2006 was a banner year for the city’s dining scene. Call it the all-star draft year, because several restaurants opened that are now vital to SF’s restaurant culture and ethos, setting the tone for what was to come: San Francisco becoming one of the country’s major dining cities.
It’s difficult for a restaurant to last one year, let alone ten, and these 13 restaurants have done just that, deeply embedding themselves into the fabric of this city along the way. Nopa, Coi, Perbacco, Bar Tartine, La Ciccia, Alembic, Dosa, Terzo, Salt House, Farmer Brown, Presidio Social Club, The Front Porch, and Redd are vitally essential to the restaurant industry, and as a group reflective of many of the ideals that define hospitality.
In interviews with the owners of each establishment, hospitality was the word that kept reappearing, emerging as the driving force behind the success of these places. Here now, these top restaurateurs reflect back on how they made it this far, their scariest moments, and what’s to come.
Can you believe it’s been ten years?
Staffan Terje (Perbacco): Yes and no. It’s been a tremendous amount of hard work and sacrifice on our end to get here. And I think it’s the only way.
Laurence Jossel (Nopa): No — that was like a second and about a century at the same time.
Kevin Cline (The Front Porch): I can’t believe it’s been ten years, and I can't believe it’s been only ten years. I’m incredulous that this isn’t a brand new restaurant, that tonight is not our first night. I remember the first time I heard the name of the restaurant on the lips of a guy getting out of a cab: “I’m going in to The Front Porch.” I was giddy. I still feel that way when I over hear someone praising our little joint. That first day of school feeling, afraid they might not like us.
Ray Tang (Presidio Social Club): Wow, not really. I met many believers, doubters, naysayers, and now die-hard fans. I have spent my entire 40s in and out of this place. No regrets!
What is your overwhelming emotion looking back on what the restaurant has accomplished?
Massimiliano Conti (La Ciccia): We really are crazy doing this everyday.
Dave Mclean (Alembic): It’s hard to pick just one, but I’m particularly grateful for the opportunity we had to be there in the early (but not earliest) days of the cocktail renaissance in SF and to know that we had a small part in helping to nudge it along. I really had no idea that was going to explode like it did.
Jay Foster (Farmerbrown): It’s an overwhelming sense of disbelief, pride, humility, and honor. It’s a dagger to the heart. Kills me every time. Makes me teary to think about all times we scraped through by the skin of our teeth.
Doug Washington, Mitchell & Steven Rosenthal (Salt House): Anticipation. Even after ten years, there is still so much left to be done. There are so many ways we will continue to evolve and grow.
How has the SF restaurant scene changed in that time?
Laurie Thomas (Terzo): It’s become so much more challenging from a cost perspective — mandated sick days, health spend, minimum wage, rent, food cost, increases across the board — that it has put huge pressures on this business model like never before. I’m not saying any of this is bad; it’s just breaking the full service restaurant business model. Which is probably why you’ve seen much more focus on the fast casual model.
Cline (The Front Porch): I think folks opening restaurants today have it tougher, whereas we had a little time to figure it out when we opened. The first week we opened, our hood stopped working. We had a casio cash register, we hadn’t gotten some aspects of service down, the stereo stopped working, there were no art on the walls. People bore with us. There wasn’t so much instant judgement, so many photos taken of the food and drinks. We could build a word-of-mouth reputation, based on the goodwill we were offering to each guest who walked past that porch and through that door. It gave us some time to figure out our game, but also to listen to our neighbors, to our guests to see what it was they loved, and what it was that we needed to improve. Now, you better have a state-of-the-art room, the best kitchen, flatware and stemware, a well-defined and obvious “concept,” and extreme social media savvy to stand a chance of making it to your 365th day let alone your 3,650th.
McLean (Alembic): Plenty has already been said about how much harder it feels sometimes these days with labor shortages, cost increases, so many great new restaurants out there now, dining trends changing, and people ordering in more, et cetera. That being said, it’s hard not to be excited about how much choice there is now and how many quality dining (and drinking) options there are today compared with a decade ago. And in part because the choices are so abundant and eclectic, people seem so much more willing to be adventurous and try new things, and that is exciting, too.
Foster (Farmerbrown): Diners have also gotten a lot more casual; not so many folks want a full, sit-down experience. What they really want is something they can post on Instagram.
How has your restaurant changed (and been forced to change) in that time?
Richard Reddington (Redd): Up here [in Napa Valley], a lot has opened around us so it just forces you to be sharper.
Anjan Mitra (Dosa): We’ve seen a relatively huge increase in online sales, which provides a level of convenience to the millennials who are obviously very much in their comfort zone with technology and online ordering.
Foster (Farmerbrown): Sadly we have to charge $20 for organic fried chicken to keep the lights on. In the beginning it was $12, which in my opinion is what a fried chicken plate should cost. Just surviving in SF is an unbelievable challenge.
Conti (La Ciccia): Yes, we refreshed the decor and we change tablecloths and napkins all the time, but La Ciccia has not changed much.
Jossel (Nopa): We’ve changed from just being a business to being a place of education, which is what turns us all on as owners. How do we educate and give opportunities? It’s much more satisfying. I have sous chefs in Chicago and Pennsylvania and in this web of doing the right thing has spread nicely. All these people are now ingredient folks.
What was your strategy for evolving?
McLean (Alembic): The fundamental thing is to always remember that it starts (and ends) with hospitality. Trying to do interesting things with our food and drinks is a vehicle to just give people a great experience in whatever way they want to take it in.
Tang (Presidio Social Club): Mentoring super creative chefs these days, and asking them to cook honest food day in and day out is a large part of my involvement at PSC. So my strategy is to concentrate on personal growth, mentoring, and getting everyone to believe that their own growth and maturity will lead to their successes.
Terje (Perbacco): Always be happy and proud of our accomplishments, but never satisfied. Never brush off a complaint. Always take to heart what the guest is saying.
What do you think is the reason the restaurant has survived and flourished for this long?
Thomas (Terzo): Our investors have been patient — we’ve just finally paid off all the debt.
Umberto Gibin (Perbacco): We stayed true to our original concept with one thing in mind: Take care of the guests and they will take care of you.
Foster (Farmerbrown): 2016 has been a benchmark year: We made it into the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History, we made it to the ten-year mark, and we won a contract with SFO to open a Farmerbrown in a flagship location in terminal 1. More than all that though, I take the greatest pride in everything that we’ve managed to represent. On any given night, you see diversity that you just do not see in any other business in this city. It fills my heart to look around the room when I’m on the floor and see the rainbow of people that we attract.
Mitra (Dosa): We’ve worked very hard at always evolving with the times, the city and the audience. We respect our audience and believe they will always keep us honest. Being an ethnic restaurant, we have the benefit of drawing up new ideas and trends that are happening halfway across the world and bringing them back to San Francisco.
Cline (The Front Porch): We still believe the reason people come back to our restaurant is that we treated them well. We see them not just as a customer but as a guest. We hire people who have that hospitality gene, and Josey and I try to make sure it’s a fun, safe place for them to express those traits. Hospitality isn’t a trend, it doesn’t go out of fashion, and folks know they can find it at the Porch.
What are you most proud of about your restaurant?
Washington, Rosenthal, and Rosenthal (Salt House): At the end of the day, we are proud of how busy the restaurant continues to be.
Gibin (Perbacco): Yes, we have received many accolades, but ultimately I am the most proud when I greet guests goodbye and they tell me what a wonderful experience they had. This is what inspires me come to work everyday, knowing that we can make a difference.
Jossel (Nopa): I’m really proud of my cooks. I love kids showing up at 20 years old with no confidence, and then they’re part of a machine that serves 500 people a night, and they’re learning viable skills that take them to the next gig.
Cortney Burns (Bar Tartine): I am most proud of the family we’ve created here within our staff. We have a common mission, a core belief system, and we feel strongly in the experience we create for people. At the end of the day, we all love and respect each other, something that allows us to create a unique food experience.
What has been your scariest moment?
Foster (Farmerbrown): Having a stray bullet miss me and my wife sitting at the bar by about six inches. Ain’t nothing tender in the loin.
Thomas (Terzo): Right after the economic downturn, we saw a huge drop in customers and sales. It was super tough for 2009/2010, but we struggled through. We recently exercised our lease extension option and have eight more years.
Tang (Presidio Social Club): It’s too personal to publish; my personal life pivoted as a result of my dedication to this place.
Cline (The Front Porch): There’s a lot of anxiety running a business that is widely agreed has a shelf life of one to three years, but nothing like the moment when the fire blazed half a block from us. When the ladder truck pulled in front of our spot, pumping water on the fire, we were terrified it would consume the whole block. Like several other businesses in our neighborhood, we thought, “This is it — our last day.”
Conti (La Ciccia): We never really had a scary moment, but we had a lot of WTF moments and some very sad ones, like when the sewage system broke down in the middle of service and we had to close the restaurant for ten days and canceled 700 reservations. Or when my father had a stroke and I had to go back to Italy, we closed the restaurant for a week and canceled over 500 reservations.
Burns (Bar Tartine): The scariest moment is right now. As we close this chapter of our lives and look to the next one, we hope those that have dined with us and have learned to trust us come to our next places to eat.
Mitra (Dosa): Besides our point-of-sales system crashing early in our history on a Saturday night, I’d say that on a more general note, San Francisco is not very welcoming to small businesses such as restaurants. We don’t have the deep pockets, so we have very little clout compared to more powerful and well-funded industries. We’re in constant fear of new legislation that could dramatically affect our business. All restaurateurs from other parts of the country are always surprised by how difficult it is here, even compared to cities like NY and LA.
Reddington (Redd): The original budget was $1.4 million and it came in at $3 million because of the condition of the building. I just put my head down and never thought of failing. You can't eat at The French Laundry every night, so it was trying to fill a niche that was not French food.
Do you think your restaurant would survive opening in today’s climate?
Patterson (Coi): Coi was a once in a lifetime experience. It would never make it if we opened today. The speed of the media cycle is too fast, there aren’t as many great cooks in our area, and we would have lost too much money too quickly, instead of being able to hold on while we figured it out. I think the current business climate has a chilling effect on creativity. If you prioritize creativity sometimes the business will follow, but almost never the other way around.
Foster (Farmerbrown): Yes, but not in this iteration. The future is quick service or counter service or some kind of delivery/app thing.
McLean (Alembic): I do. I think the fundamentals are solid: to create value by giving people an accessible way to try some amazing products and ingredients with us doing our best to hit our self-imposed standards, as much for us as for everyone else. I think that if you value everyone who comes through the door and try to work tirelessly to help them all have a great experience, you can survive ups and downs in the economy and the constantly evolving restaurant industry and scene. It helps with the odds, at least.
Tang (Presidio Social Club): Not in this city.
Thomas (Terzo): Maybe, but it’s a lot tougher now, so the returns to investors look a lot worse. It’s unclear if we would have been able to finance it.
Washington, Rosenthal, and Rosenthal (Salt House): The climate may be different, but what people want is not. They want great food, unbeatable service by friendly people who truly know the dishes they are serving, and a dining room with a sexy feel.
What do you hope to accomplish with the restaurant moving forward?
Gibin (Perbacco): Although I really would like to be recognized as Best Restaurant in the West and I would like Staffan to be recognized as Best Chef in the West by the James Beard Awards, ultimately continuing to be one of the top restaurants in San Francisco and being on the 200 block of California Street for at least another ten years would be amazing.
Jossel (Nopa): I want to make sure that we’re not resting, and that we don’t ever develop a cockiness for this. The business is so fragile that it can go in a second. And I think we just need to realize how lucky we’ve been, and I hope to continue in that vein. I want to be here for a while. I have another ten years in me.
Patterson (Coi): I am so happy that Matt has been so successful this year. It is really becoming his place, and the whole experience is spectacular, front and back. I think he will get three stars. He deserves it. The restaurant is better than ever. Maybe in ten years he will pass it to another young, talented cook, and the cycle will start again.
Mitra (Dosa): We definitely want to move towards a more casual, yet modern approach. The new demographic of millennials prefer something more approachable, accessible and convenient. Fortunately, younger folks also have much more of an affinity for ethnic and spicy food, which plays right into what we are doing. We would love to go into other cities such as Oakland, Marin, and the South Bay.
Foster (Farmerbrown): My greatest hope is to be a legacy restaurant: thirty years.