As I duck into San Francisco's Canteen, the first thing I notice is the counter, a band of luminous green—an icon of the American diner. Behind it, in a space that would be tight on a U-boat, 36-year-old chef Dennis Leary and his assistant, Luis "Borre" Contreras, are working at a fevered but controlled pace while a row of customers sitting an arm's length away watch the action from their stools. Leary appears happy to be cooking—not a leisured happiness but the happiness of rock climbers and chess players, the happiness of challenge and absorption—as he prepares a series of brilliant dishes: halibut gravlax with cucumber sorbet; mussel soup with green garlic and pureed artichoke; sweetbreads with poached rabbit over frisée salad; spring-lamb stew with asparagus and leeks; mild fennel-seed cake with whipped cream.
"I liked the idea of doing haute cuisine in a diner," Leary tells me later, over a beer, explaining why he left a position as executive chef at Rubicon, a San Francisco landmark, to open a place with 20 seats, a 60-year-old pancake griddle and a staff of five (including the dishwasher). There are no investors: When Leary opened Canteen in 2005, he funded it himself. He shops, cooks, preps. This is entirely his show. "I wanted to do something personable, something I could control, that could be a little eccentric," he says. "I wanted it to be minimalist, with absolutely no pretense at all—to have a small place, with everything at my fingertips. Something authentic."
Yes, it's true: One of the best chefs in San Francisco runs a diner. And he's not alone. In a growing trend, other top chefs, including celebrities like Washington, DC's José Andrés, are opening restaurants around the country where the only separation between cook and customer is a counter. These places bring the cooks into the dining room and the customers into the kitchen. To hear both parties tell, it's hard to say who's happier with the arrangement, which doesn't surprise me at all.