Sons & Daughters is reopening for indoor dining on October 28, but any diners who feel comfortable stepping inside these days might want to get those reservations while they’re hot. The fine dining restaurant has been serving Nob Hill for a decade, gaining recognition for its farm-to-table tasting menu, which holds one Michelin star. But it also has a narrow, winding dining room, putting that 25 percent occupancy limit to the test — Sons & Daughters plans to reopen to seat only 12 guests at a time.
“It is a hard decision right now,” says chef and owner Teague Moriarty. “ … San Francisco has been so conservative this whole time. So if they’re saying it’s safe to open, let’s open … and I’m really sure that if cases go up, they’re going to shut us down really fast.”
Sons & Daughters went into the pandemic in a tough spot due to a few different variables. As a fine dining restaurant, it’s an indoor dining experience, which of course was immediately shut down by shelter-in-place. The team tried takeout for a few months, and did good numbers in April, but found that tapered off by July, as wine country restaurants reopened, drawing some of their customers away, so they believe. Moriarty said he decided against outdoor dining, given the traffic buzzing down Bush street, as well as the changing landscape of the neighborhood, which has seen an increase in population from homeless people moving into (and now out of) hotels nearby.
So they closed doors for several months, and waited for indoor dining to reopen, and then waited an extra month “to make sure it would stick.” In the meantime, they completed a kitchen renovation that was already in the works, bringing in a slightly larger stove, and installing refrigeration under counters to make the most of the “teeny” space. Moriarty says he continued paying employees benefits, and when their unemployment ran out, made up the difference. And he crunched the numbers on a more equitable pay structure going forward, and what it would take to pay employees a living wage in SF in 2020.
Before the pandemic, the tasting menu at Sons & Daughters was eight to nine courses, with small bites in-between, for $145 per person. Now, for the exact same format, they are raising the price to $175, although tip is included. The restaurant is going from 30 to 40 covers per night, which was already small, to only 18 covers per night (if they do one and a half turns, just enough to break even). For diners, Moriarty says, that means better ingredients, and closer attention to every plate.
Back in the kitchen, every employee is salaried with benefits, from the dishwasher to the chef de cuisine, ranging from $65,000 to $90,000 per year. Instead of tips, Moriarty says employees will get a profit share after taxes, to be paid out as a bonus twice a year. “My whole goal through all of this is that I want to keep a team,” he says. “That’s what makes the restaurant. If I start from scratch again, you’re starting way, way down from where you used to be. There’s this huge, huge brain drain that’s going on in the industry right now, as everybody leaves.”
It’s an interesting strategy, as the industry contemplates the future of fine dining. Here in San Francisco, Michelin-starred restaurants have been serving everything from $20 chicken boxes to $350 farm dinners. But Moriarty is holding to his courses, and believes this model could work, if only for his small restaurant. Disastrous as this year has been, he says he is looking forward to doubling down on fine dining, and fundamentally rebuilding the pay structure, so his restaurant will still be here in 10 or 15 years.
“People have been saying fine dining is dead for as long as I’ve been doing fine dining. It’s always going to be a niche, though. I do like the trend of fine dining being less covered and important. There are so many amazing restaurants that aren’t fine dining. I believe fine dining has its place, but it’s been too far at the top for too long. And we’re not the only voice, and we’re not the most important voices, either.
“But that’s the nice thing about fine dining. I don’t need to appeal to 100 people a night. I’ve got to appeal to 20.”
Sons & Daughters reopens for indoor dining on October 28, from Wednesday to Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m. Reservations are now open online.