Simileoluwa Adebajo may have quit her job as a financial analyst to open Eko Kitchen, a burst of bustling Lagos in San Francisco. But she hasn’t stopped thinking like one. To balance the costs of dine-in business, available on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 167 11th Street, she also runs a corporate catering business during the week, and plans to offer cooking classes, too.
“Dine-in is very precarious,” says Adebajo. “The margins on restaurants just aren’t great.” Catering will propel Eko Kitchen financially, Adebajo hopes — though it can be a hard, impersonal business. And Adebajo’s food is highly personal.
“These are all things my mom and grandma cooked for me,” she says of her menu: Asun, smoked goat with naija pepper sauce, and jollof rice with fried plantains.
But it’s all worth it for the weekend, when Eko Kitchen comes to life. The 11th Street space, Joint Venture Kitchen, started as a pop-up incubator. But after rotating through many concepts, founder and restaurant consultant Steve Paoli turned over the keys to Eko Kitchen almost exclusively. During the week, while Simi uses the kitchen to fulfill catering orders, another tenant, Picon, serves Mexican Food in the dining room.
“She’s wickedly smart and very focused,” Paoli says of Adebajo, who did about a dozen pop-ups in the space before leaving her job to pursue Eko Kitchen full time. “She gave us the impetus to change our model to accommodate her.”
Adebajo has refreshed the dining room somewhat to channel Lagos, Africa’s largest metropolis. One wall is now the school bus yellow of the city’s ubiquitous, rag-tag mini-buses. Other decoration includes artwork by Eko Kitchen’s hostess, Reniua Giwa-Amu. Adebajo’s friend from high school in Nigeria, who, like Adebajo, moved to the US for graduate school. Playlists sometimes sent by Adebajo’s brother from Nigeria also set the scene at the restaurant.
“It really makes me happy when I see people come here, maybe a couple [who] was arguing outside the door, and then they sit down and they start hearing the Afrobeats music — and they start bobbing their head, and shoulder bumping each other, and before you know it they’re laughing and the food is coming out.”
That food, and the vibe at Eko Kitchen, changes nightly. On Friday the theme is a party, and dishes reflect what you might find at a bar in Lagos, like suya spice marinated skewers of beef, tripe, chicken, and turkey. The Saturday menu is “what your mom would cook for you on a Saturday afternoon,” and includes pounded yam and egusi soup, made from melon seeds. And Sunday’s menu is all about rice: “Every Nigerian household can testify to the fact that, for some reason, our default setting on Sunday afternoon is some sort of rice dish,” Adebajo says.
Eko Kitchen is San Francisco’s only Nigerian restaurant, which comes with advantages — no direct competition — and disadvantages, like introducing some new diners to a cuisine they’ve never tried. “When you’re selling indigenous food, you have to be ready and willing to answer all questions,” says Adebajo. “You can’t take it personally or take offense.”
“I’ve seen people look at their plate and they want to talk to the chef, and I’ll come out — I will talk to you and explain to you exactly what’s in front fo you, because I don’t want you to just consume something, I want [you] to understand what you’re eating.”
Eko Kitchen is now open on Friday and Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, with online reservations available.