For the past decade, Cassava has been a dining destination all the way out in the foggy Outer Richmond avenues, ambitious in terms of both its affordable prix fixe menu and its at-times divisive policies during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now the owners are taking the show to a whole new part of the city. As of September 26, the last Japanese breakfasts have been served at 3519 Balboa Street; on October 12, Cassava’s doors will open at 401 Columbus Avenue in North Beach. “It’s definitely bittersweet to leave our home over there,” says co-owner Yuka Ioroi, adding that the colorful new space on the corner of Columbus and Vallejo is also “kind of amazing.”
Before longtime fans get worried: the restaurant’s $48 three-course dinner menu isn’t going anywhere. But with the expanded space, Ioroi says the kitchen crew, including chef and co-owner Kris Toliao, will be able to work more efficiently and explore some menu additions. (For example, there’s now a dedicated prep room, a big new grill, and a larger smoker.) Even though they’re sticking to the same self-described “modern California cuisine” menu, for now, there are plans for changes in the coming weeks and months. “We’re going to start small,” Ioroi says. “But eventually we can add bigger, large-format steaks because the grill is so amazing.”
Ioroi, who oversees the restaurant’s beverage program, says she’s particularly excited about the expanded wine storage area and larger bar. The restaurant still holds a beer-and-wine-only liquor license, but Ioroi says the expanded storage space will let her grow the wine options into the big list she always imagined but simply couldn’t squeeze in at the original space. And there are cocktails, for those who want something more potent, though they’re built on bases such as Hartley & Gibson’s fino sherry, Montsarra cava, and Sabe gold rum, which despite the name is actually sake.
For those who dined at the Balboa Street location, there should be several familiar elements in the restaurant’s new home, Ioroi says. “Blue has kind of always been our thing, so you see a lot of navy blue throughout the restaurant and the awning is Tiffany blue,” she points out. Plus, the space showcases a number of rainbow-hued murals, echoing the vibrant colors that made the previous space simultaneously lively and cozy. “We’ve always liked a pop of color,” she says. There’s still outdoor seating, too — diners can perch on either the bustling thoroughfare that is Columbus Avenue or on Vallejo with views of the tippy top of Coit Tower in the distance. A new kitchen bar includes four seats, all with a front-row seat to keep an eye on the action in the kitchen.
One notable design element: the floors. Ioroi says they originally planned to replace the flooring, but because other parts of the project went over budget, they ended up polishing the original concrete instead. “It’s so beautiful,” she says. “It’s so stunning. It shows something from the original building, so it’s historic. We were so stoked.”
Staff will weave through an L-shaped space, which gives more sight lines from the kitchen to the dining room. And the staff, Ioroi says, will also be familiar to longtime fans. All the staff from the Balboa Street location have moved to the new restaurant, and they’ve been able to add a few new members to the team as well. The restaurant’s job listings advertise an equal tip split between front- and back-of-house team members, full medical benefits, and a 401K with a 5 percent employer match, all rarities in the restaurant industry. “Absolutely no racism, classism, toxic masculinity, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia,” a posting for a server position also reads.
With the new additions to the team, Ioroi says they’ll be able to open with dinner service five nights a week, Wednesday through Sunday. But they’ll have to wait to roll out brunch after they get their feet under them. The plan is to add more staff and more hours of service gradually, she says, as a part of the commitment to building a healthy environment for all workers. “There are so many people that would rather work in an environment that’s encouraging, inclusive, safe, and fun,” Ioroi says. “More than just, ‘Oh I need to go in and get 250 dollars a night and come back out, to have a blind eye towards someone in the same building getting exploited.’”
Cassava (401 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco) opens on Wednesday, October 12 and will serve dinner from 5 to 8:45 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Reservations are available on OpenTable.