City on a Plate: Celebrating San Francisco With Nightbird's Kim Alter

San Francisco restaurant Nightbird is known for its thematic menus made with local, fresh produce, and its attention to care and hospitality
San Francisco restaurant Nightbird is known for its thematic menus made with local, fresh produce, and its attention to care and hospitality | Courtesy of Nightbird
Photo of Kieran Morris
Staff Writer23 April 2020

Culture Trip talks to the world’s most talented chefs about the cities that inspire them and the sights, smells, and sensations that drive their approach to food. Kim Alter has been a stalwart of San Francisco’s food scene for over a decade, but her solo restaurant, Nightbird, stands apart in expressing the Bay Area’s best produce.

At Nightbird, Kim Alter has total control over the direction of her restaurant. | Courtesy of Nightbird

Nightbird is Kim Alter; Kim Alter is Nightbird. In a world where chefs employ all manner of methods to convey their personality – from books, talks and TV spots to pop-ups and residencies; Instagram stories and public events to festivals – Alter channels herself through her restaurant, her food, and her drink.

She picks the produce herself from the market each morning, and pores over what is best at that moment in time. She buys her animals whole, and butchers them herself, preparing cuts of meat that suit her envisaged dishes perfectly. She collects vintage glassware for use at the restaurant; her mother was a seamstress, and knitted the restaurant’s napkins. She likes owls – as a result, the restaurant is adorned with them, carved as they are into the front door, styled on to the menu and logo, even finding their way into the cocktail list (the house Negroni is down on the menu as a ‘Hoo’s Hoo’).

Alter’s bonafides were undeniable before she opened Nightbird. She had made her bones in some of the best kitchens in California, working alongside luminaries of the American food scene like Daniel Patterson, Suzette Gresham, and David Kinch. Along with her partner – in life and in business – Ron Boyd, she opened the 38-seater Nightbird and the adjoining six-seater cocktail space, the Linden Room, in 2016, with the city’s food scene waiting eagerly to see what a place that was truly her own would look like. Four years later, San Francisco has the answer: a personal space, with artful and seasonal food, prepared and served by an all-women staff, at a price that fits the billing for a special occasion but won’t have you eating out of tin cans for a month afterwards.

Nightbird reflects Alter’s tastes and personality as much as anything else. | Courtesy of Nightbird

The menu at Nightbird is thematic, and changes fortnightly. Some themes present themselves more obviously than others; take the “Colour” theme, where each plate is based around a different colour focus, and the vegetables that correspond with that colour. Others, like the “Female” theme, shine a spotlight on solely female producers, be it for wine, meat, or vegetables. Themes can even be as diffuse as “Simplicity” – no prizes for guessing how those dishes are put together. You’re unlikely to get the same dish twice across multiple visits to Nightbird, except, perhaps, for the restaurant’s unofficial “signature” bite: an amuse-bouche of a soft-boiled quail’s egg, propped up by a nest of crispy leeks, and topped with a spoonful of velvety hollandaise – a comforting mouthful that sets the tone for care and hospitality you receive in Alter’s restaurant. You are, after all, her guest. Culture Trip speaks to Alter about hospitality, diversity and the beauty that abounds through San Francisco.

Who are you, and how do you cook?

My name is Kim Alter, I’m a cook, and I’ve lived in San Francisco for over 20 years. All I try to do in the kitchen is try to pull all of the flavours of Northern California into my food, and at my restaurant, Nightbird, I share these flavours with my guests.

What is your city to you?

The beauty of San Francisco is overwhelming. Whether you’re in the Presidio and walking through nature, or walking down the streets and marvelling at the architecture, there’s beauty just everywhere. To me, San Francisco is Grant Street, over in North Beach – the quiet end of Grant Street, right after Chinatown. It’s lined with wine shops, old restaurants, dive bars; it’s a corner of the city that truly represents old school San Francisco.

The menu at Nightbird changes frequently – no two evenings are likely to be the same. | Courtesy of Nightbird

What is the flavour of your city?

Our flavour is diversity, for sure! The hundreds of different flavours, cultures, and techniques that bring this city to life, that’s our flavour. Although if you pushed me, I’d say the taste and aroma of fresh bay is something that is completely unique to San Francisco – it’s never the same anywhere else as it is here.

What is the character of your city?

Firstly, I’d say we are open to new experiences, in whatever form they arrive in. And technology, of course! The stereotypes are true, for sure. But we also have a lot of civic pride, and we like to see the city thriving and clean. The city’s homeless issue, and drug problem, anger us to our core, and we would like to see more done to permanently alleviate these ills so that the city can shine.

Where would you eat your last meal?

Oh, an old-school steakhouse for sure – I love them. Nothing too fancy, nothing too modern. I’d order a simple steak, some creamed spinach, and a gin martini. That’s all I need.

What is your city on a plate?

It’s hard to say, our menu changes so much! I would say that the frequency we change everything up is an expression of San Francisco character. We’re spoilt rotten with the produce in the Bay Area, so it’s hard not to constantly change and tweak and reimagine the dishes on our tasting menu. We never stop changing, and never stop appreciating what we have in front of us. That’s how we put San Francisco on a plate.

Nightbird’s food may change with the seasons, but you can expect to find their signature quail’s egg, fried leek and hollandaise course appearing at your table. | Courtesy of Nightbird

Kim Alter is the head chef and owner of Nightbird, a fine-dining restaurant in San Francisco, California. Book a table, and keep up with them on Instagram.

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