When Tyler Florence’s Wayfare Tavern opened in 2010, it took off like the New Horizons spacecraft. You’d see Florence in the kitchen, on the floor getting his photo taken with fans, and tweeting to his half a million followers. It was a feeding frenzy.
Early on it seemed as if the robust crowds were more than the kitchen could handle, especially with the private rooms upstairs which tax the kitchen even today.
Florence, who made his name on the Food Network and has a bold, layered style, was like a child whose eyes are too big for his stomach; the preparations were too ambitious and complex for the size of the kitchen and the volume of diners, as many as 175 at a time.
Even today it’s difficult to secure a reservation. The crowds continue to come and Florence’s career continues to blossom, with his baby food line, cookbooks, wines in Target, filming on several new television shows and other development projects. He and his wife, Tolan Florence, also own a kitchenware shop, a home decor boutique and El Paseo restaurant in Mill Valley.
I’ve eaten at Wayfare several times over the past four years, and each time it was very good but inconsistent. However, two recent visits have shown that the food seems to have found its niche.
Last summer, Florence hired Joey Elenterio, who was a Chronicle Rising Star when he was at Chez TJ in Mountain View. The food still has Florence’s bold, masculine style, and there are still minor glitches – cold popovers on one visit and an underdressed Green Goddess salad on another – but the highs more than make up for some of these minor issues.
A stunning dish
The best example is the fried oysters ($12). It’s not easy to get a shatter-when-bitten fry and keep the seafood moist, but the Wayfare kitchen does that plus adds an innovative twist. The oysters and fried cauliflower florets are lined up on a thick smear of tartar sauce made from cauliflower puree, and topped with shavings that resemble slices of white coral. It’s a spectacular rendition.
Then there’s the take on the classic Lipton’s onion soup dip ($14). A whole onion is roasted to become a bowl for the pureed creme fraiche/onion mixture that’s topped with caviar and surrounded by potato chips.
Maybe that’s a clue about what to order – anything fried, including one of the restaurant’s best-sellers: fried chicken ($24). It’s cooked sous vide style, brined in buttermilk, coated in seasoned flour and fried. After plating, it’s sprinkled with fried herbs – unfortunately, too many shards of rosemary when I ordered it, but the chicken stood on its own.
Another brilliant dish is seared octopus ($15) plated with a charred scallion hollandaise, cipollini onions and a slightly chunky linguica puree. On a subsequent visit, I ordered the octopus again, and it was even better.
I also loved the braised short rib ($28), a rustic dish that belies its composed presentation. The perfect rectangle of a nearly black chunk is fork-tender and full-flavored, accompanied by red cabbage, roasted cipollini onions and Thumbelina carrots.
Sturgeon ($26) is equally well manicured, surrounded by a cream sauce with chunks of carrots and other root vegetables.
I’ll put the chocolate cream pie ($10) in my dessert hall of fame. I thought it was going to be too much – the crust holds a layer of devil’s food cake, pudding, salted caramel ganache and whipped cream – yet it all comes together flawlessly.
I was also enamored with the huge doughnuts ($10) served with three sauces. However, I can’t say the same for the winter citrus cheesecake ($10), with a liquefied filling in a meringue shell shaped like a Hershey’s kiss. It looked beautiful, centered on a pool of citrus juice, but the egg whites had the texture of granulated sugar.
A masculine edge
The generous portions and the style of food mirror the feel of the interior – masculine and American – with stuffed animal heads on the walls and pewter service plates on the tables.
At both lunch and dinner, Tony Marcell, the director of operations, is generally on the floor, keeping everything running smoothly. It’s not easy with the number of seats and the doorway crowded with people waiting for tables, but the staff knows its way around service.
In four years, Wayfare Tavern has matured nicely and Florence has proven himself up to the task of running a complex restaurant. His celebrity may bring diners in the door, but the staff and the food keep them coming back.
558 Sacramento St. (near Sansome Street), San Francisco
(415) 772-9060. www.wayfaretavern.com
Lunch and dinner 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, until 10 p.m. Sunday. Full bar. 4% S.F. surcharge. Reservations and credit cards accepted. Valet parking $10 at dinner.
FOUR STARS = Extraordinary; THREE STARS = Excellent; TWO STARS = Good; ONE STAR = Fair; NO STARS = Poor
$ = Inexpensive: entrees $10 and under; $$ = Moderate: $11-$17; $$$ = Expensive: $18-$24; $$$$ = Very Expensive: more than $25
ONE BELL = Pleasantly quiet (less than 65 decibels); TWO BELLS = Can talk easily (65-70); THREE BELLS = Talking normally gets difficult (70-75); FOUR BELLS = Can talk only in raised voices (75-80); BOMB = Too noisy for normal conversation (80+)
Prices are based on main courses. When entrees fall between these categories, the prices of appetizers help determine the dollar ratings. Chronicle critics make every attempt to remain anonymous. All meals are paid for by The Chronicle. Star ratings are based on a minimum of three visits. Ratings are updated continually based on at least one revisit.
Reviewers: Michael Bauer (M.B.), Nicholas Boer (N.B.), Mandy Erickson (M.E.), Amanda Gold (A.G.), Janny Hu (J.H.), Allen Matthews (A.M.) and Carey Sweet (C.S.)
Michael Bauer is The San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic. Find his blog daily at http://inside scoopsf.sfgate.com and his past reviews on www.sfgate.com. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @michaelbauer1