Thursday, November 30, 2006

Hilton gets new old GM

The West Coast's largest hotel is losing its first woman general manager.

The 1,900-room Hilton San Francisco will see Karima Zaki leave after just nine months, returning to San Diego to open a $350 million Hilton down there.

Replacing her is John Mazzoni, who had been general manager before Zaki but left the position to head up Hilton's labor relations. When the company's union negotiations proved smoother than expected, Mazzoni was freed up to return to SF.

Mazzoni took over from Holger Gantz, who led the Hilton for 17 years before retiring in 2002.

I interviewed Karima for our executive profile feature. She said the toughest part of her job is "Balancing my career aspirations with the well being of my child. I certainly parked a lot longer in San Diego than I would have as a single person."

In San Diego, Zaki has extended family to help raise and support her child.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Loose lounge = loose wallet

The most notable thing in the December issue of San Francisco magazine is a spread on "the new restaurant lounges," which asks the question "who needs dining rooms?"

The short article focuses on Poleng Lounge in Western Addition. Loungey Poleng is designed to evoke a Southeast Asian beach hut, and at 10 o'clock becomes a dance club, complete with $20 cover charge.

The article also claims Spanish Fly and the lounges at Coi and Myth as other examples of the trend.

I would add just about every new high-end restaurant of the past year, which almost always seem to include some kind of secondary space (other than a bar) where people can get away with jeans while still ordering off the main menu.

I am thinking particularly of the raw bar at Ame, the lounge at Straits in the old Emporium (soon to spill out under the rotunda), the windowside tables at Perbacco and even the massive lounge at T-Rex in Berkeley. But the list goes on and on and on.

My theory is that the casual vibe lubricates spending better than the stuffiness of the main dining room, and not just because the alcohol is flowing more freely. If you can tolerate the noise of these places, they tend to amplify your energy rather than muffle it up.

This reminds me of a story I heard from a friend who worked at Fifth Floor. He told the story of a guy who came in one day with his kids, wearing jeans, no reservation. He was very polite and understood completely that they could only accommodate him in the lounge, due at least partly to his attire.

The guy starts asking some very detailed questions about the wine list, and eventually the sommelier comes out. He ends up dropping thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars on wine alone, and leaves an extremely generous tip.

Shortly thereafter Kimpton spent some serious bucks refurbishing and relaunching the Fifth Floor's lounge.

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Perello's last elevator ride

So that's why Melissa Perello made herself so scarce at the party in her honor: she is so out of there.

Someone in the industry told me they thought sites like Tablehopper were going to replace the Chronicle's Inside Scoop column. But news items like the Perello thing illustrate for me how full-time journalists with news experience can stay perpetually ahead of the competition, whether in print or online.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Bauer, Michelin Guide get cozy

It's great to see Michael Bauer's blog, Between Meals, capturing some of the surge in online advertising.

But seeing Bidenbum throwing money at his blog is a bit of a surprise.

I guess the Michelin Man and his friends didn't take the whole getting-fact-checked-on-the-front-page thing too personally, then?

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Selling booze: two approaches.

So you want to sell some booze. By the glass, that is, rather than by the case.

There are two theories on how best to do this.

The first, epitomized by Bourbon and Branch, is to make your place first hard to find, with no signage in a nasty part of town, and second hard to get into, with a locked door and reservations-only policy. There is a time limit governing how long you may stay.

There are two ways to interpret this approach. The less charitable one is to say such a joint actually won't make much selling alcohol because of sometimes apathetic service, arbitrary ordering restrictions and a holier-than-thou attitude. Maybe the real intent is to appeal to masochistic diners who derive more pleasure from the illusion of exclusivity and popularity than from actual hospitality -- or who mistake one for the other.

The more charitable way to interpret this approach is as a very savvy way to provide top service only to people who spend lots of money on fancy bourbons, scotches, rums and tequilas, the kind of folks who frequent cigar bars and steak houses. These people get attentive service and can stay as long as they want despite the written policies. They can backsass the bartender. And, just maybe, they'll eventually fill up enough of your bar to make it quite profitable.

I remain wholly unconvinced this is what is intended at B&B, or if it is intended that it will work as a business venture.

But there is a counter-trend, or at least a Second Way. Let's use Perbacco as an example, since they just opened and I just drank there.

Perbacco is located in an accessible, safe part of town -- the financial district, next door to Aqua and Tadich Grill -- that also happens to be populated by lots of people with money to spend. There is a sign on the door and good windows. To ensure good service, they have been hiring
staff away from other places, including the lead sommelier from Aqua.

If you want to visit, you just open the big, glass door under the big, fat sign, and walk right up to the bar. People have found this system so appealing that there are regularly huge crowds filling up Perbacco's bar most weeknights. I see them on my way home from work.

The coolest part, though, is the wine menu. Check it out in PDF. Not only do there seem to be many wines by the glass, and of a high quality, you can get everything in a quarter or half bottle.

There's not a lot to interpret in this approach. It straightforward, transparent and hospitable.

(A publicist tried to convince me this is a trend at restaurants around the city. I'm not so sure -- seems to me half bottles and wines by-the-glass have been gaining traction for many years. Do put your thoughts on this in the comments.)

(For the record, I paid my own way at Perbacco, as always.)

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Amber India deal preserved

Recap: First the Chronicle reported that noted South Bay restaurant group Amber India was coming to Yerba Buena Lane in San Francisco, right next to the four seasons.

Then, Covers reported the deal was dead. Because, well, it was.

Now comes word from the same involved-in-the-deal source that the deal is back, and Amber India will, in fact, go in on Yerba Buena Lane.

We hope you've enjoyed this little circular ride.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Off to New York

Covers is in New York for the week of Thanksgiving. Posting resumes November 27. Enjoy the Turkey!

Doggie bags called 'serious problem'

The latest issue of Mother Jones contains a treatise against food-packaging waste, which argues that bringing your own tupperware to restaurants should become as common as bringing canvas tote bags to the supermarket.

The article claims 1.8 million tons of quick-serve food packaging ends up in landfills every year, though it doesn't give a source. There is a Green Restaurant Association working on the issue, but its website lists no certified restaurants in San Francisco and just two in Los Angeles.

Restaurant owners tend to have other things to worry about:
Talking to restaurateurs, I found that between time crunches, staff crises, and the bottom line, environmental discussions rarely rise above the level of background noise.


Return of the hotel restaurant

It is harder than ever for San Francisco hotels to skate by without a truly great restaurant.

First Michael Mina put his four-star restaurant into the St. Francis as part of a $5 million renovation.

Then Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani of Terra in Napa Valley all but upstaged the opening of the St. Regis hotel with their success opening its restaurant, Ame.

And then Joel Huff turned Silks at the Mandarin Oriental into a three-and-a-half-star destination.

Now the Hotel Nikko is chasing the restaurant magic. New general manager Anna Marie Presutti, who earlier this replaced John Hutar after nine years, is renovating steak-and-sushi joint Anzu and installing a new chef, Barney Brown, former executive chef of Betelnut and proprietor of Basque.

Bill Kimpton really nailed this one 20 years ago. And these days San Francisco is even more reliant on food-and-wine-driven tourism, with many of the corporate accounts having shifted south to Silicon Valley and east to New York and the rest of the seaboard.

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Chefs ditch kitchens for Salt House

Salt House, the much-watched new entry from Town Hall trio Doug Washington and Mitchell and Steven Rosenthal, was stealing chefs from other restaurants Thursday night. Traci Des Jardins of Jardiniere was eating with friends at a table in the back while Cyrus' Douglas Keane was drinking and eating snacks at the bar.

One last-minute addition to the wine list, a 1998 vintage from Lebanon, was going for $80 a bottle, and at least three could be seen uncorked on various tables simultaneously when the night was still young. The subtle wine blended hints of blackberry and vanilla with echoes of shrapnel and gun powder in the finish.


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Introducing 'The Table'

I have a motley collection of revenue figures collected from a handful of restaurants over the years and published in the Business Times.

I'd like to grow and improve this collection but in the meantime I might as well put it all on one handy-dandy page -- and in one handy-dandy table. Hence, The Table:

YearSquare feetSourceArticle
Slanted DoorFerry Building$12 million2005???Charles PhanKitchens catch fire
Left BankSantana Row$10 million+2006???Roland PassotFrench cafe Left Bank to grow throughout West
StraitsSantana Row$7.8 million20068,000Chris YeoThe Straits Dope (Covers)
French LaundryYountvilleabout $7.5 million2004???Time magazineTime magazine article
Gary DankoMain restaurant$4 million to $9 million2006???Gary DankoGary Danko plans ritzy private dining facility
MarketBarFerry Building$5.5 million2005???Doug BiederbeckKitchens catch fire
Burger BarLas Vegas (by Hubert Keller of SF)$5 million ("close to")2006???Hubert KellerS.F. eateries serve Vegas $5K burger
Taylor's RefresherFerry Building$3.6 million2005???Taylor's RefresherKitchens catch fire

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Kimpton fermenting hotel in wine country

There were several things to learn at the party Monday night celebrating young Fifth Floor chef Melissa Perello's Michelin star, first among them that Melissa Perello would not have anything to say to assembled guests, but would stand and smile politely beside her hotel's General Manager as he spoke on her behalf.

(Not that I blame her. The event was in the middle of dinner service. Talk about timing -- do you chefs get this a lot? "Yeah, we're going to honor you at the busiest possible moment in the day, and oh by the way can you put together some apps and pastries beforehand ...?")

I also learned that Oprah, allegedly, had planned to put the organic vodka from Novato, Square One, on her "Favorite Things" list but decided hard liquor endorsements did not suit her image so shuffled the product off to her magazine, where someone else raved about it. Business, apparently, is through the roof.

I learned that I am worthy of not one but several glamour shots for the pages of party host Papercity, including several awkward over-the-shoulder glances (suggested by the photographer).

The most important thing I learned was from a Kimpton source who let slip that the San Francisco boutique hotel chain has plans for a property somewhere in wine country. No word on timing, whether they've identified a property or site -- it might just be a glimmer in Mike DePatie's eye. But it's in the cards.

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Friday, November 10, 2006

Left Bank Las Vegas -- long way from Larkspur

Roland Passot and Ed Levine are "very, very likely" to soon sign a lease to put a Left Bank brasserie in suburban Las Vegas.

I report in today's Business Times that the duo are reviewing a draft contract to go into the Village at Queensridge, in an ultra-luxe suburb on the outskirts of Las Vegas. The mixed use development is supposedly like Santana Row on steroids.

The Vegas deal would be the launching point for a much broader expansion that would add 12-15 Left Banks throughout the western U.S. over the next five years or so.

Passot told me he does 800-900 covers a day out of the 300-seat Left Bank at Santana Row, with an average check of $38 per head. The Las Vegas edition would be roughly the same size.

FREE link: French cafe Left Bank to grow throughout West

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Epiclosed in Berkeley

Berkeley's luxury takeout hall, Epicurious Garden, claims its first casualty after eight months of operation.

Socca Oven closed Oct. 30, reports the Express' John Birdsall, he of the emdash obsession.
Socca is backed by the Frenchman behind Gregoire in Berkeley and on Piedmont Ave in Oakland.

A Socca is sort of a French country pizza, with a pancake cooked in a very hot oven until its crispy like a flatbread, then topped with vegetable, seafood or meat.

The owner says business was great, he just had some "differences" with his partner. Probably over, you know, exactly how "great" business was.

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Tonight you'll be eating your profit margin, seared over a discriminating palette

Let's say you've dropped $400 on a meal with a half dozen of your closest friends. Nothing was quite as it should be -- not the truffle fries, not the shortribs -- heck, they somehow managed to screw up a simple cheeseburger.

How would like to be able to offer to cover the restaurant's costs, compensating it for the cost of your meal, but still, somehow, punish the owners?

By all appearances, it seems that's what you can do at Waverly Inn, a tavern in New York's West Village, recently relaunched with help from Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter.

A picture posted on the website Eater shows a receipt boasting a 4 percent "didn't like" discount.

It's listed as a "promo," though, so I'm not sure how real this is.

But I definitely want one of those. I promise I'll tip pre-"Didn't like."


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

If you could please buy many more overpriced cocktails, much more often, that would be greeaat ...

So 7X7 Magazine assembles six nightclub owners to talk business and, whaddya know, they immediately start railing on how San Franciscans don't go out enough, don't spend enough money, things are soo much better in New York and Las Vegas, yadda yadda.

Call it part deux of The Eternal Wait for Big Expense Accounts, in which everyone from pension fund managers to the lowliest general manager awaits a massive litter of business fatcats to justify excessive investment in some niche of the hospitality sector.

Some choice quotes:
There's a lot of money in San Francisco. but people don't go out and spend it as much ... In NYC you don't even need a great concept. You could open anything and people will come in.
--Todd Palmerton, co-owner, Mamacita and Doubledutch
LA, New York and Miami have the entertainment business driving a lot of the nightlife, especially on the weekdays when you have movie premiers. You get the fashion house
that wants to show off some new line, an agency that just signed a bunch of new actors or models. We don't have that here.
--Hugo Gamboa, co-owner, Suite One8One, Impala, Marina Sports, Mas Sake Freestyle, Glo
This is a very expensive city to live in. Unless you have a high-paying job, it's very expensive to live here, never mind go out.
--Sunwoo Hwang, owner, Vessel
And, inevitably:
During the dot-com era there was a much greater cross section of people in SF [with money --ed.], so many more people went out every night ... I definitely think we have not rebounded from that.
--Gina Milano, founder, Bambuddha

As much as I like to be snarky lately, there are actually some good insights there.

Read the story for the full roundtable, including more on the dangers of hip-hop, an owner cheating on his wife in his club and the resurgence of cocaine in SF.

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Monday, November 06, 2006

Chronicle owner debuts gourmet cafeteria -- in New York

Google may have the cafeteria to beat out here on the left coast, but in New York they have to make do with Conde Nast cafeteria, which apparently serves fancy salads and tacos (??!) to people who don't like to eat. Frank Gehry designed the whole thing, which is supposed to somehow redeem the whole enterprise.

Anyway, Hearst Corp., for its New York headquarters, recently opened a Norman Foster-designed office tower stunning enough to make Graydon Carter red with jealousy. For the coup de grace, the company has put together its own fancypants cafeteria. Whereas the Conde Nasties only have sushi once a week, Hearsters feast on maguro and toro daily. They are also eating steak (well, skirt), Mangoes, double-chocolate pudding and something hideous from Oprah's O Magazine.

Grub Street has full details.

The real question around these parts is whether Hearst will put a Google-worthy cafeteria in any of the office buildings it is looking to buy in San Francisco, starting with 400 Montgomery. After all, if Cosmo and Esquire are good enough for subsidized gourmet meals, then aren't the ink-stained, Barry-Bonds-busting folks at the Chronicle worth some decent grub?

Ya, they're probably not holding their breath.


Friday, November 03, 2006

Faux gras

A goose farmer in South Dakota wants to sell a foie gras substitute next year. The stuff would be made from older geese that -- get this -- decide, with their cut little independent goose brains, to gorge themselves. As opposed to having a farmer pour the feed down the animal's throat, a traditional technique that some people believe is cruel.

"Some choose to eat more than others," farmer Jim Schlitz tells Business 2.0 magazine, which has the story in its November issue, but not online.

Schlitz is setting aside 10,000 of his 250,000 geese this season to live longer, which makes their livers fattier. He's also betting that many will pig out on abundant feed.

Then he'll divide the faux gras into several "grades" and, pending USDA labeling approval, put the stuff on the market next year.

Chef Jeffrey Trujullio, who runs a restaurant in New York state, says "it's not the same as $30-a-pound Hudson Valley of French foie gras -- it's not fatty enough," but thinks it's good enough to change the business.

Restaurant consultant (and Covers Best Friends Forever) Clark Wolf disagrees:
A foie gras substitute would not have the same status. And the restaurant industry ... will find other things to play with ... like truffles or oysters.
Completely random aside: Schlitz is also the name of a beer that began as a reasonable facsimile of a European product but ran itself into the ground by becoming progressively cheaper and thus more American.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Yahoo Dining Guide, total waste of time

I'm not going to comment on the overall Yahoo Food frankensite that launched yesterday -- that's not my gig and besides, after Bambi Francisco does a video podcast on any given topic, there's really nothing left to say.

But as for the alleged "Local Dining Guide" component of Yahoo Food, well, let's just say it is poised to do to CNET's Chowhound what Yahoo did to Google, namely nothing, except to kill itself slowly from sheer suckage.

They just took the boring reviews from Yahoo Local and mashed them up with a map. But in the most horribly inept way imaginable.

The map only shows 10 restaurants at a time, and if you try to use your scroll wheel to scroll down the Web page to actually view the list of restaurants, the map thinks you want to change zoom and so you end up with a view of North America from space.

The best part is when you sort by rating, you end up with, I kid you not, KFC as one of the top 10 restaurants in San Francisco. Number one? The local offices of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union (who knew Mike Casey was such a chef).

I'm amazed they link so prominently into the dining guide from the front page of Yahoo Food.

Bottom line: stick with CNET Chowhound, where you get everything you could want to know about restaurants, except for the really juicy important stuff.


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

'Millionaire chef' of French tabloids saunters in to chef orgy at Half Moon Bay

The Ritz-Carlton concentrated a remarkable number of San Francisco four-star chefs at its Half Moon Bay hotel last weekend. But the most remarkable culinary star was apparently off the radar screen, at least until he was caught on film by blogger Chez Pim, who attended as "arm candy" of a South Bay chef (the name of his restaurant rhymes with "Manresa"):

Commanding the attention of the whole table was an older, slightly unkempt man in a track suit, speaking rather loudly in French while the others listened rapturously ... diners flew their private planes in to visit his dining room. He was also arguably the first celebrity chef in the US. Hubert Keller told me how he, as a young man, was inspired by a story about this mystery chef in the French tabloid Paris Match, posing with his collection of rare watches and sports cars with a headline "Millionaire Chef".

The mystery man: Jean Banchet of Le Francais in Wheeling, Illinois outside of Chicago, maybe the first French chef to open a serious U.S. restaurant, maybe the first celebrity chef ever, alleged inventor of food itself.

Seriously, though, you have to hand it to Banchet for entering such a food-rich environment despite wrestling with diabetes.

Pim has the full rundown, including the all-important photo of the man himself.