For decades, the Mission’s Little Baobab has served Senegalese dishes like tangy, mustard-based yassa by day and groovy Burna Boy Afrobeats by night. Now the restaurant is ready for a larger space with more variety and, of course, more room to dance.
The new location, aptly named Big Baobab, is right around the corner from the restaurant’s original outpost on Mission Street between 18th and 19th streets in the recently vacated 4,000-square-foot Lupulandia Brewery space. Owner Marco Senghor says Big Baobab, which he plans to open by August 15, will offer West African specialties in addition to Senegalese dishes, like Nigerian jollof rice; attiéké, a side dish from the Ivory Coast made of fermented cassava grated down to the consistency of couscous; and a Cameroonian-style stew of spinach and bitter leaf called ndolé. He’ll carry a few popular Little Baobab menu items over, too, like the Afro wrap with akara, or crispy black eyed pea fritters.
Expanding the menu feels as natural to Senghor as his decision to enter a larger space with Big Baobab. Having grown up in Senegal and France, he feels most at home when straddling multiple cultures and bristles at the expectation of sticking to one style of food. “You can go to Western restaurants and they have French food, Italian food, and so forth with no problem,” he says. “But I, as an African owning an ethnic restaurant, am supposed to just stick to Senegalese food? I want to offer food from all around the world because I love it.”
Senegal was where Senghor was first exposed to Lebanese food; Lebanese people have been migrating to West Africa for decades, opening restaurants as many immigrants do, and Senghor has found a way to celebrate that global appetite at Big Baobab. When his plans for the restaurant were still materializing, two friends, one from Turkey and one from Iran, approached him about doing a Middle Eastern and West African weekend brunch. “I can’t reveal the menu just yet,” he says, “But we’re going to tropicalize it.” Think egg dishes accompanied by sweet potatoes and plantains instead of hash browns — and lots of baba ganoush.
Senghor is also a savvy business owner. He’s been running Little Baobab since 1999; understanding how to adjust to the environment, especially in a shapeshifting neighborhood like the Mission, has been vital. “During COVID, a lot of people in tech left, but the Latino population is still here and it’s huge,” he says. That’s why, when another friend from Mexico floated the idea of operating a coffee stand inside Big Baobab when it would otherwise be closed, it was an easy yes. “She’ll brew Colombian coffee and sell arepas from six in the morning until two in the afternoon,” Senghor says.
Evening hours, though, will feel more like Little Baobab: dinners punctuated by flamenco performances and comedy nights, and hopefully a DJ on the weekends. It will all depend on whether Senghor can secure an entertainment license. A hearing with the City of San Francisco has been scheduled for July 19. Senghor says he’ll always find a way to carry on the international “come as you are” ethos that’s made Little Baobab so popular into this bigger project, no matter what happens. “I want people to come to the restaurant and know that it’s a place for immigrants and that they can have food from all around the world,” he says.