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Walk-In Wonderlands

 Peeking inside the refrigerators of five San Francisco restaurants.

Frances San Francisco

“It’s like playing Jenga: We’re constantly consolidating containers,” chef Melissa Perello says of the refrigerator she uses at Frances. Smaller than a suburbanite’s Sub-Zero, the 83-inch-high cooler was inherited from the cozy Castro restaurant’s previous tenant and is perfectly at home in the tiny kitchen.

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Frances San Francisco

Though he owns the Progress with his wife, pastry chef Nicole Krasinski, Stuart Brioza takes credit for its walk-in’s Container Store level of organization—but adds that it “requires many hands” to keep it up to snuff.

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Frances San Francisco

At restaurants like the Mission outpost of Hawker Fare, the walk-in functions as a superhighway for the cooks and chefs: Everyone passes through it, often multiple times a night.

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Frances San Francisco

The Progress’s vast walk-in feels a bit like Grand Central Station—if the train depot were stocked with treasures like abalone and sockeye bellies and collars.

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Frances San Francisco

“The circulation in the new walk-in is awesome,” says Ramen Shop co-owner Jerry Jaksich. “The fan in the old one was from 1991, and the humidity in there got really bad.” A bag of greens lasted just one day in the old model; now, everything keeps longer.

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Frances San Francisco

On a typical Saturday night, more than 500 people brandish steak knives at the 67-year-old House of Prime Rib. Only one of its three walk-ins really matters: the one that holds 300 standing rib roasts at a time, around 6,000 pounds of corn-fed beef.

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Frances San Francisco

Housemade merguez sausage hangs from the ceiling of the Progress’s walk-in.

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Frances San Francisco

Hidden among the Progress’s more exotic ingredients—Cryovac bags of pig ears, lovage syrup, hot-smoked cod, trays of belly-up Buddhist-style squab, egg yolks curing in Kaffir lime salt—are trays of pristine fruit.

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Frances San Francisco

At Frances, space limitations mean that many ingredients are brought in daily.

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Frances San Francisco

Ramen Shop’s walk-in is stacked with tubs of pastes and sauces. “We have so much room now,” says co-owner Rayneil de Guzman of the newly expanded space. “Before, we were constantly juggling, but this way we have space for the things we want.”

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Frances San Francisco

Seafood is particularly prized at the Progress: If the building were burning down, Brioza says, he’d save the restaurant’s anchovies. “They might cost, like, $2 a pound,” he explains, “but curing them is a laborious two-day process.” On a piece of toast, he adds, “they‘re epic.”

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Frances San Francisco

Peas get some shelf space at Frances.

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Frances San Francisco

Hawker Fare's salted eggs.

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Frances San Francisco

The nostril-flaring aroma of chilies, garlic, and fermented fish products pervades the walk-in at Hawker Fare, which is stocked with incendiary concoctions like this Atomic Sauce. “We’re thinking of making our own sriracha,” says chef-owner James Syhabout.

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At a restaurant, the menu and the decor always get all the attention. But, as any chef can attest, the walk-in refrigerator is really the center of the action, its chilly environs a true manifestation of the kitchen’s identity. “The walk-in is the first thing you want to see in a restaurant. It’s like popping the hood of a car,” says Jerry Jaksich, co-owner of Ramen Shop.

In the slideshow above, we peek into five walk-ins that are as diverse as the restaurants they call home—and prove that it’s what’s inside that counts. 

Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco

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