There aren’t many awards that chef Nancy Oakes, owner of Boulevard Restaurant and partner at Prospect Restaurant in San Francisco, hasn’t received. Boulevard, the restaurant she opened in 1993, received a Michelin star every year between 2007 and 2015. In 2001, she won the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: California. And in 2012, after eight consecutive nominations for the foundation’s prestigious Outstanding Restaurant award, Boulevard took home the well-deserved accolade.
All this is founded on her generous approach to food, wine, ambience and hospitality, and her belief that there’s comfort in familiarity, even with fine dining. A pioneer in California’s culinary scene, Oakes was part of the movement in the ’90s that transformed rustic Northern California fare to be more local and accessible with elevated aesthetics, which Oakes drew from her training at the San Francisco Art Institute.
Her dining philosophy started simmering in the 1970s, working front-of-house jobs at the Carnelian Room and swanky Alexis. Later, the self-taught chef wowed crowds at Pat O’Shea’s beloved sports bar, Mad Hatter, where she served gastropub fare before the term was en vogue. Her first restaurant, L’Avenue, opened down the street in 1988; and even though the intimate bistro closed five years later, it invigorated the category of haute American cuisine. Next came Boulevard, which she opened with famed designer and restaurateur Pat Kuleto.
It’s not easy for a restaurant to survive long-term in San Francisco, much less dazzle crowds with exceptional service and food for nearly 30 years, but Oakes has done it. Located in a historic building with views of the Bay Bridge, the restaurant reopened in September after a 10-month closure that resulted in a stylish redesign to the Belle Epoque-inspired interiors by legendary designer Ken Fulk.
The menu has also been refreshed. “Our food philosophy remains the same, but with my curiosity, everything is up for grabs,” Oakes says. Though hearty favorites like the meaty Berkshire pork chop remain, the new menu is brighter and fresher, with light appetizers and more seafood-centric mains. “We’re right next to the ocean and the Bay and, in a lot of ways, seafood is what inspires me,” she says. Meeting the growing demand for plant-forward dishes, she’s also focusing more on vegetables: “That’s been inspiring and challenging all at the same time. To make vegetables carry the same gravitas, you have to get very creative.”
As a constant, she focuses on dishes that pair well with wine—one of the reasons Oakes is a natural selection for this year’s Chef de Cuisine. The philanthropic chef has lent her talents to NWWF off and on since 2005. “It’s always an honor to be invited because [the festival] brings together the greatest chefs and winemakers,” she says. “As you learn more about the cause and how it benefits a whole series of programs geared toward children, that really puts your heart in it.”
Photos Courtesy Boulevard Restaurant/Eric Wolfinger