As restaurants begin to thaw from what has been a lengthy deep freeze, many are rethinking operations from the ground up. From restructuring tipping models to adding takeout and delivery to changing how diners interact with restaurant employees, things are going to look different in the post-COVID age. For Oakland’s Mama, the new-school red sauce joint, which has been closed for the past year, that means a new partnership between owners Stevie Stacionis and Josiah Baldivino and the Hi Neighbor Hospitality Group (Trestle, Corridor, the Vault).
It’s a natural evolution of Mama, which Stacionis and Baldivino opened in 2019, just down the street from their wine shop Bay Grape. Dedicated to Stacionis’s Italian grandmother, it was a natural evolution for the duo, expanding their wine and hospitality expertise into the restaurant world. Ryan Cole, a partner in Hi Neighbor and longtime friend and colleague from the trio’s days working at Michael Mina, has been consulting and helping with bookkeeping behind the scenes for the past two years; now they’re making it a full partnership with the restaurant group that also includes partners Tai Ricci and Jason Halverson. It will be the first East Bay venture for the Hi Neighbor group, and a strategic partnership for the Bay Grape team, who recently added another location in Napa.
The heart of Mama’s mission will stay the same: affordable, high-quality food in a welcoming environment (with a really great wine list, obviously). But there will be a few changes, mostly in the kitchen. Hi Neighbor chef-partner Jason Halvorsen will revamp the menu and do a little kitchen redesign to increase efficiency.
The prix fixe format that Mama opened with will remain, though with a few tweaks. When it opened in 2019, Mama offered a three-course meal for $29.95, a concept very similar to Hi Neighbor’s North Beach restaurant, Trestle. The price will increase slightly, and there will be the additional option of adding another entree, like a whole-roasted branzino or chicken parmesan. (The very excellent meatballs and sugo will remain on the menu, however.)
Cole and team are leveraging what they’ve learned while running restaurants during the pandemic, keeping some of the changes that have actually proven to be improvements in the way things are done. It will be a reservation-focused restaurant to control the number of diners in the space, use QR codes for menus, add an outdoor seating area, and establish time limits on how long a party can linger at a table to keep things running smoothly. There’ll also be earlier dining hours to accommodate the larger number of people working from home, and who no longer have to commute to dine out.
“Post-pandemic the world has changed,” says Cole. “There are a lot of pandemic things that have been helpful. People are now more willing to do things that make it easier for restaurants to survive. They’ve seen that if they don’t participate in that same kind of social contract then restaurants won’t continue.”
Mama aims to reopen mid-June, but in the meantime the whole team is planning a preview dinner at Hi Neighbor’s Financial District restaurant The Vault Garden. Stacionis and Baldivino will return for a Bay Grape Blind Tasting Dinner (a popular dinner series that the group has launched over the past year) that will also showcase some of the new menu items that will appear on the menu at Mama. Wine pairings and menu items will remain secret to allow for a lively tasting and guessing session. Tickets are available now for groups up to eight people and include a five-course dinner plus wine pairings. Parking is validated for only $5. Snag a ticket here.