Prairie, wildly creative chef Anthony Strong’s first solo effort after over a decade at restaurants like Delfina and Locanda, has closed for good, the SF Chronicle was first to report. The year-old restaurant was known for its modern Italian, grill-infused dishes like mochi wrapped in guanciale and thin-cut short ribs with tea leaf salsa verde. It also boasted an indigo-stained dining room that — as of late February — included a semi-private room with a huge redwood table around which diners gathered for a seven-course menu of smoky dishes, starting at $78.
“I saved every dime from a year of business to build that room,” Strong tells Eater SF. “I spent all my money on it, and built it with my own hands, swinging a hammer side-by-side with my dad.”
The fresh space, called the Campfire Room, was a place for Strong to test out a new direction for Prairie, one that was “less fancy” and more run-and-gun. “I just wanted to grill cool stuff, make a mess at the table, and end the night with a pie,” he said. Diners loved the idea, enthusiastically booking spots at the communal table as soon as reservations opened. “We were thrilled,” Strong says.
The room was home to “three or four dinners” in early March before the cancellations started coming in, Strong says. “We wondered ‘hmm, if this virus we’re hearing about hits our shores, how will this affect our plan for family-style dining with strangers?’ And we quickly realized that we were screwed.”
Strong was one of the first chefs to swiftly pivot to retail, converting Prairie to a general store in the early days of the pandemic in a move that, at the time, was so novel that it made headlines at publications far and wide. “I’m really grateful for the fact that we were able to get people beans and hand sanitizer” at a time when grocery store shelves were bare, Strong says.
These days, grocery store supply chains have been repaired, and Prairie’s general store model became less crucial. Despite that, “we’ve had so much support,” Strong says, “so many people have weekly orders and we’re moving product every day.” But still, retail isn’t enough to support the Mission District space. “At a certain point,” Strong says, “I had to come to terms with the fact that this couldn’t successfully continue ... failure would have been stretching this out into the inevitable.”
At times like these, it can feel cruel to ask a restaurateur what he’s planning next. But with Strong, who gives off the vibe that he’s always on the verge of another big idea, it felt safe to enquire. “I’ve got ideas,” he confirmed, but nothing he was ready to elaborate on quite yet. “I should say that I’m going to start an insurance company,” he said with a slightly evil laugh, doubtlessly referring to the multitudes of restaurants that paid handsomely for business interruption claims that have been denied during the viral crisis. “It seems like it’s the only business that’s pandemic-proof.”
For those laying odds, though, two things are off the table. The first is the ghost-kitchen model, as Strong has been there, done that with Young Fava, a delivery-only restaurant Strong launched in 2017, way back when the phrase “ghost kitchen” conjured visions of Casper, not Kalanick. Strong says he quickly realized that reliance on third-party delivery apps “could have an incredibly negative effect on not just restaurants, but our city’s culture.” It’s not a path he’ll choose to tread again.
Also not in the cards is “a market-rate, brick-and-mortar restaurant,” Strong said affirmatively, noting that he’s been “closely watching while people’s eating habits are changing, and how the real estate market is changing.”
But he refused to be lured into saying anything more, even when it was suggested that his grilled meat and pie menus for the Campfire Room seemed like something would translate brilliantly to the pandemic picnic table scene. “No comment,” he said with a chuckle, but couldn’t resist a follow-up remark: “Nobody needs fussiness and formality right now.”
For the moment, Strong says, “people I really trust are telling me to take a break, to get out into the air, and to get over my trying-to-save-my-restaurant PTSD.” It’s advice he’s ready to take, after he wraps operations at the general store as of Friday, August 14. He’s also launched a GoFundMe to help support Prairie’s staffers after the spot closes at the end of the week, with all funds going directly to the restaurant-turned-shop’s team. “Make sure to put that in your story,” Strong says. “Everyone has worked so hard for us, in this battle zone of a year.”