Institutionalized

The Zuni Cafe is an institution: The Mediterranean-influenced restaurant has been around for 20 years and it's still a hip place, with lines out the door much of the time.

How does this culinary landmark do it?
The main answer is simple: consistency. Some items are so delicious that you can't bring yourself to order anything else, even if you've been there many, many times before. Other patrons obviously feel the same way: You see waiters rushing by with these chosen foods over and over.

What are these particular dishes? We'll begin with the shiny raw oysters (starting at $1.40 each), served on trays over ice and also available with drinks at the bar, if you'd like. With more than 20 varieties to choose from, patrons slurp them up constantly.

Once you're seated, a basket of crusty, chewy Acme bread appears. Some food critics think this is the finest bread in the country, and there it is, waiting for you to consume it. Then there's the immense Caesar salad ($8.50), with crisp spears of romaine, perfectly dressed and studded with giant croutons. Our server volunteered to split the order for no extra fee. The shoestring potatoes ($4) resemble a giant mound of matchsticks. When they're hot, they taste like fries; when cold, like potato chips. You'll try to restrain yourself but you won't succeed. You'll even take the leftovers home and reconstruct their crispiness in your toaster oven.

More triumphs continue with two entrees. The whole chicken for two ($30), roasted in the brick oven, is magnificently tasty and moist, mounded over a bread salad tossed in a champagne vinaigrette with currants and pine nuts. I tried but couldn't resist the crispy, garlicky skin. Tell your waiter immediately if you want to order a chicken -- it takes 45 minutes to cook. Another menu stalwart is the juicy, plump hamburger, served on a focaccia bun, but if you want one, beware: Burgers are served only until 6 p.m. and then from 10 p.m. to midnight.

We also tried house-cured, plump anchovies. Served with crisp slices of celery and slabs of Parmesan, the dish ($6.50) is a salt lover's delight. One taste of these little fish and you'll have a hard time opening a can again. And we dipped our bread in a hearty sausage, chickpea, and cabbage soup ($5.50) and were very satisfied.

Zuni is the epitome of classic chic, with its exposed brick walls, roaring brick oven as a centerpiece in the main room, and long, gleaming copper bar. The bar scene provides excellent people-watching opportunities: yuppies, the black leather jacket crowd, artists, shoppers, and posers -- all gather here. Watch from the balcony above, or establish yourself at one of the first come, first served tables nearby. One evening we had the best seat in the house: a table on the balcony over the brick oven, from which we could watch a chef remove the whole chickens and chop them repeatedly.

Desserts are reasonably priced, with cheese dishes at $4.50 and sweets at $5 to $5.75. They're also luscious: A bittersweet chocolate-amaretto pots de creme is impossibly smooth, its bitterness balanced by a dollop of sweet whipping cream. The same is true of the flourless chocolate cake. The apple tart with ice cream is rich and flavorful.

A large selection of beverages includes aperitifs, beers, and perfect lattes served in soup-sized white bowls ($3). We tasted a bracing Bloody Mary that included chopped red onions and balsamic vinegar. The wine list offers many California wines, including a few that are hard to find, and imports from Italy, Spain, and France. There's another enormous menu of after-dinner drinks featuring dessert wines, ports, sherries, and brandies.

Perhaps inevitably, not everything was perfect on our visit. A thin-crust tomato sauce pizza ($8.75) arrived warm with ricotta cheese merely waved over it. The polenta ($5) was soupy and starchy. Service was efficient and personable one night, then mournfully slow during a lunch, when water glasses went unfilled and the waiter seemed uninterested. On both occasions we arrived home extremely thirsty.

Chef and co-owner Judy Rogers created this straightforward but delicious food by studying and traveling around Europe on sabbaticals. Previously, she worked at Chez Panisse and lived in France. Branch out from the standards and you'll be glad you did, but remember: At Zuni, the classics still reign.

Zuni Cafe
1658 Market (at Gough), 552-2522. Open Tuesday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to midnight, Sunday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Reservations recommended on weekends. Parking: Leave time for finding street parking. At night, choose the valet for $5, because the neighborhood is a little creepy. Wheelchair accessible. Muni: 6, 7, 66, and 71 buses on Haight, 26 on Valencia; F streetcar on Market; J, K, L, M, and N trains at Market and Van Ness.

 
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