of French food, consisting of courses like grilled market fish, french onion soup, and butter bean casserole that'll make you nostalgic for the Parisian childhood you never had. The airy, all-white interior mirrors the food with a serene, pastoral feel, while putting the spotlight on the artistically plated dishes.

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12. Brown Sugar Kitchen 2534 Mandela Pkwy, Oakland, CA 94607 (Oakland)

If waffles had their own branch of physics, the waffles at this west Oakland soul food spot would break every law. Brown Sugar’s feather-light, darkly caramelized waffles are made of cornmeal batter, and served with a sweet and sour apple cider syrup and brown sugar butter, alongside other finger-licking dishes like BBQ shrimp & grits and buttermilk fried chicken. Befitting the comfort fare, the warmly-colored space reflects a diner-like intimacy, with long counter seating and close rows of square tables that accommodate chattery locals.

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13. SPQR 1911 Fillmore St, San Francisco, CA 94115 (Pacific Heights)

In the early days, SPQR was A16’s forgotten sibling, but then Matthew Accarrino arrived and conquered the creative Italian narrative with Caesar-like gusto. Now you get a Michelin-starred tour de force of pasta artistry that has ignited a storm of followers nationwide. Bucatini “straw and hay” graces your table, as do pasta species you’ve never encountered made with cacao nib or Meyer lemon. Get the chicken liver pâté and something with pig ear, or, if you’re feeling adventurous, go for the pasta tasting menu (that’s five courses of, you guessed it, pasta).

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14. A16 2355 Chestnut St, San Francisco, CA 94123 (The Marina)

More than any other restaurant, this Campania by way of Marina stalwart helped transform San Francisco into an Italian-crazed city a decade ago. A typical night at A16 starts with burrata, includes a few orders of the Neapolitan-style pizzas and infamous pork meatballs, and ends with a cheese plate. Add Shelley Lindgren's wine program, which wins dozens of awards yearly, and you've got one of the best pizza, pasta, and wine combos in the city by the bay.

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