The fall equinox has come and gone, and with the changing seasons come crisp beginnings. For husband-and-wife team David Fisher and Serena Chow Fisher that means the end of the couple’s extended pop-up at Union Square’s Hotel Zeppelin, where, for the past two months, the chefs have served a seven-course tasting menu inspired by long summer nights spent at camp. The residency opened up a fun opportunity to serve a more elongated menu than the four courses they typically cook at their breakout hit restaurant Marlena. But as the run wraps, they say they’re excited to head back home. “At the end of camp you're also like, ‘Hey mom, come pick me up,” Chow Fisher says with a laugh.
And what a homecoming it’ll be. During the months the couple spent cooking downtown, the couple’s Michelin-starred Bernal Heights restaurant has been closed while it underwent an extensive interior redesign from M. Chad Kellogg of architecture and design studio AMLGM. Marlena will resume serving dinner seven nights a week on September 26, when diners will step into an elegant new space wrapped in cool tones and curved shapes.
Chow Fisher says the reopening comes almost exactly two years since Marlena first opened with takeout dishes only during some of the most difficult days of the pandemic. In the passing months, the couple managed to not only carve out a niche in their Bernal Heights neighborhood but also earn recognition on the national scale including a single Michelin star — all while navigating the uncertainties of the post-pandemic restaurant industry. “Nobody knew what to expect so we never really knew how much we could invest in it,” she says of the space. “It’s kind of like everything is finally coming together.”
When the couple embarked on a structural retrofit of the 110-year-old Edwardian building that houses the restaurant, they didn’t realize they’d bitten off quite a bit of a project. They discovered, for example, the building had no foundation — but the chefs decided to spin the unwelcome surprise into an opportunity. They hired local vendors including Emeryville’s fabrication and design studio Skiff and furniture designer Ross Kellogg to help them construct the restaurant of their dreams. Now, the dining room offers long banquettes in deep oceanic blue, and a wall at the host stand to insulate diners against rushes of wind. In the kitchen, Fisher says things are “a little bit more shiny and new” including a marble bar top, hotter heat lamps, new stainless steel, and new flooring. It’ll help make the kitchen more efficient, he says, which clears the pathway for the team to continue pushing the boundaries on the menu side.
Speaking of the menu, fans can count on the return of Marlena’s remarkably affordable four-course tasting menu ($65). As the weather continues to cool, expect plates such as hamachi crudo garnished with apple vinegar, green peppercorns, and sour gherkins, and raviolini with smoked rosa bianca eggplant, Early Girl tomatoes, and baby leeks. Grilled beef cheeks arrive accompanied with beef sausage, honey nut squash, and broccoli di ciccio, while seasonal desserts include kabocha squash “cheesecake” made with a chocolate shortbread crust, dark chocolate cremeux, and candied pepitas. A small list of supplements — the couple affectionately calls them “snax” — marks a new addition. Look for playful picnic-y items like a “fig newton” with duck liver mousse, an osetra caviar croustade, and a feuille de brick with mushroom duxelle.
Though the owners considered expanding to a seven-course tasting menu, they ultimately decided against it, saying they’re committed to Marlena being an approachable restaurant for the neighborhood in addition to a destination dining spot for the city at large. “I think my dream restaurant will always be a large format tasting menu, super fine dining,” Fisher says. “We got to do that for a few months, but the reality is in today’s world not everyone wants to do that.” Chow Fisher adds that they want Marlena to continue to be a place for celebration, whether the special occasion falls on a Monday or Wednesday or Saturday night; with the restaurant open seven days a week, diners don’t have to wait for the weekend.
“That’s what's always made Marlena accessible: you can celebrate on the day,” she says. “Because you’re allowed that little luxury and it doesn't take so long.”
Marlena (300 Precita Avenue, San Francisco) opens Monday, September 26 and will serve dinner nightly, from 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and from 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Reservations available on Resy.