On Friday night, a pilgrimage that has been two months in the making, came to its conclusion when the date of our reservation at State Bird Provisions (SBP) in San Francisco finally arrived. Oh, and in case you’re really ignorant like me, the state bird of California is not an eagle. I figured that out when I saw it on the menu. It’s a quail.
In case you’ve missed all the hoopla about SBP, much of it derives from the fact it was named Bon Appetit’s restaurant of the year last August. Scoring a reservation isn’t quite as bad as French Laundry – they do at least let you book online – but you need to be up with the dawn chorus to nab one that’s not at 5.30pm or 9.30pm and expect it to be 60 days out. About a third of their tables are available for walk-ins, although what that really means is: wait in line at 5pm to get on the list, go away for two hours, then come back and walk-in.
Despite our commute, Monkey (who insisted on coming on this particular real food adventure) and I arrived bang on time. We parked on the north side of Geary near the movie theater, and Monkey’s grip on my hand noticeably tightened as we walked south into the grittier, more “street” end of Fillmore. Before we spotted the restaurant, we spotted the line, and being orderly humans we got in that line to wait for our table and our friends, L. (aka Spider Monkey) and D. (aka Woolly Monkey). It seems like a bit of a cruel joke on the “have-nots” to drop a bunch of hipsters with deep pockets right in their hood, but I guess that’s city life.
From the outset, the SBP experience feels fun and just a little cultish. The clientele are oh so hip, in an oh so nonchalant way, and there’s a distinct sense of being on the outside until you have figured out how to be on the inside. For instance, it wasn’t until Woolly Monkey found us in line, and questioned whether we actually needed to be in the line, that we realized we could have gone straight to the door and asked to be seated. And then there’s the restroom – it’s labeled Brotherhood – so of course I thought it wasn’t meant for me and had to ask. (I think the basics should be obvious so you don’t feel dumb asking.)
Thankfully, Spider Monkey then arrived and informed us that she’d be here before and could steer us through the experience. Phew. There’s a lot going on in this space, which is decked out with concrete and stainless steel and partially clad with pegboard (even on the ceiling). It’s well-ordered chaos, but it does feel chaotic.
The main thing that sets SBP apart from the competition, aside from its menu, is their dim-sum cart style of serving up to 15 different small plates. These are either wheeled by or carried out on a tray, and if you’re seated facing the kitchen you can see them coming, which adds to the anticipation and creates anxiety when you see the server with a dish you want veer off in the opposite direction. There’s also a menu featuring slightly larger plates like amazingly light pancakes, pork ribs, steak salad and just enough desserts to want to try them all.
If you’re hungry, the best thing is that you can start eating right away by selecting a couple of plates from the first cart that passes. I’m going to tell you right now, I’m not going to do the menu justice or be able to describe everything we had. By the end we’d ordered about 20 different dishes from blood sausage (our least favorite) to smoked sturgeon (amazing), and numerous drinks, from chocolate soda to Madeira. For the most part, everything hits every taste bud and makes you realize why this place is so hot right now.
We dug right into SBP’s take on “chip ‘n dip” with ahi tuna and garbanzo beans, and a cold fish stew with a crunchy tortilla. Both were delicious and it was really hard not to order two of each of those, but the server said something akin to: “Treat this as life, some things will pass you by.” Wise words, but hard to live by.
Over the course of the next two and a half hours, yes, we were table hogs wanting to wring every last drop of fun and taste out of this long-awaited experience, we savored everything from a sublime Hamachi dish served on wafer-thin, deep fried seaweed, to melt-in-your-mouth fried pork belly with tangerines, chili and a Thai dressing. The lightest of duck mousse pates arrived, topped with sea salt and pepper, and accompanied by almond muffins which were quickly devoured by Monkey who liked the sweetness so early on in the meal.
After it seemed like we had enjoyed just about everything that was being passed around, we decided to get a few desserts including the “iced cream” sandwich, and some more drinks. I mean, why not? If you’re going to go for it, you may as well really go for it. All in all, we had a really fun time and unanimously agreed that this is an “experience”. If we could change one thing it would be for the servers to give us more guidance on which dishes go well together. The blood sausage really shifted my palate and everything after that tasted a little bitter. But despite that, go as soon as you can… which probably won’t be before April.
Tips on enjoying State Bird Provisions:
- Make a reservation for four two months ahead and figure out who to bring with you nearer the time
- Come hungry. In fact, starve yourself for a couple of days first
- Plan on coming back and don’t worry if you miss something
- Quell the anxiety you’re going to have about missing dishes by drinking copiously
- Bring a crowd so you can try all the dishes on the menu
- Accept that a “taste” or one mouthful is enough, so you can experience the whole range of the menu and save room for dessert
- Take full advantage of the wonderful people-watching