This week marks RN74's fifth anniversary, though it doesn't outwardly appear to have aged a day. Founded by Michael Mina and sommelier Rajat Parr, the French-inspired restaurant was intended as a casual counterpart to swanky Michael Mina, with a killer selection of Burgundy. Jason Berthold ran the kitchen for four years before departing in 2013; his replacement, Adam Sobel, immediately made a splash by winning the local Cochon555 crown and then taking home the King of Porc title against the likes of Jason Franey, Mike Isabella, Ryan Smith, and Missy Robbins in the national Grand Cochon competition. The duo sat down to discuss the restaurant's past and future, why they want Bauer and Michelin to give them another look, and coordinating with the restaurant's twin up in Seattle.
Michael, let's start with you. When you first envisioned the RN74 concept, what did you want the restaurant to be?
Michael Mina: When [sommelier and RN74 co-owner] Rajat Parr and I had Michael Mina at the St. Francis, he had a really dynamic wine list over there. So when we'd get down to one bottle on that list, it would be really hard, because with a big list like that, you can't just 86 different bottles every night. The little space across the way, which is now Clock Bar, became the center for an idea Raj had for a wine bar called The Last Bottle. And he came up with the idea of the train board, when we got down to the last bottle, we'd take it off the list in the morning and put it up on this board and sell it. And I agreed that it was a really great idea—for a restaurant.
Raj is really passionate about Burgundy, and we started talking about creating a restaurant that focused on Burgundy wines, with a modern French bistro feel. The food style I've always done is very bold—I like bold acidity, sweetness, spice, richness—and that's not always the most wine-friendly style of food. Raj was very good at working with my style of food, but for this restaurant, we wanted to think about wine first, and think about how the food and wine experience worked together.
So how did you go about choosing this space?
MM: Whenever I travel, I check out new spaces and restaurants. At that time—2009, when the economy was really down—we wanted to create a restaurant with a very warm and social feel. There's a restaurant, Public, in New York, that was designed by AvroKo, and I always loved the feel of it. Whenever I went, I'd go, "You could drop this in San Francisco tomorrow," because it just had that level of chic in the design, but it was very social in feel. So we agreed on AvroKo, and the train board morphed into a whole feeling for the space, with the market list of wines on the opposite wall.
From day one, we wanted this space to have two menus—one for the wine bar, the other for the restaurant. We put the movable wall into the atrium space, so we could create different experiences depending on volume—make it more intimate, or expand it by moving it back. The idea was to have a very high level of wine and a very high level of food, but in a more casual environment.
Even in a casual environment, Burgundy isn't the most affordable luxury. Given that it was the height of the recession, was it stressful or scary to bring this place online?
MM: It was. Although one thing that helped was the [Enomatic machine], and being able to have 18 wines by the glass. People wouldn't order a whole bottle, but they would have a glass. And we kept food prices low. For what you're getting, the food prices—both back then, and to this day—are pretty reasonable. We're still using very high-level product, and there's a high level of detail that goes into the food, but I'd say the price point is 20-30% lower than many similarly-styled restaurants.
Now that the city's in a boom, have you felt the urge to make it more high-end?
MM: Well, that's where Adam comes in. Whenever you have a new chef, the food's direction changes, but I genuinely feel that at this moment, the food at this restaurant is some of the very best in the city. We didn't have to really change the price point much to do it—Adam's been able to just raise that level on his own. All the elements are coalescing to help him do that: having more folks in the kitchen, having a staff that's been together for a longer period of time.
Adam, you weren't living in SF when you were offered this job, correct?
Adam Sobel: I wasn't. I was in D.C., working at [Mina Group restaurant] Bourbon Steak at the Four Seasons, and chef made me an offer I couldn't refuse. I started here a year ago: April 1, 2013. Before that, I was a huge fan of this restaurant, and the philosophy of it fit my style and how I like to cook; I liked the social dining experience, the fun atmosphere, and Burgundy, which is what I love to drink most. It was a no-brainer.
It was already a great restaurant, so my job was just to evolve the cuisine. I knew what chef wanted in terms of his vision for the restaurant. We both want it to be a place where people can come to eat three or four times a week; that's really the whole idea. Approachable, but with some refinement and some classic French elements to it.
The chef before Adam was [former French Laundry sous] Jason Berthold. Having experienced both Adam's and Jason's cuisine, Michael, how would you say that they differ?
MM: Adam uses slightly bolder flavors, and his thought process behind the dishes is more involved in utilizing things people are familiar with and adding a "wow" factor and twists to them. Both of them have a lot of technique in their food, and Jason had taught the cooks a level of technique that Adam was able to harness when he came in, which was really positive.
Was that something that you consciously knew you were bringing in, or did it reveal itself when you were working on the new menu?
AS: Well, I should say that I'm a big fan of Jason's. When I came to visit SF, this was always the first restaurant I'd come to. His style and mine are different, but I came into an operation that was technically sound and had great systems in place, and I was blessed in that way. But yes, I knew that I could make a big impact, because my style is so different. So far, it's been good. I think every week, we get better.
MM: The menu right now is the best one you've done.
If someone was coming in to eat here for the first time, what menu items would you recommend?
AS: The croque-madame gougeres. That's an item I was thinking about before I came out here—a French staple, but with a fun, shareable element. We stuff the gougeres with mornay, then top them with crispy prosciutto and a fried quail egg. It's a one-biter: you drink champagne, pop a few of those, and get your night started. The duck wings a l'orange were another way to make a classic food shareable—cooked confit, fried crispy, then glazed. I like our kampachi and avocado crudo on squid-ink flatbread, and the tuna nicoise with poached albacore belly. The guidelines are that I like to keep it French, but I like to draw influence from French colonies, so we do a beef tartare with Vietnamese flavors, which I think is more exciting for people.
What dishes are the most popular with diners?
Well, everything changes with the seasons: tomatoes are popular in summer, asparagus in spring, braises in winter. But the roast chicken has been on there since the beginning—it's the first time I've ever had a dish on a menu this long. It's a play off of coq au vin.
Any items that didn't fly?
MM: One that Jason did—I was so bummed that it didn't take off, because I thought it was great. He did the classic radishes dipped in butter with salt, and they were so good. We couldn't sell them. He was keeping them on the menu for me. I had to take them off.
AS: It's so weird sometimes. Things that you think won't sell, you'll be like, "Eh, we'll give it a shot," and they do well. I did calf's liver as a special, and we sold it out every night. But when we put it in print, then it didn't sell. It's very weird. Verbal specials will sell, and then once they get printed, they're dead ducks on the menu.
This restaurant is unique in that it has a sister restaurant, with the same concept, in Seattle. What level of interaction is there between the way you run it here and the way you run it in Seattle? Do you guys talk?
AS: Well, it worked out well for us because [former Mina Group corporate chef] Dave Varley is the new chef there, and he's one of my best friends. Both Michael and I speak to him regularly, and we've got an incredible connection and continuity between the restaurants. Our styles are similar, and we all have the same mentality and palate, so it's really great.
If I were to go into RN74 in Seattle, would I see a menu very similar to yours, or one with the same vibe that's still more expressive of Dave's style?
AS: There are dishes that are similar: the bone marrow is pretty much identical, the snails. Dave has been with Michael for five years, I've been with him for almost four. So there's a lot of similarities. [Michael nods.] If you ate there, you might think Dave was cooking, you might think I was, you might think Michael was.
So you generally all share the same sensibility?
MM: Yeah, we do. The difference up there is that the products are different, and both Dave and Adam use a lot of local products. For example, asparagus, morels, and peas come in very late in the summer up there. Their seafood is different. So there's things you'll see on the menu there that we just don't get.
More than most restaurateurs, you deal with opening similar concepts in different regions. In opening RN74 again in a different city, how did you have to adjust it? What are the regional variations between the two restaurants?
MM: The wine. There's a lot less Burgundy [on the list] in Seattle, and a lot more Washington state and Oregon wines. The French wines don't sell up there. Here, they sell like crazy.
Is that a price-point issue?
MM: Could be. But people spend money up there. I think they just like their local wines. They like to support Oregon and Washington winemakers.
But it's not like California doesn't have local wine.
MM: I know! At this particular restaurant, people just order a lot of French wine. They love French wine.
Has that defined your identity over time? Are you being seen first and foremost as a destination for people who love French wine?
MM: It's funny—we did a study, because we wanted to know how we were perceived, and we polled hundreds of people. "When you think of RN74, what comes to your mind first?" And the answers were all over the board. Ten percent, the first thing that came to mind was happy hour. That wasn't even in our original plan, it wasn't even budgeted. It gives the restaurant a great energy going into the night, but I'd never had a restaurant that was busy between lunch and dinner.
But the survey, it was really mixed. A lot of people just see it as a restaurant, and then another good chunk know it primarily for Burgundy.
How do you balance all those constituencies?
MM: In San Francisco, I think it works to your advantage. Taking it on the road would be really difficult, because it's not something that works everywhere. But here, there are so many people that are into food and wine here that the ones who are into food will seek out places for food, the ones who like wine will seek out places for wine, the ones who are into design...
Design junkies come here?
MM: The one thing I felt strongly when we opened this place was that its look was timeless. It's five years old, and there's nothing dated about it.
Have you made any real changes to the look of it?
MM: None. At all.
AS: It's got a sexy feel, and it's warm.
MM: It feels handcrafted, like one of those rooms you don't want to change even after a while. And, knock on wood, we'll be here for a while.
So if you could go back in time, there's nothing you'd change?
MM: Well, the bar area—I think I need to change some of the seating in it, and make it a little bit more conducive to conversation. Functionally, the bar area is just much busier than we ever expected it to be. In hindsight, I probably would have extended the bar all the way down, and made it a three-sided bar to give that space to the bartenders. And that back wall is supposed to be all greenery. They told me it was going to grow, and it hasn't. It's been five years, so I don't think it's going to happen! [Laughs.] I want it to be more lush, so I've got to get that changed.
AS: It's a pretty efficient and powerful kitchen, for the space we have. I'd maybe add another combi oven, but it's pretty amazing, the volume we're able to pump out of it. We can have 40 in the atrium, 100 in the dining room, 30 in the owner's lounge upstairs, and we can do it all. Maybe I'd bust out the back wall and extend the prep area.
Has the clientele changed over time?
MM: It has, and I think part of that is due to happy hour, and how much happy hour took off. Lunch and dinner is still the same clientele, but a lot of the happy hour people who might not have typically dropped in are staying for food, or coming back to try the restaurant.
Do you feel the need to change things, to draw that crowd?
MM: We feel the need to change things all the time. I think that's the most dynamic part of being a chef. I'm a firm believer that every day, your restaurant is better or worse than it was before; it's never the same. Every day, you've got 80 human beings who you're dealing with. The more you change things, stimulate people, give them a reason to refocus, the better chance you have to keep them engaged.
Michael, you're popping up all over the country. Do you see this concept going elsewhere?
MM: Probably not. At least, no plans right now.
Where do you want the restaurant to go in the future? What do you want to be seen as, or known for?
AS: Deliciousness. That when you look at the menu, you want to eat everything. That's the goal every time I do a menu, to make it really difficult on the guest to decide what to eat, so they come back again to try things they missed. I want this to be regarded as one of the top restaurants in the city. And I'd like to get re-reviewed. [Editor's note: Bauer's last visit was in 2011, two years before Sobel came on board, and the review wasn't positive. He later dropped it from the Top 100.]
MM: This is one of those restaurants that's really benefitted from five years, from growing up. Being re-reviewed, being recognized, I don't think it's ever happened for this restaurant. This restaurant is the best it's ever been. The wine list, the wine service, the food, it's all very special. We've got three sommeliers on the floor, which is rare for a restaurant of this size, and there's a reason for that. Over the last six months, we're getting the best feedback we've ever gotten and we're the busiest we've ever been.
Besides Adam's presence, what made the difference?
MM: We have an amazing new GM; he and Adam went to school together. And a lot of times, that connection of a great GM and a great chef that have a rhythm together is what does it. Sometimes you'll have an amazing chef, but not have the same level in the front of house, or vice versa. It's like mom and dad. When they're on the same page, the house is on the same page, and when one of them isn't, there's missing pieces.
AS: Lucas knows me probably better than anybody: my brother, my mom and dad, and then him. We have an understanding, we support each other. Sometimes we butt heads, sometimes our comfort level creates a little bit of friction, but we work for each other. He works really hard to keep the staff energized and inspired. I've worked with GMs where I felt like it was an uphill battle every day, and it's always an argument. That's not the case here. Every day at 3, we go over the day before, today, tomorrow, and our plan of attack for improvement. Pretty simple, but a lot of restaurants don't do that.
MM: I feel that this restaurant deserves to be really looked at by Michelin in contention for a star. When I look at the level of the wine, the food, everything else, I feel like it should have that. Adam has a national reputation as a chef. He won Cochon. It takes 4-6 months for a chef to get his feet wet. Anybody who has not experienced this restaurant in the last 4-6 months has not experienced what RN74 is. To have a chef in this city, at this level...a lot of people think "Yeah, I've already been there." But you haven't been to RN74 if you haven't tried Adam's menu. It is a completely different restaurant.