Zuni Café was founded in 1979, by Billy West – “with a huge heart and exactly ten thousand dollars.” In its early days, the restaurant occupied only one narrow storefront of the triangular 1913 building it fills today. The dramatic corner storefront was home to the eye-catching Red Desert cactus store, with giant saguaros in the twelve-foot windows and sand on the floor. Billy appropriated the southwestern theme: He plastered his interior to look like adobe and named the new café after the Zuni, one of the indigenous Pueblo peoples of Arizona and New Mexico. Zuni Café’s earliest menus were inspired by the cookbooks of Billy’s culinary idols, Diana Kennedy and Elizabeth David; but they were limited by a kitchen that consisted of little more than a toaster oven, an espresso machine that doubled as an egg-cooker, and a kettle grill in the back alley.
Nevertheless, the restaurant was an instant, improbable success; Elizabeth David herself became a repeat customer. By 1987, it was expanding into the rest of the building and displacing the cactus shop on the corner, and Billy, in need of a new chef, invited Judy Rodgers to become a partner. At the time the menu was still mostly Mexican. The two most popular dishes were both made to order: guacamole served in the volcanic stone molcajete it was pounded in, with fried-to-order chips; and a classic Caesar salad.
Judy added her own unique aesthetics to the mixture. As a high school exchange student, Judy had been lucky enough to live with the Troisgros family, whose restaurant in Roanne was widely considered to be the best in France. Later she had served an apprenticeship at l’Estanquet, a deeply traditional restaurant in southwestern France; she had been the lunch chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and the executive chef of the Union Hotel in Benicia; and she had traveled and eaten widely throughout Italy.
With Judy in charge, the Zuni kitchen became both more Eurocentric and more adventurous, “an evolving hybrid of the cuisines that I love,” in her words. She had accepted the job on the understanding that a wood-fired brick oven would be built—and it was, making possible the subsequent succulent parade of roast chickens, vegetable gratins, whole fish, braised rabbit legs, quails, squabs, savory tarts, roasted porcini mushrooms—all deliciously perfumed with wood smoke. Many of the restaurant’s other classic signature dishes made their first appearances: ricotta gnocchi, home-cured anchovies served with celery and Parmesan, the espresso granita… The restaurant began to receive serious national acclaim: In 2002, Judy published The Zuni Café Cookbook. In 2003, the book won the James Beard Award for Cookbook of the Year and Zuni Café won the award for Outstanding Restaurant in the country; and in 2004, Judy won the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Chef.
In 2006, Gilbert Pilgram joined Judy as the Café’s second chef-owner. Gilbert was a longtime friend of Judy’s and a devoted customer for twenty years, during which he worked as a cook at Chez Panisse, where he ultimately became chef, partner, and general manager. With Gilbert as its executive chef, Zuni has upheld Judy’s perfectionism and her vision of honest, local, seasonal food.
As Zuni continues to evolve, in its own distinctive and delicious way, it strives to remain the way it’s always been: at the same time rustic and cosmopolitan, audacious and familiar, intimate and convivial.