The story: Lazy Bear had a cult following when it was an underground pop-up restaurant, notifying newsletter subscribers of upcoming dinners via email. Last year it finally established itself as a full-fledge restaurant when it opened its doors in the Mission, but still continued to break ground by creating a dining experience with a pre-paid ticketing reservation system.
Why I went: Lazy Bear has been gaining rave national reviews, and recently was named a semi-finalist for the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant (although it didn’t make the cut for the final rounds). Chef-Owner David Barzelay (the restaurant name is derived from the letters of Barzelay’s last name) only feeds two seatings a night of 40 people, which means reservations are tough to come by. I couldn’t convince another person to spend the $160 for dinner, so I went alone earlier this month after I secured an online reservation.
The vibe: Barzelay’s concept is to create a dinner party, with two communal tables taking up the space of the main dining room. Dinner begins with snacks in a tiny space upstairs, where guests mingle and begin the dinner party experience. Lazy Bear is a picture of contradiction, first that it’s a high-end, quite glamorous restaurant right off gritty Mission Street, and second that it could be seen as a formal multi-course tasting menu but it has a slightly casual vibe.
How it works: Lazy Bear is one of the few tasting menus in the nation that have gone the ticketing system, which means you prepay for dinner when you make the reservation, just like buying concert tickets. Tickets for the following month’s dates go on sale typically on a Monday at noon, and the exact Monday is announced a few days ahead of time, which means it helps to be following them on Twitter or subscribe to its email list. You choose which seating you want (6 or 8:15 p.m.) and you can pay for the additional wine pairing or drinks when you arrive. Service charge and tax is all included in the $160 you pay upfront for the food portion.
The menu: Dinner begins with about five “snacks” or amuse bouche served upstairs, followed by about nine courses downstairs in the dining room. Barzelay and his chefs spend a few minutes before each course explaining the dishes and the ingredients. The changing menu reflects the season and includes a lot of foraged items from nearby areas. And while the approach may seem to emphasize the purity of the ingredients, the dishes come out looking like works of art and stand up to any tasting menu in the country. While dishes are unique to each dinner, some signature dishes continue to make appearances on the menu like the starter of whipped scrambled eggs, which is a shot of creamy eggs whipped into a foam with flavors of bacon and maple and a dash of hot sauce.
The booze: I opted not to get the wine pairing, so chose glasses of alcohol from the ala carte menu, including a really nice sparkling wine, Petillant’s Lilly’s Cuvee from Anderson Valley ($13). The menu includes cocktails and a well curated wine selection, including orange wine, which is one of my favorite category of wine to try but rarely see on restaurant menus. For dinner, I ended up getting a Vermentino blend from Donkey and Goat in El Dorado, Calif. ($15)
My favorite dish: One of the first dishes in the formal dining portion of the meal was a beautiful plate of sweet pea custard served with cured steelhead roe. It was a perfect spring dish, with each element perfectly cooked and lovingly plated. That was the standard for all the dishes that came to the table.
Insider tip: If you sign up for the first seating, you get to hangout a bit after dinner, joining the crowd upstairs arriving for the second seating. You don’t get to eat their snacks, but you can order after-dinner drinks and meet even more food-loving diners.
The last bite: While the $160 price tag might seem high, Lazy Bear’s cost for entry is not the highest ticket in town when its counterparts are serving similar tasting menus around the $200-plus mark (so this makes Lazy Bear a value for high-end tasting menus). There’s no question that the plates and quality of the food is top-notch, but I felt some may have lacked a bit in creativity because I’d seen some of this modern approach at other restaurants. But Lazy Bear is more than what’s on the plate; it’s a real experience. And not just a dining experience, but one that celebrates food and community. And for that, Lazy Bear is quite a unique find.
The rating: 3.5 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Lazy Bear, 3426 19th St. (off Mission), San Francisco. PH: 415.874.9921. Open for dinner only (two seatings) from Tuesday through Saturday (closed Monday). Reservations only, and only through a pre-pay ticket system (explained on its website). Major credit cards accepted. www.lazybearsf.com
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