When it comes to travel, I have always lived by one simple philosophy: Every great trip must have at least one outstanding meal. I took things a bit to the extreme when planning our California adventure, by putting together - not one or two - but five dining experiences that promised to knock our socks off. The first stop in this Quintet-of-Awesome was Restaurant Gary Danko in San Francisco.
The credentials for Gary Danko speak for themselves...5 Diamond Award, one Michelin Star, plus a top five rating on Yelp, Urbanspoon, and TripAdvisor. What was more telling, however, was the positive reaction to our choice by the concierge, doorman, and valet at our hotel. All 3 claimed Gary Danko to be the best in San Francisco, and if there's one thing I've learned not to doubt, it's the restaurant choices of the staff in great hotels...
I dropped the ball on booking our reservation at the 60-day mark, and by the time I called a couple days later, the only table available was at 5:30pm. I don't mind early bird reservations, especially when I'm in for a 2 1/2 - 3 hour experience, but I'd advise those looking for a specific time to call when the 60-day window opens.
We arrived just after 5pm to have a pre-dinner drink, and snagged the last two chairs at the 10 seat bar. Gary Danko offers the full dinner menu at the bar, and this is clearly a popular alternative for those unable to score a reservation. As soon as we got up to move to our table, another couple swooped in for our stools, and I didn't see another one open up until we were eating dessert.
One of the reasons I chose Gary Danko was not only the diversity of their menu, but also its flexibility. While there is the traditional pre-fixe option, guests are free to substitute any dish with another from the standard menu. In addition, customers are invited to build their own 3, 4, or 5 course pre-fixe from the full menu, with no particular course order required. If you'd like a 5 course meal starting with 2 desserts and ending with 3 straight salads, go right ahead. I loved this flexibility, and wish that more high end restaurants would embrace the concept, instead of the "take it or leave it" approach to most pre-fixe menus.
As tempted as I was to order 5 desserts, MJ and I took the unimaginative approach of five courses in their traditional sequence. First up, was an amuse bouche of lamb sausage, served atop a small bed of cous cous.
For my first course I went with the ahi tuna, which might have been the most beautiful dish I've ever been presented. It seemed criminal to dismantle this butterfly of ahi, but I decided not doing so would deprive the plate of its destiny, and that wouldn't be right either.
MJ started her meal in equally awesome fashion with the lobster risotto. Sitting across from her, I understood how George Costanza felt when his girlfriend seemed more interested in her risotto than him. After tasting this one, I couldn't blame her...
Next up for me was the lobster salad. MJ is always trying to get me to eat more salads, but she is missing an obvious solution. If she followed Gary Danko's lead and called a plate of lobster a "salad" I would gladly eat more of them. This plate was quite rich, but a perfect offset to the relatively light first course.
The second course for MJ was horseradish crusted salmon, which was a close second to my ahi tuna in terms of beauty. Its texture was like that of a crab cake, and the horseradish added a great flavor without overpowering the fish. Of course, I would eat horseradish on pancakes if given the opportunity.
For our main course, MJ and I got real original by selecting the filet of beef. It was served with Yukon potatoes, and topped with an interesting corn and tomato salsa. The steak was perfectly cooked, but the quality of the beef fell a little short of what I expected.
Up to this point, our experience at Gary Danko was flawless, but then things ground to a halt. For the cheese course, guests are asked to choose four selections from a display consisting of eighteen different cheeses. This sounds great on the surface, but in reality it is a logistical nightmare.
In addition to explaining each and every cheese available, servers have to share one display for the entire dining room. This caused a lengthy delay between our courses, because the 6-top next to us held a foreign summit making their selections. In my opinion, there should either a) be more than one display available or b) the number of choices should be drastically lowered. 5 Diamonds or not, no one needs to choose from eighteen different cheeses...
With things back on track, it was time for the all important dessert. The only reason I saw more than one option on the menu was because the chocolate souffle was listed second. It was served with two sauces which the server poured into its center at the table. To describe the souffle as decadent would be the understatement of the year.
MJ, on the other hand, read the entire menu and went with the last option, which also happens to be her favorite...Creme Brulee. Usually I'm offered a tasting of her dessert, but not so this time around. I did manage to swipe one of the accompanying cookies, which reminded me of the Royal Dansk cookies you see at Christmas, but better...way better.
Not to be outdone by the outstanding food experience, the service at Gary Danko was equally impressive. With the exception of our cheese course - which can not be blamed on the servers - everything flowed perfectly, and we didn't feel rushed in any way. We were even invited to take a quick peek in the kitchen and observe some of the action first hand.
The only thing which surprised me about Gary Danko was the overall atmosphere. The restaurant is far from a quiet and reserved experience that one might expect. It's loud, there's a constant flurry of activity, and every few minutes the flash flame from cherries jubilee turns every head in the place. This is far from a negative comment on my part, but I mention it because it could come as a surprise to some.
Without a doubt, Gary Danko was the perfect choice for our blowout meal in San Francisco. In a city filled with outstanding restaurants, it is easy to see why it garners the praise and popularity that it does. There were several more insanely great meals to come in our California adventure, but MJ and I both agree, our favorite plates from the trip were both found at Gary Danko.
If you go...
- Make reservations on the 60-day mark.
- If dining at the bar, arrive at 5pm or not at all.
- Come hungry.