In one sense, it’s easy for Lana Porcello and Dave Muller to mark the age of their restaurant, Outerlands. Their daughter, Leithian, was born six weeks before they opened the small, redwood-paneled dining room, then more of a cafe, a few blocks from Ocean Beach. Now Outerlands, like Liethian, is 10 years old — and a lot bigger than before. The couple’s son, Aman, was born in 2014, conveniently coinciding with Outerlands’ expansion into a space next door.
Little by little — one dutch pancake brunch at a time — Outerlands has come to signify the Outer Sunset neighborhood as much as to serve it. But even with children to mark Outerlands’ major stages of development, for Porcello and Muller, the years can be difficult to track. That’s why they held a party to celebrate a decade in business earlier this spring.
“A lot of the time, you sort of think of doing those things for the community or staff,” says Porcello. “But I think it was a nice thing for us, in the end. We needed to do this for us to just to be like ‘wow, this happened.’”
Muller agrees. “For me, it forced us to look back in a way I had previously hesitated to do.”
There’s plenty to reminisce over: Chef Brett Cooper, who joined Outerlands early in its run and left to open Michelin-starred Aster in the Mission, recently departed San Francisco for Los Angeles. “It does feel lately like the end of an era,” says Porcello. “It feels like a lot of that lately. A lot of the things you think, ‘well, that will always be here,’ and that place has closed.”
But Outerlands continues to thrive, in part fueled by an outsider perspective on the edge of the city and its restaurant industry. To help mark a decade in business, Eater SF spoke with Muller and Porcello: Here’s what they’re doing to double down on their neighborhood, why they’re abandoning a planned expansion on Taraval, and what they tell entrepreneurs hoping to open their own Outerlands one day.
On looking back
Muller: There’s this fear of jinxing it …. because of the serendipity and rapidity of our growth at the beginning, it was hard to catch up to. I was afraid if I acknowledged it to someone it might stop suddenly. The fragility of this industry is hard to escape, it’s always hanging by a thread, even the strongest institutions, any fissure could open into a chasm.
Porcello: There have been so many phases, it looks like we’re looking back at like six different lifetimes... the largeness, it can feel like a lot when you look back.
On starting the business
Muller: We’re both artists and musicians... We thought, “let’s open a little restaurant so we have more time to do our art and music.” Now, that’s funny to us.
Porcello: What’s been so fun about this for me is seeing how the definitions of those ideas, of what we were gonna be, have shifted — and knowing what I meant by the statement of “I’m gonna be an artist.” It meant “I’m going to create experiences for people... I’m going to allow people to have the opportunity to have a response to something I’ve made.”
Muller: We designed the entire space, collaborating with all these craftspeople. That was an amazing tactile experience.... There’s no way some kind of visual art could have reached the same number of people, or actually connected with people [in the same way the restaurant has].
On ties to the neighborhood
Porcello: We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for us being in this place. It’s a unique special place, the Outer Sunset. It’s on the fringe of the city, it’s different than any other neighborhood... It wasn’t like we were like, “let’s open a restaurant and find the place,” it was like, “what do we wanna do here?” The location was the beginning,
It felt like, when there was this growth on our block, there was such a commitment from everyone to maintaining what we loved about the neighborhood. Not in a militant, “we don’t want change” way, but in a way to preserve this place. We’re so close with the businesses around us. People come in, visit our neighbors ... the connection between our personal lives and our neighbors and home, that’s really strong.
On what makes an Outerlands dish
Porcello: Some menu items, like the dutch pancake, reflect [our ethos]. It’s the simplest recipe, everyone’s mom made that, and Dave’s mom made it, and that’s how we had the recipe and were interested in doing it. That’s a perfect example of what an Outerlands [dish] should feel like.
Muller: Our sourcing, relationships to our purveyors, that’s always been the unspoken, understood thing. We want to highlight that, because that’s something we’ve never changed. It feels good to buy produce and meat from the same people this whole time: K&J Orchards, Toby at Free Spirit farm...
Porcello: Dirty Girl, we’ve worked with them and been close with them this whole time. And before, I used to work for them at the farmers market — they’re such an anchor.
On fostering talent
Porcello: I love that Outerlands developed into this place where people pursuing something in their lives other than being in the restaurant industry could feel like they have a place to grow. It’s been really important to us to make sure people feel supported and seen in the other things they do in their lives, and they do that for each other.
Muller: Matt Jones our baker, he started off as a home baker, and has really steadily grown into one of the best bakers in the entire city... and people realize that, so he’s become sort of Instagram famous.
Porcello: Lilie Bytheway-Hoy, for instance, she’s been here with us forever, she’s in an amazing band, [Yassou]. We have so many cool creative people... other artists, surfers... there’s six bands, and we want to make a compilation album.
Muller: Small business radiates outward in a different way than corporate structures do, because it remains personal. [Outerlands] has become a springboard for other businesspeople, Wendell Peters just opened a restaurant [Whisper Sisters Cocktails & Provisions] in Petaluma, Sara and Bill Niles opened Range Life in Livermore, Brett [Cooper] opened his place [Aster].
On not being “normal” restaurateurs
Porcello: We’re definite the kooky Outer Sunset folks, which is fine, I’m into that — we’ve never tried to pretend we’re normal restaurateurs. We don’t have the background for that, and we still recognize that sometimes we do things a little weirdly.
Muller: But it’s pretty amazing to be welcomed with opened arms by some of the most well respected people in this city and beyond... Its’ so weird that we’re in that company, it does feel like, “oh, they’re the professionals.”
Porcello: A lot of folks have approached us for business consultation; it’s one of my favorite things to do.
Muller: In a lot of ways, we’re a poster child now for people who feel like they wanna open something, but don’t feel like they have the typical experience. So they come to us and say, “hey how did you do that?” ... We tell them, “it has to do with timing, placement, and flexibility.”
On scrapping their plans for a bakery spinoff
Porcello: We were planning to make a bakery and retail space, a deli with some seating, focusing on the bakery, and we were super excited. Taraval, where we found a space, is a fabulous block, where so much great stuff is happening. But we just at some point realized that, although the idea was good, and we still could have made it work, it feels more important right now to preserve what we have and stay strong. And then that way, there can be room for a different project down the line at a more stable time.
Dave: The [proposed bakery] project and this year has been our largest challenge yet, because the components that precipitated our decision to [cancel] the project are so widespread and they’re all the same challenges everyone is facing in this industry.
Staffing personnel, the cost of living, it’s really difficult. When we lost [chef] Yoni [Levy] and others, when we had to replace basically the opening team for the [renovated] Outerlands, we had no idea how bad it had become…. We realized how hard it was, to run and open an entirely new business was going to be nearly impossible if not just incredibly challenging.
On recommitting to the neighborhood
Muller: Part of our new focus comes from [chef] Nick Pallone, formerly of Tosca. We started working with him early last fall, and he’s been really great about looking at the big picture. We’ve been brainstorming about what we want to be right now, and one of the things, to come full circle, is focusing on our immediate community….
The pendulum was flung far out to accommodate this destination diner, and Brett’s M.O. was these composed dishes, but we’re trying to double down on our neighborhood again. What’s going to get the people here to stay together and come together, and continue to be connected?
Our happy hour is a great way to do that, it make it less of an ordeal to go out to eat. And people are leaning more to casual dining, so we’re changing the menu to make it more of an everyday style, comfort food [establishment].
Porcello: Now we have a burger night on Thursday’s... we always wanted to do that, and now we can. It feels nice to be able to play a little.
Muller: For myself, the biggest success, beyond the community building and surviving and making this amazing thing that brought so many people together, is we can now successfully fold in a little more of our creativity into our lives.