March 20, 2007

Folks have been wondering about what was moving into the former Winterland space; it will be reopening soon as ~RESTAURANT CASSIS~, focusing on Southern French and authentic Niçoise cuisine with Italian flair (remember, they are in fact neighbors). This casually upscale space will be serving pasta, pizzas (there is a gas-fired pizza oven), and some regional specialties. The owners are brothers Gerome Meloni (GM) and Stephane Meloni (who just got in from France and will be the executive chef—he has owned two restaurants in Antibes)—they have 20 years of combined restaurant experience. Also involved in the project is Megan Meloni, the wife of Gerome.

The style of the space will be altered to integrate more of a wine theme, with stone veneer accents on the walls that will make it look more cellar-like. The kitchen will also have a partial exhibition window so diners can look-see, and the lounge area will also be converted to allow for more dining seats. Tables will be larger and some round ones will be added as well (I love round tables—I wish there were more of them in the city). Overall the owners want to establish more of a casual and easygoing neighborhood eatery vibe. They got to keep the liquor license (yay) so you know where you’ll find me. The hope is to open in early to mid-May; dinner to start Tue-Sun, lunch to follow soon thereafter. They will be hiring for all positions, so keep your eyes peeled on Craigslist if you are interested. 2101 Sutter St. at Steiner.

I totally will be checking this place out: ~GOOD EARTH CUISINE~, a quick-casual joint is opening in the Sunset, serving ZONE-inspired food (30 fat/30 protein/40 carbs). There will be a focus on whole grains (no pasta or potatoes) and organic products, like free-range chicken and buffalo burgers will be on the menu. In an ironic twist, the owner, Tony Kwok, used to work for Burger King corporate and other big fast food monsters, like Wendy’s. In fact, the location for the restaurant used to be a Burger King. Ha! But after being diagnosed with diabetes and then changing his diet and losing thirty pounds and getting his diabetes in check, he’s a believer. Way to turn things around, Tony. He said his mantra is nutritious and delicious. It should be open within a month. Take-home meals and to-go will also be available. Rock. 1325 9th Ave. at Irving St.

After doing some consulting and stabilizing the kitchen over at ~MOOSE'S~, Robert Lam, the chef and owner of Butterfly on the Embarcadero, is no longer involved in the North Beach project. Seems they couldn’t quite work out a management agreement. Lam had his executive chef overseeing the kitchen, but now Moose’s has another chef in place, Travis Flood. Flood was formerly a private chef for Peter Thiel, the CEO of PayPal, and also has worked in the kitchens at Fifth Floor and Postrio. Lam is now going to be focusing most of his energy on his second Butterfly location, Butterfly Bistro, a casual Vietnamese joint utilizing some family recipes—it just opened this week in San Bruno at Tanforan.

Opening April 1 (no fooling) will be ~QUIXOTE'S MEXICAN GRILL~, a Mexican taqueria and grill opening a couple doors down from Chouchou out in Forest Hill. The focus will be on using quality meats, like free-range chicken and certified Angus beef, but offered at competitive prices. Plus some Latin American and Spanish recipes and flavors will also be integrated into the dishes. Beer and wine will be available. There are just under 30 seats, and after 4pm it will be more restaurant-style, plus curbside pick-up will be offered. Open 11am-9pm Sun, Tue-Thu and until 10pm Fri-Sat, closed Monday. 406 Dewey Blvd. at Laguna Honda, 415-661-1313.

An opening to report: over in North Beach, just next door to the “new Nua,” ~SOTTO MARE~ from Gigi Fiorucci and Giovanni Toracca is open and serving oysters (for $1 each, people)—mostly West Coast bivalves, like Fanny Bay. It has a long marble counter where you can sit and enjoy raw seafood like cracked crab, crab cocktails ($10), shrimp cocktails ($6), crab Louie and shrimp salads, and clams. Plus clam chowder. Baccala (old-school style) will be hanging around there soon. Beer in bottles is available (on tap is coming) and there’s wine that’s nicely priced. A straightforward SF-style breakfast is gonna kick in soon, serving up some Hangtown fry or omelettes. Mon-Sat 11am-7pm. 552 Green St. at Columbus Ave., 415-398-3181.

I hate hearing about projects tanking or going south or just not working out. Seems the designer and owner of ~VISIT~, which was going to be a VERY cool space in the Lower Haight, had some irreconcilable differences just before the project was almost complete, back in November. So the owner has been making changes to the design the past three months, and who knows what’s going in there now or what it’s going to look like. All will be revealed? 518 Haight St. at Fillmore St.

The often-empty ~CAFÉ GRILLADES~ in Hayes Valley has closed. (Their second location in San Bruno will remain open.) According to a source (thanks Sean!), there’s a sign on the door that says Stacks will be moving in. (Stacks is known for breakfast, and has other locations around the Bay Area, like down in Burlingame.) I spoke with the owner, Geoff Swenson, and he said will be opening in early May. He mentioned they are adding booths (yay!). They will have extended hours compared to their other locations, possibly until 4pm on the weekends and 3pm during the week. Dinner also might be coming, with comfort food on the menu. 501 Hayes St. at Laguna.

Also heard the ever-surreal ~KING DINER~ in SoMa has closed, and will be razed to make way for condos. It was always scary and kind of sad, and hella cheap. Like, so cheap I’d almost rather be a freegan and go forage out of a dumpster than order food there. Maybe I was never drunk enough to fully appreciate it (shocking). A magazine once did a photo shoot in the diner, which I thought was brilliant. I always hoped someone would just take it over and make amazing food there. Oh well. Condos. 1390 Mission St. at 10th St.

Saw this on Chowhound and had to look into it further: it ends up the owners of the kooky (and delicious and rather expensive) Shanghaiese restaurant, Jai Yun, really are behind the new-ish ~FLYING PAN BISTRO~ in the former Five Star and Hunan Express space. Shanghaiese dishes are available, with affordable lunch specials, plus dinner service that seems to be reservation only after 5pm. Not sure how much of Chef Nei Chia Ji’s handiwork is on the menu, but he reportedly comes by. There are two levels, with 160 seats. Looks like something I just may need to check out. Open Mon-Sat. (closed in between lunch and dinner.) 680 Clay St. at Kearny St., 415-399-1938.

And now, “the soapbox” portion of the chatterbox:

So, the biggest question sweeping the restaurant community is “what’s next?” Last Thursday afternoon, over 100 restaurant owners, from the big guns to the small joints, from the new guard to the old guard, gathered at Tres Agaves for a heated talk about a variety of angry-hot topics, but namely the triple threat of the minimum wage increase, the mandatory healthcare ordinance, and the recent paid sick leave requirement, and how it’s all hammering local business. This trio of employer mandates is drastically affecting the restaurant community’s ability to run a healthy and profitable business in this town, and basically, things have really hit the wall. À la Howard Beale in Network, “[They’re] mad as hell, and not going to take this anymore.”

As far as the minimum wage issue, there is now an imbalance happening internally, with many servers making what is now a pretty high minimum wage (uh, the second highest in the nation) plus their (often hefty) amount in tips, which can add up to a salary that can clock in at 2 ½ times more than what most cooks are lucky to make. And since restaurants have to worry about ever-diminishing profits, they are having a hard time giving their kitchen staff the raises they deserve. With these payroll stresses happening, there is a gap forming in restaurants between haves and have-nots, between front of house and back of house, and restaurants are left to negotiate this gap.

And the looming healthcare initiative? Well, according to some restaurateurs, it’s going to be twice as bad as the ramifications of the sick pay and minimum wage issues. It all adds up to a wicked business model, one that is destined to fail.

What are restaurants to do? They can (and will have to) raise prices, which can ultimately lead to less profit, according to a GGRA study, and/or decrease quality (never desirable, especially here), and/or decrease portions (the public doesn’t tend to support these things). Plus things like understaffing, the inability to afford staying open for lunch, diminished benefits for workers, worker attrition, flagging kitchen morale, and yes, ever-smaller profits are the fallout of this crunch.

We don’t want a city where only chains open and survive. Nor one where our treasured 49-seat restaurants or little lunch spots or places without liquor licenses will close, or not even be able to open. I’ve already heard of two restaurateurs who have decided to not move ahead with projects based on the happenings over the past two months, one being the partners at Town Hall—it was going to be a sweet project in SF. (No longer.) We don’t want our favorite restaurateurs forced to move all their new concepts to the 408 or 925 or 510 or 650.

We want things to stay in the 415, and find success. Restaurateurs live here, and have families here, and want to stay—but they can’t afford to have their businesses totally fail. San Francisco is known and treasured for its vibrant and creative restaurant scene, and we need our local government to start realizing how important (and also beleaguered) this industry is, and start supporting it instead of continuing to break its freaking back. Culinary tourism is a driving factor in our city’s economic health. So why is the Board of Supervisors trying to make it sick?

Restaurant owners are beyond frustrated, and considering a variety of options. One thing being discussed is adding a service charge (ranging from 3% to 17%) on a customer’s check to offset the rising costs of doing business; Incanto has been doing something similar for a few years now, a 5% charge which covers the healthcare for their kitchen workers. Kevin Westlye of the GGRA (who is doggedly working with local restaurateurs to come up with some solutions to address the issues) noted the attorney for the association stated that the GGRA couldn’t coordinate a citywide program of service charges since it would be in potential conflict with anti-trust law. So basically, if a restaurant wants to add a service charge, they need to do so on their own prerogative, and without formally banding with other restaurants and setting a citywide percentage together.

A march to city hall is being discussed. Or a day of protest, with restaurateurs all closing their doors and going out of the city for the day (and night), say, to Oakland, to spend their dollars (and maybe look for a more viable space for their business).

But in the end, while these kinds of events will draw national attention, some actual strategies need to be employed to create a stop-gap, and some solutions. There is no silver bullet, or one solution to everything. So for now, the GGRA is working with some key people to come up with some proposals, focusing on the minimum wage, and how to balance the wage inequity (those who are tipped, or not) and then taking on the other issues as well. More will be known in coming weeks about what some potential steps and tactics will be.

What can you do? If you are a restaurant owner, I’d considering joining and supporting the GGRA. I’d also make sure to show up at the next meeting of restaurant owners, which will be at Salt House on Wednesday, April 11, at 3pm to talk about next steps. And if you happen to have some creative ideas about what the local government needs to do to help the restaurant community, I am sure Kevin Westlye of the GGRA would like to hear them.

[End rant.]

And now, some restaurant news to be proud of: the ~2007 JAMES BEARD FOUNDATION AWARDS NOMINEES~ have been announced! This year, there are 62 Award categories for restaurants, chefs, broadcasting, print journalism, book authors, and restaurant design.

Here are some highlights where SF placed (local stars in bold):

Nominees for Outstanding Restaurateur: Thomas Keller, The French Laundry (Yountville, CA); Keith McNally, Balthazar (New York City); Richard Melman, Lettuce Entertain You (Chicago); Drew Nieporent, Myriad Restaurant Group (New York City); and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Jean Georges (New York City).

Nominees for Rising Star Chef of the Year: Nate Appleman, A16 (San Francisco); Graham Elliot Bowles, Avenues at The Peninsula Hotel (Chicago); David Chang, Momofuku Noodle Bar (New York City); Patrick Connelly, Radius (Boston); and Daniel Humm, Eleven Madison Park (New York City).

Category: outstanding restaurant award
. The restaurant in the U.S. that serves as a national standard bearer of consistency of quality and excellence in food, atmosphere and service. Restaurant must have been in operation for at least ten years: Boulevard, Chef/Owners: Nancy Oakes, Pat Kuleto, (San Francisco, CA); Frontera Grill, Chef/Owners: Rick and Deann Bayless, (Chicago, IL); Magnolia Grill, Chef/Owners: Ben and Karen Barker, (Durham, NC); Picholine, Chef/Owner: Terrance Brennan, (New York, NY); Spiaggia, Chef: Tony Mantuano, Owner: Compass Group, (Chicago, IL).

Category: outstanding pastry chef award. A chef or baker who prepares desserts, pastries or breads, who serves as a national standard bearer of excellence. Must have been a pastry chef or baker for the past five years: Will Goldfarb, Room 4 Dessert, (New York, NY); Michael Laskonis, Le Bernardin, (New York, NY); Leslie Mackie, Macrina Bakery & Café, (Seattle, WA); Elizabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson, Tartine Bakery, (San Francisco, CA); Mindy Segal, HotChocolate, (Chicago, IL).

Category: outstanding service award. A restaurant that demonstrates high standards of hospitality and service. Must have been in operation for the past five years. Blackberry Farm, Owner: Sam Beall, (Walland, TN); Canlis, Owners: The Canlis Family, (Seattle, WA); La Grenouille, Owner: Gisele Mason, (New York, NY); Terra, Owners: Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani, (St. Helena, CA); Tru, Owners: Rick Tramonto, Gale Gand and Richard Melman, (Chicago, IL).

Category: best chef: Pacific (CA, HI)
Traci Des Jardins, Jardiniére, (San Francisco, CA); Douglas Keane, Cyrus (Healdsburg, CA); Roland Passot, La Folie, (San Francisco, CA); Craig Stoll, Delfina, (San Francisco, CA); Michael Tusk, Quince, (San Francisco, CA).

Congrats to all the nominees!