Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Ferry rich indeed

It's amazing how a neighborhood just takes off. In four years of covering hospitality in San Francisco, I have seen it happen with the Central Embarcadero neighborhood around the Ferry Building.

The Ferry Building is producing stellar business for restaurateurs, for example Charles Phan's Slanted Door is doing $12 million per year (more numbers), following the renovation completed and refilled with tenants by the start of 2004.

The boutique Hotel Vitale from Joie de Vivre completed last year is reportedly doing stellar business, pulling in Average Daily Rate in the ballpark of $225, surprisingly competitive with the Four Seasons, Park Hyatt/Meridien, Omni and W -- four-star business class hotels.

Robert Lam moved butterfly into the neighborhood a few years ago. Pat Kuleto and his investors are spending $18 million to build a restaurant there. The Exploratorium is planning to move in.

It helped that Boulevard and Ozumo were already there.

As if to underline the activity, the Hotel Griffon earlier this year sold for a record per-square foot price, though this is something of a gimmicky number, since hotel deals are usually measured per "key" or room.

Now the Hyatt Regency and Embarcadero Center want in on the action and are joining with Equity Office Properties, the Ferry Building developer and leaseholder, to begin formally branding and promoting the neighborhood, hoping to make it the next Union Square. This bit I report in this week's Business Times.

The Central Embarcadero would include everything from the ballpark up through Pier 5. That's where Pacific Waterfront Partners is putting in a restaurant-and-office project that seems likely to draw some interesting chefs.

In the Convention and Visitors Bureau's most recent survey, the Embarcadero drew 34 percent of hotel guests, compared with 73 percent for Union Square.

FREE link: Tourist map gets redrawn

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Monday, October 30, 2006

The power of a marquee restaurant

Per room sales price, Campton Place, paid by Kor Hotel Group, fall 2005: $400,000

Per room sales price, Renaissance Parc 55, the fourth-largest hotel in the city, paid by Rockpoint Group and Highgate Holdings, fall 2006: $170,000

Same brokerage firm. Same neighborhood.

Management matters. Branding matters. Food matters.

Free link: S.F.'s Parc 55, Oakland Marriott sold: Larry Chan makes trio of hotel deals fetching $250 million (Oct. 27)

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Animal (Front-of-the) House

Seethe with Restaurant Girl as she recounts a recent late-night visit to Sauce. The wine was outstanding, the bisque and the stuffed-and-fried calamari very good, and the martinis strong. But the service?
We felt like we were invading a private party. Although the bartender was only about three feet away from us the whole evening, every time we wanted something we had to flag him down, and I felt rude pulling him away from his co-workers that were finishing up the shift and coming to sit down at the bar and have a drink. When we finished our meal, the bartender came over and said, "So, I guess you guys are all set then?" and dropped the check.
Restaurant Girl explains that most restaurants do not allow staff to hang around after their shift -- and now she understands why.

I had a similar experience at Plouf recently, where after a long, two-glass-of-wine lunch and fruitful conversation with a source, I, like Restaurant Girl, was thinking about dessert. The waiter was, for whatever reason, more interested in closing our tab than offering us espresso and pastry, though the place was far from closing.

And to think that just a few months ago I scoffed at the very notion of a lunchtime dessert menu.

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Weighs the same as a duck

It's been a tough month in San Francisco for Tom Colicchio.

As I reported a couple of weeks ago, he'd like to open four new locations of his deli 'wichcraft in as many months, expanding beyond the San Francisco Centre location, which would serve as a commissary.

But first he had to deal with a power outage at Westfield Centre that pushed his opening back a day, costing him roughly 1,000 covers.

And now there's Michael Bauer, who on his blog called Colicchio's $10-ish sandwiches "very oily," "tasted like it had languished in the refrigerator for four days" and "so tough I couldn't bite through it." In the end, he decides it's not worth the cost, and many of his coworkers (and blog commenters) seem to agree.

I haven't eaten at 'wichcraft myself, but I face a similar value question with another upscale fast food place, Sellers Market, in the financial district. The place seems to be constantly busy, but I end up spending $12 on a personal-size pizza or nearly as much on breakfast egg flatbread thing and asking myself whether it is really worth it.

But from a business standpoint, the concept of selling more sustainable, locally raised, organic food seems to have really taken off, presumably among those in a higher income bracket than me. Sellers Market is due to open another location, and Colicchio has had a lot of success with 'wichcraft in New York.

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Friday, October 27, 2006

Shopping and scotching at Cesar

I finally spent an evening at the new Piedmont Ave. Cesar, which I wrote about in Sept. 2005 (about a month before the Chronicle).

The new location has about 50 percent more seats than the original Cesar Berkeley. And all the extra space in between the seats and tables makes the Piedmont location much easier on your eardrums.

Having been to the Berkeley location many times, I was prepared for a drawn-out battle to secure a table or bar position, but upon walking in at 7pm on a Thursday, four of us were quickly presented with a nice wooden table, and there were a few other spots open.

What jumped out at me about the new location wasn't its expanded menu or reliably food selection of whiskeys and rums -- it was the retail-and-takeout section off on the right side of the restaurant.

The Cesar partners call this "cesar mercado" and have been wanting to do retail since at least three years ago, when they considered putting a retail outlet in the Berkeley gourmet-to-go food hall then in the planning stages.

That deal fell apart but has been reborn at the Piedmont location. They sell wines, oils, spices and other goods for a "Spanish pantry." There are also takeout and finish-at-home items.

Charles Phan is doing something similar with his Out the Door concept, which originally went in next to his Slanted Door restaurant at the Ferry Building but is soon to open in a new, expanded form at the Westfield San Francisco Centre. Bette's Ocean View diner in Berkeley has a next door shop, as does Girl and the Fig in wine country.

The idea seems to have several merits:
  • Make use of staff during slow weekday afternoon periods.
  • Use the restaurant brand to sell higher-margin, lower-labor products than menu food.
  • Put products in people's homes that will remind them of your restaurant and, presumably, bring them back in more often.

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A lecture at Silks

The following morsel positively leaps out of generally positive review of the Mandarin Oriental's Silks by Josh Sens in San Francisco Magazine's new issue:
Silks has a thick, world-traveling wine list, which may or may not explain why my server, on one visit, brought me the wrong bottle. Whatever the case, I didn't catch the error when she showed me the label, and when I sent the wine back (it was a sweet gewurztraminer, not the dry white I'd ordered) I also managed to send her into an evening-long pout. On my next trip to the restaurant, I was paired with her again and as she delivered the wine list, she muttered, "Read it carefully this time." Touche! But if I wanted a guilt trip, I could get one from my grandmother at a third the price.

Service stories like these -- and this one is especially choice -- have a way of provoking emotion in the reader and sparking endless discussion in a group setting.

My own spin here is that ideally, the diner would take care to read the label when it is presented. If the wine is opened and then found to be erroneous, one would consider trying to make do.

But ultimately, if the diner asks for the opened wine to be returned, it is a judgement call on the part of the restaurant. I personally would want a restaurant to accommodate the request, particularly given the quite likely sky-high markup on a typical bottle of white wine and the fact that the diner will be paying for another bottle.

And clearly, whether the restaurant has decided to accommodate such a request or not, it is plainly rude and foolish to grumble at the diner about the incident when he has the good grace to return and order more wine to boot.

The devil, of course, is in the details, and we only have one brief account of this incident. But what an account!

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Your Scotched Eggs are now ready: Salt House open

A 5:14 pm email brings word that Town Hall spinoff Salt House is now open, bringing to San Francisco the "gastropub" trend of London, which is basically a bar with high-quality food.

Until now, Salt House's most recent and specific opening date was "by the end of October."

The press release says signatures include "scotch eggs," "pressed suckling pig with truffled membrillo," "housemade charcuterie," and "pot pie with duck confit." There will also be "custom, private label" wine available in half bottles. A "raw bar" is mentioned.

In terms of decor, Salt House is aiming for the look of a British pub, with a communal table, mezzanine and "pinstripe banquettes." (I can't tell if you British pubs have any of those, but the mezzanine does not sound like a common feature of one.)

Here's the October menu PDF.

As I've reported previously, the Town Hall team is also in talks about an Oakland spinoff.


Monday, October 23, 2006

Giant killer dining rooms consume New York

Regina Schrambling's LA Times piece on Gotham's monster restaurants introduces us to the rather unintuitive concept of "high-quality (food) that can be executed for volume." Meaning that, even in a loud dining rooms with hundreds and hundreds of seats, populated by loud type-A New York businessmen "hungry for action" and tapping out messages on their BlackBerrys, you will still pay over $100 a head, and you will like it. From the article:
Burke thinks the days of "the 70-seat fine-dining restaurant" are on the way out. "You've got to do turn-and-burn or charge super-high prices," he says. "Once you start paying volume, it gets a lot easier."
Lost your appetite yet?

To be fair, it sounds like some restaurateurs really have figured out how to deliver haute cuisine to hundreds of seats. Others sound less convincing, like the one with the "waitress pageant at 9 every night."

If your stomach is turning, it may be hard to hear the rumbles when the numbers speak so loudly:
  • Hawaiian Tropic Zone, 300 seats, 1,000 covers per day
  • Buddakan, 320 seats, 900 covers, 16,000 square feet
  • Morimoto, 200 seats, 900 covers, 12,000 square feet
  • Craftsteak, 120 seats
  • Porter House, 250 seats
See? There really is hope for Pat Kuleto, who has 400 seats, 18,000 square feet and wants to do 1,000 covers a day.


Thursday, October 19, 2006

Mall madness for Centre chefs

After my post last month on someone being ejected from the food court at the new gourmet food court in Westfield San Francisco Centre, I kept hearing of more and more hiccups.

Thanks to a weekend power outage, Tom Colicchio had to push back the opening of his 'wichraft sandwich shop a day, losing hundreds of orders. He reports a neighbor lost five tractor trailers full of food, though I could not run this down for confirmation.

Then Luigi at Beard Papa's told me of an errant fire alarm, that just happened to go off during a weekend lunch rush. The whole place had to be evacuated, and when people were let back in, the rush had subsided, which means lots of lost sales. (Although Beard Papa's had a hectic opening even without the fire drill, Cruz added.)

Then there's the issue of about half the restaurants not being able to take advantage of the crush of customers in the mall's first weeks because they could not open in time, given how mall construction unfolded.

Something tells me, though, that the brisk business everyone I have spoken with claims to be doign is going to more than make up for the hiccups. Assuming the hiccups stop.

From the Business Times:

New Westfield food is too much to swallow at once

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Charlie Palmer in Esquire

I was waiting in the salon for a severely tardy hairdresser this morning when I ran across an excellent profile of Sonoma's Charlie Palmer in the October Esquire. It is an excellent article, which you should go read right now.

Palmer and his family live in Sonoma, having moved out here from New York several years ago. He is probably the most obscure star chef in the Bay Area -- a major presence nationally, but around San Francisco, not the same household name as Alice Waters, Thomas Keller, Gary Danko or even Michael Mina.

This is partly because most of his restaurants are elsewhere. He has the Dry Creek Kitchen at Hotel Healdsburg, which he owns in conjunction with Circe Sher and her family, which includes real estate developer Merritt Sher.

But he also has three restaurants in New York, two in Vegas and one in DC. According to the caption on a photo accompanying the Esquire piece, he also makes his own wine near Sonoma for use in his restaurants.

Then there's the hotel: Palmer has a $300 million hotel project seeking city approvals in Las Vegas. By becoming a high-stakes real estate developer, Esquire says he is going "Where No Chef has Gone Before."

I, for one, am impressed. Chefs only began putting their names on restaurants in the last decade or so, and Palmer has taken the next logical step, which is to extend chef branding to broader hospitality offerings. As Esquire says, "the guy has stones, you gotta give him that."

I know I've been heavy with the Chris Yeo news lately, but I have to mention here that when he was hanging out at our table at Straits the other week he could not stop talking about his lifetime dream was to operate a hotel of his own. Paging Chip Conley, paging Clark Wolf, paging Steve Wynn, Yeo wants a hotel, and while you're at it Tom Duffy wants to open an all-brunch restaurant in Vegas.

More commentary on the hotel from Michael Bauer.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Town Hall in Oakland deal

In Friday's Business Times, I reported that Town Hall is advanced negotiations to take space at the Broadway Grand condo development in Oakland, at Browdway and Grand Ave. in the Uptown district, right across the street from Luka's Tap Room.

Town Hall's publicist cautions that "this is not a deal with all signed on the bottom line" and "the ink is far too wet to make it for real."

Another important caveat: Though backed by the same team as Town Hall, the new restaurant would not carry the Town Hall name, per agreement with their SF landlord. They are also still racing to open their first spinoff, Salt House, two blocks from the original, by the start of November.

The link is subscriber-only until Nov. 6: S.F. restaurants eye opening Oakland outposts

Town Hall was one of the SF restaurants mentioned in my earlier post about restaurants in Oakland's bustling Uptown district.

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Bloggers blog to the top, blogged, Part 2

It was two or three years ago now that I attended a party convened by a gaggle of food bloggers, when such a gaggle was a new and curious thing.

My ticket to the event was my girlfriend, who publishes the Cheese Diaries, featured last year in the New York Times and soon to return, it is hoped, from a grad school hiatus.

It has been astounding to watch the fortunes of this initial group.

When my girlfriend applied to the science writing graduate program at UC Santa Cruz, the director was not so much interested in her research work or magazine writing as in her blog. Ditto for the two newspaper internships she completed and the two large science facilities where she worked.

Amy Sherman of Cooking with Amy has hooked up with KQED. Pim of Chez Pim is working on a book. Both have loads of press clippings and photo spreads about their endeavors.

Another party attendee, Alder Yarrow (at right, with obvious groupie), today announced he is speaking and moderating alongside some very big names at the Symposium for Professional Food Writers next year in Napa.

Derrick Schneider, also from that initial party (teaching at UC Berkeley!), reports that a blogger (albeit one with an MSNBC day job) has replaced Linda Murphy as wine editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. (In an amazing coincidence, Derrick's AppleScript book was effectively my entree into programming while a UC Berkeley student 10 years ago.)

These are just the bloggers I happen to have come across. I expect more news from the Bay Area food bloggers in the future, and more names, surely.

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Rumor has it: Chris Nolan stopped gossiping

A little birdie -- OK, it's Chris Nolan -- tells me Chris Nolan has not written a gossip column for five years, at least not for a salary. And yet I erroneously called her a gossip columnist in my Oct. 11 post on the Chow.com launch.

These days she writes and rides heard over the 9 other contributors at her Spot-On.com, a site for political and social commentary. (Tip: Look for fresh posts down the right side of the front page.)

As for tech gossip, well, I'm not sure where to point you. I kind of a lot miss Chris. I guess there's always Steve Jobs' blog.

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Monday, October 16, 2006

Straits outta Santana? If so, mark it up to wine.

Chris Yeo's publicist confirmed something Chris told me when he stopped by my table at Straits the other day -- that Yeo is considering turning his Straits at Santana Row into a second outlet of his new tapas concept, Spanish Fly. (My memory is that Chris was pretty certain about this when we spoke, but at one point there were five people at the table, all talking at once, so I double checked with the publicist.)

Chris will no doubt reconsider his wine list following Michael Bauer's comments on his 'outrageous' 200 percent markups on wine from ho hum producers. The comments came in a generally positive, two-star review of the debut Spanish Fly at the old Straits location on Geary.

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Dubai to all that

November's Bon Apetit magazine tels us that Maya fouder Richard Sandoval, of New York, plans a Maya in Dubai.

Dubai, of course, is the boomtown Arab Emirate fashioning itself into a global hospitality destination, complete with artificial archipelago.

The emirate has drawn in the major hotel brands. Now it's attracting the restaurateurs.

Bay Area examples include Corte Madera-based Trader Vic's, which opened its second Dubai City Trader Vic's -- the first second location in any city -- in 2004.

There's also Puccini Group, the restaurant design consultancy that is hot and heavy doing design work in Dubai, as I began reporting in a Business Times column in 2005.

With top Bay Area chefs active in Las Vegas, New York and Southern California, it seems only a matter of time before one ends up in Dubai.

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The NY Times wants to marry your boutique hotel

Gregory Dicum heaped much love on some San Francisco boutique hotels, all under $200 per night, in the New York Times Sunday.

Dicum's top three includes Hotel des Arts, a Union Square property in which most rooms have been decorated by emerging artists. I am red with jealousy, not only because this is an unfamiliar hotel I have never written about in the Business Times, but also because Dicum's room included Dylan's Nashville Skyline on vinyl, complete with its own record player.

An accompanying article on non-tourist restaurants under $25 highlights Pizzeria Delfina, Chow, Mifune and Medicine New-Shojin Eatstation

The hotel article sussed out lots of independent local boutiques, like the Queen Anne, Cornell and at least two others.

San Francisco's Personality Hotels does very well in the article, with its Hotel Metropolis in the top three (albeit with several choice comments on the surrounding neighborhood, mid-Market Street) and its Hotel Diva in the capsule-summary section. That's two out of five.

Also in the capsule summary section were two hotels from San Francisco's national boutique chain, Kimpton: the Triton and Palomar. (Kimpton has 11 hotels in SF.)

The company with the most boutique hotels in San Francisco, Joie de Vivre, only had one entry in the summary list, its flagship Phoenix hotel. (Joie has 20 hotels in SF.)

Scrappy upstart CTwo hotels saw its York hotel make the list.


Friday, October 13, 2006

How to sneak price hikes, pound shots and stop being mommy

I had lunch at Plouf today with a Bay Area restaurateur. We were talking about the business of restaurants, and he pointed me to this article in Fortune Small Business, in which consultants Ed Levine and Clark Wolf give advice to Sonoma's Girl & the Fig.

Levine is partners with Roland Passot in Left Bank and runs Vine Solutions, which handles back office functions for a wide array of top-shelf Bay Area restaurateurs. Wolf is a New York and Russian River-based consultant who, in San Francisco, has helped chefs like Michael Mina and Hubert Keller make the leap to Las Vegas.

Key Girl & the Fig info:
  • Branded restaurant, cafe, high-end country store, grocery line, catering
  • $5 million in annual sales
  • $250,000 annual profit
  • 100 employees
Owner Sondra Bernstein would like to double sales in three years so she can spend more time in Provence.

Clark tells Sondra to stop being "mommy" to her staff and delegate more decisionmaking, and Sondra dismisses his idea that she put "Sonoma County" in the name of her business -- all of this ensuring the article can be optioned for a reality TV show.

More agreeable is his idea for stealth price hikes:
Wolf advises her to "raise prices invisibly. Don't charge more for the old chicken dish," he counsels. "Make up a new chicken dish that you can charge more for. You can charge anything you want for a grass-fed hanger steak. Offer a rare tequila that goes for $28 a shot. Let the customer spend."

Other advice from Wolf, Levine and Lafayette retail consultant Joyce Mallonee:
  • Take the high-margin cafe from one to three locations
  • Lay the groundwork for greater business at the main restaurant
  • Put each business line in the LLC so investors can pick and choose
  • Structure the LLCs as limited partnerships to retain control
  • Switch grocery store brokers -- Sondra is paying double the industry norm
  • Consider raising grocery prices
The article is a great read if you're interested in the business of restaurants.


Goodbye Charles Condy

Aqua founder Charles Condy passed away Wednesday from pneumonia. He was 69.

I interviewed Charles for the Business Times' Executive Profile feature in April 2003, and it still ranks among my very favorite such interviews.

I have culled information and quotes from the interview for an obituary in the Business Times (free link). I quote Charles on his time in the Navy, his guiding principle, his regrets, his family and his staff. And I point out the success of his flagship restaurant, his protege Michael Mina and of former Charles Nob Hill executive chef Melissa Perello. Despite his past differences with Mina, I think their success, most recently in the Michelin Guide rankings, would have made Charles happy.

One thing I don't get into is his competition, which he spoke to me about in 2003. During our interview, I pressed Charles for his favorite restaurant, other than any of his own. He cited Perry's on Union Street.

He also cited Hubert Keller of Fleur de Lys as his most respected competitor:

(The question) is really easy: Hubert Keller at Fleur de Lys. He’s a terrific chef, and he’s in his kitchen every night. I’m not impressed by stars running all over the world and showing up in their restaraunts once a month. I’m impressed by the passion of someone who loves what he does and the way it shows and the fact that he and his wife Chantal work in the restaurant together. He’s a great guy.

The story does include my all time favorite Condy quote, which has really stuck with me. It is about getting up and just doing it, whatever "it" is.

The navy gave me a certain step-by-step logic, the basic underlying philosophy that every journey begins with a first step. So if you don't take that step, you don't get anything done. We called them "the used-tos" and "the gonnas," but they ain't doing anything right now.

If you find yourself looking to raise a toast tonight, Charles told me his favorite drink, and one of his major passions, was Glenmorangie Portwood scotch.


Thursday, October 12, 2006

Zagat prices ruined by barflies

Interesting article in the New York Post says the Zagat Guide greatly understates meal prices because it includes items only served in the bar. "Zagat is still low-balling prices - sometimes to a ridiculous degree," Steve Cuozzo writes.


  • Eleven Madison Park's cheapest dinner is $76 without drink or tip, but Zagat lists a $66 average. The bar's $12 baby pizza brings down the average.
  • At Gramercy Tavern, $76 will get you the cheapest prix fixe without drink or tip, but Zagat estimates an average $76 including those things. The assumption is you may eat at the bar.
  • Gotham Bar and Grill: $100 a head, compared to $70 in the guide.
  • Chantrelle's mandatory prix fixe starts at $95, but Zagat said dinner drink and tip average $93.
I don't imagine the situation is quite so severe in San Francisco, but this certainly illustrates one technique a less-than-scrupulous restaurateur could use to bait-and-switch customers via Zagat.

(Item via Grub Street.)


Yes, Virginia, ranch is a food group.

Oakland's Clorox has jumped onto the healthier-school-lunch bandwagon, donating $15,000 to an Oakland elementary school to promote fruits and vegetables among the kids.

Actually, the money comes from Clorox's Hidden Valley brand of ranch dressing, which is making similar donations at six other elementary schools around the country.

The donation came on the heels of a report in the New York Times that Bill Clinton will "take on the Agriculture Department and improve what is put on the plates of the government-approved school lunch." Clinton has already made Coke and Pepsi promise to take soda out of schoolyards.

The donation also comes as corporations are increasingly trying to co-opt the healthier-lunch trend, with soy-based lunch meats, pre-wrapped fruit packs and tortilla wraps.

In the Bay Area, the notion of natural, fresh and healthier lunches has not been very controversial. It helps that Alice Waters has been a major leader of that movement.

But there certainly seems to be room for a backlash as larger food corporations get more involved. There's also been pushback from the kids -- see the New Yorker's Lunchroom Rebellion, set in Berkeley, if you haven't already. And anger from parents, at least in Britain, where parents are smuggling in fish and chips as an alternative to "overpriced, low-fat rubbish" brought about by chef Jamie Oliver.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Chowhounds do not want your Michelin guide

Precisely 10 days after Michelin Guide convened an intimate, sedate Ferry Building soiree to hand out the first copies of the stuffy San Francisco Michelin Guide, CNET's Chow.com launched last night with a loud, jam-packed party at Bix and the alley outside.

It is impossible not to compare the two events and the two companies. Michelin's guide and party fit with an old European model, where restaurants fit into a clear hierarchy handed down from on high. Chow.com seemed brash and American, even San Franciscan; a loud, diverse, at times chaotic, at times overcommercial attempt to sift food and restaurants along many different lines.

The Chow.com event had that manic dot-com energy I haven't felt for more than half a decade. There were the fancy, expensive-but-free cocktails, with names like "Thai Fighter" and "Ruby on Rails".

There was Chris Nolan, the former Silicon Valley gossip columnist I last ran into at a Red Herring magazine party at Ruby Skye in 2000. (She now edits Spot-On.)

And there were the ascendant, omnipresent bloggers. Amy Sherman was there, schmoozer par excellence, as was Pim of Chez Pim.

Pim, recently departed from her day job, broke the news that she has a book deal, though I could not catch her long enough to find out the topic or publisher. I have sent a hopeful email asking for the details.

If there was a hushed air of inevitability and envy at the Michelin party, the Chow launch was loud, triumphant, perhaps a little over-the-top and starry-eyed, but in the most endearing fashion possible.

Editor Jane Goldman fled the scene when I pulled out my notebook -- I can hardly blame her -- but quickly and graciously replied to an email query about whether recipe-obsessed Chow will include restaurant coverage:
Right now, just starting out, it's probably out of our grasp to cover restaurants across the country in any meaningful way. Especially because we have Chowhound, we've felt that we could wait for a while. But it's coming soon. In fact, we plan fairly extensive coverage.
Great party photos here. The Business Times' past coverage of Chow here (free link).

(This post was corrected.)

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The Straits Dope

I had a lengthy lunch at Straits Cafe in San Francisco Centre this past Thursday with a hotel industry source, and had an interesting conversation with chef/owner Chris Yeo.

Chris told me -- after I identified myself as a reporter -- that he does about $7.8 million per year in revenue out of his Santana Row location, roughly 8,000 square feet. In San Francisco, he's at a tighter 5,000 square feet and 80 seats, but with Westfield spent about $2.8 million on the tenant improvements. That helps keep the employee head count below 50, above which Yeo would have to unionize.

Chris seemed utterly at ease talking about dollars and cents, enjoying a break from the physical exertion of the kitchen and floor. This comfort with money made even more sense when Chris informed me he got his start as a hairdresser and opened his first restaurant with only one month's rent, no deposit and no real credit to speak of.

Chris is so busy juggling customers -- the room was brim-full when we arrived for lunch at 1 pm -- that within five days of my visit he stopped taking lunch reservations. This may help bring in the ladies who lunch, but could also backfire among the big-spending expense-account types who from the business community, who typically appreciate the certainty that a reservation at least simulates.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

And we're paying the architect with free soaps and bath towels

The Chronicle follows and expands on something I wrote about in August -- Joie de Vivre is sponsoring a contest to rename Japantown's storied Miyako Hotel and Miyako Inn, which have 343 rooms between them.

Joie sees the 125-room Miyako Inn becoming Giant Robot magazine meets Lucky magazine -- Japanese pop culture meets shopping. The Chron writes:
"The inn's low-profile, generic Japanese theme will be revamped into 'an energetic, optimistic expression' of contemporary Japanese culture, particularly anime, manga comic books, J-Pop music and street fashion, [Joie creative director Matt] Harvey said."

But get this: the prize for coming up with the new name for the inn is that they name a suite after you, plus you get "VIP treatment during a free weekend in the suite."

Is there a branding firm in the city that would work for even 10X the cost of a free weekend in a Best Western suite? Just askin'.

(Personally, I'm rooting for 'The Hello Kitty Best Western Inn & Airship,' but there may be some licensing kinks to work out.)


Monday, October 09, 2006

'Rising Star' chef awards are bizarre

I was paging through 7X7 magazine's "Hot 20" under 40 list, looking at the chefs.

You have Daniel Patterson, 38, he of the Alice Waters-ain't-all-that rant in the New York Times, elisabeth daniel, Farallon and Coi. Joel Huff, executive chef at newly-ascendant Silks. Jay Foster, chef/owner of Farmer Brown, which my friend Bibendum hasn't heard of ("neo soul food," according to Michael Bauer).

I can't quibble with any of these choices.

Except that they are bizarrely arbitrary. And ridiculously perishable. Like all lists of "rising stars."

Case study: Melissa Perello. Becomes executive chef at Charles Nob Hill at age 24. The next year, is named a "Rising Star" by the San Francisco Chronicle. Not on the Chronicle list in subsequent years, presumably because one only gets to be on it once.

Which is fine, because Perello gets nominated for a James Beard rising star chef award in 2003. Gets nominated again in 2005.

Her Fifth Floor wins a Michelin star at the start of October.

There's no doubt Perello was -- and is -- a rising star. She's just 29, with a Michelin star, and is maintaining three Chronicle stars awarded to Laurent Gras. And yet you would not see her on the 2006 7X7 list, 2006 Chronicle rising list or the 2006 James Beard rising star nominations.

Perello is just one example of someone who should still be a 'rising star' this year but is not. I could make a similar case for 31-year-old chef Stuart Brioza of Rubicon, who with partner Nicole Krasinski has earned a Michelin star and raves from both the New York Times and the Chronicle.

There are surely explanations for Perello and Brioza's absence from the lists, reasons having to do with editorial and awards policy. Usually, there's a cap on how often one can be nominated for a particular list.

But the constant need for fresh meat for 'rising star' chef charcuterie may be overwhelming readers. All the new names, from various sources, seem increasingly likely to include as many future mediocrities as future stars.

(Postscript: Just as I thought, Perello did not make the 7X7 list because she was already on it, in 2003.)

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Friday, October 06, 2006

Your private Danko

I report in today's Business Times that Gary Danko is planning a private dining location at the Cannery, about two blocks from Restaurant Gary Danko.

The new location -- Danko's first ever -- is aimed at corporate and group events and demonstration meals to which Danko would sell seats. It would also be a base for Danko's growing high-end catering business.

There are three rooms, each holding up to 35 people. At least some of the walls are paneled with European wood that is several hundred years old and that was originally imported by William Randolph Hearst. (This wood paneling is a longstanding feature of the Cannery.)

There are also going to be at least two highly visible kitchens, complete with cameras, monitors, at least one glass wall and at least a couple of kitchen islands for guests to congregate around.

Danko hopes to open the location by June but needs city approval for the special, streamlined ventilation system from Vent Master.

As restaurant consultant Clark Wolf told me, it has become de rigueur over the past decade to build out restaurants with multiple, sizable private rooms for corporate events. Wolf said this is "critical to the financial success" of a restaurant.

Danko's 65-seat restaurant includes just one private space, which holds only 10 people. He does rent out the restaurant once or more each month for special lunchtime events. He tried for two years to convert the basement of his restaurant into a special events space, but was blocked by his landlord.

Gary told me:
What I am trying to design is a multifunction, multiuse space. I am trying to define to not a new restaurant, but an arm of Gary Danko.

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Amber India deal fossilized

Amber India serves what is considered perhaps the best Indian food in the Bay Area out of three locations in the South Bay.

On Wednesday, San Franciscans were told to expect their very own Amber India, across from the Four Seasons on Yerba Buena Lane.

Today, the deal died, leaving San Francisco to content itself with, say, Shalimar, or Gaylords or, perish the thought, Naan N' Curry.

Amber India SF was to have opened in May. No word yet on whether the micro-chain is actively hunting for an alternate location.

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Michelin: From 40 percent Euro to all-American

When I met with Michelin's North America Chairman Jim Micali Monday morning, I made a point of asking him about whether the guide's European standards should be adapted for the local food scene, especially places like Chez Panisse with simpler preparations.

And Jim made a point of telling me that "almost every inspector" was American -- according to both my memory and my notes. I printed this quote in the updated version of my Web story.

The Michelin PR representative who sat in on the meeting told me this morning that Jim actually stated it was a "majority" of the inspectors. So there is disagreement over what was said.

Today I read the copy of 7X7 magazine that arrived at my home yesterday. In it, Michelin Guide chief Jean-Luc Naret states "five inspectors worked on this guide -- three from Europe, two from California. Some from New York also helped." When I first read that quote, I felt misled by Michelin's statements about its American inspectors.

But Michelin says this quote is in error -- only two are from Europe, so in fact a "majority" of the inspectors are American.

Still, with a French guide director, standards originating in France and 40 percent of the inspectors from Europe, Michelin Guide is clearly open to interpretation as Eurocentric -- a position held by some top chefs, including Gary Danko.

Interesting, Michelin's PR representative also told me that the company's goal is that all U.S. inspectors be American within two years.

More Michelin:

If you have not yet seen this, Michael Bauer has a very interesting list of apparent factual inaccuracies in the guide, including:
  • The guide says Aziza has belly dancers on weekend evenings, but the owner says there have been no belly dancers for three years
  • The guide states Jamie Passot greets guests at the entrance to La Folie, but according to Bauer she has not done so for 12 years.,
  • The guide states Reed Hearon is at Rose Pistola, but he has not been there for at least three years.
  • Judy Rodgers has been at Zuni for about 19 years, not 26.
  • The guide states the following of Nick Peyton, who left restaurant Gary Danko in 2000:
    It was at (the Ritz) that Danko met his partner Nick Peyton, who is responsible for the large brigade of skilled and knowledgable waiters who always seem to be there when needed ...
    Bauer feels this implies Peyton is still involved in the restaurant, though my initial read is that it's simply unclear and that a reader impression is different from factual inaccuracy. When I first read this passage Monday night, I remember being surprised Peyton was still involved, however, and ideally there should be a clear indication Peyton is gone. Why mention him at all?

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Restaurateur tallies strikes against him

Daniel Scherotter of Palio d'Asti gets frank with San Francisco's progressive left (read: essentially the whole city) on Fog City Journal. Also vice president of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, Scherotter notes the forces driving up his costs:
  • "Next year the minimum wage goes up to $9.14/hour"
  • "add on the $1.06 or $1.60/hour for health care"
  • "and the 9 paid sick days"
  • "and the city payroll tax"
How to avoid "cutting cooks' pay or eliminating bussers?"
All the progressives I know tell me to raise my prices and that people will pay the slight increase, and these are the liberals!

Are prices on the rise? The picture is cloudy, at least compared with last year. What is clear is that prices are high -- right up there with New York, even though our expense accounts are much tighter -- and under pressure to rise further.

Here is what Zagat had to say in September about its most recent survey of San Francisco (emphasis added):

The average meal price is up only 1.2% this year from $35.52 to $35.96. However, inflation is 15% up among the 20 most expensive restaurants. (A large part of this is due to a major price increase at the French Laundry.) Overall, San Francisco is one of the most expensive restaurant cities in the country - trailing only New York City.

Perhaps that's why San Franciscans are not at the top of the tipping list. In fact, at 18.4%, quite the opposite is true - San Francisco is tied with Los Angeles as the lowest tipping city in the country, with Eastern cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, and Philadelphia tipping 19% or higher.


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Aqua's turf: Yerba Buena Lane

Aqua is putting in a C&L Steakhouse on Yerba Buena Lane next to the Four Seasons and near Beard Papa's. This confirms rumors I've been hearing for a long time, and which I had asked Aqua's Laurent Manrique about to no avail.

You'll read about this in the Chronicle tomorrow, I am told.

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Michelin: Reviewing the reviews of the reviews

Let's get wicked "meta." What sayeth the critics about the Michelin critics?

Thomas Keller:
We had coffee.
Giving [Chez Panisse] one star, in my mind, shows that the inspectors don't get the Bay Area food scene .... the list lacks many of the places that go to the heart of Bay Area dining

... hard to make sense of ... I wonder if our restaurants are being handicapped because [French Laundry] is much better than any of the other restaurants here

... I don't know if it's a wake-up call or we're just going to become even more provincial and say, 'Screw 'em!'
Michelin is predisposed to rating French-styled and -setup restaurants ... If Michelin wants to embrace the world, it needs to look at cultural differences

... [The star demotion] fits into the whole Michelin modus operandi, to show that they are in charge.

I know that it's absolutely about the complexity of the wine list, and a certain kind of service, and the way the restaurant is set up. At Chez Panisse, I've never wanted it to conform in that way.

Roland Passot:
I'm disappointed by not getting two stars ... it will become a bible.

Hubert Keller:
Maybe I should just open a bistro.

Charles Phan:
I don't kiss up to the French.

Anonymous at Ferry Building party (via Cooking with Amy):
"I'm not putting Michelin tires on MY car..."

Danny Scherotter:
The reason Angelenos come to San Francisco to eat is because our food is more about ingredient-driven, organic, free-range, sustainable, fresh-right-from-the-backyard, seasonal food than it is about some chef's ego and how high he can pile [it].


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Monday, October 02, 2006

Michelin's forgotten chapter: the hotels

The Michelen "red book" guide for the San Francisco Bay Area includes not only restaurant rankings but also rankings for hotels.

The rankings are on a one-to-five scale of house icons, with a special demarkation for "Agreeable features: pleasant hotel/restaurant."

Clear winner is the Ritz-Carlton, which garnered the only five-house rating, plus the "agreeable" demarkation.

Surprisingly, neither the Four Seasons or St. Regis could rise above four houses. In fact, the guide ranks the Four Seasons with the JW Marriot, which did surprisingly well.

Boutique hotels not affiliated with the big national chains did well, with disproportionate representation among the 2s and 3s.

Hey, where the heck is the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental?

Some highlights, with "agreeable/pleasant" demarkation winners in red and surprises in bold:

Five houses:

  • Ritz-Carlton
Four houses:
  • Auberge du Solei
  • The Fairmont
  • Four Seasons
  • Hotel Healdsburg
  • JW Marriot (formerly Pan Pacific)
  • Mandarin Oriental
  • Meadowwood
  • Omni
  • Palace
  • St. Regis
  • West St. Francis
Three houses:
  • The Argent
  • Argonaut
  • Casa Madrona
  • Claremont
  • Clift
  • Hotel De Anza
  • Fairmont Sonoma
  • Gaige House Inn
  • Les Mars
  • Hotel Monaco
  • Hotel Montgomery
  • Napa River Inn
  • Hotel Nikko
  • Palomar
  • Hotel Valencia
  • Villagio Inn
  • Vintage Inn
  • Vitners Inn
  • Vitale
  • Washington Inn

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Michelin party: Scene and heard

Most definitely in attendence at Michelin shin dig in the Ferry Building:

  • Laurent Manrique, Aqua
  • Ron Siegel, Ritz-Carlton
  • Hubert Keller, Fleur de Lys
  • Roland Passot, La Folie
  • Nancy Oakes, Boulevard
  • Willie Brown
Clearly not in attendence:
  • Gary Danko
  • Thomas Keller, French Laundry
  • Michael Bauer, Chronicle
  • The Michelin inspectors ("we gave them the night off," har har)
  • Gavin Newsom, mayor
Pretty sure I never saw:
  • Michael Mina

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Michelin shows up Chronicle on La Toque?

It was pointed out to me by an industry insider at the Ferry Building Michelin party tonight that the Chronicle has not once reviewed La Toque in eight years.

The Rutherford restaurant garnered a Michelin star, right up there in Napa Valley with Bouchon, Bistro Jeanty and Auberge du Solei.

The guide states of La Toque:

A meal to remember ... sublime flavors and textures ...dishes are exquisitely seasoned ... a notch above many other Napa Valley restaurants.

Is Rutherford too far north for the Chronicle? That would be odd for a paper that positions itseld as regional in scope.

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Michelin biggest fall from grace

Clearly, Campton Place.

Here's how the normally restrained, near-maddenlingly subtle Michelin guidebook describes what has happened since the departure of its 20-something wunderkind executive chef earlier this year:

While the decor hits the mark, the kitchen floundered in a state of transition at the beginning of 2006, after chef Daniel Humm left.

Ouch. First Bauer cut the four-star restaurant down to 2.5, then Michelin did not deign to award a single star.

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Michelin hears pushback from Danko

From Wine Spectator online, Gary Danko reacts:
"It's very interesting to see what the French think about American restaurants," said Gary Danko, chef and owner of Restaurant Gary Danko, which received one star. "We're very happy to be in the Michelin galaxy. It tells everyone the French are interested in what's happening here."

Still, Danko, one of San Francisco's most esteemed chefs, also added, "If Michelin wants to embrace the world, it needs to look at cultural differences."

Read the full story at Wine Spectator Online.

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Michelin reaction: 'puked on my keyboard'

If the Michelin guide produced head scratching in New York, it's generated something more serious here in the Bay Area.

Confessions of a Restarant Whore: "What the fuck? ... Don't even get me started on Michael Mina's two stars. I just about puked on my keyboard reading that shit."

Vinography: "It's pretty hard to see a restaurant like Gary Danko or Rubicon rated the same as Range."

San Francisco Gourmet: "To put Michael Mina and especially Aqua in the two star category while pushing The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Fleur de Lys and Masa's down to one star is, to put it bluntly, patently absurd."

EGullet's Joe Gerard: "The Danko ranking jumps off the page."

EGullet's 'lizard': "The Danko rating has to be especially painful in light of former co-owner Nick Peyton's 2-star coup at Cyrus."

Bauer blogged on this back in June, and well at that, but has not entered the discussion today. Maybe a reported post tomorrow?

Danko and the Ritz both have five stars from Mobil and five diamonds from AAA, as seen in my handy-dandy chart. Ritz also has four stars from Bauer.

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Michelin likes SF and NYC the same. Sort of.

So the San Francisco Bay Area gets 28 Michelin-starred restaurants among 5.6 million people , vs. New York's 39 starred restaurants among 8 million people.

That puts San Francisco neck-and-neck with New York in per-capita starred restaurants -- about one per 200,000 people.

But NYC has four four-starred restaurants to our one. They are Per Se (yay Thomas Keller), Le Bernardin, Alain Ducasse and Jean-Georges.

Also, the Michelin people told me that in both cities, about 8 percent of surveyed restaurants receive a star.

Population figures are as of 2000, and I used the population for the areas Michelin actually covers, which in the Bay Area excludes Contra Costa County. In NYC it covers all five boroughs.


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Michelin answers for star slaughter

Michelin president Jim Micali addresses the one-star review for Chez Panisse and whether his reviewers are all snooty Frenchmen in the updated version of my Business Times article (free link).

Here are the star rankings in a more organized format. I put Chronicle stars in parenthesis -- this is usually but not always Michael Bauer. I also added winners of four or five Mobil stars out of five possible, and winners of AAA five diamonds, out of five possible. Ones I think are interesting in bold.

Three stars:
  • French Laundry (4* Bauer) (Mobil 5-star).

Two stars:
  • Aqua (3.5* Bauer) (Mobil 4-star)
  • Michael Mina (3.5* B)
  • Manresa (4* B)
  • Cyrus (3.5* B)

One star:
  • Fleur de Lys (4* Bauer) (Mobil 4-star)
  • Rubicon (3* B)
  • Bushi-Tei (3* B)
  • Quince (3* B)
  • Range (3* B)
  • Acquerello (3.5* B)
  • La Folie (4* B) (Mobil 4-star)
  • Masa's (3.5* B) (Mobil 4-star)
  • Ritz-Carlton Dining Room (4* B) (AAA 5-diamond) (Mobil 5-star)
  • Gary Danko (3.5* B) (AAA 5-diamond) (Mobil 5-star)
  • Boulevard (3* B)
  • Fifth Floor (3* B) (Mobil 4-star)
  • Chez Panisse (4* B) (Gourmet mag's #2 restaurant in country)
  • Sushi-Ran (3* B)
  • Chez TJ (2.5* B)
  • Auberge du Soleil (3* B) (Mobil 4-star)
  • Bistro Jeanty (3* B)
  • Bouchon (3* B)
  • La Toque
  • Terra (3.5* B) (Mobil 4-star)
  • Dry Creek Kitchen (3.5* B)
  • Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant (3.5 *B)
  • K and L Bistro (3* B)
No stars:

This is not a comprehensive list. There are more than 300 restaurants in the Michelin guide in this category. These are just the ones who have strong accolades elsewhere but no Michelin star.
  • Campton Place (Mobil 4-star) (2.5* B) (new chef after Mobil rating, before Bauer and now Michelin)
  • Jardiniere (3.5* Bauer)
  • Chez Panisse Cafe (3.5* B)
  • Farallon (3.5* B)
  • Oliveto (3.5* B) (Oakland was ROBBED!)
  • One Marker (3.5* B)
  • Redd (3.5* B) (Top Ten new restaurant list from SF Magazine)
  • Silks (3.5* B)
  • Zuni (3.5* B)

Here's the Michelin press release.

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Michelin in bloody star massacre

Michelin rankings are out. Three stars for French Laundry, just one for Chez Panisse, Fleur de Lys, La Folie, Ritz-Carlton Dining Room, Gary Danko.

Read more, including the full list, in my Business Times Web update, Michelin rankings cut Bay Area restaurants down to size. (Link is free for all readers.)

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