The Rejuvenation of Greens

Having recovered from a kitchen fire, the vegetable-based Fort Mason restaurant celebrates 40 years with an ongoing dinner series.

While it’s easy to point fingers at the Brazilian government for the terrifying incineration of the Amazon, the real culprit may be the industrialized world’s insatiable demand for meat. The clear-cutting of the rainforest wouldn’t be nearly as profitable if much of that land weren’t reallocated toward ranches full of beef cattle. It’s enough to make Bob Belcher re-evaluate the burger.

But for four decades, Greens has been San Francisco’s ambassador for the vegetarian lifestyle, its menus a persuasive rebuttal to the insistence that dinner needs meat to be dinner. Since its founding in 1979 as a wing of the San Francisco Zen Center, which still owns it, the capacious restaurant in Fort Mason Center’s westward-facing Landmark Building A has lured diners with stone-fruit salads, veg-heavy pizzas, and consistently inventive cocktails. And for its 40th, longtime Chef Annie Somerville put together a celebratory dinner series, inviting acclaimed chefs like Reem Assil (Reem’s California) and Alice Waters (Chez Panisse) to join her in the kitchen once each month for four-course meals. 

The next dinner, on Tuesday, Sept. 11, sees a collaboration with Suzette Gresham, whose two-Michelin-starred Italian restaurant Acquerello has been around nearly as long as Greens, followed by Kim Alter of Nightbird (Oct. 7), Tanya Holland of Brown Sugar Kitchen, (Nov. 4), and Pam Mazzola of Prospect (Dec. 11). They have creative control, Somerville tells SF Weekly, noting that their dishes are “in the spirit of Greens.” Assil’s shish barak, a preparation of spinach and pine nut dumplings with garlic yogurt, mint oil, and cured sumac is an excellent representation.

“Greens has gone through so many cycles,” she adds, “that to reach 40 is really such a momentous thing. What was the best way to celebrate? To gather some fantastic women chefs together and do a series.”

While nearly all its staff were affiliated with the Zen Center in its early days, Buddhism is no longer quite as central to the restaurant’s mission. Vegetarianism, too, has evolved from a fringe movement that connoted monastic self-denial into a mainstream celebration of nature’s bounty. These days, Somerville says, an “intangible” quality flows from Buddhist tenets, helping maintain the kitchen’s positive culture. (In a review from last December, I wrote that Greens is the Zuni of vegetarianism.)

“We have plenty of Buddhists on staff,” Somerville says. “They may not be practicing traditionally, but it’s like the soul of the place — and it’s a beautiful place. The dining room and the kitchen are beautiful. It’s very spacious and full of light and fresh air.”
Compared to cramped and sweaty kitchens, this is indeed an anomaly. But it endured a bit of hardship a few years ago in the form of a kitchen fire. While the flames were contained within the ventilation system, subsequent inspections revealed that older components of the kitchen were no longer up to code, necessitating an expensive and time-consuming overhaul.

Greens reopened last year, with the Greens to Go counter reappearing earlier this year. Just don’t call it “vegetarian.” Somerville prefers “plant-based.”
“It’s more the way that people are eating,” she explains. “I shop at the Ferry Building pretty much every Saturday, and there are just passionate home cooks who are scooping up vegetables. Vegetables are an ingredient in their own right!”

San Francisco has a reputation for being chock full of vegetarian — er, plant-based — restaurants, but there really aren’t that many. Does Somerville think veg-centric cooking is finally getting its due?

“People are hungry for great food, and we have extraordinary produce,” she says. “Even though we’ve just said how many people are moving toward plant-based diets, many people do prefer to have a choice of a burger or a steak. Some people do feel that that’s limiting. Personally, I don’t. And at Greens, we’ve done really well.” 

While the blaze was undeniably a major obstacle, Somerville compares the restaurant to a healthy ecosystem, where the occasional fire is a fact of life.

“Even though no one wishes for a fire, it’s been a wonderful opportunity to regenerate,” she says. “We got a grant, and a whole new kitchen out the deal, a whole new chef de cuisine. It was very good, positive, useful energy — which is exactly what it needs at this time. All the molecules of Greens got to reorganize themselves.”

2 Marina Blvd., Fort Mason Center Landmark Building A,
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