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When Did Our Restaurants Turn Into Tech Cafeterias?

Rebecca Flint Marx | March 12, 2014 | Story Restaurants

Reading New York magazine’s San Francisco feature, I was struck by its almost total lack of attention to food.

Granted, I’m a bit biased—my chosen profession comes with a heaping side of tunnel vision—but the dearth of food coverage given to a city all but synonymous with food didn’t seem so much a glaring oversight, as much as an indication of how thoroughly tech has unseated food as San Francisco’s claim to fame. Save for a brief article about a reservation bot created to score a table at State Bird Provisions, cooks were personae non gratae. Instead, we got dispatches about the Google Bus, finance bros, coders, eviction, women who enjoy sleeping with guys in the tech industry, taxi apps, money, and more money.

So much money.

It is an odd time to be someone who cares about food—let alone writes about it—in San Francisco. And also to be someone who makes it. National attention is on technological rather than culinary innovation, and culinary innovation, in turn, often appears to be focused on the tech industry—or more specifically, on catering to it. Think of the hottest restaurants to open over the last several months, places like Verbena, Tosca, Alta CA, and the Cavalier. The prices at all of them are unapologetically new money, while the locations of the latter two make them de facto tech-industry cafeterias—or, as the Cavalier’s co-owner Anna Weinberg called the restaurant’s backroom lounge Marianne’s, a “millionaire’s hostel.”

The food being served is upscale, but not, one could argue, particularly innovative—Tosca’s half-chicken may cost $42, but it’s still just chicken, albeit an expertly roasted one. The Cavalier is serving a menu of British old boy’s comfort food. Verbena is doing exquisite, creative things with vegetables, but still worships at the same orthodox farm-to-table altar as just about every other restaurant in the Bay Area. While many of the city’s restaurants remain firmly entrenched in a back-to-the-land ethos, all anyone else wants to talk about is back to the future—it’s no accident that Silicon Valley’s interest in food lies primarily in how to disrupt it, be it with plant-based egg substitutes, lab-grown meat, or cricket flour.

This isn’t a knock on the aforementioned restaurants, which are turning out some gorgeous, first-rate food. It’s more an observation, and a question: how will tech continue to influence the city’s restaurant scene?

Gloomy prognostications I’ve heard posit that the industry will transform the city into a morass of comfort food joints peddling overpriced burgers that pander to post-collegiate techies with more money than sophistication, a place where so-called regular folks can’t afford to eat out. I think that’s both simplistic and alarmist, but concern over such a scenario is also understandable, a symptom of the larger worry about what tech is doing to the city as a whole. Will it steal its soul? Or at the very least its restaurants? It’s little wonder we’re clamoring for comfort food, albeit at uncomfortable prices: in times of stress, you can always eat your feelings.

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