In many states, eating the state bird will earn you a $15,000 fine — or six months in prison. Not so in California. California’s state bird is the California quail. They’re flitty, nervous little creatures that love to startle you by running across your path in big packs (called “coveys”) while you’re taking a walk in the state’s backcountry.
They’re also great deep fried.
How do I know? Because I ate the California state bird. And it was yummy.
Before you call Fish and Wildlife Services, take a deep breath. California quail are abundant, and their population has also been increasing over the last 30 years. They’re legal to farm and eat. And in San Francisco, there’s a place devoted to doing just that: State Bird Provisions.
State Bird Provisions is one of San Francisco’s most trendy and iconic Michelin-starred restaurants, located in the Fillmore district. If you didn’t know it was there, you’d be hard-pressed to find it—the restaurant is tiny and has no obvious signage.
That gives it a speakeasy feel and a waiting list that can be several months long. In early 2020, my wife, our son, and I wanted to celebrate a family member’s birthday at State Bird. It seemed like a total long shot, but about a week in advance, we checked their website hoping for a last-minute reservation. To our shock, they had tables available.
We grabbed one for March 7, 2020.
What we didn’t know was that the restaurant had availability because America was about to enter the crushing, years-long grip of a deadly pandemic. Just five days after our reservation, Bay Area officials would announce a nearly total shutdown, which is still largely in effect as I write this.
Savvier diners than us were already opting out of indoor dining — thus our ease in getting an otherwise impossible reservation. Blissfully unaware of the pending crisis, we walked past masked people hurrying through the Fillmore and made our way to State Bird on a Saturday night.
State Bird’s concept is innovative and unique. Opening in 2011, it has stayed one of the city’s top restaurants ever since, serving local farm-to-table food. But instead of ordering from a traditional menu, you order dim sum-style, meaning that during the service, waiters walk from table to table carrying trays and pushing carts laden with tiny plates of delicacies like sauerkraut, pecorino, and ricotta pancakes, or eggs and toast with black truffles. You grab what you want, and pay by the plate.
It’s a modern take on the traditional dim sum places the city’s known for.
State Bird blends New American food with subtle Asian elements befitting the dim sum theme. We loaded up on andouille sausages, spring rolls, and a strange dish that combined beets and Japanese mochi.
Ultimately, though, we were there with one mission in mind: eat the California state bird. It’s the restaurant’s signature dish.
How does the California state bird taste? Like a superrich, slightly gamey, improbably small plate of the world’s best fried chicken.
The California quail is one of the few items at State Bird that you have to order off an actual menu. It comes deep fried, with “provisions”—side items like shaved slices of hard cheese and something resembling polenta. But the quail is the star of the show. The tiny bird arrives splayed, crunchy, and warm — blessedly looking more like a medium-sized chicken nugget than a game bird, and coated in light, crunchy breading.
How does the California state bird taste? Like a superrich, slightly gamey, improbably small plate of the world’s best fried chicken. Eating a fried quail is inherently amusing. The tiny bird’s drumsticks look just like a chicken drumstick, but you can hold a whole one between your index finger and thumb without stretching your hand.
You end up gripping comically undersized pieces of meat with both hands, and then daintily gnawing away at them — like some fairytale giant who got invited to a formal dinner by some regular-sized friends and is just doing his best.
Is it disrespectful to eat the state bird — either to California or the quail itself? Not at all. People have been eating the California quail for a long time — the state’s Native Americans feasted on the meal long before California the state existed.
So eating the State Bird is a bit silly. But oh man, the taste! It may be down to State Bird Provision’s cookery, or to the fact that they source humanely raised heritage quail from Wolfe Ranch in nearby Vacaville, which has been supplying Michelin-starred chefs since the 1980s.
Whatever magic State Bird is employing, their quail is amazing. Each bite — despite its diminutive size — is packed with flavor. And there’s something oddly satisfying about the fact that one person can polish off a whole quail and still eat plenty more—even if said quail does cost $30. State Bird offers a variety of drinks and desserts too, and we ate basically their entire menu before polishing off granita and an amazing ricotta ice cream sandwich.
Is it disrespectful to eat the state bird — either to California or the quail itself? Not at all. People have been eating the California quail for a long time — the state’s Native Americans feasted on the meal long before California the state existed, and as of 1988, over 2 million quail were still eaten in California. The quail likely would have been a common food for early settlers — though, they wouldn’t have spent the equivalent of a day’s wages on a single quail in a fine dining establishment.
When I look back at that meal, I remember the special surroundings and that delicious quail. But I also remember it as our last indoor fine dining experience before the pandemic — a special meal right on the cusp of such things being banned for at least a year. The only quail I’ve seen since then have been living ones that run across my path on pandemic hikes.