Stars restaurant owner Jeremiah Tower sees no contradiction in serving roasted squab with shiitake mushrooms and sesame noodles on the same menu with a Partagas Limited Reserve Royales. Nor is one of the forefathers of California cuisine concerned about hosting cigar dinners at his San Francisco eatery. But Tower's willingness to put cigars in the same context as fine food is just one of the many examples of creativity that keep Stars as one of the city's perennial top restaurants.
The menu, and Tower, embrace extremes. You will find a precious-sounding Star Route garden salad tossed with grilled lemon vinaigrette on the same list as an American prime rib of beef with garlic roasted potatoes, creamed spinach and horseradish. Somehow those two choices blend perfectly with Stars's patrons, who dress in everything from blue jeans to black tie. The restaurant's decor, designed by Tower, showcases an elegant but unpretentious approach with polished wood, brass rails, a long bar, open kitchen, grand piano and autographed photos of stars from culinary, entertainment and political worlds.
The ambiance encourages laughter and conversation, not reverence. "It's impossible," says Tower, "to isolate the perfect meal if you're not having any fun. The food turns to sawdust in your mouth. A restaurant should never be a church."
With that kind of wide-open philosophy, Stars really does offer something for everybody. You can come for the consistently excellent food. You can come for the nightly "scene," populated with politicos, opera goers, Bohemians and the occasional movie star. You can come for the award-winning wine list.
Or you can simply show up to smoke cigars. Tower founded the Stellar Cigar Society in March 1992 with the first of several cigar dinners held in a private room outfitted with heavy duty ventilation equipment. Staged roughly once a month, the $65 dinners include three or four courses, each with wine and two cigars. The dinners are designed for 40 people, and each has sold out, Tower says.
Stars also allows smoking in the restaurant, except in the non-smoking section. If a cigar smoker runs afoul of fastidious fellow diners, however, the staff will move the smoker to the bar area, where cigars are always welcome. Stars stocks a modest variety of smokes in its wine cellar, from $5 Macanudos to $20 Davidoffs. Tower is a proponent of good tobacco as part of the life well lived. He says he smokes two packs of cigarettes--a year--and the occasional fine cigar. He once wrote an article describing the perfect dinner, in which he fantasized hiring five people to smoke good cigars by the windows just to produce that aroma in the air.
He is one of California's best chefs and most celebrated restaurateurs, a cookbook author, a bon vivant and entrepreneur. Tower studied architecture at Harvard, went west and started cooking at Chez Panisse in Berkeley basically by accident in 1971. By his own account, he became a partner with founder Alice Watters, and takes credit for fathering California cuisine. "It was American food using French cooking principles," he says.
Stars also touts American wines. The 220 item wine list is heavy with top-flight-California wines, and Tower is a frequent visiting chef in Napa Valley. He began serving French Champagne by the glass when Stars opened, and he has many of the other classic French wines on the list. But it's a traditional Francophile's collection. He prefers to showcase off beat wines from the Rhone or Loire, and serve the classics in unusual ways, like offering Bordeaux first growths by the glass at $11.
Tower credits his success at Stars to a great Culinary team, featuring chef Mark Franz and pastry chef Emily Luchetti, a menu that changes daily and an ongoing, determined search for the very best raw materials. "Most of the secret to great food," he says, "is how the ingredients are handled, even before they get to the kitchen."
Best bets at Stars, year in and year out, are fresh oysters as a starter, shellfish appetizers like grilled prawns with sun-dried tomato vinaigrette, bitter greens and pesto, and for a main course, grilled birds. One word of caution: service can be off-kilter on ballet or opera nights if you come early when other patrons are rushing to make the 8 p.m. curtain time.
Stars is almost always bustling, but the restaurant doesn't take reservations more than two weeks early unless you're coming from a great distance, and it always saves ten to 15 percent of its seats for walk-ins. It's another manifestation of the welcoming attitude that keeps Stars on top of the restaurant scene.
Jim Gordon is the managing editor of The Wine Spectator.