Robb Report Vices

Felonious Acts of Foie Gras

On January 16, 1920, a sense of urgency enveloped San Francisco. With prohibition looming, the city’s streets were a gridlock as alcohol deliveries dominated the commerce of the day; that Friday marked the last day that any alcoholic product could be distributed legally.

More than 90 years later, a sense of urgency once again enveloped San Francisco streets, only this time, long lines formed not outside taverns or bars, but from the doors of fine-dining establishments with foie gras on the menu. July 1, 2012, marked the beginning of a foie gras ban in California (a law that was passed in 2004) and, to bid farewell to the fare, many restaurants created dishes—and in some cases entire menus—defined by generous servings of it. These bittersweet celebrations attracted hordes of foie gras enthusiasts who reacted to the ban just as hundreds of thousands of San Franciscans did almost a century before when Prohibition repealed their right to legal libations.

While a $1,000 fine can be imposed each day that a California restaurant serves the illegal substance, some chefs and restaurant owners have amended their menus to indicate that their foie gras–related dishes include the ingredient in a “complimentary” fashion. The law may prohibit restaurants from selling foie gras, but it says nothing about giving it away. Adam Pechal—the owner of Restaurant Thir13en in Sacramento and a chef who continues to serve the delicacy—told The New York Times that he plans to become his own bootlegger once his current supply of foie gras runs out. “I’ll just go to Tahoe and spend the week and find somebody in Nevada,” he said. “I can drive an hour and a half and buy it in another state. It’s as simple as that.”

Despite such displays of rebellion, the vast majority of California restaurants that once served foie gras no longer do, which has generated a new fervor in underground supper clubs paying homage to the fare. On July 15, the Bay Area website hosted a lavish, 10-course meal called “Croikey!” which featured foie gras at every turn. The meal’s location—coyly designated 16 Duck Liver Lane—was revealed only to the 40 patrons who paid $100 for a seat. For their part, the chefs responsible for the meal collectively played the role of a culinary Robin Hood, donating all of the proceeds to the Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards.

Though people’s affinity for the speakeasy atmosphere has produced an influx of hidden bars in major metropolitan areas across the country, it seems a new, legitimate speakeasy is taking shape in the form of underground supper clubs in undisclosed locations all around California. The city of Chicago instituted a foie gras ban back in 2006 but repealed it two years later, after numerous chefs either ignored the law or found ways around it; so it’s unclear just how long the California law will survive.

Nevertheless, one thing is clear: For as long as foie gras remains forbidden in the Golden State, Californians yearning for a taste must either publicly support felonious establishments or become criminals themselves. Guilty pleasures, indeed.