Marlena, that newish neighborhood restaurant on the north slope of Bernal Heights, just celebrated its one year anniversary at the same time as receiving its first Michelin star. Which is a rare early success to begin with, but it’s also an unlikely underdog story. As the adage goes for both restaurants and marriages, the first year is hard, and it’s harder during a pandemic. But husband-and-wife chef David Fisher and pastry chef Serena Chow Fisher say that while in many ways the crisis hurt, in unexpected ways it also helped. “Opening in a pandemic was helpful in the sense that we had never been open before,” Serena says. “It’s not like we were wishing for what it used to be, because we just had nothing to compare it to. In many ways it kind of made it easier for us to pivot, because we had no expectations to begin with.”
Marlena painfully and beautifully illustrates why it was so wild to open a restaurant during a pandemic. Usually, opening day is a big buzz moment, revealing a final menu and renovated dining room, followed by a rush of reservations. Many restaurants try and fail to “soft open,” praying for a quiet first week, although few evade voracious local media. But the pandemic forced Marlena into a true slow open: Marlena started with only takeout in August 2020. It eased into outdoor dining with one parklet in September. It did one single day of indoor dining in November (SF only allowed indoor dining for three weeks, and it was unfortunate timing). Then it shut down with the city in December, and slowly opened in spring 2021, gradually easing into every tier change. The Fishers say the hardest challenges were stopping and starting, changing service styles over and over, and, above all, staffing.
But due to the pandemic, they got more time, first of all to refine the menu. The original concept was always an affordable prix fixe with nuanced touches. But Marlena started with picnic baskets: Sandwiches and salads; charcuterie and cheese; and a deluxe box with a bottle of wine ($25 to $45 per person). David grew up in Buffalo, New York, so he put a buffalo chicken sandwich on Serena’s fluffy brioche, which regulars later refused to let him take off the menu. They set five tables outside and debuted the prix fixe menu at $49 per person, streamlining dishes so diners could finish in two hours, and pouring soup tableside to keep it warm. With the lockdown, they reverted to takeout burgers, poutine, and holiday meal kits. And now with the dining room finally open, the prix fixe has settled in at $65 per person, and the difference is more seasonal produce, more frequent menu changes, and the opportunity to truly focus on the food, David says.
They were also able to space out the renovation. When Hillside Supper Club departed, the guys left a dining room full of wooden furniture, blue mason jars, and retro Fiestaware. The corner restaurant across from the park is in a hundred-year-old building with high ceilings and front windows, and it needed love. But the Fishers didn’t have to do it all at once. First they built one parklet. Then a second. Then a truck backed into the first parklet, and they rebuilt it. When they opened for takeout, they prayed that no one would peek into the construction zone inside. The day they opened for outdoor dining, due to a scheduling snafu, the sanding guy showed up to fix the patchwork of wooden floors, which would have made it dusty for friends and family to get to the bathroom. During the shutdown, Serena ran an Instagram poll to pick paint colors, carrying the blues from the exterior into the interior and up the walls, and brightening the white ceiling. A high school buddy got the bathrooms from divey to pristine. And it was a dream when their modern dark walnut tables and chairs finally arrived for indoor dining.
Especially with the star news, many diners are just now stepping inside Marlena for the first time. At the moment, the seasonal menu unfolds with a milky sweet raw Hokkaido scallop, a honeynut squash terrine with mushrooms and pecans, crispy seared corvina with eggplant and trout roe, and never least, pumpkin cake with chocolate pudding and pomegranate seeds. Ramzi Budayr, an old friend from Eleven Madison Park in New York, has joined as a partner to run the dining room, and warm servers will surprise you with interesting wines, if you’re “feeling lucky.” It’s not the most abstract tasting menu in the city, and it’s not the most outrageous redesign, but the dishes are comforting and the room is elegant.
Looking ahead, Marlena will continue to refine. The Fishers love the four-course format, but it has limits, and they may add a seven-course option to flex. Ryan Cole from the Hi Neighbor Hospitality Group (Trestle, the Vault) has also been a quiet partner since the beginning, and they may bring in a designer to do a deeper reno. They have Uniqlay Ceramics crafting new plates, which David says will be another milestone, “like a painter’s palate.” But for now, as the inspectors agree, the neighborhood restaurant has found a hold in North Slope. Serena says she’s grateful to all their regulars from year ago. “It does feel very mom and pop to me,” she says. “Despite the challenges the pandemic threw us, I was literally handing all of our neighbors their orders, and I got to know them, and their dogs’ names, and where their kids go to school.”
And with new diners flowing in from across the city, the restaurant is coming alive. “When everyone was outside, we relied so heavily on the servers to tell us what the energy was,” Serena says. “Finally, when people came inside, you could hear the chatter and laughing. Suddenly, it felt like, ‘Oh, this is what it feels like to be in a restaurant.’”