Well-traveled food lovers of the Bay Area know the Mission’s Little Baobab is exceptionally small. They also know that hunching over a plate of lamb dibi while elbow-to-elbow with a guest at the next table over gives the Senegalese restaurant and dancehall its distinct character.
So when owner Marco Senghor decided to open a new business around the corner on Mission Street between 18th and 19th streets, the expectation was it would have more space than the original. But Big Baobab isn’t just a modest step up: it’s so massive the entirety of Little Baobab can fit inside its kitchen. Even Senghor admits feeling spooked by all the extra room. “But the more familiarized I got with the space, and with the colors and energy and different things I wanna put here, I think at some point people will feel like, ‘Oh, wow, it’s not that big anymore,’” he says.
If Little Baobab’s goal was to replicate the values Senghor grew up with in Senegal, then Big Baobab’s is to revel in nearly three decades of community building by being as expansive as possible. The 4,000-square-foot restaurant and event space will feature a menu encompassing food from across the Global South, and Senghor was meticulous about the decor; it’s all meant to honor the circumstances that paved the way for Big Baobab and to continue making space for others to grow with it.
After a turbulent past two years of keeping Little Baobab alive through a pandemic, Senghor was eager to dream big. He realized early on that considering Big Baobab’s high ceilings and ample natural light it felt wrong to only operate during the evening hours. So he hired a friend to run a cafe in the mornings when locals can enjoy Colombian coffee and an arepa before work. Senghor will also keep up the catering business he started during the lockdown days of the pandemic during daylight hours.
Lunch and dinner at Big Baobab will feel most like its tiny counterpart, but with some notable changes. Wanting to add more vegetarian and vegan options, Senghor incorporated vegetable- and cassava-based dishes into Big Baobab’s menu. Fufu (pounded cassava) features prominently, but with a twist. Rather than a smooth, hearty mound in a sea of stew, Senghor’s version resembles the consistency of polenta, studded with shredded spinach and chunks of sweet plantain. It’s served with yassa, a mustard-based onion sauce cooked with flaky fish, grilled chicken, plump shrimp, or seasonal vegetables. He’s also been toying with a recipe for a fufu burger, which he hopes to add to the menu once it’s perfected.
Any of Big Baobab’s cocktails — usually starring hibiscus, tamarind, or passion fruit — pair well, but the ginger margarita offers a satisfying sear that balances out the heartiness of the fufu.
Then, Senghor says, “Once you have a full belly, you can dance.” The specifics of Big Baobab’s nightlife scene are still coming together, but Senghor earned his entertainment permit last month after a tense hearing that saw Little Baobab supporters arguing in favor of the expansion, and new neighbors of Big Baobab voicing concerns that sound from the club on the weekend would be too disruptive. Senghor says he felt misunderstood by those who fear Big Baobab, but he isn’t the type to get too wrapped up in emotions. “When you go through and experience life, you learn how to hold pain inside of you,” he says. “You can grow by becoming bitter, or becoming wiser.”
And Senghor has had plenty of opportunities to gain wisdom. In April 2019, he closed Bissap Baobab — the slightly larger restaurant next to Little Baobab — in order to cover legal fees for a harrowing immigration case. Not long after, Senghor lost his mother, with whom he was extremely close. Like most restaurant owners, he fought hard to keep Little Baobab afloat during the pandemic, eventually using the tiny restaurant’s kitchen to cook meals for unhoused people when shelters and other food centers were strained for resources. “My plan was to leave the country,” Senghor says. But as the COVID-19 vaccine became available and his community set out to define its new normal, Senghor’s friends and Baobab patrons convinced him to stay. A few months later, he signed the lease for Big Baobab.
At first glance, the restaurant’s color palette — dusty rose, buttery yellow, resort beach blue — seems unconventional. But those are the prominent colors found at Senegal’s Gorée Island, which housed the largest slave fortress on the West African coast during the transatlantic slave trade. Little Baobab regulars will recognize the bold posters of boxer and dancer silhouettes, and, for the focal point, Senghor commissioned a mural from artist Christopher Burch, who used to work as a bartender at Little Baobab. The painting sits over the front bar and pays homage to icons including Toni Morrison, Dolores Huerta, Miriam Makeba, and Frida Kahlo.
Big Baobab expects to soft open later this month and will continue to roll out after that. Eventually, it will also host a Middle Eastern-inspired weekend brunch, and Senghor is in talks with a friend from the Dominican Republic about hosting a Caribbean cuisine popup. Senghor says he plans to move on from the restaurant business after this Big Baobab run — but it wouldn’t be the first time he announced those plans only for friends to persuade him to keep the doors open.
Over the past decade, he’s been thrilled by the number of other African-owned businesses that have popped up across the Bay Area, from restaurants to nightclubs and beyond. “Baobab is a holy place,” he says. “But the more I grow, the less I feel like I’m alone. Running a restaurant is a lot of work. For us to be protected, you have to learn how to use your community as a shield, as a family.”
Big Baobab (2243 Mission Street in San Francisco) will be open for coffee and breakfast Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. until 2 p.m. Dinner will run Wednesday through Sunday from 5:30 p.m. until 10 p.m., and weekend brunch will take place Saturdays and Sundays from 10:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m.