I still think of Oakland as home. The Bay Area is where I learned to cook, and its food culture is mostly to thank for my love of restaurants. So when I read the news last week that Bay Area restaurants had netted only three James Beard nominations for the 2023 Chef and Restaurant awards—the fewest the region has received since the awards were introduced in 1991, according to the San Francisco Chronicle—I was disappointed. But I wasn’t entirely surprised.
I return to the Bay Area several times a year. And every time I’ve gone to find contenders for our annual Best New Restaurants list, or just to visit family and friends, it’s been impossible to ignore: New restaurants in the Bay Area aren’t driving national dining culture anymore.
It isn’t that there aren’t any compelling new restaurants. Some eclectic bright spots have opened recently, taking the best of Bay Area restaurant culture and building on it—treating their staff better, taking more culinary risks, trying something new. But in the case of many newcomers, the area’s famed farm-driven ethos now exists largely against a backdrop of splashy investor-backed restaurants and all too homogenous “small plates, meant for sharing.” Many feel similar to spots I encounter in New York, Texas—anywhere with a serious restaurant scene, really. A spate of New York–style slice shops. A fast-casual fried chicken sandwich spot with an iPad for ordering. A downtown restaurant bathed in marble and gold, with more than a few expressions of uni and caviar. They’re not bad. They’re just not distinct.
This region used to lead national restaurant culture in new and exciting directions.
It’s a shame, considering this region used to lead national restaurant culture in new and exciting directions. This is the same place where Preeti Mistry’s now closed Juhu Beach Club began to define a generation of queer restaurants across the country and put a bright, joyful spin on Indian street food. It’s where Tanya Holland ran her iconic soul food restaurant Brown Sugar Kitchen. At my summer job selling produce at a Berkeley farmers market, I remember meeting Sylvan Mishima Brackett, who would haul boxes of fresh produce back to his Japanese izakaya Rintaro in San Francisco. I’d open Instagram hours later and see how he’d expertly transformed seasonal, just-picked vegetables through what felt like an act of magic. Brackett, along with Reem Assil, Dominica Rice-Cisneros, Ravi Kapur, and other stars of the Bay Area dining scene, are still turning out delightful food at their restaurants.
Yet it’s becoming increasingly difficult for a new generation of chefs here to break out, to introduce themselves and their cooking, to even stay open for more than a year or two. I don’t blame chefs and restaurant owners for investing in concepts they know will succeed—and really, I commend anyone who still feels inspired to open a restaurant in 2023. These might be the only businesses that can afford to bet on the Bay these days. The truth is, it’s near-impossible to take risks here anymore. Especially when there’s money involved.
Even seasoned chefs face challenges. Holland closed Brown Sugar Kitchen in early 2022 after nearly 15 years of service, saying her business was under-resourced and operating in downtown Oakland was no longer tenable. Meanwhile, anticipated new restaurants seem like they’re shutting down before they’ve really been able to open. The closings come with no explanation, or restaurateurs cite a dining public that didn’t understand the “vision,” or sometimes they just can’t afford to keep paying rent. Nigel Jones, the beloved Oakland chef who decided in March to close his Jamaican restaurant Kingston 11 after a decade, recently opened a new restaurant called Calabash. But he tells me that throughout the process of opening the Northern Iranian-Jamaican restaurant, “I was fucking nervous as hell.”