When I was nine years old, I lived in a small Ohio farm town, surrounded by corn fields and cow pastures. That year - in 1979, I vividly recall walking home from my friend’s house barefoot in the cool, wet grass when I started to vision my life as an adult. Even then I felt a strong magnetic pull toward the unknown and away from my small town. I wanted to see new places, experience new things, and build a life in a new place. At that same time in 1979, exactly 2,479 miles away from my provincial existence, Greens Restaurant opened in San Francisco.
Greens too was looking to be and do something different. It forged a path and became an iconic vegetarian, fine dining restaurant. The San Francisco Zen Center operates Greens Restaurant, as well as Tassajara Zen Mountain Retreat and Green Gulch Farm. Since the early 1980s Executive Chef Annie Somerville has been at the helm after leaving Chez Panisse and working for a time at Greens with founding chef Deborah Madison.
In 1979 when Greens opened and into the early 1980s, according to Somerville in a 2013 interview by San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paolo Lucchesi, “it was a very different time. A really exciting time. Greens was super busy, and what were doing was very cutting edge. We were just creating something very new, just making it up. Sometimes you don’t realize you’re making it up at the time — but we were.” What Madison and Somerville created was one of the first fine dining vegetarian restaurants that would become a classic San Francisco restaurant.
Last week I dined at Greens on a perfect spring day - a day that felt like anything and everything was possible. Fittingly for the first course, I selected the Grilled Zuckerman Farms Asparagus with Green Garlic Ranch, Grilled Polenta, Arugula, Red Endive, and Grana Padana cheese ($15), paired with a crisp half glass of Chenin Blanc - the 2015 Vincent Raimbault Vouvray-Sec from the Loire Valley, France ($5.50). The menu listed several wines by the glass - each one also available by the half glass, something I wish more restaurants would do. The option of half glasses enables diners to sample a wider variety of wines without becoming too tipsy or racking up the alcohol tab.
For my entree I chose wisely: the Wild Mushroom & Grilled Cheese Sandwich served with a salad of escarole, fries, arugula, beets, fennel, pine Nate and a Meyer lemon vinaigrette ($17.50) paired with a 2015 Jigsaw Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley in Oregon ($14). The earthy, plump mushrooms were accented with bright flavors from the carmelized onions, Italian parsley and thyme on perfectly grilled, melt-in-your mouth Acme Pan de Mie bread. Astonishily it was hearty yet delicate. In contrast to my uber-rich cheese-dominated homemade grilled cheese sandwich, this one had just enough cheese to envelope the mushrooms and add a subtle richness. It was simply divine.
For dessert I selected the Butterscotch Pot de Creme topped with Whipped Cream, Toffee Sauce and Pecan Shortbread cookies ($9.75) and paired it with a half glass of the suggested 2014 Chateau Roumieu-Lacoste Sauternes ($6.50). Creamy, crunchy and cool, it was a decadent end to a delicious meal.
It makes me happy to know that Greens is still going strong after nearly 40 years and continuing to pack in the crowds. Greens is among the quintessential San Francisco restaurants to which locals and visitors alike will return year after year.
2 Marina Boulevard
Fort Mason, Building A
San Francisco, CA 94123
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