Once upon a time, the all-day cafe was the little black dress of the restaurant world: your go-to spot for a coffee and pastry on the commute to work, a place to meet a friend for a quick breakfast, and an easy option for a casual business lunch. It was a convenient destination for happy hour with co-workers and an unfussy dinner choice for the days when you just couldn’t be bothered to cook.
Today, the all-day cafe is somewhat of a rarity — less a wardrobe staple, and more a vintage piece you pull out only when you happen across it in the back of your closet. The Castro’s Cafe Flore closed, ending nearly five decades of all-day service, in early 2020 and the Grove, a local chain of all-day dining spots, contracted from four locations down to one as of last fall. Most recently, in February Reverie Cafe called it quits, ending its 21-year run serving coffee by day and beer and wine by night to the Cole Valley neighborhood. As with many recent restaurant industry trends, the closure could be chalked up to the lingering impacts of the pandemic.
But now, alongside the return of restaurants more broadly, there’s a new crop of all-day dining options popping up around San Francisco – and they’re not coming from first-time restaurateurs, but chefs and owners behind successful high-end restaurants. From Automat in NoPa, where chef Matt Kirk teamed up with Lazy Bear chef and owner David Barzelay, to Dento Union and Dento Coffee & Wine on Folsom from restaurateur Min Choe of Michelin-rated Sato Omakase, all-day dining options might just be coming in vogue once again.
Over in Lower Pacific Heights, chef Matt Accarrino plans to open the door to his casual cafe Mattina on April 1. The restaurant’s name translates to “morning,” but will serve the neighborhood from sunup to sundown. There will be coffee and freshly baked pastries, and a full menu for lunch and dinner, starring wood-fired spiedini and a thoughtfully selected list of wine. For Accarrino, who’s owned and operated Italian dining destination SPQR just around the corner since 2009, the move into the casual dining space stems from a combination of wanting to satisfy his personal passions and expand his ability to serve the neighborhood.
The idea started during the pandemic. “I’m a bike rider and everybody knows that part of the culture is stopping for a cup of coffee,” Accarrino says. “So, I opened my own coffee shop partly out of selfish motivation.” Accarrino’s Coffee and Doughnuts started a pop-up operating out of SPQR’s front door on weekends. When Mattina opens, he’ll keep the weekend doughnuts frying, but the new restaurant will give him a broader platform to satiate the neighborhood’s hunger for a quick and casual daytime meal.
From a business standpoint, Accarrino says Mattina allows him to connect with more customers. Whereas SPQR serves only a full tasting menu five nights a week, Mattina will offer three meals a day, five days a week to start. The chef understands even diners who love SPQR may not feel comfortable frequenting the restaurant every week. He hopes Mattina will give those fans a more approachable option.
Choe, the chef and restaurant owner behind Dento Union and Dento Coffee & Wine in SoMa, echoes that sentiment. At the former, the daytime menu means coffee and pastries. But at night, diners can order cold smoked tuna in truffle ponzu and fatty tuna with aged soy and caviar. These dishes, though simpler than the sushi and sashimi served at his high-end restaurant Sato Omakase, use the same high-quality ingredients. “I wanted to create a place where you could come in without having to worry about the budget as much,” Choe says. “And later on, if you want the full experience, you can always come to my restaurant and have the omakase experience. But, maybe, on a daily basis, that’s a little too much.”
Dento Coffee & Wine also pours the four craft beers Choe makes specifically for his restaurants with legendary Bay Area brewer Dave McLean. In part, Choe says he wanted to open Dento in order to have a place to showcase the project, for which he has far grander plans than just the current basement brewing space. Down the line, Choe plans to open a second production space, expand the line to eight beers, and start distributing not only to his own restaurants and bars, but also to other high-end Japanese and Korean restaurants across the city. In that sense, Dento represents just one piece of the entrepreneur’s broader vision.
Barzelay, who opened his two-Michelin-star restaurant Lazy Bear in 2009, also sees value in expanding his roster of restaurants and bars, which now includes Automat and cocktail bar True Laurel. The efficiency, on an operational level, comes from being able to centralize jobs like bookkeeping, marketing, and human resources. With a single location, all these tasks typically fall to third-party vendors, but with multiple restaurants and bars under one company umbrella, Barzelay says he can bring things in-house.
Of course, it wasn’t operational efficiency that inspired Automat. “A big part of it was the lack of all-day concepts,” Barzelay says. “The lack of anything solid for breakfast or even lunch. Also, Matt [Kirk]’s food is really great.” Additionally, both Barzelay and Kirk have young families, and they craved a place where they could get a high-quality meal in a space that felt friendly to kids.
But the chef says the issues that have always made operating an all-day restaurant challenging haven’t gone anywhere. If anything, they’re more daunting than ever. Inflation continues to drive up prices for ingredients, and Barzelay points out that even if a restaurant offers a more casual experience, there’s likely still a lot of labor being put into the food. “Nobody realizes every dish on the menu at Automat is just as labor-intensive as a dish on the menu at Lazy Bear,” he says. “Those sandwiches probably cost a heck of a lot more than you think.” Staffing, a perennial issue for the restaurant industry, also becomes more complicated when scheduling managers and servers for a restaurant that’s open nearly 12 hours a day, six days a week.
These days, Barzelay says it’s hard just to get people out of the house for weeknight meals. Even as diners still seem willing to roll out to Lazy Bear for a special night on the town, the chef says he’s not confident the appetite for all-day concepts is enough for the restaurants to make the comeback he’d hoped for in the post-pandemic world. “I think the jury’s still out,” he says.