Californios, the two-Michelin-starred Mexican fine-dining restaurant, is making a big move: After six years in its 24-seat spot in the Mission District, chef-owner Val M. Cantu has signed a lease on a storied space in SoMa, inside the spot most recently occupied by award-winning cocktail authority Bar Agricole.
Tablehopper first broke the news that Cantu was planning a move, noting that his 22nd Street location was up for grabs on Craigslist. Californios has been closed since the pandemic began in March, so the ad raised worries that the spot — the first Mexican fine-dining restaurant in North America to achieve Michelin’s double-star status — had closed for good.
Instead, Cantu tells Eater SF, the plan has always been to find a new spot, and their hope is to sell the rest of Californios’ remaining lease to another restaurant. But at 1,200 square feet and only 24 seats, Californios had outgrown its Mission location, so he’d been hunting for a new location since early 2020. “We almost signed a lease on a space right before all this happened,” Cantu says, referring to the Bay Area’s mid-March shelter-in-place order, “but that fell through,” which in retrospect left him “super relieved.”
“We looked at takeout, and we looked at how much it would cost to build a parklet,” Cantu says, “but none of that made financial sense. Why should we spend all that money to build a space outside that, in the end, won’t be what we want it to be?”
The ongoing demand for outdoor dining is one of the many things that made 355 11th Street an appealing option to Cantu. It’s been standing empty since restaurateur Thad Vogler closed Bar Agricole earlier this spring (it’s expected to reopen inside a new development slated for 1550 Mission Street). Californios will be taking over a 1,700-foot patio, in addition to its 100-plus seat dining room. In other words, in his new spot, Cantu will be able to seat more people outside that he was able to on his busiest pre-pandemic day at his prior location. “Instead of building a parklet,” Cantu says, “we’re going to invest that money into making a really beautiful and amazing patio space.”
As with Californios’ original location, building the new spot out will be a family affair. Carolyn Cantu, Val’s wife and alum of Ken Fulk’s famed local design group, will oversee the new place’s look and feel, although “we’re doing our best to open as quickly as possible,” and there’s still some remodeling to do. “We don’t want people to walk in and think they’re still in Bar Agricole,” Cantu says, but since “we just got the keys,” a plan on how to refresh is still in the works. Cantu’s sister-in-law, Charlotte Randolph (a former staffer at the French Laundry) will again handle their wine program, which is expected to expand.
It’s a bold move to leave the still-bustling Mission District for SoMa, a neighborhood that’s far quieter in these working-from-home, downtown ghost-town days. And Cantu admits that “leaving the Mission is the saddest part of this,” as it was the neighborhood that nurtured Californios to James Beard recognition, Food and Wine acclaim, and a rare four-star status from the SF Chronicle. Californios has become known for its ambitious tasting menu, with roughly two dozen courses, starring local and seasonal ingredients, and influenced by Cantu’s Latinx and Texas heritage. But still, he’s not too worried about his new neighborhood, saying that “we’re still a destination restaurant, and at least these days, there’s parking in SoMa.”
While the address (and volume) will change, Cantu is emphatic that the dining experience at Californios won’t. Expect “a similar style menu,” though by the time they open, “we’ll be in a new season,” so expect a fresh set of courses. Which raises a great point — in what season will Californios reopen?
Cantu would love to be open “before Christmas” of 2020, though he says that that might be “overly optimistic.” In addition to whatever construction must be done, there are permitting issues to contend with, specifically, with the state Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC). “We need a whole new beer and wine license,” Cantu says, a process that could take two months or more.
But he’s clearly eager to get going on the new space, and back into the game. “This is a space that really meshes with our food and our service,” he says, “and it all just fell into place ... we can’t wait to show people this new version of us.”