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Is San Francisco Impacting How New York Eats?

Formerly local chefs say this city’s myopic focus on rusticity and pizza is a yawn. Yet in NYC—freed from SF’s trappings—they’re still cooking up meatballs, and New Yorkers aren’t complaining.

Last year at the NYC Food & Wine Festival, when Momofuku chef David Chang “called bullshit” on SF restaurants, asserting that they were all “serving figs on a plate with nothing on it,” he inadvertently started a heated debate that—as more and more SF chefs resettle in New York—continues.

“If there is a feud going on, it’s mostly overblown,” says chef Jonnatan Leiva, who went to Greenwich Village’s 10 Downing in the fall after he left SF’s Jack Falstaff when it closed last May. “There’s always the talk that San Francisco has the better product and New York has depth in techniques—but between us cooks, there is a real sense of respect for one another.”

While New York City is usually credited as the influencer, San Francisco appears to be having an impact on how that eastern city eats. “Product” is a driving variable for the guys behind Northern Spy Food Co., a small East Village eatery-cum-market that’s won over the cognoscenti with its thoughtful comfort food. Its website has a whole section devoted to the restaurant’s farms and purveyors. Northern Spy’s executive chef Nathan Foot—whose last SF gig was as the executive chef of now-closed Myth—paired up with director of operations Christophe Hille, A16’s original co-owner and pizzaiolo. “It’s really easy to operate sustainably in SF,” says Hille. “Here, it might not be possible for 12 months out of the year, but it certainly is for eight—and you do what you can for the rest.”

What these SF expat chefs don’t have in local produce, they’re making up for with a fearless patronage. Daniel Holzman, a former chef and co-owner of SPQR, is now the co-owner of the three-month-old Meatball Shop on the Lower East Side. He says, “People in New York aren’t afraid to eat late, crowd in, be loud and have a great time … I’m in a great mood working 18 hours a day on four hours of sleep seven days a week—and I want more!” Former A16 chef and James Beard–winner Nate Appleman, who opened restaurateur Keith McNally’s brick-oven pizza venture Pulino’s on the Bowery in March, is tapping into New York City’s penchant for eating past bedtime, too. He’s started doing a limited-edition hamburger at midnight, for which locals are lining up.

Leiva appreciates New York’s willingness to break the status quo. “Whether you’re cooking Old World or avant-garde, the market here is far more open to it.” As Hille points out, the number of potential diners also helps. While SF’s metropolitan population is 800,000, Manhattan’s is nearly double that. “It’s a different scale in terms of customers and the restaurants you’re vying against for attention.”

It’s not as though meatballs are cutting-edge, but Holzman’s Meatball Shop represents NYC’s predilection for something that’s quirky and focused. Born and raised in Manhattan, Holzman returned to fulfill the “lifelong dream” of opening a restaurant with his best friend. “Meatballs and meatball heroes are a New York City tradition; that being said, I could easily put out the same food in San Francisco”—a city, gripes Holzman, that has a “monolithic cuisine, [focused on] the current trend for regional Italian with a local, seasonal focus.”

“It’s getting a little tired,” Appleman says of SF’s Italian trend. On the East Coast, however, it seems as though people are just waking up to this genre, as demonstrated by the instant popularity of upscale modern trattorias such as Locanda Verde and Maialino.

Hille and Appleman have both eschewed this overtly Italian influence on their menus. Appleman isn’t using Italian (as in, from Italy) ingredients—well, no tomatoes, flour or cheese. And, instead of cranking his cooking temperature up to the usual 750 to 800 degrees associated with the pizza of Southern Italy, he never lets his wood-fired oven get hotter than 650. “I am leaving the Neapolitan behind,” he declares. He calls his way of doing things “Bowery style”: He favors cracker-like, crispy pizza crusts and oven-roasted items like pork, beef and lamb sausage with onions and peppers.

But back to the issue at hand: “One city feels it’s the greatest and best,” remarks Appleman, never one to beat around the bush. “The other feels it’s the second city. I’m not saying which is which.” Appleman says he’s been surprised to find New York extremely supportive, especially his fellow chefs. “I thought it was going to be like San Francisco, but I’ve received nothing but love since I moved here. There’s a lot of confidence—you just have to worry about what you’re doing, [whereas in San Francisco] there’s too much concern about what everyone else is doing.”

Ben Leventhal, co-founder of Eater.com and editor of NBC’s new food site, Feast, which launches in SF this spring, says, “In New York City, it starts with the room, and in San Francisco, it starts with the ingredients. Good restaurants on either coast will marry the two.” Perhaps in SF, this is easier said than done. Leiva predicts that more of the city’s chefs will arrive in New York in the near future. “San Francisco is in a tough spot right now,” he says. “It’s really hard to turn a profit, let alone keep a place operating functionally. I do think that it deters young, creative minds from branching out and really cranking up their creative juices.”

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