There are few spots changing the gastronomic landscape, but Osito in California's Bay Area champions cooking 'au naturel'. Below, one writer goes inside the San Francisco hotspot (quite literally), but check out our Inspectors take here.
Follow the scent of smoke in San Francisco’s Mission District and you might just find yourself seated at the communal table of Osito, the city’s only restaurant where 100% of the food is cooked over a live-fire. The ambitious concept was achieved by chef Seth Stowaway in 2021 after two years of planning, but all that hard work paid off: Osito earned a MICHELIN Star within its first year. A rustically chic setting, multiple courses of elevated, seasonally-inspired cuisine, and a considerable emphasis on community make this one of the most exciting places to dine in San Francisco today.
With two ticketed seatings per night, I arrive early to try a cocktail at their sister bar, Liliana. The two share an equally moody entrance—Liliana to the left, Osito the right—with a smoky aroma setting the stage for what’s to come. Seated at the wooden bar, I’m struggling to choose between the equally-tempting fanciful cocktails, so I ask bar director Uzziel Pulido to select something that pairs well with the nostalgic moods I’m in. He serves me a Lavender Tipple to soothe my spirit, then shares, with obvious reverence, the way the fire next door requires Stowaway and his staff to engage with it. Rather than standing over it like a grill, the fire burns so hot that it requires a sort of dance, a back and forth that prevents harm while creating flavor. My curiosity is understandably piqued.
Filled with wonder and pisco, I let Osito’s black-cad staff escort me to the right side of the entrance for the main event. I’m brought to the center of the famous communal table, which is positioned between planters full of greenery and an open kitchen brimming with focused cooks, including Stowaway himself. His nickname is the namesake for the restaurant, and I’ll admit with his full beard, he does somewhat resemble a little bear [the literal translation of Osito]. I take a seat facing the kitchen so I can watch the fire as it burns on the hearth, and see the dance that’s performed to leverage its powerful flames.
To onlookers, that dance might seem like the height of control, but to Chef Stowaway, the fire encapsulates the beauty that comes from the illusion of control, something he learned to let go of when becoming sober over a decade ago. Stowaway originally came to San Francisco from Texas, lost to the streets of the Tenderloin before finding his path in the kitchens of some of the city’s most lauded restaurants. Like sobriety, cooking over a live fire requires constant patience and practice to manage. “I don't really have control of fire. It’s like I'm pretending I do—and we’re very skilled at that—but in the end it will do what it wants,” Stowaway says.
In that way, Osito’s fire channels Stowaway’s self-expression. “Whether you’re a musician or a painter, everyone picks a medium,” Stowaway says. “You express yourself, you have an opinion, and it’s largely forced by the medium you use.” The result in this case is a 9-plus course tasting menu which relies entirely on the almond and oak wood burning in the back of the kitchen: there’s no microwave, no burners, no sous vide. Just fire.
The ephemeral menu changes with the months and the seasons, and tonight’s theme is Fish & Foliage, which sources from the bounty of the Pacific Ocean and the foraging talents of Bryan Jessop from Morchella Wild Foods. “We started talking about this menu when Osito first opened,” Jessop tells me later. “They pulled out all the stops and are using nearly everything I’m gathering right now, as well as a lot that’s been preserved in various ways from past seasons.”
There’s no written menu or preface of what’s to come upon sitting down, but the highly-harmonized staff doesn’t let my curiosity dawdle too long. First, a quintet of bivalves on ice are placed before me, including a martini-like mussel dressed in vermouth and gin, a Kusshi oyster sweetened with huckleberry and pink peppercorn, and a punchy razor clam with a quince made from Jessop’s foraged pinyon pine cones. They are decadent and delectable, foreshadowing the fact that at Osito, course number is more of a suggestion.
The wine pairing is a selection of rosés presented by the utterly affable sommelier, Jerry McGie, whose bespectacled presence is as delightful as the vintages he pours. Conversation flows easily between us, as it does with my neighbors. Community is at the heart of everything Osito does, from initial fundraising to the locally-sourced ceramics and reclaimed wood to seating guests at a single table so they talk to each other. As my dining companion points out, community—and life itself—began around the fire, meaning Osito is paying homage to our origins.
In the spirit of humanity’s very roots, I get to know the strangers beside me over raw kanpachi with crab fragrance and fennel, sablefish in bergamot served alongside Golden Osetra caviar with shiitake mushrooms, and a low tide salad made of sea urchin and crab with a chili crunch. By the time a dish that is actually seven dishes comes around—including fish ‘Eyes’cargot—we have become Instagram-official friends. There is something about going on a culinary adventure together that creates an unbreakable bond.
From start to finish, including dessert, fire is present throughout. It would be easy to assume that the flavor profile evokes barbecue, but only a few items feature char or smoke. “You have no idea how hard it is to cook something on a fire and not make it not taste like fire,” Stowaway tells me with a laugh after dinner. “We want to be able to do all those things. That means we're very good at pretending we're in control of this motherf**ker.”
Following my dessert of lemon and olive oil and squid ink ice cream, Stowaway brings me into the kitchen to meet the fire, per my request. I can feel the immense heat on my face as soon as I cross the threshold, and can only stand so close for a few short moments. We linger nearby as he shares his story with me, a tale of faith and music and determination. Though his experiences in San Francisco’s restaurants were positive, he knew he had to do things on his own to do them right. “As long as you work for someone else, it's like you're gonna be playing their music.”
Warmed by the fire, friendship, and several glasses of rosé, I find it hard to leave the embrace of Osito. Dining here feels like being part of something special: it’s proof that sitting around a campfire is a great way to have a good time.
Hero image: Molly DeCoudreaux/Osito