St. Vincent and the New Kind of Restaurant Comfort

I ate at St. Vincent again the other night. I'm crazy about the place. Every so often a restaurant—the menu, the vibe—just suits me perfectly, and right now it's St. Vincent, the new place from David Lynch, wine guy (pictured, left, with Chef Bill Niles). Actually, there are three places I love right now: State Bird Provisions on Fillmore in SF, Bäco Mercat in the Old Bank district of downtown LA, and St. Vincent. I feel a pattern coming on, like when punk and Mick Collins came back to Detroit in the 1990s: It's my time.

Here's what they've all got going for them: 1) Great wine and beer lists, every listing a winner, almost all surprising and hard to find; there are more sour ales on St. Vincent's beer menu than in the whole city of Sacramento. 2) A relaxed vibe, not overpopulated with beards and glasses, with servers happy to explain and debate. 3) Small but substantial plates of food in which every ingredient is clearly considered, replaced, considered, decided, and then put on a plate as if it wasn’t. 4) Earth tones and metal chairs.

Except for the earth tones and metal chairs, these things rarely went together before. You could find a great wine list, but it'd be in a fancy restaurant. You could find a great beer list, but they'd just serve french fries. You could find small plates, but you'd go away hungry.

Maybe I’m thinking too much about those earth tones, but it sounds like Portland, where rents are low, expectations are high, and the beer is really good. It also sounds like a natural evolution from the superexpensive, hyperplated '90s, followed by the drown-my-troubles-in-meatloaf '00s. We learned a bit about food from the former, and we learned value and ease from the latter. Plus it stopped seeming like a treat to sit for four hours while runners run and servers declaim.

So we finally got the best of both: thought-out food and drink in a place that feels like fun. The food is top-notch and surprising. I'm not talking about novelty; I'm not a big fan of elaborate chefs' tasting menus with a tiny cube that takes 12 people and a rotary evaporator to prepare. I like to eat when I'm hungry, and I like to not be hungry when I'm done.

But I also like to be delighted, and that's what the food at these restaurants does. Take Chef Bill Niles’s cooking at St. Vincent. The menu itself is California, but the California that’s got people from everywhere living in it. The other night our table had plum-beet soup, summer squash, bone marrow, succotash, and rabbit loin, all with layered, slightly surprising flavors. Even the succotash—with padrón peppers and basil—blew our minds.

So this is what’s great about all three of these places: You can sit in a comfortable room, order beer after crazy beer, dish after crazy dish, and you don't feel captive, or hushed, or held upside down and shaken so that every nickel falls out of your pocket. Restaurants have found a way to offer nourishing, delightful food and drink without the high prices or the high drama. It's not elevated comfort food. It's focused and detailed cooking in a comfort food atmosphere. This is a moment. I love it.

Photo of St. Vincent's David Lynch, left, and Bill Niles, which first appeared in Eater SF, courtesy of photographer Molly DeCoudreaux.

Jane Goldman is the former editor in chief at CHOW.com.