The Namu Restaurant Group has permanently closed its original location on the northeast corner of Dolores Park. Chef Dennis Lee confirmed for Eater SF on Tuesday that due to an unresolved landlord conflict, the last day of service was Monday, August 2. It’s not entirely surprising, considering the restaurant group has shuffled various concepts and locations over the past few years, and that we’re in an ongoing pandemic. But before the Namu Stonepot fast-casual spinoffs, this was the original location of Namu Gaji, the restaurant that brought the Lee brothers to local fame, and fans will surely mourn its departure. It’s the end of nearly a decade of sizzling stonepots topped with undulating bonito flakes, served in reclaimed wood interiors with chill vibes.
Namu iterated in the Richmond in the early aughts, but Namu Gaji first opened at this prime location in Mission Dolores in 2012 and was instantly popular, serving creative and original Californian slash Korean fare. Over the years, it earned recurring spots on lists of the hottest restaurants and essential restaurants in SF. Lee pulled Californian ingredients from the restaurant’s own farm and treated them from the perspective of his Korean heritage. But despite how media and diners tried to categorize the restaurant early on, he consistently defied Asian fusion stereotypes. “I’ve always described it as chef-driven, personal cuisine…” Lee says. “We were young and stupid and adventurous, and just put a menu together that’s things that we like.”
Namu Gaji closed temporarily for a seismic retrofit in 2019, with plans to move the concept into the former Perennial space in SoMa, but the move never happened. The Mission Dolores location became Namu Stonepot later in 2019, serving fast casual rice bowls, while the SoMa location became SSP Beer Hall in 2021, adding pizza takeout and delivery. During the pandemic, the Lee brothers finally confirmed that they had scrapped any remaining plans to bring the original Namu Gaji back, and overall the group is now leaning into fast casual.
Lee says the group is leaving the original Namu Gaji location after more than 9 years because the lease was up for renewal and they couldn’t resolve negotiations. The brothers owed back rent from shelter in place and hoped to set up a gradual payment plan, but the landlord demanded full payment sooner and raised the rent on the new lease. “It just doesn’t make sense to me how landlords want you to pay back all the rent during a time when your business wasn’t operating … ” Lee says. “Either they’re completely clueless as to how world works, or they’re pretty much saying, ‘Fuck you, get out of here.’”
Lee believes someone will snap up the lease, given the prime location by the park, but says it also came with challenges. Dolores Park draws a mix of locals and tourists, as well as big crowds on Pride weekend and sunny days, which brought in people wanting cheap takeout, begging to use the bathroom, or who appeared to be struggling with mental health issues, while deterring customers who might want to sit down for a reservation. The Lee brothers were already considering flipping the space into a pizza slice shop before they made the decision to close.
Regardless, it’s sad news for family, friends, and fans of this restaurant group, as this was the spot that introduced most San Franciscans to the Namu group’s creative and original cuisine. Even if Namu Gaji technically closed two years ago, letting go of the physical space is another moment for reflection. “It was our mothership,” Lee says of the original restaurant. “Where we felt the most personal and economic freedom to do whatever we wanted with the food.”