An Everlasting Dream: How Patty Unterman Keeps Her Vision Alive After 38 Years

patty unterman hayes street grill
Patty Unterman of Hayes Street Grill. Photo: Alanna Hale

On a crisp early morning in December, Patty Unterman is ordering fish over the phone in the back of her seminal restaurant, Hayes Street Grill. A few pounds of Georgia white shrimp, Dungeness crab, scallops, oysters. She’s awash in a flurry of scribbled notes—ideas, changes to yesterday’s menu, a shopping list for the market. That she’s already this deep into things at 8:30 a.m. tells me she’s either been here for a while or that she moves at a preternatural pace. Soon enough, she’s tearing up and down the stairs between the kitchen and the basement like a silver-haired gazelle, leaving me lumbering like a hippo in her shadow. I’ve got my answer.

This lightening sprint is Unterman’s menu writing ritual, springing between the kitchen and the basement office. On one trip, she rips into a fresh grapefruit to see if it might be right for a salad. It’s sweet, perfect. On another, she checks on the satsuma sorbet. One batch is too icy, but the other’s fine. And on it goes for nearly every single item on the menu. Breathlessly, I wonder if it might be more efficient to save up a few questions at a time, but suggesting an easier way to a spring loaded person like Patty Unterman seems beside the point.

This glancing view of Unterman’s rhythm let me in on something I’d learn to be true over the course of that day: Patty Unterman waits for no one. And from what I can gather, she never has.

She didn’t wait to start her own restaurant at 25 years old with no culinary or business training to speak of. Or to start her second restaurant a few years later, opened the doors the same year the San Francisco Chronicle hired her on as their first food critic. She spent the early years in that role inventing the form, and all 15 years shifting the spotlight on to local holes in the wall and food she loved. Then she moved on to The Examiner, and spent the next 20 years there. She cofounded the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market with Sibella Kraus, changing the way that San Francisco restaurants bought their food and from whom. All of this to say, food in San Francisco is what it is in part because of Patty Unterman.

I’ve come to find out what keeps the grill ticking after 38 years. I imagined that adaptation would have something to do with it (isn’t that how things survive?), but by all appearances, Hayes Street Grill hasn’t changed much at all since the day it started in 1979.

To start, tickets are still written out by hand. The accounting? Analog. The only fancy machine in the place is an Apple computer from a godforsaken era. When I ask what year it’s from, Unterman asks me back, “what year did computers start?”

Of the long list of things that haven’t changed, the staff is  most notable. In a city where restaurants have more and more trouble staffing themselves—the rising rent partly to blame—the fact that Hayes Street Grill has kept so many of its staff for decades, from both front and back-of-the-house, makes the restaurant a glittering anomaly.

The backbone of the kitchen is Mama Lin, whose been with the restaurant since the day Unterman took over the lease.

Lin lives above the Grill, and when Unterman moved in downstairs, Lin told her she wanted to work, and that was that. Unterman didn’t know anything about Lin’s cooking experience, and she only spoke Vietnamese at the time, but something affirmative in her gesture told Unterman she knew she could do it. At 80 years old, she’s still the one holding things together.

The way Unterman describes it, Mama Lin fills in all the cracks. She makes the crab cakes, soups, tomato sauce, preps the mise en place, and all the invisible minutiae that no one sees but everyone knows make the menu work. The real magic of Mama Lin, though, is in her instincts.

“Lin can taste something once, smell it, and know how to make it. It’s remarkable,” says Unterman.

hayes street grill gourmet magazine
Above: Hayes Street Grill was reviewed in the June 1985 issue of Gourmet.

Crab cakes were priority that morning and I could only edge in a few questions about Lin’s recipe (“lots of chives!”), and by the time I rounded back to Lin, who also slipped around the corners of the kitchen so quickly that I eventually gave up trying to follow her, there were three sauces warming on the stove, potatoes boiling, and pies coming out of the fridge, seemingly all at once.

Executive chef Adriano Yerena is another loyal fixture in the kitchen. He met Unterman years ago, selling her berries from his family’s farm—Yerena Farms—at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. He was in middle school back then, but years later, after he’d graduated from culinary school, Unterman took him on as an intern and he’s been a stalwart ever since (with the exception of a few years he spent trying out his own restaurant concept). He’ll be leaving the restaurant soon to take on a larger role in his family’s farm, Yerena Farms, but he said he’ll never be too far away.

“Patty is my mentor. Of course I’m always going to be here if she needs me,” he says.

John Bissell, has also been around since the very beginning and has held just about every front of house job there is.

“At first it was just a job, as a busboy. But I always really believed in the food. There was this huge hands-on quality to it, and here I am. It’s been 38 years,” he says.

Why so many have stayed so long, Unterman doesn’t exactly know. But she has a guess. It’s got something to do with the kind of intimacy that arises after years of sharing a tight space, of seeing each other through lunch rush after lunch rush, of learning the ins and outs of each other’s lives after sharing so much time together. It’s a snowball kind of thing: once you’re kind of part of the family, you’re never not part of the family.

“Sometimes we hate each other, but we always have each other’s backs,” says Adriano.

And for Unterman, it comes down to care. “I feel very dedicated to my workers. I try to be fair and help everyone. The people we employ have houses. We’ve been lucky that we’ve been able to pay people well for so long that they can have a life here.”

The timing she’s talking about seems key. I’ve worked in restaurants where the lifestyle wove tight, comfortable bonds between us all, but rarely did anyone stick around for more than five years. Or even two. But Hayes Street Grill hired its staff in the days when waiting tables could be a steady full time job that paid for a comfortable life in San Francisco. And once you’re in that groove, why leave?

Hayes Street Grill opened its doors when Hayes Valley was what Unterman calls a “war zone.” The bygone highway that stretched over Hayes Street divided the neighborhood in two.

“Everything on this side,” she says, gesturing west, “was marginally okay. Everything on the other side was tough.” There was a big and reliable heroine operation on the corner of Gough and Ivy, and she says gunfire wasn’t rare. At one busy evening, a man who’d just been shot fell in through the front door, and the co-owner of the Grill, Dick Sander, carried him to the back of the kitchen and ripped some tablecloth to tie off his leg.

But the construction of Davies Symphony Hall was underway, and Unterman knew someone had to feed those concertgoers. Luckily, she had a few years experience under her belt running a very tiny and very humble little spot called Beggar’s Banquet in Berkeley.

It’s worth noting that Patty Unterman’s pedigree is miles away from what you’d expect for the proprietor of one of San Francisco’s oldest, most beloved and most successful restaurants. She opened her first and only restaurant before the Grill right out of journalism school with no culinary training beyond a few classes in the home of renowned French cook, Josephine Arnaldo. Flanked by Julia Child’s cooking bibles and her college roommate who, in her words, “didn’t know how to fry and egg but was willing to jump right in,” Unterman took over the lease on an eight-table hole in the wall on the corner of Dwight and Sacramento. I live on this corner, and it took me two years to even notice that there was anything at all in the slice of space she told me her restaurant used to be.

The kitchen of Beggar’s Banquet was the size of a closet, complete with a 4-burner stove and oven, a regular refrigerator, a double sink and a teeny-tiny space next to the stove for chopping.

“It was like cooking at home except that there were eight tables,” says Unterman.

The students poured in. Everyday, she and her crew of hired friends wrote three dishes on a chalkboard. The best one? Mousseline of sole, a Julia classic. Fish ground up with egg whites, salt and pepper, a little nutmeg. Then sautéed and covered in duxelles and beurre blanc. It was the star dish.

I might just be soured by how difficult it is for a restaurant these days, but it struck me as pretty brazen to just, you know, start a restaurant. Especially with a plan that doesn’t look much like a plan at all.

But Unterman has little interest in how things are supposed to be done, or in what order.

“I had Julia Child, I had the books, I’d eaten, and I knew what I wanted.”

Somewhere in her characteristic, straightforward resolve is a force that obliterates doubt. When Patty Unterman sets her sights on something, the second guesses seem to dissolve. Perhaps it’s because her ideas are all about manifesting more good food, and her love of good food is too forceful to get waylaid by doubt. Then again, opening a restaurant in 1979 is not like opening a restaurant in 2017. All you needed, apparently, was a roommate looking for a job, cookbooks, and a good idea. Oh, and a little bit of money.

Unterman’s love of food started early, bred into her bones by a discriminating family, and sealed there by an Alice in Wonderland–like awakening while eating her way through France, Italy, and Spain.

“I couldn’t believe how great the food was,” she says.

She had a grandmother who espoused local food values, and she grew up eating peaches, berries, and tomatoes at the family’s summer house in Michigan City. “Once you grow up tasting that, it’s hard to go back.”

It’s still this love that energizes her, and of all the things I ask, the question thatenlivens her the most is “what are you cooking at home these days?”

“Soups!” she says. “Delicious soups.” And inward we fall into the sensual universe of Patty Unterman’s kitchen. Stewing a turkey carcass for hours to make stock, chopping vegetables to just the same size, and cooking them to the very edge of tenderness. And then, she tells me all about the merits of simmering parmesan rind in the stock.

“Give it no less than two hours and it transforms into an entirely different food,” she says, wistful. “Go home and do it. Now.”

This is the same kind of simple sensibility that underlies the food at Hayes Street Grill. Grilled shrimp on greens with crema. Seared scallops. A good flank steak. Dungeness with avocado. There is nothing really revelatory about the menu, instead, the food is hearty, relaxed, and reliable.

But the restaurant never set out to be thrilling or cutting-edge. It was conceived in Berkeley, in the years that launched Chez Panisse and a new appreciation for simple good food from close to home. The Grill was born of good old 70s-era  ideals like sharing and loving. Hayes Street Grill would much rather set you up with the same nice steak year after year than make it onto this month’s heat map. For co-owner Dick Sander, overwrought dinners are a thing of the past. After a long life of eating his way around some of the best restaurants in the world, he’s relaxed into his taste for the rustic and familiar.

“If I never eat another 15-course tasting menu in my life, I’ll be fine. I would choose a good roast chicken any day,” he says.

Unterman’s second great love is travel, which is also to say, eating. The idea for the Grill came about when she was sitting on a beach in Yugoslavia with Sander. Eating grilled shrimp along the Adriatic, she fell in love.

“It was such a beautiful way to eat. The open fire, the fresh fish, fresh herbs, fresh vegetables. I said, we’re gonna do something like that. This is what I want to eat.”

She came home and started plotting.

She partnered with three friends from Beggar’s to start the grill. There was Robert Flaherty, a lawyer who hated law and came to the restaurant every night after work to wait tables, which he loved. And there were Anne Powning, a friend of Unterman’s who’d learned to cook from her French mother, and Dick Sander, her current partner, the former boyfriend of one of Unterman’s longtime waitresses.

hayes street grill staff
Above: We gathered a few of the long-time crew at Hayes Street Grill for a group photo: Carlo Togni, Tom Henderson, Fred Darr, Rob Zaborny, Patricia Unterman, Michael Hawley, John Bissell.

“Never in a million years did I think I’d be a food person,” he says. But the Berkeley scene caught up with him, with all of its good wine and transcendent produce and artful cooking, and he was more or less done for, “forty years later and it’s given me a good life.”

Right away, Unterman laid down the principles for the new restaurant: good, sustainable, and fresh fish. No compromises. She wanted a menu that could be cooked quickly, nothing pre-prepared, that would sit well before a performance. She took some inspiration from other classic grills around the city, and committed to sourcing better fish, more responsibly.

When the symphony hall opened, the Grill was the only game in town, and it hit the spot. The neighborhood has since transformed into a wealth of options, but the Grill hasn’t slowed. It shows its age with the dozens of signed, framed headshots of singers, dancers and performers of all kinds through the decades that line the restaurant walls. The carpet is a deep clubhouse green. Something about the floral banquette upholstery and glass dividers harken to earlier decades. But just before 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, a stretch limo empties a matinée crowd onto the doorstep and half an hour later the place is packed.

The trick to succeeding, says Unterman, is to identify a need. Find an underserved neighborhood and open there. Serve communities that no one else is serving.

It starts to become clear, though, that having a restaurant is as much about serving her own deep desires. She credits the longevity of the Grill to having opened at the right time and place with the right food and little competition, but her own staying power comes from something else.

“Truthfully it fills a need for me, and I couldn’t do anything that didn’t fill a need for me.”

Becoming a restaurant critic allowed her to share what she loved and turn people onto delicious things, which sounds a lot like what owning a restaurant is all about. When she started working with the Chronicle, she says, there was no precedent to rely on. She made up the form, and held to a rigorous code of ethics. She looked up to Caroline Bates at Gourmet magazine, who reviewed restaurants all over the country.

“I thought she was very fair. What I always liked is that she tried to teach you something about what was going on there. About the food and the way it was done. And she did it with much love and a little instruction, and it was a great form. So I thought, that’s what I want to do. I want to turn people onto stuff that I love.”

What she did love is what she calls ethnic food. She found small Vietnamese, Thai, and Chinese places. She researched, and constantly flew abroad to eat at the source.

“I always thought that was important, and luckily, the Chron went along with it,” she says.

This struck me as a far cry from the state of criticism in San Francisco these days. To start, the idea that a newspaper could fund trips abroad for research? Now that’s a dream. I took over a quarter of Unterman’s old role at the Examiner after her immediate successor, Jesse Hirsch, left. And it wasn’t long before the newspaper scrapped all four of us they’d hired in his place because of budget cuts.

Secondly, the hegemonic rule of a single critic in San Francisco these days has left me feeling nostalgic for a voice whose taste and budget is more aligned with my own. I ask Unterman what she thinks of the state of criticism these days, prodding her, maybe a little self-indulgently to criticize the critic herself, but she’s gentle.

“I think it’s about to change. I mean, how long can you go? I don’t know. The whole thing has changed. The Internet has practically supplanted everything, to tell you the truth. We have easy access to every magazine, Eater—which I love—and all these great writers.”

But her ideas about what a critic should be hasn’t changed. All in all, it’s a matter of integrity, understanding, and experience.

“The mission of a critic is to have a really deep, intelligent understanding of food and how food is cooked. That includes study, hands-on experience, and whatnot. And then, that person has to be relatively unprejudiced. I really think the most important thing is the food itself. All the other stuff is important, especially I suppose if you’re paying a billion dollars for a meal, but if something is really tasty, I don’t really care if the waiter forgets something. I’m here for the food.”

At the time, there were a lot of questions about whether it was ethical for someone to own a restaurant and review others. Did that make her biased? Some would say so. But Unterman says she always tried to be fair, and points to the New York Times: “Why do you think they hire novelists to review novels?”

We need look no further than the subjects of her reviews themselves. Generally, they were not her competition. She was looking for new, interesting, small places that in her words, deserved to be noticed.

“I think a good critic should make people hungry for the good stuff. To be able to write in a way that shows the joy of eating something really tasty. I think that’s so important, because that’s the most fun,” she says.

I realize at some point that for Unterman, food and writing has always been about making pleasure more accessible. There are many ways to love food: eating, cooking, writing, peeling into it with every sense you have. A great part of Unterman’s loving style is giving it to others. Making deliciousness available to pleasure seekers like her.

This thought got a little complicated when our conversation inevitably turned to sexism. She had been in the food world for upwards of 40 years, so I had to ask, surely she’d experienced some misogyny in the kitchen?

“I’ve always been the boss,” she says. By which she means, no.

Inevitably, the subject of harassment floats into view—Mario Batali in particular—but what’s immediately clear in how much or how little either of us sympathizes with the accused men is the vast cultural gap between my generation of food professionals and Patty Unterman’s. She comes from a less regulated time, on the tail end of the free love movement. She and Sander wax on with fond memories  of how “open” everyone was back then, chefs included.

“There was a lot of drinking, a lot of drugs, a lot of staying out late in the kitchen. And when you’re partying with everyone like that you do get very close. In the beginning days of this restaurant we all went out every night. Stars was going, and such an exciting time,” says Sander.

It sounds romantic and I imagine it was, sharing French wine in the kitchen, eating the most exciting food in the country night after night, staying out until three and rising early to open the restaurant because food is all you want to do. Beggar’s Banquet wasn’t about getting a Zagat sticker. It was about doing something with friends, making food that literally turned them on. It was, in a simple sense, about having a good time, although  it’s hard to believe that “freedom to be” never crossed paths in confusing ways with personal-boundary violations. I could see how problematic, non-consensual,  interactions could be conflated with the consensual, shared sensuality surrounding a good meal with good wine, with good fun, and how that conflation might inspire someone to sympathize with an effusive, hedonistic personality like Mario Batali. Especially if he’s a friend. .

And yet, things are different when power’s involved. And we agree that it’s complicated. But what I can see through the complexity of it all is that Patty Unterman is abundant love, incarnate. She has always had the same radiant, kilowatt smile and, I imagine, the buoyant joyfulness she still exudes now. Food has always been sensual to Patty Unterman. And cooking is simply a way of loving.

Before she leaves to get on a plane to Mexico, someone brings her a snow goose and two mallards. The snow geese aren’t the best to eat, and they’ll have to learn to cook it in the kitchen. As she shows me the mallards, she coos, holding their heads next to each other, male and a female.

“They mate for life, you know. I’ll bet these were a pair,” she says, stroking their heads with some reverence.

Whatever happens to Hayes Street Grill, as long as Patty Unterman is around, there will be love.

hayes street grill menu 1987
Below: Hand-written menu from January 30, 1987. Note the broad assortment of fresh seafood on the menu!

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An Everlasting Dream was originally published in the Winter issue © 2018 Edible San Francisco. Photos © 2016 Alanna Hale.