clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How Five San Francisco Restaurants Have Survived Decades of Ups and Downs

The chefs and owners behind five long-running San Francisco restaurants share their tips for success and most valuable lessons learned

Guests in the dining room at Boulevard Restaurant in San Francisco, Calif., on Sunday, April 10, 2016. Boulevard has been chosen for the Chronicle’s Top 100 restaurants.
Boulevard Restaurant in San Francisco on Sunday, April 10, 2016. The restaurant celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

This year hasn’t been easy on the San Francisco restaurant scene. Of course, every year brings its sad wave of Bay Area closures, but the past several months have been particularly brutal. New restaurants ceased operations just months or less than two years after opening, while beloved fast-casual spots such as Media Noche and decorated, high-end establishments like Avery called it quits.

Against the backdrop of quick turnaround and ever-changing policies around gratuities and parklets, finding restaurants that have stood the test of time almost seems like a miracle. How does a business survive in San Francisco for 35, 25, or even 12 years? And what valuable lessons are learned while keeping these businesses afloat? We caught up with the people behind five restaurants celebrating big anniversaries this year and asked about their survival secrets, annoying new trends, and new local establishments that show real promise.

Nancy Oakes, chef at Boulevard in San Francisco, Calif. on June 18, 2008.
Nancy Oakes, chef at Boulevard, on June 18, 2008.
Craig Lee/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Nancy Oakes, chef and owner at Boulevard, celebrating 30 years

The secret to survival: Invest in long-term employees, they will carry your vision forward. A solid location helps. And keep watch over your guest experience! Not just from the kitchen, all around experience. Recognize and value returning guests. I always try to stay tuned into how the guest perceives value, too.

Your personal evolution: I’ve tried to stay curious about food trends, styles, and flavors but I tend to hold on to what is relevant, what has survived the test of time.

Lessons learned: San Francisco is a beautiful place. As my friend Ken Fulk likes to say, “San Francisco is where you come to invent yourself.” Times change, you ride high and you ride low. People think crime and grime are horrible now, they don’t seem to remember the 70s! Sometimes I like to stand outside where I can look out over the bay and just breathe in one of the most gorgeous places on earth. People shouldn’t waste those moments.

Local dining trend you’re not a fan of: QR codes and especially reading a wine list on my phone for Pete’s sake!

New establishment that has the potential to stick around: Mijoté is very San Francisco. There was a time in the late ’70s when San Francisco had restaurants that were quirky and different — Mijoté has that. They have really gone all in on their concept, and they offer that neighborhood something very authentic. If they continue as is, they will really have success.

Eric Vreede, president of the Absinthe Group, Absinthe, celebrating 25 years

The secret to survival: The trick is to balance being the same place that everyone knows and loves without becoming stagnant. We’ve always had strong support from the locals, which has helped us through financial downturns, dot-com busts, recessions, and a pandemic. Hayes Valley has changed a lot since we first opened in 1998, and tourists and out-of-towners have “discovered” Hayes Valley, but it’s still the locals that are our core.

Lessons learned: It is the staff that makes a business great. While hiring and retaining staff can always be tricky, we firmly believe that employees must be treated with fairness and respect, which in turn leads to better dining experiences for our guests.

Local dining trend you’re not a fan of: I don’t think there’s a trend that I find particularly off-putting, but it will be interesting to see how the issues surrounding surcharges, service charges, and tips will end up. I think it’s confusing for the public and will probably lead to more frustration.

New establishment that has the potential to stick around: I think what Anthony Strong is doing at Pasta Supply Co. is very intriguing. It’ll be interesting to see how that evolves.

The interior of La Mar in San Francisco, Calif. is photographed on Friday, November 21, 2008.
The interior of La Mar in San Francisco on Friday, November 21, 2008.
Mark Constantini/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Thomas Medl, director of operations, La Mar, celebrating 15 years

The secret to survival: There are many factors that come into play here — the team you hire, the location you have, how flexible you are to accept new business, reinvent yourself over and over, create experiences and memories with your customers, and be loyal to them. And after you have done all that, do it consistently on top of it.

Lessons learned: Never let up. New businesses, new laws, new regulations are popping up on a daily basis it seems. You have to be one step ahead, you have to keep your finger on the pulse and keep running with it. Attending workshops from the GGRA, SF Travel, and other organizations has proved vital to be ahead and cover ourselves from risk. Another lesson is to pay your team a fair wage and make sure that they keep busy. Keep your industry friends close, sometimes there is nothing better than getting advice from another restaurateur in the city and how they tackle the problems.

Ranjay Dey, chef and owner of New Delhi.
New Dehli

Ranjay Dey, chef and owner, New Delhi, celebrating 35 years

The secret to success: We’ve been through it all, right from the ’89 earthquake, to the bubble bust of the dot-com crash, then the banking collapse, the Persian Gulf War, and 9/11 — we have had so many hurdles over the years. When Covid hit though, that was one of the toughest things I’ve overcome. However, being a legacy business in San Francisco and being deeply rooted in the community, we had the strength to overcome it because of the support from our community. I believe we survived so long because we always strive to connect. Through good food and conversation, we have the opportunity to educate people and invite others to a seat that is celebrated and always open.

Lessons learned: San Francisco is absolutely not business-friendly. Especially for small, immigrant-owned businesses, which have to work extra hard to survive. What I have learned is this, the only ones I can rely on are myself, my family, my community, and my team. My core team at New Delhi Restaurant has been with me for over 27 years.

Local dining trend you’re not a fan of: People solely basing their opinions on reviews. We try not to bother our guests to ask for reviews, but we pay a price for that. I miss the days when people would wander in, a little unsure, or maybe confident and ready to try a favorite dish without having preconceived ideas based on someone else’s taste buds.

Mat Schuster of Canela

Mat Schuster, owner, Canela, celebrating 12 years

The secret to success: Pay attention. Pay attention to what is going on inside the restaurant — how the team is functioning, how the guests are receiving the food and drinks, the facilities, equipment, and decor. Pay attention to what is going on outside the restaurant — in your neighborhood, in San Francisco, and in the world. Try to balance it all, prioritize, and not go crazy.

Lessons learned: Your experience and intuition are valuable. Let your team have input and empower them to do so. Apologize when you are wrong. Be aware of what is going on around you in politics, city and world events, time of year, and the weather!

New establishment that has the potential to stick around: We had a great wife and husband team who worked with us for 5 years, Sophie Akbar and Paul Iglesias. They went on to open their own Colombian restaurant in Oakland, Parche. They are killing it and have more than what it takes to be successful for years to come!

Best Dishes

The Best Dishes Editors Ate This Week

Don’t Sleep on This Casual, Caviar-Filled San Francisco Brunch Spot

A.M. Intel

Two San Francisco Restaurateurs Have Been Charged for Allegedly Bribing an FBI Agent