In Bay Area restaurants, chips are turned into cacio e pepe and panna cotta.

I’ve been thinking a lot about restaurant chips lately. Namely, the potato chips that a restaurant takes the time to make from scratch.

In the late 1800s, all potato chips were restaurant chips. About a decade ago, I happened to be in Saratoga Springs, NY for the summer, and I learned from a restaurant server that the potato chip’s apocryphal originator was a local chef by the name of George Speck. Other accounts credit their invention to his coworker and sister, Katie Speck Wicks, who might have accidentally dropped a thin slice of potato in a hot fryer while prepping in the kitchen. Either way, the siblings had a hit on their hands: Saratoga Springs was rife with restaurant chips from the 1850s on. With the invention of moisture-proof cellophane in 1927, potato chips became easily transportable and set off on the road to become the ubiquitous snacks we know today.

Sometimes, when I see potato chips on the menu at restaurants, they feel a little bit political, like a quiet comment on the lowbrow/highbrow binary that can separate restaurants into discrete categories. I’m thinking of a place like Lazy Bear, the Mission District fine dining restaurant where I had a course of potato chips that were toasted, pulverized and turned into a thick, panna cotta-like custard held in a reused caviar tin. Tiny house-made chips were layered like fish scales on top of it. When chef-owner Dave Barzelay brought it out, he also presented a snack-size bag of Lay’s chips, waxing on about the team’s love for them. But in a dramatic reversal, the bag opened to reveal an actual tin of caviar.

Or even Top 25 Restaurant Table Culture Provisions, a Petaluma tasting menu restaurant where diners are greeted with a handful of waffle-cut potatoe crisps, called gaufrettes, as an amuse bouche. There, you can defy decades of parental wisdom and gleefully “ruin” your appetite before dinner. Finally, freedom!

Wineheads also know that, like fried chicken and French fries, salty potato chips are a phenomenal pairing with Champagne and Prosecco. At a party a few years back, I happened to take a swig from my glass of oaky Zinfandel after eating a barbecue chip and was shocked at how well the flavors worked together. The fruit, tobacco and caramel notes of the wine fit the barbecue flavors like perfectly aligned pieces from two different puzzle sets.

At other restaurants, chips have a more utilitarian role, as a crunchy starch that goes great with other ingredients. I was reminded of that by the griddle-cooked sliced ​​potatoes ($12.95) at Wojia Hunan Cuisine in Albany, which really wowed me when I first tried them for a review in 2019. Presented in a small chafing dish, the fried potatoes were hit with small pieces of fatty pork, fresh and dried chiles, and other aromatics, and seeing that combination was a real lightbulb moment for me. Who’s stopping you from stir-frying thick potato chips with all kinds of delicious stuff? (A caveat, though: I hear that sometimes the restaurant swaps in crinkle fries when they’re running short, which is understandable but a bummer!)

The bar menu at Sorella, a casual Russian Hill spin-off of Italian fine dining restaurant Acquerello, includes another “why didn’t I think of this” take on chips: a cacio e pepe version ($5) that looks deceptively simple but sparkles with flavor. The kitchen team, led by chef Denise St. Onge, caramelizes grated pecorino romano and grinds it into a dust that’s mixed with ground Cambodian kampot pepper, an exceptionally aromatic variety of peppercorn with fruity, floral notes.

And at Cafe Colucci, the Ethiopian restaurant and spice purveyor that recently relocated in Oakland, I was surprised by chips yet again. The dentich tibs ($9) are house-made chips tossed with a heavy sprinkle of berbere, an earthy and complex spice mixture that’s most often found in well-known dishes like doro wat. A vision of abundance, with greaseless chips practically overflowing from a tiny platter, it’s a dish that entices you to pick at it as you wait for your entrees. The heat from the berbere lingers on your lips like your favorite song. Here, chips are an unobtrusive advertising platform for the restaurant’s spices, which you can buy in convenient, cabinet-ready jars as you leave.

I like to think about restaurant chips not as a “trend,” but as a refreshing return to form. If anything, the resurgence is a nice nod to the Speck siblings, who unleashed this deliriously crunchy menace onto the world.

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