Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Aqua closing Pisces

Thanks to the Covers operative who tipped me off to the fact that Aqua is closing their Pisces seafood restaurant in Burlingame. I got into details on the Business Times website this morning.

While flagship Aqua was the two-Michelin-starred alpharaunt of San Francisco, Pisces did not even merit a mention in the redcoated guidebook's "South of San Francisco" section. People writing in to Zagat rated it a middling 22/30, with one providing the not-so-ringing endorsement "more charming than annoying." The Chronicle gave it two stars in its last review two and a half years ago.

Meanwhile, Pisces was not profitable and needed a facelift that the landlord would not underwrite. So, according to Laurent Manrique, the restaurant is set to close within the week ending Monday.

Aqua Development Corp. still has, in addition the flagship, the profitable and buzzy Cafe de la Presse, a more casual place near Union Square.

It's worth noting that the company's website now lists just two restaurants, compared with six restaurants three years ago. The company is, however, "probably" going to reopen Pisces somewhere else, Manrique said, and there is no reason the company can't come up with more successful concepts like de la Presse, which opened just over one year ago.

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Monday, January 29, 2007

The French have unprofitable restaurants, too

San Francisco may be headed the way of France, which has for some time seen its top chefs migrate away from prohibitively expensive haute, Michelin-starred restaurants to more casual bistros.

The similarities between the two cities come into sharp relief when reading John Mariani's recent interview of French food journalists. His report, from the Bloomberg wire, was helpfully forwarded by a Covers operative.

The French food writers said it is nearly impossible for restaurants to earn a return on their side of the Atlantic:
(Journalist Jean-Louis) Galesne noted that almost no chef in France is opening an haute cuisine restaurant unless backed by wealthy investors or hotel chains that can afford to lose money on restaurants that may cost as much as $1 million per 1,000 square feet.
Hmm. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

New York Chef Geoffrey Zakarian said:
``There is no way ever to make back your money on a $15 million restaurant, which is why independent chefs and restaurateurs either have to accept investors' demands or find the money on their own to open a lesser space.''

(Monsieur's Jean-Pierre) de Lucovich contended that if a top chef who might run a 50- seat restaurant with three Michelin stars is bankrolled to open in Las Vegas, he will be asked to make it into a 250-seat extravaganza like Alain Ducasse's Mix in the Mandalay Bay.

Also: It has slowly dawned on the French, to their utter horror, that animal-loving California celebrities were picking off their favorite traditional foods, one at a time.

Full story on Bloomberg: French, American Foodies Chew Over Trends of 2007: John Mariani


Alice Waters had plenty of time to read anyway

Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters has had plenty of time for the, er, "business of life" as the say over at the Wall Street Journal, what with so much time outside the office last year.

Apparently she's been reading newspapers when away from the restaurant and associated cafes, specifically the Journal. At least, that's what she'll say in advertisements for the newspaper, which will include her picture and the tagline, "Every Journey Needs a Journal."

The campaign, which also includes a similar ad withSheryl Crow, is aimed at attracting more women readers and more young readers to the newspaper. The WSJ has added significant food, wine and restaurants coverage, first in the Friday Weekend Journal, then in the daily Personal Journal and most recently in the Saturday WSJ Weekend Edition.

Full story in Adweek: 'WSJ' Targets Youth With Celeb Effort

Disclosure: Covers cut its teeth at the Journal.

(Not quite sure where I saw this item posted first. Probably the Chronicle blog. I'll double check that in a few days. ;-->)


Japanese sushi police headed for San Francisco

The Japanese agriculture ministry is planning to start certifying "authentic" Japanese restaurants abroad as soon as this year.

Since fully half the 20,000 overseas Japanese restaurants are in the U.S. , Japanese culinary spies are certain to end up at some point in San Francisco, a pivotal front in America's war on proper sushi.

The Japanese are apparently alarmed at our various bastardizations, like the California roll and the Wal Mart sushi counter. More alarming still, 90 percent of our "Japanese" restaurants aren't even run by Japanese people or people of Japanese descent, the agriculture ministry points out -- though it remains to be seen if our Korean and Chinese sushi chefs fare any worse (or better!) than their Japanese colleagues.

The full situation report in the Financial Times Weekend adds:
Of course, the ministry made it clear that xenophobia is not the motive behind its authentic food-finding mission. But this has not stopped critics from lambasting the move as an act of hypocrisy. After all, Japan is a country that has in equal measure bastardised western cuisines to suit local palates. Will the Italian food polizia crack down on restaurants in Japan that serve spaghetti topped with mentaiko - spicy cod roe? Will the US culinary brigade outlaw fast food outlets that serve rice burgers?

Financial Times: Japan's 'sushi police' are on a roll (free)

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

SF laws should scare restaurants nationally, trade journal says

The executive editor of Nation's Restaurant News sounds an alarm to restaurants around the country, warning them they should act now to avoid sick leave laws like the one set to go into effect next week in San Francisco. He alleges that:
"... the benefit that was mandated (in San Francisco) is out of whack with any business sense ... The trade was caught entirely unaware ..."
The editor, Peter Romeo, added that a no-sick-leave policy encourages the spread of disease, since ill restaurant workers do not stay home as they should. The twin threats of disease outbreak and other measures like the one in San Francisco should motivate restaurants to quickly devise sick leave policies of their own:
"(Restaurants should) develop an alternative standard that addresses the public-health implications of the no work/no pay approach. Short of solution from Hogwarts, any change is going to cost the trade. But it may be better to find a way of assuming a small burden now, lest it be really saddled in the next election or food-borne-illness outbreak."

Full text: You'll pay one way or another (Nation's Restaurant News blog)


Thursday, January 25, 2007

25 percent is the new 20 percent, which was the new 15 percent, which was the new 'thank you'

SF Magazine weighs in on tip inflation in the February issue, noting that Poleng Lounge and Toast Eatery both print receipts showing how much a 25 percent tip would be, in addition to the usual 20 percent and 15 percent.
"Yes, that's one-fourth of what you paid for the entire meal. Not that service isn't important, but at that rate restaurants may soon be known more for their signature servers than their signature dishes."
The best part is the accompanying picture of a receipt, which shows the 25/20/15 tip calculation. Whoever filled out the receipt has left a $6 tip on $44.16 -- 62 cents under 15 percent. An editorial comment on the 25 percent tip calculator, an editorial comment on service at Poleng or Toast, or just a frugal diner who remembers the days when 10 to 15 percent on a round of cocktails was considered Just Fine, Thank You?

(The story is not online, as is always the case when I don't provide a link.)

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Frank Bruni has a point

Monday, January 22, 2007

Restaurant reservations scalper targets SF

Out in New York, is channeling febrile fits of fury at, a Web site that scalps reservations to top-shelf restaurants. One typical diner fumes:
"This has got to be one of the more scummy ideas to hit the restaurant scene in NYC in a while. If it wasn't hard enough before to get a reservation at some the more coveted tables in town, now you have to compete with people taking placeholders under fake names and trying to peddle them ... "
If they're this pissed in money-grubbing Gotham, just imagine the outrage when PrimeTime Tables makes good on its plan to go west to progressive, egalitarian San Francisco, as indicated on the service's home page:


Friday, January 19, 2007

Levende Lounge and Ozumo expanding to Oakland

OzumoLevende Lounge has just taken out a lease for "Levende East" in Old Oakland, at the former Rex's bar and grill at Washington and 8th St, right across the street from another SF transplant B's (from the Boxed Foods people).

Ozumo is "eager" to close late-stage negotiations with Signature Properties at Broadway Grand in Oakland's Uptown district. Though this is much further along than the Town Hall deal that fell apart, it's never a sure thing until the doors open.

And, as reported elsewhere, Rich and Rebekah Wood sold Frascati in Russian Hill to open Wood House in the former Grasshopper in Oakland's Rockridge district. (As not reported elsewhere, they are bringing over their old Frascati executive chef, Maximilian Dimare.)

Three makes a trend, so I dig into the three deals in a front page story in today's Business Times (free link).

All restaurants involved site rising costs in SF as at least one of the reason for crossing the bay. Downtown Oakland restaurants are also just a few minutes from SF by BART or, on good days, bridge, which makes it easier to train and oversee staff. Some of the owners live in the East Bay. There's also the building boom in downtown Oakland, combined with the scarcity of existing high-end restaurants.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007 may come to SF

Restaurant gossip site may be coming to San Francisco, the Associated Press reports.

The site is run partly by Lockhart Steele, the ubiquitous blog editor whose other gigs include a role running media site and real estate stalker Curbed, both out of New York. His co-editor Ben Leventhal (pictured) also has links to Gawker, via the Gawker-owned site Gridskipper, and ran (runs?) the smartly-written (and thrillingly cryptic) dining guide

(Ed.: If you want a shot an interview, Ryan, you're going to have to kiss up more than this... RT: Are you kidding? They couldn't cover my scotch expenses, much less my salary.)

Eater has restaurant flacks annoyed in Gotham, according to the AP, but is that really so hard to do?

The more interesting question in San Francisco would be whether an SF outpost of Eater would prod the San Francisco Chronicle to staff its Inside Scoop restaurant column, written by the collective food staff since Amanda Berne left for a gig at Ten Speed Press last fall.

Food Notebook, where I first saw the AP story, says "oh, dear."


Friday, January 12, 2007

Putting a price on Oakland

The Oakland Marriott has finally sold -- well, assuming the City Council approved the deal.

I reported in today's Business Times that Larry Chan's Park Lane Hotels is asking for permission to sell the property, Oakland's largest hotel, for $40.8 million.

That's just $85,000 per key, compared with about $225,000 per key for Chan's Renaissance Parc 55 in San Francisco. But, Simpsons aside, Oakland has never been the tourist mecca that San Francisco has.

Buyer is CIM Group. I had reported previously that Chan was in the process of selling to Rockpoint Group and a group of private investors out of Hong Kong. Even at that point there were rumors the new buyers would quickly seek to flip to other buyers. I still don't know what happened to the deal.

Interesting sidenote: the City of Oakland has close to $20 million in capitalized debt on the hotel, which it bailed out in the mid-80s. Becase their are more senior debtors and because the overall sales price is too low, the city would only collect about $5 million on the sale.

I'll put a link here next week.


Thursday, January 11, 2007

East Bay restaurants hike prices

In the Contra Costa Times, my friend and former co-worker James Temple writes about how East Bay restaurants are hiking prices anywhere from 5 - 25 percent as the state minimum wage rises to $7.50 from $6.75. Next year it is to rise to $8.

Still not the $9.14 SF minimum wage. And the East Bay also doesn't have the $1-$2 per hour health care payments or the sick leave rules of SF.

But certainly this could dampen the (from what I am hearing) continuing interest of SF restaurants in Oakland and other East Bay locations.

James writes:
Concord-based Digger's Diner expects a monthly cost spike closer to $5,000, or $60,000 per year, said Kathy Sturgill, the original owner of the 13-year-old restaurant now operated by her son and niece. After three years without adjusting menu costs, the diner plans to ratchet up prices by as much as 25 percent.

Walnut Creek-based Dudum Sports and Entertainment, which among other restaurants runs Bing Crosby's, McCovey's and Joe DiMaggio's, expects the change to knock a percentage point off its profitability margin. It hasn't increased menu prices but "of course it will pass along to the consumer at some point," said Mark Wooldridge, the company's chief operating officer.

More at the CCT site: Restaurants adapting to rising wages


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The moonlighting celebrity chef

I guess it's sort of like Dylan cutting a few tracks with George Harrison, or Eminem dropping in on a Dr. Dre album: I have confirmed at least two cases of celebrity chefs dropping in for cameos at other restaurants.

Or maybe they just needed the money?

The first one I heard about was Bradley Ogden at Izzy's Steaks in Corte Madera, not sure if it's converting to something else because it's no longer on the main Izzy's website. Anyway, one of the managing partners there explained to me that Bradley was a personal friend who dropped in to chat with the staff and perhaps lend some advice and instruction. (His appearence had caused some strange rumors I had called to check on.)

The other was George Morrone, who I had been told was moonlighting at Michael Mina over the holiday break when his own Novato restaurant was closed. When I later talked to Mina on something else, he confirmed that Morrone does work in his kitchen from time to time.

I guess it makes me more optimistic, as a diner, about those occasions when the executive chef isn't working in the kitchen. After all, you can't assume the replacement chef has less experience that the regular chef. He might have trained the executive chef!

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More faux gras

I posted in November about a South Dakota farmer who has these geese who like to indulge themselves, so much so their livers naturally turn to foie gras without the usual tube down the throat, which some people find cruel and others have no problem with for various well-considered reasons.

Derrick at Obsession with Food spotted a similar force-feeding-free foie gras out of a farm in Spain, which won an award at the Paris International Food Salon.

Derrick is skeptical about the quality, like some of the people in my original post, and notes that people haven't accepted this stuff as foie gras for the couple of hundred years it's been available.

He also notes some practical issues with using Geese as opposed to ducks:
You can't artificially inseminate them, so a farmer can only sell fresh foie gras during the winter season, when Spring's goslings have come of age. And they stress more readily than ducks. When the stoic Mulard breed came on the scene in the 1970s, it transformed the industry overnight. Fifty years ago, 90 per cent of the birds for foie gras were geese. Today, only 20 per cent are.

Still waiting for this stuff to show up on an SF menu.

Derrick's post: Foie Gras Without Force-Feeding?

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Uncork your waitstaff -- teach 'em to drink!

Alder Yarrow at Vinography, who recently won a "best drinks blog" award, registers a strong if artful complaint about how terrible waiters are with wine:
I continually run across waitstaff who are seriously clueless about wine ... I mean so clueless that, when the Pinot Noir poured by the glass is sold out, they suggest a Zinfandel because "it's similar." I mean so clueless as to not know how to pour wine into a decanter (hint: turning the bottle upside down vertically and sticking it into the neck of the decanter is NOT the right way). I mean so clueless that they've never even tasted any of the wines on the by-the-glass list.
Alder says that you, restaurateur, should get your waitstaff drunk -- or, "train" them, whatever -- because the more they know, the more money they can make you.

He points to a Cornell study that found a restaurant grew wine sales 39 percent over its nearby chain-sibling by recommending to customers five specific wines.

This reminded me of my recent coverage of Bay Area-based Bacchus Restaurant Group (free link), which runs Village Pub in Woodside and Pizza Antica in Santana Row, Lafayette and Mill Valley, and which is opening two new restaurants in SF.

The company invests heavily in training staff in wine:

He requires managers at all four Bacchus-operated restaurants to obtain a first-level certification from the British Court of Master Sommeliers, and pays for waiters to do the same. The costs run to close to $2,000 per employee, but the expertise translates into lower staff turnover and higher wine sales.

For example, roughly 40 percent of wine sales at Bacchus' three Pizza Antica restaurants come in the form of bottles rather than glasses, versus perhaps 1 percent at most pizza parlors, Stannard estimates.

Bottom line is you have to be willing to make an investment in staff to get the payoff in wine sales, according to this thinking. So if Bacchus is anything to go by, Alder is on to something.

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Dot-com days are back, not so much

Hotel rates are back at dot-com peaks and set to zoom much higher in 2007, according to PKF Consulting's numbers, touched on previously. I talked to hotel managers about this for a Business Times story (link free starting Jan. 15) , and they pointed out two things:

1. PKF is too optimistic about 2007 because conventions are off; Jon Handlery at Handlery Union Square is budgeting about half the $15 per room per night gain PKF sees (in percentage terms);

2. Costs are up since the dot-com days thanks to rising health care costs and wages, plus you have to factor in inflation, plus occupancy is not back to dot-com peaks, so things aren't really as good as they were back then.

Which might explain these quotes from Convention and Visitors bureau chief Joe D'Alessandro, who wants more money from the city to promote San Francisco to tourists and convention planners:

"I'm embarrassed the city of Portland spends more than San Francisco" on tourism marketing, D'Alessandro said. "It's embarrassing to go to a trade show and (the booth for) San Francisco is hiding behind the 'S' in the San Diego booth."

"Stepping on people on the sidewalk in the garbage is embarrassing ... we have to develop a different culture."

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Monday, January 08, 2007

Hyatt Regency sells for $200 million

The 802-room Hyatt Regency at the Embarcadero has sold for $200 million.

The property is the fifth-largest hotel in San Francisco.

The buyer is a hedge fund operator out of New York, Dune Capital Management, and a real estate investment company in Southern California, DiNapoli Capital Partners . The seller is Strategic Hotel Capital LLC, a fund whose primary investors are Goldman Sachs and Prudential Real Estate.

No immediate changes as a result of the deal, since Hyatt has a long-term management contract on the property. Possibly some sprucing up of the retail along Market Street, right near the Ferry Building, and of the bar and restaurant and retail inside the hotel.

Most interesting is the $250,000 per key sales price, at the low end of market expectations, which had ranged up to $400,000 per key. That's what Campton Place had gone for, and the St. Francis sold at close to $375,000 per key, albeit bolstered by attached retail with Union Square frontage.

I had this one all lined up for Friday's paper, but an unexpected press release forced it out onto the Web this morning:

S.F. Hyatt Regency sells for $200M (free link)

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Dean Singleton vs. Santa

Carter Lusher wonders whether Silicon Valley's hometown paper, the San Jose Mercury News, is cutting back on its food section, or whether it's just the staff off on holiday. Either way, Carter notes, the competition did a much better job this week:
... There seems to be more reprints from other newspapers than usual. Only one of the free page one stories is by a local, Laurie Daniel on great wine buys, and only two of seven interior articles are locally produced.
The Mercury News was recently acquired by Dean Singleton, who has a reputation as a "merciless cost cutter," in the words of the New York Times.


Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Chocolate ripoff exposed in Dallas, media implicated

There is an absolutely delicious takedown of Texas chocolatier Noka on the website by a guy named "Scott."

Capsule summary: World's most expensive chocolate, priced at $300-$2,000 per pound, is Noka, carried by Nieman Marcus and at one point by Dean and DeLuca. It has been hyped by Forbes, Dallas Morning News, Baltimore Sun and Food and Wine.

Turns out? Made in a half-empty strip mall by an accountant reprocessing chocolate from France -- and badly, at that.

It surprises and disappoints me that so many professional reporters were duped. Maybe I have been soaking in the foodie culture of the Bay Area too long. After you've toured Scharffen Berger, where they actually make chocolate, or perused the counter at Recchiuti, where they do exquisite things with chocolate after it is made, I can't imagine writing about a chocolate company without getting into the nitty gritty of where they are creating value.


Separated at birth: Thomas and Hubert Keller

I really tried to maintain a spirit of good humor and playfulness as I read "A $3,000 taste of Vegas" in the Chicago Tribune.

But the newspaper's restaurant critic, Phil Vettel, seems quite serious when he writes "brothers Thomas and Hubert Keller have Sin City outposts."


(Thomas Keller, born in California, runs a little laundromat in Yountville, maybe you've heard of it.)

(Hubert Keller, born in France, operates a restaurant for Gallic monarchs in San Francisco, one of the city's three best restaurants according to the Chronicle.)

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East Bay shut out of Chronicle top new restaurants 2006

Reading Michael Bauer's top 10 new restaurants list for 2006, I noticed that not one East Bay restaurant made the cut.

This is interesting if for no other reason than the fact that San Francisco Magazine named three East Bay restaurants to the top 10 list it published in August.

Of course, two of those three, Pizzaiolo and Sea Salt, were reviewed by the Chronicle in 2005 and thus ineligible this year, and one (Pizzaiolo) even made the paper's top 10 list for 2005. (The third is Tamarindo, which garnered two Chronicle stars in April.)

Maybe the East Bay pipeline has grown a bit dry this year. I certainly can't think of any late-year openings that would be good shortlist candidates for 2007 in Berkeley, Oakland or Alameda.