Dear fellow diners, can you remember, not so many months ago, when we were fully locked down and the light at the end of the week tunnel was — takeout? The world was upside down, but this city still loves to eat, and San Franciscans became obsessed with chasing down cool, creative takeout items during the pandemic. Chefs with no alternatives rose to the occasion, coming up with many inspiring ways to put food into bags. Do you remember the chirashi bowls, swimming with finely sliced fatty tuna? How about those bento boxes, mini chicken skewers racked in a row? The whimsical pastry boxes, the baby bottle cocktails, the over-the-top trays? That fried chicken sandwich — claw still attached! — that reached out and seized the collective conscious of a city craving comfort, never freeing us from its grasp?
Well, the time has come to report some good and bad news: With dining rooms reopening, chefs are clearing out the takeout containers, which is wonderful, in that they get to return to their preferred service style. But for diners, that means yet another adjustment, after a year of adjustments, and maybe a touch of takeout anxiety. (It could be worse than contemplating real pants and going to the office.) Are you quite ready? Sorry, but you should know:
Farmhouse Kitchen is officially retiring the Little Lao takeout platter. Rintaro has already served the last of its beautiful bento boxes. Mercifully, the fried chicken sandwich with the claw has taken on a life of its own, and Birdsong will be opening a fast-casual spinoff in its honor. But when it comes to all of the hottest takeout items we clung to throughout the pandemic, other fates remain unknown.
The Farmhouse Little Lao Set? Ending June 15
Farmhouse Kitchen had the biggest social media sensation to hit the Bay Area during the pandemic: Their Little Lao Set is an over-the-top tray filled with noodles, fried rice, fried chicken, curry sauce, fresh rolls, samosas, and the works, generously feeding two parents and a kid for $70. Farmhouse says that to date, they have served 100,000 sets, but with the city reopening, they plan to end the Little Lao Set on June 15, when the state of California fully reopens. Chef Kasem Saengsawang says they created the Little Lao Set as a special pandemic treat to cheer people up at home, but given the high food and labor costs, they can’t keep it forever. However, the Son & Garden tea party will still be available for takeout, as well as a robust menu.
The Rintaro Beautiful Bento Boxes? Already Gone
Chef Sylvan Mishima Brackett had a bento box catering business before opening to Rintaro izakaya, so the day the city locked down, he walked out of the kitchen, bought a burner cell phone to take orders, dug a hundred bamboo boxes and soy sauce packets out of storage, and got to work. His beautiful bento boxes have been selling out ever since, as many as the team can make. “I was a little surprised, maybe last June or July, when one day we made as much on a Friday as the previous year,” says Brackett. “It only happened like three times, but it was shocking and great. It got crazy to keep up with demand.”
He believes the appeal was the presentation: He refused to use flimsy cardboard clamshells and went straight to nice wooden boxes, and of course Rintaro has always had meticulously plated food, with paper-thin sliced cabbage. But despite the success, Brackett says “it feels like a party” to go back to the energy of indoor dining, and he quietly wound down the bento boxes on April 25, although they may come back on rare occasion, if they get in some beautiful fish, and if he feels like sliding it onto social media. This chef was never going to outsource to a ghost kitchen.
The Birdsong Fried Chicken Sandwich? It Will Claw Back
Birdsong seized the imagination of diners when it debuted a fried chicken sandwich with the claw still intact, which has taken on a life of its own. Chef Christopher Bleidorn says chickens were always integral but invisible on the fine-dining menu, which focuses on shellfish, but when the crisis hit, they had a walk-in full of chickens, heads and feet still on, to make the richest stocks and sauces. The chef thought their regulars might be intrigued by a sandwich with a claw. “Everyone sees the claw and takes photos … ” he says. “But this is the thing — you shouldn’t be scared of a sandwich with a claw. You should be scared of a sandwich without a claw,” referring to cheap chicken, raised inhumanely. But he never expected it to take off. The sandwich has since been named “Claude the claw,” and he’s made the rounds on national media, even appearing on SNL.
Claude is taking a break at the moment, while Birdsong reopens for indoor dining. But on the wings of this success, Bleidorn confirmed he is planning on officially opening Birdbox as a fast-casual spinoff and he’s eyeing a beautiful brick building near the ballpark in SoMa. He hopes to ink the deal shortly and open at the end of 2021 or beginning of 2022. In addition to the specialty sandwich, the plan is really to do all kinds of fried chicken boxes, featuring whole chickens, chicken parts, sandwiches, pot pies, and maybe even the occasional fried quail.
The Hina Yakitori 20-Buck Chicken Boxes? They Might Come Back
Other restaurants are pausing popular takeout items, making promises about bringing them back, but staying secretive on the details. Hina Yakitori, the omakase-style counter that specializes in chicken skewers, served up hot takeout with their bento boxes, which were a steal at only 20 bucks, for a gorgeously skewered and arranged chicken box. Hina Yakitori reopened their counter for sit-down dining on May 18, putting a hold on the Torima bento boxes. But the restaurant has set up a separate website and social media account. A rep for the restaurant said “while we envision a return, we don’t have a location or a timeline at this point.” So stay tuned.
The Fatty Tuna and Inari Pockets from the Shota? They Might Come Back
The Shota, that luxe omakase counter downtown, had a takeout hit when it introduced Yubu by the Shota, filling beautiful boxes with fatty tuna donburi and cute inari pockets stuffed with crab and mushrooms. They say the takeout operation “temporarily” shut down on April 30, in preparation for reopening indoor dining on May 13. However, Yubu by the Shota is still active as a separate Instagram account, so it might be worth keeping an eye on it.
Those Fancy Fine Dining Meal Kits from Lazy Bear? Yeah Gone
Remember those fancy fine dining takeout experiences, with many courses and drink pairings, to sear and plate at home? They were once the takeout that pandemic birthdays and anniversaries were made of, but they may not be long for this reopening world. Lazy Bear has wound down their Camp Commissary walk-up window, fancy meal kits, and cocktail bottles. At the time of writing, the restaurant is offering indoor and outdoor reservations starting at $245 per person.
The Philly-Style Hoagies from Palm City? Still Going Strong
Big sandwiches were a big trend to come out of the pandemic, like the sizeable Philly-style hoagies from Palm City Wines, loaded with mortadella and dripping with spicy mayo. Palm City opened in April 2020, as a wine shop with a few food offerings, but the pandemic made it a sandwich destination. What now? Will they keep making hoagies? Are they tempted to swing back to an original concept? Co-owner Dennis Cantwell says the hoagies are still going strong, although they may become slightly smaller and cheaper (as opposed to “the size of your forearm,” his description), as the restaurant finally pulls out a few tables and chairs, and prepares to ease into indoor and sidewalk seating in the next couple of weeks.
That Extra Cheesy Burger from Nightbird? It Might Pop Back Up
Nightbird fine-dining restaurant flipped to takeout with their Nightburger, a “super classic” burger with double patties, lots of cheese, 138 sauce, and pickles on the side (don’t forget the waffle fries). Chef Kim Alter says it’s last call this weekend and next, so get those final orders in before Sunday, June 6. However, the restaurant says they might bring it back as a pop-up once a month, to “satisfy burger cravings.”
That Unusual Pastry Box from Drool? It’s Still Selling Out
Bakery boxes were also an enduring trend during the pandemic, which appears to have lasting appeal. Star pastry chef Nick Muncy, formerly of fine-dining kitchens, is still selling out every weekend and continuing his solo project. He’s currently revamping the menu for Drool, so expect a fresh set of highly unusual pastries to debut shortly. The online orders drop on Mondays, and the boxes are available for weekend pickup and local delivery.
Wait, What About Bottled Cocktails? Well, That’s Up to California
For now, cocktail bars like Horsefeather do seem to be continuing with their takeout cocktail programs, so never fear, you can still get a 4-pack of baby bottle cocktails, complete with the flying pony label, and a side of duck fat fries. But their future is in the hands of the state of California. Cocktails to go were supposed to be temporary, but there’s a proposal to make them permanent. Senator Bill Dodd in Napa proposed State Bill 398, which has already been approved by the State Senate, is now up for a vote in the State Assembly, at which point it will move to Governor Gavin Newsom for approval. Let’s not forget, our governor owns several bars in San Francisco, so here’s hoping that he’s sympathetic. Stay tuned for takeout cocktail updates.