The shockingly bright facade of Chao Pescao, debuting for onsite dining tomorrow, June 16, achieves its goal — it demands attention, and stands out from its Civic Center surroundings. That’s the idea, owner Rene Denis says, behind the restaurant’s food as well: to bring Cuban and Colombian comforts, including empanadas and arepas, to the forefront of San Francisco dining, and serve up some post-lockdown joy.
Denis is a longtime San Francisco restaurant owner who closed his upscale Civic Center restaurant Soluna Cafe & Lounge in December 2020, and then set out, unknowingly at the time, on a journey to transform it into the more colorful and casual Chao Pescao.
“When we realized the pandemic was going to be a long-term thing, we started considering the position of the restaurant — both in terms of location and concept. When we realized we had to do takeout and delivery, I knew it needed to be affordable food, meals that families could get for an affordable price.”
Soluna started doing family meals, with the cost of a meal for four generally working out to $15 per person. But a number of Soluna’s menu items just didn’t work in that format, Denis says, so he started listening to his cravings. “I had this deep desire for the food that I grew up with — Cuban and Colombian. And I just thought the city was lacking in both of the cuisines I grew up on and love,” he says.
Those cravings eventually led to the menu at Chao Pescao. “Once we started testing out family recipes, all these memories came flooding back. I got so excited, racking my brain about whether certain things would translate, picking and choosing which dishes would resonate,” Denis says. They ended up, says Denis, “With all this slow-cooked food paired with an abundance of preparation. Food that allows for timely execution, and stands up to takeout and delivery — we didn’t want to do anything that wouldn’t stand the test of delivery time.”
With Chao Pescao officially opening this week for onsite dining, Denis says he’s able to add some new menu items — fish specials, a daily cut of steak available in addition to the Bistec de Palomilla, housemade ice cream, and most important, four varieties of arepas. The arepas are nostalgic for Denis, as most of his family gatherings growing up revolved around the making of them, but he calls empanadas the restaurant’s “anchor.” They are Colombian Empanadas Vallunas, made with masa and deep-fried. These too come in four varieties, three to an order, filled with flank steak or chicken and potato; garlic pork, sweet plantain, and black bean; and sweet potato, garbanzo bean, kale, and rice.
Chao Pescao’s appearance followed a similar pleasure-seeking path. What started as light work on the interior of Soluna evolved into designing an entirely new restaurant. “If we’re going to do refinishing, let’s just start ripping it up, make it open, brighten the place up,” Denis says he decided.
“We needed a change, and we sort of just kept rolling with it. Now here we are with this beautiful, colorful restaurant, standing out among the stately, monochromatic stuff around it,” he says. In what Denis says was a bid to be “Instagrammable,” he and a designer focused on creating texture, resulting in a wall made entirely of mirrors; one of rosette ornaments and ceiling medallions; one made of musical instruments that have been cut down, mounted, and painted; and a wall of fabrics and picture frames.
“The exterior is pure color,” Denis says, with the side of the restaurant that faces a community garden painted in stripes of tropical colors. “People outside stop and look to see what it is, and once they’re inside, there’s so much to look at.”
Chao Pescao evolved out of Soluna one step at a time, Denis says, rather than with a sweeping decision made one day. “There are so many changes, and I’m so glad I didn’t fight it,” Denis says. “It’s my passion project of all passion projects.”
Beginning June 16, Chao Pescao is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. at 272 McAllister Street for dine-in, takeout, and delivery, with extended hours to come.