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Tyler Florence Sounds Off On Wayfare Tavern and SF

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[Photo: Betsy Kershner]

Earlier this week, Eater SF dodged the pre-opening bustle at Wayfare Tavern for an interview with owner Tyler Florence, who you may recognize from one of his many Food Network shows, cookbooks, or these Got Milk? ads. But this interview here is all about his return to the restaurant sphere, specifically the thoughts and planning that went into Wayfare Tavern, which is opening at the end of the month; and of course, Ty-Flo's designs on SF burger world domination. If you're curious about the opening menus, we've got dinner, daily blue plate specials and desserts here. And do take a moment for some sneak peeks of the interior in the gallery above.

This Wayfare Tavern interior looks out-of-the-ordinary for San Francisco. What's the inspiration? This restaurant is right smack in the middle of the old Barbary Coast. I also lived on the Lower East Side in New York and have always been proud of the gangs of New York vibe. So who designed the space? I did. I designed the space with our designer Lori Yeomans. She's never done a restaurant before so we're not falling into any design habits. We've been working on this for over a year now. We're calling it a tavern so we started to look at old fixtures. Like this wood [pointing to floor] is from a tobacco farm in old Kentucky. We bought the whole barn and had it shipped out. These are the same floors that are going to be in El Paseo, my spot in Mill Valley.

So how does it feel, taking over the old Rubicon space? So many amazing chefs, Traci des Jardins, Elizabeth Falkner, Drew Nieporent got their start here; and Jeremy Fox met his wife here. To take this place on it feels like you better step up to the plate. And to peel the layers back from what it was was a lot of work because this place was just pounded on for 14 years.

You're opening Rotisserie & Wine in Napa, El Paseo in Mill Valley and Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco in the next few months. What inspired you to get back into restaurants after so many years in TV and cookbook work? This is who I am. I've been a restaurant cook my whole life and started washing dishes. The TV thing is really just how I pay the bills. I mean it's fun. But it comes nowhere near the joy of the immediate connection you get with diners in a restaurant.

So who will your chef de cuisine be? It's a guy by the name of Michael Thiemann. He's an amazing guy from Sacramento. He's worked at Merriman's in Hawaii and the Hapuku Lodge in New Zealand. How did you meet him? I met him through a friend of a friend. We had an add on Eater, GrubStreet, Craiglist; but we found the talent through networking and did lots of tastings. I can't tell you who it was, but some of the most amazing cooks from the most amazing restaurants in San Francisco tried out and none of them were as good as this guy. I mean everyone wanted to work here.

So are you going to be out and about mingling in the dining room a lot? I'm going to be here. I cleared my schedule for the year. I'll be wiping the sweat off my face. I'm very much a people person.

After spending so much time in New York, what are your thoughts on dining in San Francisco? Last weekend we did two dinners on two coasts in 48 hours. We did one with Michael Mondavi at the Napa Valley Wine Auction and at the Ambassador for the United Emirates' house in DC and we were prepping this stuff up and were shocked at how bad the ingredients were. NY is all about the import. The new Japanese guy in town, the California wine, the new Italian fennel pollen, whatever. It's all about these things that come into Manhattan and are done very well by great people, but there's very little local story...Me personally, I've never had a deeper connection as a chef than what's done in the Bay Area.

Is that why you moved here? No. I moved here because my wife Tolan is from Marin County. We were pregnant and we had nine months to figure it out. We were going to move to LA because we have a bunch of friends there, but we couldn't find anything we liked and I'm really glad we didn't, because it would have been a different restaurant there. I would always say to Tolan's folks, thank God you don't live in bumblefuck the middle of nowhere. We live in Cascade Canyon in Mill Valley now and we have a five-bedroom cabin in the Redwood Forest. I've got two plum trees, an apple tree, 70 old growth Redwoods and 2000 honeybees doing their thing in my backyard now. I'm happy.

I'd love to hear about the menu at Wayfare. Awesome. Root beer. We have this root beer and beer we're brewing for taps. Here try it. Wow thanks, I was thirsty. We found this book Bohemian San Francisco written in 1914 by Clarence Edwards. It's a blow-by-blow, restaurant-by-restaurant idea of what life was like. And we found our bible. That book is where the word Wayfare came from. And the menu for the most part is American. We're not trying to be Cal-Italian or French...a lot of people say California cuisine was invented in the late 70s by Alice Waters, but really it was 100 years before that during the day of the Gold Rush, the world's first economic bubble. People got richer really quickly. And there were mining companies from all over the world: China, Italy, Spain, Japan, England here. They all brought their chefs and San Francisco was really the birth of continental cuisine. So it's very true to that time period that, for example, that we have escargot on the menu. And we're testing a burger today. I'm going for the best burger in San Francisco. Our burger grind is really important. It's a custom, proprietary grind that no one's going to have but us, balanced with fat and lean. It's awesome. Does the proprietary grind have a name? [laughing with Thiemann] Right now it's called T.O. special. What kind of roll are you going to use? The roll is almost like a croissant. We're trying three different bakeries now. Eventually we'll have our own bread program. There's a pastry kitchen upstairs.

Tell me about the kitchen in general. So when you're designing a kitchen you want to think about eliminating as many turns as you possibly can. So I designed this myself. I put the refrigeration right here under the stove. It makes firing meats and everything faster; so I've started my dish and I haven't turned once. I'm thinking almost like an air traffic controller. If it's 15 minutes backed up in Dallas; then it's going to be an hour and a half delay at JFK later in the afternoon. So all that shit's backed up. Really it's gotta be [snapping] fast, fast, fast.

Can we talk about the bar program? You know, there are some amazing consultants in the city, but I don't know if we're necessarily going to go there. We've got talented people here in house and it's really all about Martinis and Sazeracs. I think the craze of muddled, precious cocktails is kinda over. I don't think people want to pay for that or wait. So we're still putting the finishing touches on, but I promise it's going to be amazing.

And then wine-wise you've got your wine label. I've been a winemaker for three years now. My 2006 first vintage Zin got a 92 in Wine Spectator. So we're going to clear out my 2008 stash here. I've started working with Michael Mondavi. He's my business partner. Other than that we'll have mostly California vintages and we're featuring bottles signed by the City's most acclaimed restaurateurs and chefs, with the proceeds going to the Food Bank.

Wrapping things up now, where do you like to eat in San Francisco? Well I'm on a transcontinental flight twice a week, so I can really tell you what's going on in New York. And I have a family so we don't eat out a lot. But I've had great lunches at Perbacco and Barbacco. Right now they're doing an amazing dish with peaches and porcini mushrooms.

· All Tyler Florence Coverage [~ ESF ~]

Wayfare Tavern

558 Sacramento Street, , CA 94111 (415) 772-9060 Visit Website

Wayfare Tavern

558 Sacramento Street, San Francisco, CA