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In its 40th year, vegetarian restaurant pioneer Greens looks ahead

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A cornmeal-crust pizza topped with roasted squash, caramelized onion, Asiago and goat cheese, and pesto. (Nick Czap)

by Nick Czap

Of the six paramitas—or perfections—of practice in Zen Buddhism, the first is generosity. Within the context of Buddhism, there's a curious twist to generosity, because when you consider an act of generosity in light of the interconnectedness of all things, it follows that there is no difference between the giver, the gift, and the receiver.

And while I'm not a Buddhist myself, a recent evening at Greens, on which I felt a particular oneness with the food, leads me to think there may be some truth to the idea.

There was another element at work as well, a longstanding affection for a San Francisco landmark that early on had shaped my perception of just how powerful the experience of eating at a restaurant could be, while demonstrating that vegetarian cuisine was as worthy of respect and reverence as any other.

As a newly minted San Franciscan, my first visit to Greens in the early 1990s was a revelation. A strict vegetarian at the time, my outlook on restaurants of the genre—shaped by leftist food co-op cafes, various Hare Krishna establishments, and the no-longer-extant British chain, Cranks—was correspondingly bleak. Imagine, then, the thrill of that long-ago summer evening in a vast, airy dining room, elegantly furnished and brilliantly illuminated by a Golden Gate sunset, and of food so beautiful, flavorful, and nourishing that it left an herbivore flushed with gratitude, and his omnivorous relatives feeling that they hadn't missed a thing.


In the course of some recent outings to Fort Mason—for art fairs, open studios, and the odd beer-quenched afternoon at Radhaus—it occurred to me that Greens and I were due for a reunion. Coincidentally, Greens, which turns 40 this July, was at a pivotal juncture, having just emerged from a protracted closure, with a new chef in the kitchen.

Looking outside from inside Greens
"When you walk in the door and have that beautiful experience of space, looking out at the bridge and the headlands and the bay, you really do feel transformed," said longtime chef Annie Somerville of Greens' interior. (Nick Czap)

Considering how radical it seemed in the early '90s, one wonders what SF made of Greens when it opened on the site of a former military base in 1979. The restaurant was founded by the San Francisco Zen Center, an organization that encompasses three Soto Zen Buddhist practice communities—at Green Gulch Farm in Marin, City Center in San Francisco, and Tassajara in the Ventana Wilderness. The vegetarian food at Tassajara—which invites members of the public for retreats in spring and summer—was very popular with visitors from the Bay Area, and the community surmised that the same food could attract a following in the city. A restaurant could serve as a place for Zen trainees to work and practice together, and if it succeeded, could help support the Zen Center financially.

Green's executive chef, Annie Somerville, came to the restaurant in 1981 after working in the kitchen at the Zen Center in SF, and as the head cook at Tassajara. "When I came to Greens," she said with a note of amusement, "it was supposed to be just a short stint." She worked alongside the restaurant's first chef, Deborah Madison, who established a culinary tone that continues to this day. "I give credit to Deborah Madison for that—taking produce and turning it into something very beautiful on the plate."

Somerville emphasized that the success of the restaurant also owed much to its location. "A lot of the experience of Greens is not just the food. When you walk in the door and have that beautiful experience of space, looking out at the bridge and the headlands and the bay, you really do feel transformed. At that point, 50 percent of our job is done."

Early last year, Somerville began gradually reducing her involvement in the restaurant's day-to-day operations. "I've worked at Greens for 37 years," she said. "It's very much a part of my life. But I can just say that at some point you know it's time for change. It was time for me to step back, and it was time for the restaurant for me to step back." To that end, in the middle of last year, Greens hired Denise St. Onge, an experienced young chef, as its chef de cuisine. When I met with St. Onge recently, she talked about her personal connection to Greens.

Greens' new chef de cuisine, Denise St. Onge, at Green Gulch Farm in Marin.
Greens' new chef de cuisine, Denise St. Onge, at Green Gulch Farm in Marin. (Nader Khouri)

St. Onge, who is half-Thai, was raised Buddhist and grew up both in Thailand and in the Oakland hills. "My mother was a chef in Oakland, at the Vulcan Cafe," she said, "and my sister and I traveled a lot as kids, and became foodies naturally through that experience. My mom passed away from cancer in 1998, and during that journey with her, we started a vegetarian macrobiotic diet, did a lot of meditation, and came to Greens a lot. It was probably 1995. I always thought it was a really beautiful restaurant and institution, and a very peaceful place."

After studying international relations at SF State, St. Onge decided she wanted to cook. "I started off as a stage at Michael Mina," which at the time was one of only two two-Michelin-star restaurants in the city, "and worked for free until they hired me." In the years that followed, she worked at a number of the city's most highly regarded restaurants, including Gary Danko, SPQR, Prospect, and Atelier Crenn. Greens, as it happened, would prove to be something of a baptism by fire.

On June 20, shortly after St. Onge was hired, a blaze broke out in the kitchen's ventilation system. Greens announced that it would be "closed for a few weeks" to repair the damage. Fire inspectors, however, discovered a number of issues, which led to a decision to replace the entire kitchen, and a closure that would ultimately last four months. The reopening in mid-October, in the midst of a socially conscious investing conference at Fort Mason, was anything but soft. Greens' general manager, Min Kim, described the scenario: "Denise had to execute a full dining room and 26 other private events in three and a half days. After that, we were ready for anything."

On an evening in mid-December, Greens seemed to be fully back in its groove. The only discernible difference was that the dining room looked especially snappy, its new chairs and carpets, and a fresh coat of paint a fringe benefit of the four-month closure. The sun had not quite set, and from our table by the window, my wife and I could just make out the fog-cloaked towers of the bridge and the masts of the sailboats lilting gently in the nearby marina. The mood was serene, the lighting soft, a refreshing respite from the glare of the halogens favored by so many restaurants in an age of social media.

As we took turns nipping into a bowl of almonds that had been tossed in olive oil and sea salt and slow-roasted to a brilliant crunch, I sipped a brisk, bright negroni—a blend of Botanist Islay dry gin, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, and the bitter apéritif liqueur, Gran Classico.

A carrot-ginger soup garnished with a plump falafel.
On a recent evening, dinner began with a carrot-ginger soup garnished with a plump falafel. (Nick Czap)

As a first course, I chose carrot-ginger soup. Delightfully colorful, a rich orange-ocher, it was garnished with a single, plump falafel and some juicy micro greens—radish or arugula, possibly. Warm, sweet, and savory with a subtle gingery kick, it was comforting, fortifying, and invigorating all at once.

We then shared a wonderfully sweet and juicy Warren pear, poached in white wine and mulling spices, charcoal-grilled, and garnished with spicy greens in a tangy vinaigrette and a scattering of toasted hazelnuts. Equally scrumptious was a dish of griddle cakes—gently seared, delicately savory rounds made from a batter of cheddar cauliflower florets, egg yolk, feta cheese, chili flakes, scallions, and the Mexican corn flour masa harina.

For the main, we divvied up a pizza, a handsome pie with a crisp-crumbly crust—made from a mix of cornmeal and ultra-finely-ground 00 flour—topped with roasted squash, caramelized onion, Asiago and goat cheese, and an assertively flavorful pesto made from pine nuts, scallions, Parmigiano-Reggiano, garlic, and olive oil.

Of the five enticing desserts, we chose two: a warm and fragrant apple galette à la house-made butter pecan ice cream; and a spot-on butterscotch pot de crème topped with a delectably crisp and buttery-sweet cacao nib tuile.

If the food felt familiar, and reassuringly so, it's because St. Onge is as keenly interested in where Greens came from as where it's going. "I've been studying the Greens cookbooks," she said, "and looking through all of our files of past menus," studying the influences that Madison first brought to the kitchen, and the way the food had evolved during Somerville's tenure. "I personally have a lot of ideas about where we can grow on the menu, incorporating more vegan options, and also incorporating Zen Buddhist heritage."

Cauliflower griddlecakes.
Cauliflower griddlecakes. (Nick Czap)

Somerville, who still shops for the restaurant at the Ferry Plaza farmers' market and makes herself available for menu ideas and other consultations, expressed a deep trust in St. Onge's instincts. "Denise is much younger than I am, and has worked in a number of great restaurants," she said. "We're lucky to have someone there who has a sense of the place and respects it. We're a time-honored place, and at the same time, people want change. It's good to let things evolve. If a dish clicks, the customers will tell us. And we listen to them."


This article originally appeared on 7x7 Bay Area.

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