After Tan Truong moved to the west side of San Francisco over a year ago, he would often pass through the cozy strip of Ocean Avenue bordered by 19th Avenue and Junipero Serra Boulevard while driving his daughter to school. Despite the empty storefronts, he saw potential for the corridor, and as the restaurant partner behind popular San Francisco restaurants Ju-Ni, Handroll Project, and now-closed Hina Yakitori, it was enough to inspire him to embark on his next project. “The restaurateur in me is like, ‘Something needs to happen here,’” Truong says. “And selfishly, I want it to happen for me and my family and just to be able to activate a neighborhood for us to enjoy.”
Lakeside Cafe served the Lakeside Village community for 20 years at 2529 Ocean Avenue, before shutting down in 2013. In the long time since that closure, the cafe has stood empty, Truong says — until now. Troung partnered with executive chef Tim Humphrey — formerly of the Restaurant at Meadowood, Yountville’s Perry Lang’s, and most recently at Goose and Gander in Napa — and together they opened Ofena, an Italian restaurant aimed at serving the neighborhood. Humphrey spearheaded the menu, creating less of a regional Italian menu and more of a place where families could eat a lot, dine slowly to enjoy each other’s company, and where diners will leave full and pampered with great hospitality. “You go to grandma’s house, grandma’s gonna make sure that you’re happy leaving,” Humphrey says, “and they’ll do whatever it takes to find you something to eat — and so we wanted to bring that same hospitality to the table here.”
Ofena is the town in Italy where his great-grandparents lived prior to immigrating to the United States, and the restaurant features the handwriting of Humphrey’s mother, whom he traveled with to Ofena on his 30th birthday. The restaurant is infused with special stories like this and that personal touch resonates through the menu. Everyone knows mozzarella sticks, Humphrey says, but he’s taking the item back to its origins as carrozza, fried mozzarella stuffed between slices of crumbed bread served with a spicy marinara dipping sauce on the side. Humphrey also offers his take on the giardiniera, an heirloom squash version with a twist on the pickling, folding in an onion mostarda and ricotta salata for balance.
For entrees, diners can look forward to spaghetti alla chitarra, served with an overnight beef sugo, Italian sausage, and meatballs. Humphrey is also serving bistecca Fiorentina, but instead of steak he’s changing to pork served with a fennel seed gremolata and a charred lemon for a bit of citrus. With this and other secondi, diners will have a choice of contorni, or a side, such as soft polenta with truffle mascarpone or grilled broccolini. The menu will maintain a steady roster of classics, but seasonal dishes will come onto the menu as well, Humphrey promises. Desserts, meanwhile, are made by Cathleen Li of Oui Oui Macaron, who also happens to be Truong’s wife. Currently there’s a nontraditional chocolate tiramisu and a spumoni sundae made with buffalo milk from Double Eight Dairy in Petaluma. It stars the traditional flavors of pistachio, cherry, and chocolate, then gets topped with whipped cream, maraschino cherries, and an Italian butter cookie. Also on the dessert menu: a seasonal cannoli, with a strawberry and cream version to start.
Beverage director Michael McCardle set about creating a sophisticated menu worthy of any trendy bar — but nestled into Lakeside. “What would a melon and cheese appetizer be like if those elements were put into a cocktail?” McCardle pondered, which led him to create the Capri 33. It’s a clarified milk punch made with sheep’s milk, heirloom melons, grappa, basil, and aged white balsamic. For a sweet cocktail and as his answer to the ever-popular espresso martini, McCardle created the C is for Cookie, taking Mr. Black coffee liqueur, and adding in mint cordial, cold brew, and topped with a cookie whipped cream, made of Speculoos Cookie Butter and whipped cream. “I’m really proud of the menu as a whole because I feel like that neighborhood is missing a cocktail element,” McCardle says. “It’s nice to bring that quality and that experience out of the downtown San Francisco area and out to these neighborhoods where people don’t have to travel as much for it.” There are also beer and wine options, and the wine list spans both Italian and California bottles with a focus on female winemakers — overall skewing approachable in price.
In the restaurant’s opening weekend, the neighborhood came in and welcomed Ofena, with locals spotting friends at the bar and dropping in to say hello, or buying an acquaintance at another table a glass of wine. It’s the atmosphere that the Ofena group was hoping for. “It was super organic,” Truong says. “It was like everybody knew each other and they were just waiting for a place to meet up, and when we opened that’s what it became. So we hope we can continue to be a community gathering place for everybody here.”
Ofena (2529 Ocean Avenue) is open 5 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.