Ilya Romanov, a prominent bar manager and a beloved member of the San Francisco hospitality industry, died on December 30 from a fall. He was 33 years old.
Romanov was most recently known as the friendly face behind the stick at Bar Iris, the sister cocktail bar to Michelin-starred fine dining restaurant, Nisei. Romanov captained Iris to its opening in October 2021, designing the layout for the two-well bar himself, overseeing construction and design details, selecting glassware, hiring and training the staff, and developing the cocktail menu. Nisei chef David Yoshimura spent much of the last year or so working alongside Romanov nearly every day — as Romanov moved through the bar’s crawl space to fix electrical wiring, worked to get the place ready for opening, and created a menu meant to match Nisei’s big ambitions.
Yoshimura describes Romanov as hardworking with a can-do attitude, but also personable, welcoming, and a goofball. “If you gave him a task, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I just want to get the job done,’” Yoshimura says. “He’s like, ‘I want to go over and beyond and be the best at whatever it is I’m being told to do.’ He would constantly say things like, ‘If you’re not going to be the best at something, why even try?’ That’s the kind of attitude that Ilya had.”
In Bar Iris’s first year, Romanov’s Japanese-inspired bar menu with playful takes on highball-style drinks earned him recognition as a cocktail talent and turned the bar into a destination in its own right. His ingredient-driven drinks, such as a cocktail highlighting the purple Okinawan sweet potato, helped earn him a Rising Stars Award in November from StarChefs. “I wanted to highlight not just using Japanese ingredients but the mindset,” Romanov said of Bar Iris’s drink menu last year. Referencing the sweet potato drink, Yoshimura says Romanov’s drinks appeared “very elegant and simple” — but the ingredients would sometimes take hours and an extreme amount of effort to make. “Ilya was probably one of the best people in hospitality I’ve ever met,” Yoshimura says. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as talented and naturally gifted at what he did. He encompassed hospitality, it was very apparent whenever you met him.”
By the time he joined the Nisei and Bar Iris team, Romanov was already a well-known face around San Francisco. After immigrating to California from Russia in his early teens, he briefly dallied in culinary school at Cabrillo College before settling into the bar scene, working as a barback before moving to San Francisco. He bartended at the Battery then landed at the Dorian, where he served as bar manager for three years. The Dorian team remembers Romanov as someone who inspired others to be better, could talk about the history of an ice cube, and “epitomized the American dream, showing that anything was possible with grit and a positive mindset.” Benson Wang, founder of Palm House Hospitality, which owns the Dorian, recalls Romanov as a jack of all trades capable of not only working the floor, but also running Instagram, photographing drinks, painting walls, developing public relations pitches, even working on the business website. “Ilya’s uncompromising persistence and dedication to hospitality has been a blessing to all that he touched and to the entire San Francisco community,” Wang wrote in a statement to Eater SF. “He was a rare combination of a craftsman and a kind and loving heart.”
Romanov also worked at the Mission District’s Beehive in 2018 before joining the Michelin-starred Niku Steakhouse in 2019. Beehive general manager Tristen Philippart de Foy recalls Romanov as a talented bartender and a caring friend who, after a night of drinks, would dig through the cupboards and make crepes in the morning. “He was just a natural host,” Philippart de Foy says. “Even when he was staying at his buddy’s house sleeping on the couch, he’d wake up, and he’d make you feel like you were being taken care of. I think that’s Ilya’s energy in a nutshell. He was just an incredible, fun guy.”
Romanov’s friends and colleagues say he was always tinkering, fixing, or learning. Miguel Salehi, a close friend and former colleague, called Romanov a genius who would build computers for friends or help with projects at his workplace or at others’ homes. “Aside from being a stellar barman, and a stellar professional cocktailer creatively making recipes and gorgeous cocktails, Ilya replaced the flooring in my girlfriend’s apartment,” Salehi says. “He did electrical stuff at my sister’s place. He renovated his entire apartment.” Friend Kimmy Baer, who worked with Romanov at Beehive, says he always believed in and supported others. “His enthusiasm to always strive for his best and pull up others around him was just unparalleled,” Baer says. “As much as he was dedicated to his work, he showed such loving attention to his son and family, to his friends, and to his bar community.”
On December 30, Romanov was found on the ground at the 2300 block of Polk Street at about 11:30 p.m., having fallen from a nearby roof, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Police say the death appears to be accidental; foul play is not suspected. Romanov is survived by his son, Ezra Romanov, 3, and Ezra’s mother, Mayanka Romanov. An ongoing GoFundMe has raised more than $60,000 in less than a day to support Ezra, Mayanka, and Ilya’s family. “Please give whatever you can, as Ilya would have done for any of us,” the campaign encourages.
Emilio Salehi, Miguel’s brother and Romanov’s close friend, described him as confident, thoughtful, sensitive, and empathetic. “It’s hard to really talk about exactly how he was; he was so many things,” Salehi says. “I think, most importantly, he was an incredibly unique person, so losing him is really challenging because we all know that none of us are ever going to meet another Ilya.”