Back on the fifth night of shelter in place, there was a remarkable moment that showed just how bizarre the next few weeks would be. Sure, none of us had any idea that this "new normal" would continue through May…June…your guess is as good as ours…but on what was officially the third night of spring, March 21st, the legendary Zuni Cafe opened for takeout.
Public health ordinances prohibited us from enjoying a meal inside Zuni's usually bustling Market Street dining room, but now the city's most famous dish, the roast chicken with the savory bread salad and the hour-long wait, could be picked up and enjoyed at home.
That night, I called Zuni and enjoyed the chicken, butter bean ragoût with soft-cooked egg, and the Caesar. So did many San Francisco foodies. Same again on Sunday, March 22nd. And then, something sad happened: Zuni decided to not continue with takeout, concerned about the health risk to its staff and guests. (The restaurant did, however, collaborate with the nonprofits World Central Kitchen and SF New Deal to continue feeding people in need.) No Zuni chicken for the foreseeable future? It was a gut punch, as though curvy Lombard Street had been repaved into a perfectly straight line.
It was also a harbinger of the future for restaurants during the pandemic, and the next-level degree of strangeness and difficulty that was about to set in.
Easter, the entire month of April, and Cinco de Mayo all went by in a shelter-in-place blur. Then on May 7th, we got some news we could chew on: Zuni Cafe had reopened for takeout with a very to-the-point menu...focused on the chicken.
Some say its the greatest dish in San Francisco—there is indeed a magic to the ultra crispy skin, fragrant with wood smoke, thyme, and sage—and some might disagree. Either way, it's a constant in a city that's constantly changing, a true thing in an era of uncertainty—and frankly, the bird makes for delightful takeout.
When you click over to Tock to order, you'll find a loving description: "Chicken for two roasted in the wood-fired brick oven; warm bread salad with scallions, garlic, mustard greens, dried currants, and pine nuts."
There's a catch: When ordering Zuni's roast chicken at home, the petite poulet will arrive whole, meaning you'll have to do the cutting yourself. (The first time I opened the takeout box, I went ghost-white. Nobody mentioned this extra work!) Don't worry, cutting the chicken isn't the most daunting thing you'll ever do. Unless you're a chef, your presentation is unlikely to be as beautiful as it is in the restaurant, but the chicken will taste the same. Plus, you're getting a deal: The takeout dish is $45, compared to $63 at Zuni.
The soft bread squares, pine nuts, and currants arrive in the same box as the chicken to fully absorb its mystical juices; the mustard greens and tangy vinaigrette are in a separate box. If you've been to Zuni before, you know what to do—combine it all together, or keep the salad on the side.
Zuni's takeout menu also includes a rotating fish dish (always formidable), the beloved and wonderfully creamy Caesar salad, and a dessert (currently a moist biscuit-like shortcake topped with peak season Full Belly Farm strawberries and whipped cream). Ah, and then there is wine, another one of Zuni's great strengths. If you're really going for the roast chicken experience, then a pairing of the Bandol rosé (a copiously drunk staple at Zuni), or Zuni's own label chardonnay or pinot noir make for pretty special additions to bring the restaurant to your home. All three wines are available at $35, compared to $75 to $85 at the restaurant pre-shelter in place.
Alas, Zuni's iconic espresso granita and gloriously dense chocolate Gâteau Victoire aren't available these days, nor are the lunchtime pizzas or brunch Bloody Marys or those shoestring fries that make perfect companions for briny oysters. But they will be back, we hope. For now, at least we have roast chicken.
// Zuni Cafe, 1658 Market St. (Hayes Valley), is open Wednesday through Sunday for takeout during shelter-in-place. Ordering is available by calling 415.552.2522 or online at exploretock.com/zunicafe; zunicafe.com.