After a lightning-fast turnaround last fall, Russian Hill's Luella was transformed into Stones Throw, a restaurant that's since enjoyed comparisons to SF favorites Nopa and Frances. Created by Jason Kirmse and Cyrick (Cy) Hia of Fat Angel, along with Michael Mina alumni Ryan Cole, Tai Ricci and Chef Jason Halverson, Stones Throw has the easygoing vibe of your go-to neighborhood spot but a menu that far surpasses it: squid ink pasta, grilled octopus and duck pate are just a few dishes that have quickly become signatures. Add the "hospitality first" mentality of fine dining, and it's no wonder the past year has been so successful for this team. We sat down with all of them to talk about what makes a great dining experience and how they've solved all of our parking woes.
It’s been one year since you opened. What word immediately comes to mind when you think of the past year?
Tai Ricci: Just one?
How did your experiences at Fat Angel and Michael Mina influence what you’ve done at Stones Throw?
Ryan Cole: I remember walking into Fat Angel when I’d just moved to San Francisco -- I live next door -- and Cy was always at the bar. They started it from scratch; they built it themselves. Over four years it went from where I could walk in every day and have my dinner, to I can’t even get in at 10:30 at night when I get off work and I’m having to text him to get a to-go order before the kitchen closes. Then you look at our side, with the fine dining pedigree and training. The root and fundamental foundation of [Halverson’s] food is that it’s well executed. He actually took the time to learn how to do it properly; it’s not about tricks and shows. When you take what his food’s about, what these guys built and our front of house hospitality background, it makes sense. You don’t have to try very hard. Put up good food.
Tai: And be nice to people. You genuinely care about every single person who walks in that door.
Ryan: And you obsess over it. Anybody can get lucky, but you don’t get lucky without the hard work.
Tai: There’s something really exciting, too, about the five of us getting together. Us, coming from that super fine dining, technically driven service, to meeting these guys and saying, oh my God -- we can open a restaurant and have fun! The face of dining is kind of changing in San Francisco, and it’s about the feeling you get when you walk in the door.
Jason Kirmse: Ryan always used that word: the full "experience," instead of just having dinner. That resonated well within the five of us.
Ryan: You can’t have a restaurant if you don’t have great food—that goes without saying. But you also can’t have a restaurant if your cooks aren’t friendly. Everybody working in the restaurant has to enjoy going there and people have to be willing to bend over backwards for a guest that walks in; you don’t use the word "no." We have five people who understand that concept that it doesn’t matter how good the food is, if we suck in the front, nobody’s coming back. And it doesn’t matter how nice we are – we could polish someone’s shoes – if the food’s terrible, they’re not coming back.
The restaurant opening was announced August 2013 and you opened in November. How did you manage such a quick turnaround?
Cyrick Hia: Actually we got the keys on September 1st.
Ryan: And we opened November 5th.
Tai: When we walked in the door we were like, all right, we have the keys, let’s check out the space… and then Kirmse came out with a sledgehammer and just started taking things apart! We all looked at each other and we were like, OK, so this is happening. I just got my nails done.
Ryan: Within two or three days we basically ourselves demo’d the entire space. We physically did it ourselves: rented a U-HAUL – twice – and went to the dump. I think it was over two-and-a-half tons of garbage we pulled out of here.
Cyrick: It was over three tons.
Was there a lot of work to be done?
Jason Kirmse: That whole ledge was a drop ceiling, so you walked in and immediately had a drop ceiling over your head. There was a large awning, too. This was kind of a darker space, and we immediately came in and said, we need some light in here. We took off the ceiling, tore out the back bar, put a whole new back bar piece in, repurposed the bar, faced it with some wood, scraped down all the banquettes, put new banquettes in. Nothing structural – it was all cosmetic. That’s why we could do it in two months. And we got really lucky and all five of us worked it. We painted, we scraped, we spackled -- we did most of the work.
Have you made any more changes since you opened?
Jason Halverson: Constantly.
Tai: When we opened the doors it literally was like a garage. The walls were bare.
Jason Kirmse: We lived in this space for a while, and we kind of just added. As we had some money, we put some of it aside.
What have some of the biggest challenges been since you opened?
Jason Halverson: It’s hard in the city. It’s what the city’s created: a lot of restaurants opening, a lot of people necessary to run and operate this business. Even more so, finding the right people that fit what we believe in is even harder. For the 10 people you could possibly find to be part of the front of the house, back of the house, anywhere -- it’s hard finding even one of those guys who’s like, hey, I’m going to make sure that guy over there is happy.
Ryan: Front of house-wise, we were able to pick and pull. We hired only one person we didn’t know. Out of the back of house it was way more challenging. It took us eight or nine months to get those right people in. [Jason] is extremely talented, so he can give good food and have people execute it. The difference is consistency and passion and ability to change. Now we have reliable people who care so much about it, who want to see it progress and change and challenge. We’re stable.
Jason Kirmse: It’s an issue all over the city. It’s not just us.
Jason Halverson: You go to a chef-driven event, and it’s the same conversation with everybody. "Hey, how are you, haven’t seen you in forever, how’s everything? Oh, I need to find staff."
Tai: "Do you know anyone who’s looking for a job? Anyone?"
Tai: But the restaurant industry in San Francisco is amazing. The day we opened, we didn’t have a dishwasher. One of our servers called Chef Tom at flour + water and he got in his car and drove someone over -- and he’s still here. I’ve called numerous friends of mine that have retired from the industry, that are working other day jobs, to come and help at the front door or in the front of house in any way, and they do it. No questions asked. And we would do it for anyone else.
Ryan: We’ve had people run through here for one, two, three months, just because it helps us but it helps them. They’re in transition and they’re great people and we don’t need someone necessarily but we make a little bit of room for them to make a little bit of money until they have they’re next thing.
What about the biggest rewards?
Jason Halverson: Giving Ryan hugs every day.
Tai: #HugRyanCole is a hashtag.People actually come in and sneak-attack hug him now because he’s so hyper aware of it. Strangers are like, what’s with this hug Ryan Cole thing?
Jason Halverson: [Laughs] Try it.
Jason Kirmse: I think one of the biggest rewards has just been the neighborhood. It’s really awesome to have the folks in this neighborhood give the support that they’re giving. These folks pay a lot of money to live in this neighborhood and they look at you with a skeptical eye. We won them over from the first time they walked in here. And you see the loyalty; you see why restaurants on this block have been here for as long as they have and the turnover is nonexistent. It’s the community.
Tai: We do a charity dinner the last Monday of every month. This past one we pretty much sold out.
Ryan: We’ve sold out since June.
Tai: It was hard in the beginning. We’d have to invite friends in. We wanted to make a difference in the community, and this time -- when it hit me that this is real and not ever going away -- the room was full. I turned around to look back and I knew 90% of the people sitting in here. That’s your family and your friends. It restores your faith in humanity.
What made you want to put that program together?
Ryan: Jason had this idea maybe three years ago when we were at Michael Mina. It wasn’t the right time or the right place, and it wouldn’t have worked with what the vision ultimately was. So we were like, we should do that same thing here. We decided we were going to start this series – Eat Like a Chef, Drink Like a Somm -- the premise being inviting a guest chef and somm into the restaurant. We started it two-and-a-half months after we opened. We decided we wanted to do it with a charity. After going down to the [San Francisco] Food Bank and talking to them, it ended up being something I was really passionate about. Anyone can write a check, but to be able to not only write a check every month but physically go down to the food bank and give back hours of time – you bring it full circle for a lot of our staff who are very fortunate to have their jobs.
How does the event work?
Ryan: We invite a guest restaurant -- this month it’s actually not a restaurant, it’s Robert Sinskey Vineyards. Maria Sinskey, who’s phenomenally talented, and Robert Sinskey, so instead of a chef and somm, it’s a winemaker and chef. They come in and we do a five-course tasting menu. We do three of the courses, so he [Jason Halverson] will do three of the dishes and he [Jason Kirmse] will pair wines with three of the dishes. And then the guest chef will do two dishes and they’ll bring their somm and pair wines with those two. It’s $75 a person for the food, and if you want to do wine pairing it’s $50 extra. This is the anti-gala charity series. Nobody in our generation can afford to go to a charity gala; nobody wants to sit with random people they don’t know. Nobody likes to get dressed up like that and do this whole thing.
Tai: Um, some of us do! I’m in it for the gown.
Ryan: It’s just awkward and uncomfortable and you’re like, am I making a difference? Our whole thing was, why can’t you do a dinner where it’s just like every other night? You just make a reservation, but all the money spent in the restaurant goes to the charity that night. Like Tai said, it was rough at the beginning. You have to market it and get out there. We partnered with Sosh, and they’re phenomenal. It really took until we hit Perbacco in June – we lowered the price just a little bit and it clicked. We’ve sold out every single one since.
Do the same people come every time?
Ryan: There’s a core group of people who come to every single one. Then there’s one-offs that we get, one-offs that come from Sosh, and one-offs that come from the guest restaurants. Last month was ICHI and Erin [Archuleta] was like, "I can’t believe I know so many people here." We share so many regulars at this level, and it’s awesome.
And the staff volunteers at the food bank?
Ryan: Our staff and the guest restaurant staff. We get a group of eight or 10 and volunteer the morning of the event for three hours. It puts in perspective where your money’s going as you literally take 25,000 pounds of apples and break it down into wine box cases. Somebody’s gotta do it.
What’s been the most successful event so far?
Ryan: The Sinskeys actually sold out the fastest and sold the most. It’s not about the popularity of the restaurant, it’s building the popularity of the program. We have really cool plans for 2015.
Ryan: Well, the November event is the coolest so far, in my opinion. It’s three pastry chefs all doing a savory course: Bill Corbett from Absinthe, William Werner and Matt Tinder from Meadowood. Then he [Halverson] is doing dessert. After that one I think we will have donated about $20-23,000 over the course of the year to the food bank.
And then for 2015?
Ryan: We sat down and said, should we do a charity a year, and focus all our effort and energy and money into one charity? So we decided to change charities. And it’s nothing against the food bank – we absolutely love the food bank. But I also sit on the board for another charity
Jason Halverson: [Laughs] Do you have Ryan’s newspaper?
Jason Kirmse: His scrapbook?
Tai: His journal! "I made an Excel spreadsheet of my success."
Ryan: [Laughs] So Ronnie Lott has a charity – Hall of Fame football player, 49ers – called Ronnie Lott’s All-Stars Helping Kids. It’s like a Kickstarter for charities. Every year they fund six startup charities with $25,000 each and, over three years, teach them what they need to know and how to treat it from a business perspective, in addition to giving resources for the actual charitable needs. So when they go out in the real world they know how to raise money on their own -- they’ve already been funded, they’ve already established a track record. And they’re all Bay Area youth-focused. We’re partnering with them for 2015 because we knew that if we could raise $25,000 we could literally fund a whole brand new charity to start. We’re going to put a twist on it this year – in addition to inviting our guest restaurant friends this year, we’re also going to be pairing up with a sports player every month.
Tai: Tom Brady, Tom Brady, Tom Brady!
Who’s it going to be? Anyone on your shortlist?
Ryan: Ronnie and their charity have committed to getting four people -- one per quarter. There’s a lot of names out there we’d love to have, but I haven’t committed anyone yet. We’re going to have it lined up by December. As far as chefs, we’ve got a lot of people we want to talk to.
What’s the sports tie-in at the event?
Ryan: So in addition to bringing a chef, we’re going to pair with a sports player – what does that guy like to eat or drink? Say you’ve got Ronnie Lott. Ronnie and Jason can pair up, and obviously Ronnie’s not going to cook for 100 people, but it’s like, what do you like to eat? What is your memorable meal? And [Halverson] is going to turn around and make that into a dish. And they’ll be here the night of, hanging out in the kitchen and helping us run the food and talking to guests. It’s all a story of where that money goes: to a sports foundation to help fund these charities. It’s interesting and unique. It’s good marketing for us – we’ve got to sell this out. That’s our number one goal, because then we can raise $25,000 a year at least.
Jason Halverson: And it’s just fun for a Monday night.
Jason Kirmse: We’re usually closed on Mondays.
Tai: But people do come in, like, oh you guys are open! And I explain to them that it’s a charity dinner and we’re donating all the money. And they stay. It’s really cool.
Let’s talk about your menu. How has it evolved since you first opened?
Jason Halverson: It was a really quick opening, so it started with something very repertoire driven – not a lot of tricks, just good food. Now, along with the seasons changing, it’s just had a fun, more homey feel. Not rustic, not what you’ll find anywhere, more just food that sounds fun to us and we’re excited about. I think that equates to a lot: when we’re excited about it and it tastes good to us.
What have been some of the most popular dishes?
Ryan: Squid ink conchiglie pasta – never coming off the menu. It is by far and away the number one most popular dish. The number two is between the puffed potato and eggs and the duck pate and duck liver mousse with soft warm pretzels.
Jason Halverson: One table ordered four pastas last night.
For how many people?
Jason Halverson: It was five people. But they started with one, they ate all their dishes, they wanted one more, and then after they ate their entrees they wanted two more.
Ryan: I have people who are like, we’re just going to have it for dessert. Those three are the ones that have become signatures – I don’t think we set out intending for them to be, but it we took that pasta off a) it would be a disservice to us and b) people would freak out.
Is there anything new you want to try?
Jason Halverson: No crazy thoughts on the future. I think we started off – I don’t want to say "safe," but we designed a menu that was kind of friendly to everybody no matter how you look at it. With that, there’s been trust grown with repeat guests. Now, if we’re excited about it and there’s a reason, it makes sense to give it a try. We’re also smart enough to say, this sucks. Let’s take it off the menu – real fast. And so we do. And it’s not going to hurt my ego. It’s not going to do me any good to make 20 orders of it and I sell two. It also doesn’t make sense for a guest to be like, that sucked.
Ryan: [Laughs] They don’t usually come back.
Was there anything in particular that was a big miss?
Ryan: I don’t think there was anything that was a big miss, but there were definitely things that were not…us. It just didn’t feel like it fit.
Jason Halverson: You’re going to say tuna and melon.
Ryan: I was actually going to say the beets. The original beet snack.
Tai: I had erased that from my memory.
Ryan: It was a filler. It wasn’t bad – some people really enjoyed it. But when you compare it to everything else that we do, it wasn’t right. Now, when you look at the evolution of what’s in its place, that dish is one of the best snacks we have – the shrimp cocktail. It’s ridiculous.
So it’s more about evolving dishes than scrapping them?
Ryan: From a non-chef perspective, every time we make a change it seems like it’s a better dish than before. You look back at the beginning menu and you’re like, I can’t believe we opened with this, when we now have this. With the exception of that soup – the sunchoke soup was ridiculous. It was my Thanksgiving gravy last year. I made him give me a pint of the soup and we used it as gravy on the turkey.
So is it coming back?
Ryan: Maybe as my Thanksgiving gravy.
What about the beverage menu – has that evolved?
Jason Kirmse: It has. We always wanted to do a great beer program here – that’s one of the misses we see at a lot of restaurants in the city. So we mirrored Fat Angel’s beer menu – not as extensive but equally well curated and thoughtful. We started off with about 40 wines and 40 beers; now it’s about 60-60. That’s where we’ll max out. But we constantly rotate – one case in, one case out, keeping it fresh. It’s exciting introducing folks coming here to sour beers, smoked beers, beers that they would never normally get at restaurants because people think it’s too risky. If you’re going to spend $14 on a beer, you better like the beer. But in my mind it’s about creating an experience, so if somebody has that smoked beer and it opens their eyes – when they walk out of this restaurant they’re going to say, "Whoa." People are taking the risk and trusting our servers and palates to say, you want this. This is going to be great with the food and change your life. That’s been a big evolution.
Ryan: And the wine list evolved too. We’ve listened to people’s palates but we’ve also created new categories and done value driving. The Bargain Bin was a vision after the fact.
Jason Kirmse: The Bargain Bin section is a really fun one, and it’s something we hope spreads throughout the industry, especially in a city like this. It’s taking wines that a restaurant would normally mark up higher, and what we would do is say, "We want that bottle to be on your table." We want you to be drinking that wine, not have it collecting dust in our cellar. So we take a lower markup on it.
Ryan: Sometimes it’s like a 30% markup instead of 300%. People who know wine walk in here and have a heyday. They can’t walk out not getting this bottle. If you look at our list and compare those bottles to any other bottles in the city, on the low end they’d be $5 cheaper and on the high end, $50 dollars cheaper. I’d rather you have a great experience, no matter what.
You started brunch almost immediately. Why?
Ryan: Literally, the second Sunday we were open. I remember sitting in your apartment, having this discussion about brunch.
Jason Kirmse: Four out of five said no; one said yes. Then we were having brunch. Ryan was right.
Ryan: [Laughs] I’m sorry, what was that?
Tai: Scratch that from the record.
Jason Kirmse: We want people from the moment they come in here to know that we do brunch. And the longer you delay it, the longer the word’s not getting out. You build brunch; you don’t suddenly open your door for brunch and you’re packed. It’s a process.
Ryan: Watch somebody who’s been open for six months or a year, who’s in this routine of all the cooks, servers, us – and then you open for brunch and you have to change everything.
Jason Halverson: When they don’t know any better, no harm, no foul.
Jason Kirmse: We get busier and busier every week, and it’s something we’ve committed to. We’re going to stick with it and it will pay off.
Ryan: We get so many comments that it’s, like, the best brunch ever. We also take reservations for brunch, which most people don’t. And we almost always honor them. On time!
You were the first restaurant to partner with Uber. Why did you decide to do that?
Ryan: We knew when we were looking at the space that parking was tough, but it didn’t really sink in until we got the keys and were trying to park every day. It was impossible. We’re always on the lookout to solve a problem. I always take Uber, so I was like, why don’t we partner with them? People were really impressed. They’re grateful for it, but they don’t listen to it.
Tai: I do the confirmation calls every day, and every single voicemail I leave ends with, "Parking in our neighborhood is difficult. If you Uber to the restaurant and show your receipt to the server, we will gladly give you 5% off your check." But no one listens! No one makes it that far.
Ryan: We’re actually doing a new partnership also.
Ryan: There’s a new app being released [LUXE Valet] that will solve a major problem for us – parking. Uber is great and we recommend that, but if you’re coming from the south bay or east bay, you’re not going to Uber into the city. So it’s a new company doing on-demand valet. Literally, you pinpoint where you’re going, they send a valet to meet you, pick up your car, park it in a garage, and bring it back within 15 minutes of your request. $5 an hour for a $15 max. It’s insane. Anybody who uses the app for Stones Throw gets free parking until November 23.
What has the response been to these kinds of partnerships?
Ryan: People appreciate it. We go out of our way with everything. We want you to get here and not be pissed off after driving around for 30 minutes looking for parking. We want you to sit down and be able to give you what you want. We had a person come in here the other day and say, no gluten, no dairy, no nightshades – I had to Google what that was!
Tai: We were like, OK, good to know, now we’re going to blow your mind. This is all the stuff that we can do.
Jason Halverson: If we can’t be proactive on a problem, it’s easier just to say, here’s the problem at hand and here’s how we’re going to solve it. As opposed to, "Ughhhhhh."
Tai: We’re not just here to give people what they want. We’re here to give them what they don’t know they want yet. You have trouble parking? Here are two solutions. You’re a vegan? That’s not a problem. You’re having a bad day? I’m going to make it better. You have to constantly read people, know people. Always say yes. No has never been uttered here, to anyone.
Jason Halverson: Do I look fat? No.
Cyrick: There was one time a guest wrote in a comment that the waitstaff here must be insane because everybody seems so happy.
Tai: We get that comment a lot about the staff.
Ryan: Our biggest asset is our staff. I would put them up against any staff in the entire city, from cooks to stewards to servers. Our cooks will say thank you to everybody who walks by – it’s an open kitchen. People come up and talk to them, it’s not a big deal. They are just as gracious as everyone else. They will run food if they’re in a bind. [Jason] runs food, pours wine, clears tables…
Tai: [Laughs] Folds napkins! And puts them in the wrong spot.
Jason Halverson: It’s A for effort.
Tai: It’s 100% built around [the staff’s] personalities and morally who they are as human beings. When you’re building a team I want to know that if I have to look away for a second, I can trust every single person to do the right thing all the time. That builds trust among them and trickles down from the top with us. And the guests feel it, too. The staff’s excited. There’s a really wonderful energy that runs through this place.
Ryan: We also have amazing guests. I’ve never worked in a restaurant where I’ve gotten such amazing feedback for every single dish that hits the table. You don’t walk to a table and not recommend a dish or feel scared that someone’s not going to like it. At a lot of restaurants, you’re very nervous. But here, you know you’re going to see a smile on their face.
You’ve stayed busy. What’s your reaction to the enthusiastic response from guests?
Ryan: Way busier than we thought we were going to be.
Jason Kirmse: We’ve been really surprised – it’s gone beyond what we ever thought it would. Now, it’s all about getting that extra five, six tables a night, which everybody’s scrapping for in the entire city.
Ryan: We’re a hidden secret for a lot of people. We’ve got a great pedigree sitting at this table here and we’ve got great people working here, and our user feedback has been tremendous. We’re one of the only restaurants that has 4.5 stars on Yelp and has been open a year. Nobody who opened the same time we did does. Not that they’re not great restaurants, but it’s such a difficult thing to achieve, to get your user feedback consistently that high.
What do you think has made the difference?
Ryan: People are very passionate about this restaurant for some reason. We’re passionate about this restaurant, but we get very passionate guests too. People want to write about it and talk about it – for good or for bad. There are people who passionately hated it –
Jason Halverson: At least they did it passionately.
Ryan: And the majority passionately loved it. And you don’t get much in between.
Tai: We had a Yelp review like three days ago that was five stars that started, "I walked in here wanting to hate this place." A lot of people, because of our pedigree and who we are, have this expectation that it’s going to be this or that. I welcome that. I want someone coming in here wanting to hate us. I know that I can turn that around, and it’s my personal mission to do that. That’s what makes a dining experience.
Ryan: We also obsess over it. You can’t obsess over the media, because we can’t control the media. But we do control our Yelp reviews and our Trip Advisor and OpenTable reviews. Those are real guest feedback, and it really does mean a lot to us. If somebody has a bad experience, it sucks. We try to learn from it and say, did we make a mistake? And we take it to heart.
Tai: It hurts my feelings sometimes, Yelp. I’m scared to read it. And then I go and look at the reservation and think, what did they have to eat, who was their server, did I talk to them? How do we get them back in? I consider this my child, so it’s hard to taste a dish and not say, this is awesome. You really have to check your ego. And there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s only going to make you better. I tell the staff that all the time pre-shift: Check your ego. Let it go. Do the right thing all the time. And it’s about being humble and honest with yourself.
What’s special about Russian Hill?
Tai: It’s the neighborhood.
Jason Halverson: It’s very self-sufficient in its own right. The Mission, the Marina – those neighborhoods are very accessible. Whereas here, we’re up on a hill. It’s a long way to walk.
Jason Kirmse: It’s an iconic neighborhood. We have the cable car running by every single day. Sitting here dining and being able to see that – and working here and being able to see that – you pinch yourself.
It must be interesting to be in a spot where people are more settled. Do you feel that?
Cyrick: A lot. Actually, a lot of the residents here lived here for quite some time, and people who do move in, they feel that it’s their neighborhood. That’s also why they’re passionate about what pops up here. They’re like, we want to own this restaurant, but you’ve got to make it good.
Ryan: We were also afraid of the comparisons. Luella was here for 10 years, and Fratelli was here for 30 years before that. Nothing on the street, other than Elephant Sushi, has changed in a long, long time. We were just hoping people would come in and be like, we really like what you’re doing. It’s new energy. If I’m here in 15 years, that’s awesome. The only way to establish yourself is to have this energy right now.
Tai: We’ll be here in 15 years.
What’s next on the horizon?
Jason Halverson: Sleep.
Tai: And a nice bottle of Barolo.
Jason Kirmse: It’s a great time to be in the city – it’s always changing. We have a niche and we definitely want to grow as a company. Our parent company is called 'Hi, Neighbor.' We want to get into neighborhoods and make these special places for people in their neighborhoods. We don’t want to be in the Marina or the Mission – we want to be in the neighborhoods of San Francisco.
What else is under the Hi, Neighbor group?
Jason Kirmse: Good question! Nothing yet, but we’re definitely keeping our eyes open.
Jason Halverson: The idea behind Hi, Neighbor is the mentality.
What’s the story behind the name, Stones Throw?
Ryan: What’s it mean to you?
You’re close by.
Jason Kirmse: It’s many things. Stones Throw, kill two birds with one stone, birds on a wire.
Ryan: The birds are dead in our logo. They were killed by a stone.
Tai: We’re dark. We make inappropriate jokes. Some of us curse a lot. But we have fun! And that’s the heart.