Kim Alter stunned San Francisco on April 1 when she debuted a new menu inspired by the apocalypse.
This was no April’s Fool’s Day joke. Rather, it was a riff on a theme. At her Nightbird, after all, Alter’s menu always follows the same structure: five larger courses and five interstitial small bites, all governed by the principle of sustainability but also built around an ever-changing theme.
“In March it was a woman-led menu,” she explains, “so everything came from women-led farms. When we first opened up after COVID, it was a reverse menu, and it was all things about reversal.”
The apocalyptic theme, oddly enough, started as a joke, albeit one born out of real struggle. The last few months have been some of the most difficult since the height of the pandemic — not just for Alter, but for the hospitality community at large.
“I think that with that comes exhaustion and frustration and so many things that have plagued so many people,” she says. “And I feel — I have felt — very uncreative.”
The straw that broke the camel’s back, for Alter, was a sense of disconnect between the city and small businesses like hers.
“The past few years have been draining: trying to protect my property and my staff from issues that have arisen with things that the city of San Francisco is not addressing fast enough, for me,” she explains. “Whether it’s being broken into three times during the pandemic, the amount of needles and condoms. No matter how much I tried … through the whole pandemic, all I did was try to work with the city, and I was in coalitions, and just hitting walls every time.”
It was from this deep sense of frustration, however, that Alter glommed onto her newest theme.
“I jokingly was talking about doing an ‘end of the world’ menu, and then I started thinking about it,” she says. “How could I create a menu that said something about where we’re at, not only as a city, but as a human race, but do it in such a way that it wouldn’t hit people over the head and make them super upset?”
This key balance pervades her approach. Her menus, after all, must align with her chosen theme without ever becoming kitschy, marrying seasonality, sustainability, and, of course, enjoyability.
“I hope that people can enjoy their meal and take away from it that we are still at breaking point, and we all just need to be a little bit kinder and more aware,” she says. “In the end, I just want something that’s delicious.”
While some of the nods to the apocalypse are overt, then, (Hey, goth chicken!) others are more subtle. Here are nine details you might have missed on the darkest menu to hit the Bay Area.
1. Dark colors are all over the plate
Aesthetics play a major role in evoking Alter’s apocalyptic theme, with the seasonal morels accompanying the filet mignon dish representing mushroom clouds, and a preponderance of deep black hues from appetizer to dessert. A devil’s food cake is made with rich black cocoa from Alter’s friend Amy Guittard, while the dish dubbed “Goth chicken” begins with a black-skinned Silkie roulade, showing off the dark color in all its splendor. It’s paired with salsify painted with black sesame sauce, charred leek powder, and dark purple mustard greens.
“Starting off a little bit lighthearted, and joking around and calling it a Goth chicken makes people a little intrigued,” says Alter. “And more likely to try something that they might not.”
2. She wasn’t keeping toxicity in mind
When undercooked, morels are indeed toxic, but poisons weren’t at the front of Alter’s mind in the creation of her menu — at least not this time. “I have done a menu before for Valentine’s Day that was called ‘Love Kills,’” she says. “Every course had items that, if they weren’t cooked properly, would make you sick or kill you.
3. The plates give you the finger
“[The cake] is on these plates made by Lynn Mahon that look like a galaxy, so we call it Fade to Black,” explains Alter. “He actually puts little bumps where you can put your finger underneath. And it’s actually his middle finger, because he wants to make sure that no one can copy him, and so he flips off every plate.”
4. The soundtrack is thematic — but not every song made the cut
“I grew up in a punk scene, and hardcore and punk is definitely what I listen to,” says Alter. “But in the hospitality business, that side of me is definitely not out there. We have a record player in our bar, and everyone’s like — do you just play your records? And I’m like…my records wouldn’t really fit the vibe.”
But listen carefully, and it turns out that this time around, her music taste is sometimes the perfect accompaniment to the meal, with a soundtrack featuring “Zombie” and “Fear the Reaper,” but also The Creeps. “I built the soundtrack, and then we all listened to it and talked about it,” she says, noting that while some additions from her personal library made the cut, “most of the suggestions were not appropriate.”
Rejected songs notably included “Last Caress” by the Misfits.
“I mean…it opens up talking about murdering babies and raping moms, and I was like… ‘I don’t know if that…’” she chuckles. “One of my favorite songs, but probably not the best thing for a nice dinner.
5. To get one of her references, you’d have to know one of Alter’s worst fears
One of the dishes on the menu features lobsters paired with seasonal fava beans, peas, and a pistachio sauce. It’s verdant and vibrant — hardly evocative of the end times.
“You would never think anything remotely apocalyptic when you look at it,” she says. “But I have a fear … like, I hate killing lobsters; I always have. It’s been a thing. And every single time I kill them, I’m like, ‘I’m coming back to life as a lobster when I die.’”
6. Some dishes allude to the cyclical nature of death and rebirth
The first course in the menu, Alter explains, is a white asparagus course served with escargot-yuzu beurre blanc. The dish, she says, evokes the way that white asparagus must be grown underground, as well as the “symbiosis” between the snail and the asparagus.
“They come from next-door farms, so the snails feed off this asparagus,” she says. “So it’s a very spring dish, but the conversation of rebirth and death and the cycle of life.”
It also evokes her passion for regenerative farming and the impact of our food system on the climate.
“It was definitely the first thing I wanted to start off with, because without topsoil and helping the farms and supporting regenerative farming, we’re gonna be in trouble in 60 years,” she says. “It’s not the best conversation at dinner, when someone’s celebrating a birthday, but like, it’s a delicious dish that at the same time you can still have conversations around.”
7. The theme pervades even the drink pairings.
Alter’s partner, Ron Boyd, crafted several wine pairing ideas for the menu, including one from Unti Vineyards, which, Alter says, “almost lost their winery in one of the fires.” The asparagus dish, then, is paired with a wine that, for Alter, “honestly has some kind of smoky vibes and notes coming out of it,” hearkening to the devastation that still threatens the local winemaking regions.
But some of the drink pairings are more playful.
“We have skull ice in a cocktail with smoke,” she says. “A little kitschy play on things.”
8. Alter thought a bit about her own last meal when creating the dishes
“I tried to hit all the notes that would make most people happy, finishing with chocolate and caramel and having beef with really rich morels and truffles,” she says of her choices. “Honestly, almost every dish on the menu would be something that would be a pretty satisfying, if I was gonna take my last breath.”
9. The menu doesn’t feature Chef Alter’s dream “last meal” option
“I can’t put an In-and-Out burger on the menu, and I think that’s the last meal I’d want to eat,” she says. “Grilled cheese with lots of raw onions.”
This article was featured in the InsideHook SF newsletter. Sign up now for more from the Bay Area.