Rare Indulgences

Jeffrey Steen |
Food And Dining

Beneath the baby blue sky of Western California stands our beloved San Francisco—a metropolis awash with the salty scents of the sea, sloping gently down to the azure Bay. It is an undeniable melting pot of cultures, a diverse array of landmarks, and a culinary world that is as adventurous as it is inspiring.

It’s true, of course, that many experiences in San Francisco are remarkable: strolls down the bustling sidewalks of tree-shaded Market Street; afternoons in the rainbow-studded coffee shops of the Castro; rides on the famous orange trolley down to the Embarcadero for a bowl of chowder on the water. Woven throughout this charactered scene is a vibrant culinary energy that pulses in kitchens from Russian Hill to Hunter’s Point. And right in the middle of it all sits the city’s first churrascaria—Espetus.

“We opened our doors in 2003,” Marketing Director Ilana Teles—a veteran of the business, and one of its founding employees—says proudly. While the gaucho tradition of Brazilian churrasco is a far cry from the hustle of San Francisco’s seafood staples, it seemed to offer a much needed cultural layer to the restaurant scene in the city. And sure, everyone knows what a churrascaria is, so it needed no introduction. Right?

Not quite. The tradition of churrasco actually stretches back to the Pampas region of Southern Brazil in the 19th century, where gauchos—or herders and ranchers—traveled in community, herds in tow, to destinations where their cattle or horses commanded the highest prices. Along the way, families would break for camp and eat from the herds they brought with them—whence comes the culinary tradition of meat cooked over an open flame, cut from skewers right onto plates.

But nomadic herders aren’t exactly the norm for modern-day San Francisco, so Espetus took hold of tradition and added modern elements to make the restaurant—and the menu—more accessible. On the side of tradition, churrasco rituals had strong advocates in founders Paulo and Maris Klein—restaurant veterans who hailed from the very region of Brazil where churrasco took shape years ago. Paulo is, by origin and definition, a gaúcho, and wanted to bring his home country’s traditions to the City by the Bay.

Since the very beginning, the menu has remained constant—a sea of meats from Top Sirloin Roasts to Chicken Hearts and Linquiça weave through the dining room on any given night, modern-day gauchos at the ready to carve and plate. Alongside them, heaping piles of rice and simple potato salads hold sway. But there is a definite focus on sourcing and responsibility here that brings the gaucho tradition into the 21st century.

“We have really tried to find purveyors of grass-fed meat,” Operations Director Amanda Love explains. “And we have plenty of vegetarian options—like the sprawling salad bar—which many people aren’t aware of.”

Sustainable sourcing is certainly no revelation to San Franciscans, but it’s almost a requirement in restaurants here, which is why it’s refreshing to know that a concept like Espetus is taking it to heart in its character and menu—just one more way the Kleins’ dream-come-true has become a notable part of the culinary landscape.

“San Francisco is such a melting pot,” Love says. “Espetus appeals to a diverse base because we offer unique dining, and yet we are consistent in what we serve. We have regulars who love what we do—die-hard locals who come in every week. But we also get a lot of business customers from the Moscone Center downtown, and tourists walking in off the trolley or after strolling along Market Street.”

And while the culinary scene in San Francisco is often focused on the chefs who create successful concepts, it’s hard to applaud just one soaring toque in Espetus’s kitchen.

“We have masterminds who designed the menu when we first opened,” Love says. “And they keep things seasonal today. It’s truly a collaboration in the kitchen.”

The décor, meanwhile, serves as a reminder of the Pampas rituals that were and the culture that is; a tasteful spread of icons from Southern Brazil and a collection of paintings from a Brazilian artist dot the walls throughout the dining rooms. It’s a way to introduce San Francisco to the gaucho culture without making anyone feel outside their comfort zone.

Almost 10 years after its inauguration, Espetus is no longer the only churrascaria in greater San Francisco. Still, it stands as central to San Francisco dining—being the first of its kind and a warm, hospitable haven for gaucho classics that captured the hearts and appetites of foodies across the city. Since those early days, it has grown a stellar reputation, touting coveted private dining options, a wine list spanning an impressive 100 labels, and the best caipirinhas this side of Pampas. Oh, and a prosperous second location to the south in San Mateo with a third in the works.

When asked what impression they want a guest to leave with, both Love and Teles smile.

“We want people to remember the warmth of the service here,” Love says. Teles echoes: “If they go to Brazil, they’ll feel like they’re at someone’s home. That’s what we want them to feel—and to know how rich, how authentic the menu is.”

They say this as Paulo makes one of his rare journeys through the dining room, smiling at diners and checking in on the steak, the pork, the chicken, the salads. Most nights, however, he doesn’t even need to ask how things are—the intoxicating ring of laughter and clinking of glasses speak for themselves.

Can we really imagine a San Francisco without it?