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One Year In: SPQR

This is One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with restaurateurs and chefs celebrating their one year anniversary.
Jennifer Yin, 1/21/09

If you want to get technical, A16's little sis is probably closer to 1.3 years old at this point, but because few—if any—local restaurants can match the meteoric rise had in the first 12 months by SPQR, we couldn't resist checking in with Nate Appleman and Shelley Lindgren. Even aside from the continued praise from both local and national media, it's been quite a year for the duo, from Beard nominations to Iron Chef to a new cookbook. So, in our second installment of One Year In, we take a moment with the SPQR pair to discuss expectations, the evolution of Appleman's menu, the big review, its ramifications ("we increased our supply of brussel sprouts"), Urbino and all that lies ahead in the new year. Buckle up.

Let's start with the beginning. What were your concerns coming in? Shelley Lindgren: We felt that moving into the space where SPQR restaurant is, it had a very urban and San Francisco feel being on historic, hilly Fillmore Street, and it reminded us of eating and spending time in one of our favorite, timeless cities, Rome. SPQR is a very small restaurant and we did our best to make the most of the limited space. It seemed a challenge to try to take reservations, so we opted to go for a neighborhood restaurant, in hopes that we'd be centrally located enough for our customers to be able to frequent us from other neighborhoods too. It was a concern not knowing day in and out who was coming for dinner. We ardently hope to busy and staff and prepare for it, but can't expect it.

Once you opened, any early surprises/disasters? SL: We were able to bring a lot of the organization and lessons learned from operating A16 and things seemed to flow easier and we were able to hire a wonderful team of people who all are warm, friendly service professionals and a lot of fun to work with.

And then Bauer's big 3.5-star review arrived. What was your initial reaction to the news? We're sure it probably swelled the (already big) crowds, but how, if at all, did it affect the day-to-day? SL: We were pleasantly surprised by Michael Bauer's review and that he had enjoyed his overall experience. We also increased our supply of brussel sprouts! His review made us even more sensitive to customer's expectations and we stepped it up even more to keep doing the best we can. We really want our customers to have a balanced experience and feel comfortable come to SPQR for food, wine and service, so it was a great feeling that he noted this in the review. And you've kept the walk-in policy. SL: I do think that because we are walk-in only (we can accept limited reservations for parties larger than 6), we have more availability than is expected, especially during lunch and brunch and early on weeknights. It doesn't take many people to fill the restaurant quickly, but the wait (if there is one) seems to go pretty quick, depending on the night.

Any major changes in terms of the menu since you opened? Nate Appleman: Lots of changes—for the better. We are constantly coming up with new dishes and tweaking old ones, but other than that, we have just started to have fun. SPQR to me is my feel of a Roman wine bar, but not serving strictly Roman dishes. A few months in, we changed the format of the menu and eliminated entrees. They just didn't sell. Any tweaks you want to make in the next year? Keep coming up with new dishes and making even more delicious food.

How, if at all, have you adjusted to the economic downturn? NA: I believe we offer great value at a very inexpensive price, so there was nothing we could do to the prices. The adjustments we have made are all in cutting labor and watching the timeclock more closely.

What's the latest on Urbino? SL: We have slowed down the pace of opening Urbino. We hope it will open later in the fall. Having the national economy take a nosedive is hard to predict. Our pricepoint at Urbino will be moderate, so our concept that we've been working on for over two years now has not changed. We just felt like it might be better to not move full speed ahead and not rush into opening until we are feeling more stable about employing so many people that we have worked with for years and not have it be the right time. I'm very excited about the wine and bar program for it and Nate being able to butcher all our whole animal in house along with having a lot more space to do many more things is exciting.

Any lessons you'll take from opening SPQR? SL: Lesson learned from SPQR might be to hope we have just as strong and fabulous of a team. They really impress us all the time. And with Urbino, we realize that we will need a strong team to be able to execute a consistent product and service. It is not possible without having that.

One year in, would you say your expectations have been met? SL: I would say that our expectations have been better than we could have hoped. It has been a challenge with the limited space, but we all got creative and made it work for us and had to make decisions on what is really needed. There was no extra room for anything else... NA: My expectations have been met, we are a neighborhood osteria that doesn't aspire to be anything less or more.

Where do you want to be at this time next year? NA: Either cooking at Urbino restaurant or eating in the city of Urbino. SL: This time next year, we hope Urbino is open, I have almost a one year old and am planning on a family trip to Italy.
· All SPQR Coverage [~ESF~]


1911 Fillmore Street, , CA 94115 (415) 771-7779 Visit Website