First Look: Central Kitchen in San Francisco

[Photographs: Wes Rowe]

Central Kitchen is the latest project from chef-partner Thomas McNaughton of the continuously lauded (and packed) Flour + Water. After mastering a brand of rustic, technique-driven Italian cooking at Flour + Water, he's moved on to a concept that he describes as embodying "the terrior of Northern California."

"We want to be a part of the ongoing conversation that is Northern California cuisine," McNaughton told us. "Southern and Northeastern cuisines are much more established. Here, there are a lot of young chefs who want to come out and cook."

McNaughton was one of them. Originally from New Jersey, he planned to come out to San Francisco for a year, but he never left. "I wouldn't want to cook anywhere else."

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Central Kitchen, then, reads like a particularly ardent statement of place and purpose. "So much thought has gone into every single detail," McNaughton told us. "The table tops are made from California oak that we got from down the street. The plates are Heath Ceramics," gesturing around the restaurant's partially covered outdoor patio (with heated concrete, for San Francisco nights). "Again, we're trying to have terroir in everything we do."

Of course, that includes the food, as well. Along with Chef de Cuisine Michael Gaines (most recently at Manresa) and pastry chef Lisa Lu (of Jardiniere), McNaughton has created a menu replete with local producers, showcasing seasonal produce, fish, and whole animals. He balks at recent descriptions of the menu as "meat-centric," emphasizing the diversity of flavors and primary ingredients on both the a la carte and tasting menu options.

California Halibut

"Everything is done with refinement, but with a sense of naturalism," he said, noting that he and the sou chefs go foraging on the coast (they harvest their own sea salt, as well). Honey is being produced on the restaurant's roof, with a soft herb garden and a full greenhouse to come.

The menus—both the a la carte, and the tasting menu—will change daily, reflecting seasonality and availability. The two will never overlap. While McNaughton describes the menu as "more refined" than the rustic style of Flour + Water, he emphasizes the comfortable atmosphere of the restaurant.

"That's Northern California. People want refined food and a casual setting" he said. "They want to wear flip flops and a v-neck. That's what I want to wear out, too." McNaughton cites the patio as "the best seat in the house," though encourages diners to sit inside if they're interested in seeing "the dance of the kitchen." The restaurant's bar is positioned to face the open kitchen as well, making it a prime spot for solo diners.

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Thomas McNaughton, Lisa Lu, and Michael Gaines.

Also new: Salumeria, the daytime lunch operation from McNaughton and team, which also functions as the larder of the restaurant. The outdoor courtyard is open for Salumeria seating during the day; brunch is expected about 6 months in. The Bon Vivant's bar Trick Dog and Humphrey Slocombe's The Parlour will be housed in the building on 20th Street as well.

Ultimately, McNaughton hopes that everything, from the concentrated wine list to the $79 price tag on the tasting menu, will encourage the approachability of his food.

"People still think Flour + Water is a fancy restaurant, and it's hilarious to watch them not know what to do with their pizza," he said laughing. "It's like, relax man! It's just fucking food. It won't bite back!"

Central Kitchen

3000 20th Street, San Francisco CA 94110 (map) 415-826-7004;