What’s happening to fine dining in San Francisco?

I’ve noticed that restaurants are sending an increasing amount of promotional emails and when I do eat in SF on the rare occasion, it’s quite often that there are many empty tables and last minute reservations are not a problem.

Fine dining is under siege. Many places the writer mentioned are also the most expensive in the city, so they’ve taken a hit in a tight economy. In addition, aside from Zuni Cafe, they’re the types of places that most people reserve for a special occasion. Other factors also come into play, including the fact that many diners are turning away from fixed-price menus. In our A.D.D. world, many diners become impatient if they have to sit too long at the table. We’re also becoming much more casual, so the more formal restaurants move further down on the list of where people want to go.

[From Michael Bauer: Between Meals : What’s happening to fine dining in San Francisco?]

I think Bauer misses an important point by simply laying it on the economy and in suggesting that we are becoming more casual toward restaurants. The economy for restaurants is tough, but the disparity between SF restaurants and those down on the Peninsula of similar caliber it noticeable, which makes me think the problem is more multi-faceted than the restaurant economy in general.

SF restaurants are considerably more expensive than counterparts in other parts of the Bay Area, partly because of mandates like the healthcare surcharge that gets added on SF restaurant bills, and also because from a competitive standpoint these restaurants seek parity rather than price undercutting. When you add in parking SF restaurants present a pretty expensive evening out and the bottom line is that SF’s restaurant economy depends on tourists and people from other parts of the Bay Area traveling into SF to eat… and with the tourism business down that means the slack needs to be picked up by the exurbs and it just isn’t happening.

The other criticism of SF restaurants is that the service quality is really spotty. I don’t want to be rushed through dinner by a server pressing me to order, finish my entree and pay the bill. I also don’t want to wait to get a drink or feel like a bobblehead searching for a server when I need something. Dining out is a service AND a food experience and the best restaurants, in SF and beyond, are the ones that deliver on both points.

My wife and I went out to dinner on Saturday at a favorite restaurant in Palo Alto, which we had not been to in a couple of months. The valets remembered our name, we immediately went to our table even though we were 15 minutes early, and here’s the best part, the server must have looked up what my wife always orders to drink because he had a cocktail waiting for her at our table. The food was excellent, as always, but it was the service and attention put on us that won the evening because you leave feeling like you were treated rather than just ate out. The experience was so much better than the last time we went to Michael Mina… and that’s the real problem for SF restaurants.