Moroccan Magic at the ‘Casablanca’ of San Francisco
There’s a pleasant aroma of Morrocan spices in the air, with candlelight splashing on desert tones as you walk into Berber. A quiet tingle of anticipation in the restaurant too, not just because a multi-course, Michelin-acclaimed meal is coming, but because everyone in the room knows a live show will begin too, and that brings its own special energy.
The Berbers are the peoples of north Africa, who have a culinary tradition going back 10,000 years. Proprietor Borhen Hammami is a 20-year San Franciscan and a veteran restauranteur, his co-conspirator at Berber is Tony Garnicki co-founder of Supper Club, together with Executive Chef Hicham Senhaji these gentlemen know a thing or two about dinner theater, bringing in performance talent from around the world, and food that Michelin stamped with their Bib Gourmand award.
But enough preamble, let’s wade into the waters…
If I could simply light my Old Fashioneds on fire, and they would taste like this, I might do it every time. The Bedouin Blend at Berber consists of bourbon, walnut & orange bitters & “saffron smoke”. You get that smokey taste on the front end, followed by the orange sweet and bourbon, and after a few seconds, the walnut comes out and plays around in your palette. I don’t go for complicated cocktails all that often, I’m typically a Manhattan or “bourbon-rocks” kind of guy, but that cocktail was fucking delightful.
Add to the equation the carved and branded ice cubes and the literal smoke show, and you can’t help but smile.
The 4-course meal is a wonderful variety of North African spice and texture, from the wholesome red lentil soup to the exotic crunch of the lite pastry shell surrounding ras el hanout and chicken. My people come from the port of Marseille, across the sea from Algeria and this menu felt like a wholesome return to the Mediterranean. The Michelin people gave Berber their Bib Gourmand award, which is given to restaurants, not for their excessive luxury but rather for the sense of satisfaction they provide, and the quality you get for the price. (here’s a list of the Bib Gourmand awarded restaurants in San Francisco, with joints like Nopalito, Yan Sing, and Boulevard on it).
After dinner came the show, on this particular night Gipsy Nation played pop-flamenco from the south of France, and wailed on their Spanish guitars, playing everything from the Eagle’s ‘Hotel California’ to Sinatra’s ‘My Way’, in the Spanish style of course. The crowd loved it, the Wednesday night energy was great.
I spoke with owner Borhen Hammami who told me how important nightlife is to him and the very fabric of San Francisco, and he’s right. Dinner, theater, and performance art are a huge part of what makes San Francisco special. Next to our table sat Emmy-winning radio & TV personality Liam Mayclem of EYE ON THE BAY, who confirmed that people who know dinner & show…know Bereber.
On any given weekend at Berber the show can be a la Cirque de Soleil or flown in from around the world, this weekend, Brazilian Jazz is on tap, just check their events page for programming. Berber has an intoxicating mixture of both Casablanca and old-school San Francisco, with incredibly friendly staff giving you dinner and shows Wednesday through Sunday. If you have the scratch, this could be your itch.