It’s a Sunday afternoon in late spring and the corner of San Francisco’s Oak and Franklin streets – a somewhat unremarkable spot at the confluence of the Civic Center, Theater District and Hayes Valley neighbourhoods – is buzzing.
The lively atmosphere – while buoyed by the uncharacteristically sunny weather – is due largely to RT Rotisserie, one of several new fast-casual restaurants that are taking the Bay Area by storm. Families and solo diners alike pack the bright and breezy 46-seater space. Some are eagerly waiting at tables with their order numbers, while others line up at the counter to select from a menu of options that include sandwiches filled with either fried chicken or cauliflower and red beet tahini, and the eatery’s star dish: succulent rotisserie chicken, brined for 24 hours in buttermilk and served with delicious sauces ranging from chimichurri to Douglas fir sour cream.
Started just over a year ago by husband-and-wife duo Evan and Sarah Rich, RT Rotisserie has been earning accolades ever since it opened its doors – including beating out other fast-casual hotspots such as Duna and Media Noche to be named Eater SF’s Fast Casual Restaurant of the Year in 2017. What is truly striking, though, is something that many diners may not know: Evan and Sarah’s other space, Rich Table, is a full-service, fine-dining restaurant that earned a Michelin star last October.
It’s an accomplishment that would have some chefs considering additional outposts or even dreaming about the beginning of a global food empire, but not Evan. Today, the award-winning culinarian is working a shift as front-of-house manager. Dressed in a long-sleeved Henley shirt and with his hair slicked back, Evan reveals that he sees RT Rotisserie as a natural complement to Rich Table – a place for fun experimentation, where the average consumer comes to feel fulfilled and satisfied, rather than simply impressed.
RT Rotisserie is just one of a host of acclaimed fast-casual places in the city run by restaurateurs with fine-dining pedigree. These fast-casual restaurants are a type of hybrid eatery that merges high-quality cuisine with the ease of counter service, eliminating the need for traditional waitstaff. But despite their curtailed offerings, these places don’t skimp on atmosphere or the quality of ingredients. They’re just as design-forward as their food is delicious and, while they may not serve the cheapest fare in town (a meal will set you back between US$15 and US$20), it’s typically worth every penny.
In fact, their quick-growing popularity is in part due to the many local restaurant heavyweights who have jumped on the bandwagon. These include Jessica Barker, owner of Cuban eatery Media Noche and formerly of San Francisco’s perennial fine-dining showstopper Nopa; James Beard Award-winning Charles Phan, owner and executive chef of iconic modern Vietnamese eatery Slanted Door; and Cortney Burns and Nick Balla, both fine-dining alums who helmed the much-loved Bar Tartine and, until recently, ran Duna, a Central European fast-casual restaurant, out of a temporary space in the Mission District.
“It’s [all about] finding that sweet spot between fine-dining and [something that’s] too casual,” says RT Rotisserie’s Sarah. While the eatery is located just one block away from Rich Table, it in many ways feels like another planet altogether. RT Rotisserie’s no-frills format and unique location attracts an eclectic mix of walk-in white-collar workers, neighbourhood residents and theatregoers (the Theater District is less than a 10-minute drive away). This is something that Rich Table – which draws endless pre-bookings from food lovers who expect an experience “similar to a Broadway show”, according to Sarah – doesn’t see. “[At RT Rotisserie] we have the same philosophy and perspective on food as we do at Rich Table, just scaled back,” she says.
“San Francisco’s fast-casual restaurants cater to the way many people want to eat right now, but they still have that personal touch that customers love”
“[One of the reasons] the fast-casual trend has especially taken off in the Bay Area is because of the crazy cost of running a restaurant here,” says Rachel Levin, the first San Francisco restaurant critic for online dining authority Eater and a Bay Area resident. “It’s a way to serve good food and use good products while saving on server salaries and other costs of running a proper sit-down place.”
And while astronomical operational costs are causing many of the more expensive establishments to shutter, diners’ expectations are also shifting. Rather than leisurely sit-down affairs that last for hours, they’re looking for a meal that’s tasty, convenient and efficient. According to the United States Census Bureau, almost 40% of San Francisco residents are between the ages of 25 and 44. This is a group that is likely to be working long hours – often outside of the city in places like Silicon Valley, Oakland or the East Bay – starting families and enjoying full social calendars. With such busy schedules, the time spent waiting for food to be brought to the table, or for a server to bring along the cheque, is among the superfluous things to go.
“Our typical consumers are millennials with money to spend, but who also have a great sense of value and a need for immediacy,” says Marko Sotto, the owner of Barzotto, another fast-casual newcomer located in the Mission District. The restaurant’s tightly curated menu includes fresh, hand-rolled pasta dishes like spaghetti with marinara sauce and pork and turkey meatballs and bucatini with clams, green garlic, furikake and chilli. Customers can also ake home thick-cut strings of pappardelle and shell-shaped lumache – available both dried and fresh – as well as a variety of pasta sauces.
Sotto spent more than a decade at San Francisco’s ground-breaking restaurant Aqua and brought on Michelle Minori – the former executive chef for Ne Timeas, a restaurant group that runs another beloved San Francisco eatery, Flour + Water – to front Barzotto. The chic, well-lit space sports features like Venetian plastered walls, mosaic tiles and framed hanging mirrors that create an ambience as worthy of a date as it is for a quick dinner.
But while recent additions like Barzotto and RT Rotisserie may get most of the buzz these days, many of these culinary purveyors agree that the Bay Area’s foray into fast-casual dining by chefs with fancy résumés began with Souvla, a local Greek restaurant chain that former French Laundry culinary assistant Charles Bililies opened in 2014. Sotto is a friend of Bililies from when they were both working at the Michael Mina restaurant group in 2009.
“He was always sharing with me the ideas behind the type of place he wanted to create,” Sotto says. “One where you could feel good about both eating in and dining out. He was the first one to hammer that idea in and really nail it.” Sarah agrees with Sotto’s assessment. “[Souvla really] hit on an opening in the market,” she says. “It was an authentic move that happened to sync with [what] people [wanted].”
Bililies’ vision for Souvla included creating a strong brand in which the atmosphere – white tiles, wooden tabletops, copper pots on the walls – was as notable as the cuisine. This trait has since carried over into every top San Francisco fast-casual restaurant, from RT Rotisserie’s blackboard-inspired wall panels to Barzotto’s central open-kitchen bar, where guests can actually watch the pasta being hand-rolled right in front of them.
“In the beginning, Barzotto sort of confused people because it has features that are very similar to a full-service restaurant, so that’s what they were expecting,” Sotto says. He still encounters occasional resistance, especially from regular customers’ parents. The latter are often used to a traditional Italian sit-down meal that lasts for hours, without having to stand up and pour their own water.
But while they may not be for everyone, San Francisco’s fast-casual eateries have firmly cemented themselves in the city’s culinary psyche, with new spots continuing to open up. For instance, farm-to-table South Indian fine-dining restaurant Dosa opened a fast-casual little sister, Dosa by Dosa, at the end of last year. Looking ahead, many proprietors believe that there’s still room for growth, be it opening more places beyond the San Francisco city limits or further honing the notion of specialised menus.
Back at RT Rotisserie, Evan disappears into the kitchen to check on his staff and do a bit of experimenting with suckling pig, an incredibly tender meat that’s soon to become a regular menu fixture. Summing up their restaurant’s success, both Evan and Sarah say that the ability for both chefs and consumers to feel almost at home in a place, and with its cuisine, is what makes fast-casual restaurants so appealing. “Not only do San Francisco’s fast-casual restaurants cater to the way many people want to eat right now,” says Sarah, “but they still have that personal touch that customers love.”