We never visit San Francisco without a trip to our favorite Spanish restaurant, Zarzuela. In fact, it was the only request my son had, besides the Chinese food he wanted to eat while we were up there.
Since the restaurant is only open for dinner five evenings a week (no lunch service), we decide to drive up to San Francisco, from the Peninsula, the Wednesday after Christmas, hitting a little traffic along the way. I am slightly panicked because we are closer to 6pm than the 5.30pm opening time which we always strive for as there is almost always a wait. Lucky for us, we find parking rather close by, and the restaurant is not packed when we arrive.
Unfortunately, co-owner/Chef Lucas Gasco is not in the kitchen that evening, but co-owner/maître d’ Andy Debanne welcomes us with open arms, with hugs all around. We’ve been dining here for 20 years, and it has become something of a tradition. It is one of my son’s favorite restaurants, but evokes nostalgia in all of us. We sit in Arturo’s section, as always, and quickly start reminiscing about our last two decades of memories here. The restaurant has also remained on San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 list over the decades.
Andy is tickled that I am still taking photos of the food. “You must have 1000+ photos by now,” he exclaims “same food, menu hasn’t changed,” and he is correct. The menu hasn’t changed since its opening in 1994. The first time I visited was in 1997 when friends invited me to dinner. I fell in love instantaneously. And after all these years, I still don’t have a photo of Andy and Lucas, so I found one online (photo credit: www.sfgate.com). The restaurant still does not own a website, nor do they accept reservations.
I ponder a little about how the menu has persevered in the last two decades, with a few changes here and there, but the bulk of the menu remains unchanged. The restaurant is still full, often with waits of up to an hour. These days, you’ll see a host of tourists as well, but the regulars are clearly evident.
Arturo takes our order, instinctively knowing the dishes we gravitate towards. He looks at my son and asks “Crab Bisque?” a dish he has eaten since a toddler on every visit. The only difference is, he is now willing to share his soup (photo from 10 years ago when we tried to share his soup with the table).
Another dish Arturo knows I will never leave without is Boquerones en Vinagre ($8.25) an appetizer of white anchovies marinated in garlic and vinegar. I am a huge fan of anything acidic, and this dish epitomizes everything that makes my mouth sing with glee.
My aunt, orders Jamon Serrano con Pan y Tomate ($12.50), and insists Zarzuela rivals all the little tapas places she experienced in Spain. The luscious Serrano ham atop the bread with tomato spread is enough to get your mouth salivating merely at the thought of it.
Pulpo a la Gallega ($17.95) is one of my son’s favorites. The poached octopus is melt-in-your-mouth tender, and served fanned over soft, buttery-textured potatoes with onions, olive oil and a dust of pimento powder.
One of my favorites for the last two decades is Gambas Ajillo ($9.25) a baby skillet of shrimp sautéed in garlic and olive oil. I love dipping the crusty bread into the garlic oil after all the shrimp have been devoured.
The restaurant features various specials depending on seasonality, and Arturo brings us a plate of roasted Shishito Peppers…
…and Fried Baby Smelt which are crunchy on the outside and perfectly moist on the inside. I like to squeeze a little lemon over each fish before popping into my mouth.
I am already full by now, but my son wants an order of Chuletas de Cordero a la Plancha ($14.95/$24.95) to share with his grand-aunt. We order the appetizer portion since my cousin and I didn’t want any. The grilled lamb chops are served at your desired temperature, and enveloped in a rosemary and garlic sauce. An entrée size will serve well if you’re not partaking in any of the tapas.
My aunt wanted something else to round off the meal, and I suggest Arroz Caldoso a la Marinera ($36). The soupy Spanish rice with seafood is a comforting preparation in a light, but flavor-packed shellfish broth. It is perfect for those cold San Francisco nights, and to round off your meal with.
By the end of the meal, I am usually too full to eat any dessert, but my son always loves Flan de Leche al Caramelo, a solid Spanish caramel custard which isn’t overly sweet on the palate. My other favorite is the Arroz con Leche, but who has room left after all that food!
Zarzuela has remained forever embedded in our hearts, and will continue to as long as they stay open.
2000 Hyde St
San Francisco, CA 94109