The San Francisco Conservatory of Music has shaped young musicians into world-class artists and performers for a century.
But when the school devised a plan for a brand new $200 million dollar, state-of-the-art facility across the street from Davies Symphony Hall, they didn’t stop at amenities like recording studios, concert halls, and student housing. The food they served, decided the powers that be, was also worthy of an upgrade.
Early on, the Conservatory approached chef Loretta Keller, the James Beard Award–winning chef of Coco500 fame, with a herculean task. Her role would be not just to feed breakfast, lunch, and dinner to the Conservatory’s 450 students, but to helm a restaurant that combined memorable food with intimate musical performances. Busy with Seaglass, the Exploratorium’s waterside restaurant, she refused.
But that pesky pandemic changed things. Seaglass closed for a solid 17 months and Keller began to reconsider the offer. In April 2022, she—along with beverage director Clay Reynolds, chef Audie Golder, and co-culinary director Gillian Tyrnauer—quietly opened the Conservatory’s restaurant, Uccello Lounge.
Chef Loretta Keller at work in the kitchen at Uccello Lounge.(Courtesy of Uccello Lounge)
They’ve been in business about two months when I visit on a foggy night in early July, the kind where you seriously doubt the wisdom of actually leaving home. At a table in the corner, I warm up with a bee balm—a tart, juicy cocktail made with vodka, bergamot, grapefruit, and yuzu liqueur—and chat with Keller about her new venture.
Feeding the students is the bulk of their work, she tells me. That’s why Uccello is only open Thursday through Saturday; they simply don’t have the kitchen capacity to do more. And while Keller was involved in the construction of the space, she couldn’t do exactly what she might have in a less institutional setting. There was no choice but to work around some of its unyielding utilitarian features.
With the help of Lundberg Design, the firm responsible for outfitting Nari, Mourad, and the revamped Flour + Water, the team whipped Uccello into shape. They crowned the ceiling with elegantly whimsical sound-baffling waves and oversized ruffled light fixtures and wrapped the back wall in metallic tiles. At the restaurant’s center, they built an inviting U-shaped bar.
Most of those who provide the musical entertainment at Uccello are students, but not in the learning-to-play-an-instrument kind of way. Though they have barely left their teenage years behind, these kids are better than most musicians will ever dream of becoming. When Spencer Hoefert and Friends take the stage, announcing they’ll be doing an instrumental send up to the Beatles, a small cheer ripples across the restaurant.
The Hayes Trio at Uccello Lounge, where live music plays Thursday through Saturday.(Courtesy of Uccello Lounge)
Although the drummer has one arm in a sling (a basketball accident, he tells the audience) and has to do double duty with his good arm to keep up with the intricate fingerwork of Hoefert’s guitar, the duo absolutely kills it. As they churn out impressive renditions of “In My Life” and “Here Comes the Sun,” I turn to more important things: the food.
Uccello’s menu has Keller’s signature Mediterranean influence interpreted through the lens of California cuisine. I start with the truffled mushroom flatbread, an addictive umami bomb on a crispy, paper-thin crust. A summer update will exchange the truffled mushrooms for squash blossoms, one of only two things the chef carried over from Coco500.
Uccello plays to its Civic Center location by offering a number of quick, sharable eats and celebratory, end-of-the-night sweets large and small for those going to or coming from the symphony, opera, or ballet. The crispy potato batons, which I can only describe with great affection as McDonald’s hash browns inside a perfectly browned potato shell served with a brown butter-miso-wildflower-honey dipping sauce, are an absolute must. The vacherin, the other resurrected Coco dish, is a confection of monumental proportions made with coffee ice cream, meringue, almonds, bittersweet chocolate, and creme anglaise.
Mt. Shasta morel mushrooms with Brentwood corn and misozuke ramp leaves.(Courtesy of Uccello Lounge)
Small plates include soups and salads like the Uccello cappuccino, a soul-warming curried lobster-mushroom broth, and the toothsome Mt. Shasta morel mushrooms with fresh Brentwood yellow corn and fried misozuke ramp leaves. Among the large plates are slow-roasted pork shoulder with apricot ponzu and Wagyu flatiron steak with sunflower seed salsa seca. I go with the Turkish manti dumplings made with broccoli, manouri cheese, and fava beans bathed in sharp labneh and chili oil. They are surprisingly light and fresh and I understand immediately why they are among Uccello’s most popular dishes.
The cocktails created by bar manager Ulysses Toimil are approachable crowd-pleasers but they are by no means pedestrian. He dresses up a classic martini with aquavit and preserved lemon, for example, and makes a boulevardier (a cousin of the Manhattan) with cold-brew-coffee-infused vermouth. He’s also crafted three zero-proof cocktails, including the Adriatic spritz made with fig leaf syrup, tarragon, lemon, and tonic.
The vacherin is one of two dishes Keller resurrected from her 2000s restaurant, Coco500.(Courtesy of Uccello Lounge)
Given its location and the big money and big names at its back, you might expect Uccello to be peak San Francisco snobbery. But the truth is, there’s no pomp or circumstance here; there is no wall, literal or figurative, between the diners and the musicians, who chat and laugh together on multiple occasions throughout the night.
Instead, Keller and her team have created a nimble restaurant that shape-shifts from pre-theater bites to hearty dinner to evening nightcap just like your favorite neighborhood cafe—you know, if your favorite neighborhood cafe came with a James Beard Award–winning pedigree.
// 200 Van Ness Ave. (Civic Center), uccellolounge.com