Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
[Photo: Aubrie Pick]AQ opened on the corner of 7th and Mission last fall with an autumn themed interior and a hyper seasonal menu to match. Owners Matt Semmelhack and chef Mark Liberman (formerly of La Folie) wanted a restaurant where the food and decor coordinate, and within their first few months, Bauer applauded them with a three and a half star review, and then James Beard made them a finalist for Best New Restaurant. Next up, they were listed among Bon Appetit's top new restaurants of the year, raved about in Esquire, and they just won two Eater Awards for Best New Restaurant of 2012 and Stone Cold Stunner. So, it's been a good year. Eater met with Semmelhack and Liberman to chat all about the first year, the coming year, and what it is like to be the Meryl Streep of restaurants.
One year in, did things turn out the way you expected?
Matt Semmelhack: My father asked me this question recently, but in a slightly different and leading way, which was "could you have possibly imagined that it would have gone this well?" Kind of a fatherly way of saying the same thing, which was we had very low expectations for starting a restaurant from scratch without much experience, in my case, not Mark's. And the answer is no, of course not. We've had a lot of really good press, it's been really busy and the food is amazing. And no, the answer is no [laughs] we could not have imagined it would have gone this well. It's been overwhelming, in a good way.
Mark Liberman: I did not expect it to go this well first year out. I've opened a lot of restaurants and when me and the sous chef were talking, I was saying I'd be happy doing 80 covers the first year. We've been doing double that from the beginning. Which, in the beginning, was really overwhelming because we were not really ready to do 150 covers a night. Especially at the level we were trying to do. But in the last year we're finally starting to evolve in finding our niche.
MS: We've figured out what kind of restaurant it is. As much as you plan, with business plans, and talking to the chef about what it's going to be like, it's more dictated by the customers and certainly by the style of food, and who we realized were coming to the restaurant, which you never know. We're in a neighborhood that's changing a lot.
ML: Not known for it's culinary...
MS: It's not exactly a destination corner. Hopefully it is now. So we had no idea who was actually going to come and I think we built a lot on Mark's talent and the kitchen's talent, and people come from pretty far away to eat at AQ.
How far away have people come from?
MS: We get a lot of New Yorkers
ML: We've done a lot of national press, and things like Wine Spectator opened the doors for a lot of international travelers that come to the city. With our location, we do have a lot of tourists that stay at these hotels behind us, so we do get a lot of foreigners.
MS: Kudos to our PR team for sure, but in the very beginning we had some unusual international media inquiries from Japan and Germany. In theory, that brings in an international crowd too, but we've had people that say "we read about you in..." I can't remember the name of that magazine in Japan now. It was a beautiful magazine, but none of us could understand what it said except our pastry chef who is Japanese and tried to translate for us. She translated a little bit.
ML: Ehhh, a little bit [laughs].
MS: Unexpected things like that that suddenly meant we're not just this little neighborhood restaurant. It's serious.
Do you find that a lot of locals are coming here?
ML: Definitely a lot of locals. Just in this neighborhood I find that there's obviously a lot of condominiums and town houses that have gone up in the last four or five years, and there's not a lot of places for those who live there to eat. A lot of them do come here on a regular basis. Especially for our Sunday brunch, it's predominately locals. And we do see a lot of guests from all over San Francisco, like the East Bay and Marin.
When you first started the concept for the restaurant, what gave you the idea? Were you inspired by other places that have a similar theme?
MS: There's one other well known restaurant that changes the decor with the season, Park Avenue in New York. In San Francisco, it's pretty common place to change the menu, or just say we have seasonal ingredients. We take that one step further and it's hyper seasonal. The Chef goes to the market seven times a week, and there's a lot of things I've never heard of that he comes back with. I'm like "what is this crazy ingredient?" and he says "it only exists for three weeks in the summer." Okay, sounds good. It's about adapting, which is a lot of work for these guys in the kitchen. Coming from the East Coast, the idea behind the restaurant is in San Francisco you don't feel the seasons really, except through food. So we'll let's take the seasonality to the decor itself. Even if it's January and it's 75 degrees outside, or it's June and 40 degrees and windy and cold, you might get the more traditional feeling of the seasons. It's more rustic and harvest time in the fall, then stark and white in the winter.
ML: There are obviously a lot of restaurants in San Francisco that do seasonal food. Our whole thing is that we really just want to focus on that niche, and with each season completely take away the entire menu and do a new menu. And we do that a few times within the season as well, just because of the way seasons work. For example, persimmons just came into season even though fall started a month ago. So we're going to start again and start incorporating more fall items that we're not available a month ago.
MS: We're printing the fifth fall menu. A lot of people ask "Oh, is it the fall menu?" and I'll say "It's one of the fall menus."
So with each season you'll have around five different menus?
MS: Or more. We are halfway through fall and this is the fifth menu. It could be 15, but it's whatever happens
ML: I try not to change it to sporadically, just because every time I do change it I have to train someone. I'm not a big fan of just changing things to change things. I like everything to be well thought out. I know a lot of restaurants like to fly by the seat of their pants and change the menu everyday and are very market driven. I get that, but I also like to put a lot of thought into what we're going to do and make sure everything is covered. With the seasonal decor, Matt's really behind a lot of the things you see here.
ML: A lot of physical
MS: It's kind of an ongoing joke. The day of our seasonal decor change, we open [for service] at 5:30 p.m. and usually at 5:32 p.m. we're packing up the ladder.
Fall is very pretty in here. I was here in the spring.
MS: Spring's my least favorite.
Why? The decor?
MS: Yeah, I was the least happy with spring this year. It was frustrating because The Chronicle did a big spread on it in their style section. I would have rather they did either winter or summer, in retrospect.
Outside of the restaurant, do you have a favorite season?
ML: I like fall and spring.
MS: I like fall too.
ML: I like fall because I'm really over summertime, usually. I'm usually over tomatoes.
ML: Yeah, I know, I love tomatoes, but being a chef you go to the market and it's tomatoes and eggplants, for like, two months. And fall just brings in so much variety, like apples, mushrooms and nuts. It's just a nice change. I'm usually over it being hot, and I like the cold crisp air. Winter, it's the same thing. Dead of winter and your seeing cabbage and turnips over and over. Then all of the sudden peas come in, and all these greens.
MS: I'm with you on fall. I think again, being from the east coast, the most iconographic seasonal change is when the leaves start to fall. And at AQ my favorite season is fall, partially because that's when we opened and when I think of the restaurant this is usually how I picture it.
Do you two read reviews, and are you aware when a critic comes in?
ML: I read every review. I probably shouldn't sometimes. I've learned to not get upset about some of them, some of the bloggers or Yelp reviews. But it's an important tool as a restaurant group or chef. It does open our eyes to things we might not necessarily see.
MS: Yelp gets a lot of flak for being amateurish, and it cuts into the authority of a reviewer like Michael Bauer. I think maybe Bauer reviews mean more, but the everyday Yelp reviews, they're going to pick out things that the quote un-qoute "serious professional reviewer" doesn't see because they're not at the restaurant everyday.
From reading reviews, what have you taken away?
ML: When we first opened, our portion sizes were a lot smaller and we got blasted on it, not by food critics. Food critics really liked our food. But it was a lot the Yelp reviews, online reviews, saying that the food was small. We're still not a huge portion place. You still have to order two or three courses to be substantially full. At the same time, if you come in and order an entrée and that's it, it's not going to leave you feeling hungry.
MS: It goes back to, we weren't exactly sure what type of restaurant AQ was going to be. Now we've figured that out, and I think the general public has figured that out to.
ML: A lot of our early reviews that we were getting, our price points were rather low for a neighborhood restaurant of our caliber. So we were getting a lot of people who are not foodies coming in and they were looking for a Caesar salad, or asking "how come your chicken isn't like, a chicken?" They're used to going to places that do charge $24 dollars for an entrée and it's a big chicken with roasted potatoes. And we're giving, not that.
MS: More refined.
ML: And finally, like Matt was saying, people were recognizing what AQ is and it's not roast chicken and mashed potatoes. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's not...
MS: That's a different restaurant.
Since the menu changes so frequently, are there any dishes that you still think of, dream of, and consider favorites?
ML: We've done a lot of dishes, and there are at least seven or six dishes that I really liked and they sold really well. Guests really liked them. We had this whole discussion coming back in the Fall if we should bring back certain dishes. I don't think I'm really ready to bring them back yet. There might be a time, two years or three years from now.
MS: Ten years.
Oh wow, we have to wait ten years.
MS: From the business side of things you look at items that were really popular and think, well, we should have those again. On the flip side, what Mark says if what we're offering is not this dish. We're offering an excellent quality of food that's something you haven't had before. To do that it means don't repeat. That's pretty key and it's a lot of work, but it's worth it.
ML: I think a lot of our guests are getting accustomed to it. In the beginning there was a dish we had called the venison tartare, and everybody loved it. I took it off the menu because it was a wintertime dish. People were coming in the springtime and they wanted the dish. I'm sure people might want it again this winter, but they're not going to get it.
MS: But they might get something better.
What has surprised you most over the year?
ML: The James Beard nomination was definitely surprising. Just because we were fairly new when it came out and we were just on this corner of 7th and Mission, doing what we do. We were up against places like Next in Chicago and it was just amazing to be nominated for that.
MS: That's definitely the biggest surprise in terms of press goes.
Was there a magazine or publication you were most excited to be featured in?
MS: Esquire was pretty awesome.
ML: Yes, Esquire. That's because I read Esquire [laughs].
MS: As 30-something males, that's a pretty high pinnacle. When we sat down and talked about our PR goals I said New York Times, for sure. And within two months we were mentioned in The New York Times. That was, for me personally, fantastic, but in terms of most exciting, Esquire. The James Beard too, but in a different way.
ML: James Beard was more of a nod from our peers, so in that sense for me it was really cool. To be there and to be surrounded by all these great restraunters and chefs.
MS: All that being said, I think we both feel that we haven't actually won anything yet, and that's frustrating. James beard is amazing, right? Top five, didn't win.
ML: It's okay. I'm okay with that.
MS: Bon Appetit, top 50, awesome. Didn't win.
ML: We were in Eater though.
MS: Now you have a chance to change that. [Note - at the time of this interview they had not won Best New Restaurant or Stone Cold Stunner on Eater]
So you feel like, who's that actress that always gets nominated for an Oscar?
MS: Meryl Streep [laughs]? No she has like four [Editor's note - she has three].
ML: But she got nominated a lot.
She had that stretch of time where she didn't get the Oscar for about 20 years.
ML: I don't want to wait 20 years [laughs].
MS: I'm mostly kidding. But we're both pretty passionate and competitive. So just once it would be nice to be the one winner. That's a driving force for us for sure. A good example: The Guardian does Best of the Bay, and there were all these different categories. And you know, it's not super high profile award, but we always liked to be included in these things. And the one award that had a shared winner was Best New Restaurant. It was us and Central Kitchen. Everyone else had their own. It was their only tie, I think they said, ever. And again, it's not about the awards, but it is nice and exciting and fun.
Were there any criticisms in reviews that surprised you or that you disagreed with?
ML: The one that really stands out in my mind, to this day, is an email we got. It was about my language. I have colorful language, but I've definitely curbed it a lot. It's an open kitchen, but there was one night when one of my cooks didn't do anything right. He no longer works here [laughs]. He didn't prep half his station and it was ten o' clock at night, so I just pretty much lost it. I guess there was a lady sitting in front of me, and I was just cursing and yelling at him. She sent a nasty email, well it wasn't nasty...
MS: Constructive criticism
ML: Constructive criticism, saying my management style is somewhat archaic. I felt like I'm not like that at all. We have a relatively quiet kitchen, but it gets loud because of the restaurant. It's not one of those screaming kitchens. So I really took it to heart
MS: It was one of those situations where you feel like there was this weird, anomaly moment and there was someone who comes to the restaurant once out of the 365 days, and thinks it must always be like this.
Can you speak about the location choice? In reading reviews, some comment that it's odd, or dangerous.
MS: There's two sides of it. One is the concept of AQ is a destination restaurant. It's not a one of ten in a row on Chestnut Street. You plan to go to AQ, and when you go it's a special moment. And if people are going to go out of their way to go there, actually being on your own is a good thing. There's no problem parking [laughs]. It is on the edge of a gritty neighborhood, but we're in a city. This is one of the pros or cons of living in any city. We have a really unique building here. It was built in 1906, and there are very few restaurants in San Francisco for a number of reasons, that are that old. And lastly, the people who are complaining about the fact that it's a little dicey down the street, that's one of the reasons you don't pay as much when you come here. If it were on Union Square the prices would be double. And people don't always see that there is a tradeoff there, somewhere.
ML: I think in a long term of things, this neighborhood is going to be very different from what it is now.
Are you happy you went with Kickstarter as a way to make some money to start AQ?
MS: Yeah, that was definitely not a planned part of the business plan, but we were starting to look for other sources of funding. Kickstarter was a very small amount of the total we raised to open the restaurant, but I think it was one of the most fun $30,000 dollars we raised and in the end there's not a huge windfall from that. It costs a lot of money to run a Kickstarter and give out the rewards and that kind of thing. The benefit has been people come in that were supporters, and they are supporters. They're not just investors, but supporters. I always give the example, if you're running a race for anything, presidential or otherwise and say you need a million dollars to win the campaign, let's say 10 million to be realistic. You have one guy with 10 million dollars or you have a million people with 10 dollars. Same amount of money, but now you have a million voters as well. In a small way that's more what Kickstarter is about then the actual money.
ML: For me it was really about getting the community involved from the beginning. A lot of them come in a lot, I see them at the market. That to me is more important then the actual value of the money.
MS: And just like a campaign or an election, a restaurant needs followers. It would be great if we had one wealthy customer, but he's not going to eat here every night.
ML: And he would probably have the worst allergies. "I can't eat anything but this raw celery"
MS: It would be funny if we had one seating a night, $10,000 dollars.
ML: The most expensive table in San Francisco.
Has anyone come in that you've been star struck by or particularly excited about?
ML: Metallica came in. It was a really busy night and he wanted a tasting menu and I didn't know who it was, and I looked up and saw that it was Metallica. And I came to the table and I did my spiel. At the end of it I became this 15-year-old boy. I saw Metallica in concert in 1990, and I love Metallica. I came back [to the kitchen] and most of my chefs didn't know who Metallica was. Which was also great [laughs].
MS: When national critics come in it's hugely exciting for the restaurant. John Mariani from Esquire was coming in. He actually came in with some local friends and he was a little early and he was a really nice guy. Not intimidating and he was like, "seems like you guys are working really hard and have a great thing here." It was affirming and again, a moment where you realize we're doing something pretty big here. It's not just a little restaurant. We're getting some attention here.
It's never been nerve wrecking when a critic comes in?
MS: For sure, for the kitchen more than anywhere else.
ML: Like when Bauer comes in, it's definitely nerve wrecking because you want to make sure that everything is perfect.
MS: Which we do generally anyway, but there's an extra little push for sure. Almost to the detriment of service because you're nervous.
ML: It's not always nerve wrecking. There's a lot of local food bloggers that support us. Like Virginia Miller comes in a lot. I definitely want to make sure their experience is special, for all our guests, but I want to make sure we take care of the food writers.
What are your goals for the next year?
MS: Well, there are certain obvious ones. We feel like we should be in the category that Michelin starts to look for for a star. I don't think that's a cocky thing. We've figured out what kind of restaurant we are and that's what we're shooting for. That means for us certainly upping the standards.
ML: And tidying up is our next focus here at AQ.
MS: There are still lose wing nuts and things we haven't fixed in a year, stuff like that.
Do you have a favorite moment looking back?
MS: [When] Sophia Vergara [ate here]. Just kidding. This might be a little boring, but the day we opened is still top five memories of all time. For me having never opened a restaurant before, this was the culmination of three years of work and a huge amount of hard work and sacrifice and it was a good excuse for a lot of friends to visit and family to visit from the East Coast and elsewhere. And it was a relief. My now-wife, who was my girlfriend, and I had just finished sweeping up the last bit of dust downstairs ten minutes before we opened. That's putting it mildly, just with weeks of no sleep, hard work, physical labor, all this stuff, and we just looked at each other and said, "Well, I guess now we should start the next one."
ML: Definitely opening night for the same reasons. It just takes a tremendous amount of work to open a restaurant. Physical, mental and emotional. But the night that stands out for me, it was sometime in December, where the restaurant just started becoming a machine. Everyone knew their job description, everything was flowing and the guests were happy. It was a warm crowd at that point.
· All AQ Coverage [~ ESF ~]