Frances, which will be celebrating 15 years in the Castro later this year, remains one of the city's neighborhood restaurant gems, and the menu has recently been seeing some changes at the hands of newly promoted chef de cuisine Ricky Chu.

This is the first in a series at SFNews on the Bay Area's most reliable, still excellent, tried-and-true restaurants which don't get the same critical attention much anymore — especially since the Chronicle stopped doing its annually updated Top 100.

How Frances has never really faltered in a decade and a half, save for a pandemic break, should be a lesson in retaurant longevity. It certainly benefits from Executive Chef Melissa Perello's high-end training and intuitive sense of what makes people most delighted on a menu, and menus that move with the seasons and highlight all of the best in local produce.

Chu, who has been working in the kitchens of Frances and sister restaurant Octavia for nine years, took over as chef de cuisine this winter, after the departure of Jordan Wittrock. Executive Chef and owner Melissa Perello says that Chu has been "an indispensable member of our team since 2015" and "Watching him grow and evolve in his culinary career and ascend to this position is an honor and I’m tremendously proud to name him chef de cuisine of Frances."

Chu's menu remains familiarly Frances in many of its dishes and preparations, with several exceptions. A divinely silky celeriac soup feels very much in the DNA of the restaurant and some of Perello's own menus from a decade ago, garnished with an herb oil, croutons, and a hint of horseradish. As does a dish of grilled octopus with green harissa and cauliflower puree.

There is now a caviar starter course ($20), with the caviar served atop sweet almond financiers with dulse seaweed and creme fraiche. And Chu has introduced a standout course of fried parsnip cakes ($14) that come topped with green strawberry kimchi, chrysanthemum greens, and XO sauce.

As he tells us, "It's a variation of traditional turnip cakes that my mother would make during New Year's, as well as those found at most dim sum restaurants." The dim sum versions are typically filled and garnished with umami-heavy ingredients, Chu says, like dried shrimp, shiitake mushrooms, and Chinese sausage, but he wanted to create a lighter and brighter version here.

"Dim sum at Frances," he says. "What's not to like?"

Celeriac soup. Photo: Jay Barmann/SFNews
Caviar financiers (l), parsnip cakes (center), and braised daikon with braised shitake mushroom and kimchi salsa. Photo: Jay Barmann/SFNews

Pastas currently include familiar wintertime Frances fare like Dungeness crab spaghetti — served here with Thai green curry, toasted shallots, and cilantro; and ricotta-filled sunchoke agnolotti, served with walnut-brown butter pesto and pecorino.

Another standout dish, among the entrees, was a dish of halibut served with cauliflower puree, roasted cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, and topped with a bright herb sauce.

Dungeness crab pasta with green curry. Photo via Instagram
Photo: Jay Barmann/SFNews

There is also an excellent and generous, gloriously juicy and smoky pork chop ($40), that could potentially be shared depending on appetites, served with a mustard sauce, fennel puree, and braised escarole.

Wine has always been a strong suit at Frances, and Wine Director Iris Rowlee, a certified sommelier, continues to find super interesting New and Old World wines from California and across Europe. Sadly, though, the restaurant's signature wine-by-the-ounce program has not returned.

As for another pre-pandemic favorite that has not made it back to the menu, the famed bacon beignets, they are indeed making a comeback soon. Chu says he personally loves them and he's working to get them back on the starters list, hopefully by spring. (Kitchen staffing, he says, has been largely the issue holding this up.)

All told, one can see Chu starting to put his personal spin on certain dishes, while remaining true to Frances's well established aesthetic and delicious flavors.

"As a first-generation Chinese American, I always felt like food was a huge part of my culture and a means of communication," Chu says. "My mother’s mother had nine children and she would always cook dinner for the family as well as her grandchildren on weekends. During Chinese New Year, we always prepared an elaborate feast together. I remember being in the kitchen at a young age helping grate carrots or wrapping egg rolls."

Chu adds that he learned from his own parents as well, and "the chili oil I make to this day is a variation of one that I would help my mother make every year."

The restaurant also feels like it is fully and firmly back in a groove, having been one of the slowest to reopen after pandemic closures, staying closed for a full 27 months, save for a brief pop-up with Perello back at the helm. The dishes are flavorful, portions are generous, and the elegant but cozy vibe remains ever intact.

Come December, it will be the restaurant's 15th year in the Castro, marking a major milestone for any restaurant — and that longevity is certainly reflective of how Frances has remained a favorite of the city's food lovers for all this time.

Frances - 3870 17th Street at Pond - Frances is open for dinner only, Tuesday to Saturday, 5:15 to 9:15 p.m. Find reservations here.

For budgetary reasons, SFNews editors and contributors occasionally accept complimentary meals from restaurants and their publicists. More often, we pay out of pocket for our meals. While we mostly refrain from writing formal reviews, we make every effort when giving opinions about restaurants to be objective, and to focus more on food and ambiance than service in order to make up for any possible bias.