A James Beard Award-winning chef, TV personality and prolific cookbook author, Charlie Palmer has also proved himself a successful entrepreneur with a restaurant, hotel and retail empire stretching from New York to San Francisco. In addition to his famous flagship Aureole restaurant located in New York City’s One Bryant Park and dining establishments in Las Vegas, Washington DC and Orange County, here in the Bay Area Palmer owns the Burritt Room + Tavern near Union Square and Dry Creek Kitchen in Sonoma, as well as three Bay Area hotels.
How did you end up living in Sonoma part time?
We love New York City, but my wife, Lisa, and I wanted to explore some other places. We kept coming back to the wine country, and then specifically Healdsburg. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. And we’re in the food and wine business, and obviously that had a lot to do with it too.
How does the region inspire your cooking?
Obviously it’s one of the most spectacular growing areas that you could ever find. And of course there’s the influence from wine and the vintners. I hate the cliché of farm to table any more because it’s so beaten to death, but this is truly where it lives. At Dry Creek Kitchen and Burritt Tavern, people do truly come to the back door with produce and foraged mushrooms and you name it. Everybody talks about it, but where it actually happens, that’s a different thing.
Your career started in New York City. How is the Bay Area food world different?
I like the fact that San Francisco is a small town in a lot of ways. The food community is very tight knit. I like being part of it. Here there’s a lot more emphasis on simplicity—working with great product, not over dressing it, things like that.
How are your Bay Area restaurants unique from your restaurants in other cities?
Every restaurant we have is unique. We have four steakhouses, and even they are unique to where they are geographically and to the client base that we play to. In DC we’re right across the line from the capital, it’s very politically charged. In New York City we’re smack in the middle of Manhattan. Dry Creek Kitchen is very specific to not only Sonoma but to Northern Sonoma. I really want that restaurant to give you a sense of place. We only sell Sonoma county wines. We deal with all the local farmers and growers that literally provide just to us. We pride ourselves in growing these producers and helping them become successful too.
Burritt Tavern is my interpretation of a modern American tavern, relaxed with wood floors and marble top tables, not a formal place, yet the mechanics need to be really good. Burritt Room is a great cocktail bar, very inviting with live jazz. What really excites me about being right off Union Square is attracting local guests and hotel guests and travelers. That mix really makes for a dynamic bar and restaurant experience. Whenever a restaurant in a hotel attracts locals, that’s a great thing because hotel guests want to be with locals.
How would you describe the Burritt Room + Tavern?
I wanted to make Burritt Room + Tavern fit really well with our hotel, a very boutique experience, not a five-star, plush kind of thing, but a very friendly, welcoming great design kind of hotel. We just launched the Burritt Table, which is a customized dining experience at our 12-seat high-top table. Everything about it’s house-made. We have a gal who’s making handmade plates for each dish that we do. The linens are handmade. The flatware is sourced from local flea markets. Everything about it, including of course the food and the cocktail or wine parings, is local and representative of the Bay Area. Even the table itself is made locally, along with the chairs. That just extends the idea that the Burritt Tavern is really about this neat little corner of Union Square.
Where are some of your favorite spots to eat in the city?
Everything from the restaurants of great chefs like Michael Mina to Hog Island Oyster in the Ferry Building, which is more casual, but really, really good. I love what Craig Stoll does at Delfina, obviously, both the restaurant and the pizzeria, and of course Locanda. I was just at Cotogna. It was fantastic, and I love Quince. Michael Tusk does a great job.
What’s the best thing you’ve eaten here recently?
I was pretty amazed with what Martin Yan called a mu shu pork taco at M.Y. China in Westfield Centre.
What advice do you have for visitors?
Find somebody who knows the city. One thing about San Francisco is that some of the great restaurants and bars that you don’t want to miss are really hidden if you’re not in the know. Ask a restaurateur or someone in the business where to go. We try to do that with the hotel guests at the Mystic, guide them to places they might not have known about or that aren’t so famous.
What’s an example of a great spot that visitors might overlook?
I love Bar Agricole. Whenever I’m there I feel like, wow this is a cool, hidden place. It’s always busy, so obviously it’s not hidden to a lot of people.
You have four boys. Where do they like to eat?
My kids’ favorite restaurant is Boulevard. Nancy [Oakes] is a great friend. Whenever it’s someone’s birthday or we’re in San Francisco, they’re like, “Oh, let’s go to Boulevard.” They’ve been going there since they were small, and now they’re big dining people.
What San Francisco restaurants are on your list to try?
Hundreds. I get around, but not enough. I still haven’t been to State Bird [Provisions]. Gotta go. I haven’t been Nopa. It’s been on my list for a while. I was just talking to Michael [Mina], so I want to go to Pabu, his new place with Ken [Tominaga]. Ken’s a good friend. I go to his sushi place in Rohnert Park, it’s right up here in Sonoma. Fabulous.
Where do you go for a drink?
Burritt Room is really my favorite. I like to sneak into town and just have a drink at the bar before anyone knows I’m there. I mostly drink wine, but every once in awhile I’ll have a cocktail. And they’re usually rye-based drinks, dark liquors, bourbon sometimes. But I like to try new things. That’s the one thing about the Burritt Room—the creativity is amazing. Guys and gals spend so much time creating different tinctures and bitters and extractions, and then putting such emphasis on even how the shape of the ice affects a drink. It’s the way it should be. If you’re going to drink a cocktail, it should be an amazing cocktail.
Any tips for travelers to San Francisco?
People should always go to the Ferry Building, take a trip out to Alcatraz, go up to North Beach. That’s the cool thing about San Francisco, you can hit a lot of places pretty quickly.
What’s your favorite part of the city?
Down by the waterfront. It’s great that it’s come back to being so vibrant with so much going on there.
Any tips for the home cook?
Don’t cook at home. Eat in restaurants. I’m in the restaurant business! But when people cook at home, it should really be taking amazing ingredients and keeping it simple. Leave the complicated stuff to us. Then you have all those dishes to do... Who wants that?
How often do you travel?
Way too much. Usually it’s for work. I travel pretty much every week. It’s usually East Coast-West Coast, with stops in between.
MY PERFECT SAN FRANCISCO DAY
I would go up to North Beach, maybe have coffee somewhere. Then do a little walking tour in that area.
Go on an early Alcatraz tour. People go out there and spend a lot of time, but I think an hour is plenty.
Come back, have a few oysters at Hog Island [Oyster Co.] or a bowl of chowder, or both. It’s a great lunch spot. I like to wander around the Ferry Building Marketplace. I always end up buying some chocolate at Recchiuti or some wine… usually more than that.
Have a cocktail somewhere high up. Some rooftop situation. Maybe Top of the Mark. They have that Old World thing going on.
Dinner at Boulevard. It’s established, Nancy [Oakes] is great, the team’s great. Then stop for a nightcap at the Burritt Room because it gets cranking around midnight.