If there is a better-known vegetarian restaurant in the world than Greens, I've never heard of it. But that sounds a little like hype, and hype is on cozy terms with falsehood. Greens is also 30 years old this year, and since restaurants often age in dog years, or worse, we are talking about a place that can't ignore the many risks of geriatric life, among them fatigue, complacency, boredom, and a descent into tourist-trappiness. No doubt there are others.
Apart from the fusty, undersized sign above the door, Greens still looks sensational. It helps, surely, that the restaurant was designed around a giant wall of multi-light windows that look directly west, across the Marina to the Golden Gate Bridge. Stepping into the restaurant (from the Fort Mason parking lot, prosaic even by parking-lot standards) is like stepping into a postcard; even the tables away from the windows have an expansive view of sea and sky. (And even the table for four in the small, semi-private room at the south end of the main dining room has a commanding view of the bridge.)
A view can be a mixed blessing. View restaurants are often bad, while vegetarian restaurants can be pointedly austere. Greens incorporates its singular view into a theme of subdued, white-linen elegance that gives no clue to the meatless nature of the food. It is one of those rare places that combines high style and a pedigreed menu with something for everyone, even doubtful omnivores.
Greens' cuisine, in fact, has long seemed to me to have more in common with that of Zuni Café, its exact contemporary, than with the city's other tony vegetarian temples. The grill is skillfully deployed for smokiness, and the rustic cooking of Italy is well-represented on the menu, since so much of Italian cuisine is naturally meatless and produce-driven. But the kitchen takes inspiration and influences from around the world, including Southeast Asia and the American Southwest.
For a quarter-century, my foundational text for vegetarian cooking has been The Greens Cookbook by Deborah Madison. Madison was Greens' opening chef, but she left in the early 1980s and was replaced by Annie Somerville, who still runs the show while having published several Greens-related cookbooks of her own, which I also regularly consult. Given the stability in the kitchen, it's not surprising that the restaurant's cooking style hasn't changed much over the years. In fact, you can still get the fabled black-bean chili, a dish about as old as the place itself and muscley enough to sate most meat-eaters.
But ... how about a pizza to start? In the early 1990s, on my first visit to Greens, I noticed that the menu offered the same Mexican pizza I'd been making from the cookbook. I was prepared to be shamed, but the restaurant's pie turned out to be a disappointment, mainly because of a stinginess (it seemed to me) with the toppings. As a home cook, I applied toppings with abandon, but home cooks don't have to make a profit.
Nonetheless, the gods must somehow have divined my dismay, because a recent corn and grilled onion pizza ($16) was a veritable cornucopia of late-summer bounty: corn kernels, yellow cherry tomatoes as sweet-tart as fruit, plenty of cheese (fontina and grana padano), and blobs of garlicky pesto, all on a nicely blistered crust. It was like waking up on Christmas morning and finding even more presents under the tree than you had tentatively counted the night before. But I am mixing my seasonal imagery. The interval from Labor Day to Thanksgiving could well be the best time to visit Greens, since the kitchen still has access to summer produce even as the delights of autumn (among them peppers and squash) start to trickle in.
Squash sunburst and butternut figured in the fabulous Zuni stew ($14.50), "Zuni" here being a reference to the Indian tribe, not the restaurant.