Aaron London is a man on the run.
The chef-owner of AL’s Place, located just south of the heat of the Valencia Street restaurant row, walks fast. He talks fast. There’s an intense, frenetic pace to everything he does. Whether it’s plating a dish, working the cold station or bouncing between the tiny kitchen upstairs and his basement prep area below, the dude is on the move.
London, 32, amply inked, man-bunned and wild eyed, has the kind of hyperactive, restless energy that can get a person in trouble. And the younger London did run afoul of the law. Forced to live under house arrest at 14 in the one-stop-sign town of Graton in West Sonoma County, he made cakes for his probation officer. Baking relieved boredom, required focus and made London—and presumably the recipient of those sweet treats—happy.
If not for cooking, London says he’d be in jail or dead. Fortunately, he found a home behind the stoves. And how: In August, Bon Appétit named his 46-seat restaurant the best newcomer in the country. With its vegetable-forward menu, cheery blue exterior and bright, white-tiled interior reminiscent of a Greek island seafood joint, AL’s Place is the city’s latest hot spot.
London confesses to a “combo platter of emotions” about taking top honors.
“It’s super exciting. As soon as it was announced my phone and computer—and our online reservations—were all blowing up. A big pop,” says the Duboce Triangle dweller, whose restaurant takes its name from his initials.
And yet … “Before the Bon Appétit announcement we were a solid, fledgling business,” says London. “People liked us, we were able to keep the lights on and we were doing good stuff. I remind myself that if the buzz goes away in a few months, we can just go back to being AL’s Place on the corner of 26th and Valencia.”
An Embarrassment of Restaurant Riches
In a city filled with top chefs, London knows there’s a lot to live up to. Bon Appétit also named San Francisco the number one dining destination in the country; this year six local restaurants made the magazine’s top 50 list of best new restaurants, including dinner-party-like ex-pop-up Lazy Bear and Rintaro, the Japan-meets-California Izakaya restaurant, which clocked in at #8. Other national media, including the Washington Post, have also been piling on the praise for the culinary talent in this town.
London acknowledges there’s an element of luck to his number one status. “Many great restaurants opened around the country this year,” he says. “There’s a lot right here in San Francisco that are just as deserving.” He rattles off the rest of the Bon Appétit six for starters. He nods to Ryan Pollnow’s Basque-inspired Aatxe. He salutes The Progress, the family-style second restaurant by previous best new restaurant winners, culinary couple Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski, of the über-popular cart concept State Bird Provisions. And he has high regard for Ravi Kapur’s Liholiho Yacht Club, the subject of this magazine’s last cover story.
More are coming before 2015 is over. Mexico City’s Gabriela Cámara just opened her seafood-centric Cala. Saison chef-owner Joshua Skenes, lauded for that refined restaurant, is slated to debut his fast-food venture Fat Noodle. Kim Alter (ex-Haven and Plum in Oakland for the Daniel Patterson Group) will open her own space, Nightbird, in Hayes Valley. The Perennial, the latest offering from the Mission Chinese Food crew, is generating favorable press before its doors even open in Mid-Market.
There’s plenty of money (for some) to break ground on restaurants in San Francisco right now. London got up and running from keys to open in two months, he says, without the help of an architect, permit expeditor, general contractor, kitchen designer or interior decorator—or much sleep, since it was a DIY affair. London launched his little-indie-that-could on a shoestring budget (we’re talking a few hundred thousand) and a couple of SBA loans.
He wonders out loud whether the city could reach saturation point soon on new dining destinations. “It’s very competitive in San Francisco’s restaurant industry right now—it’s healthy competition, not nasty,” he say. There have been so many openings. It’s tough to find qualified cooks. There’s a finite amount of employees and guests —San Francisco is a small city, after all.”
Still, it’s an invigorating time to cook—and eat out—here. London’s glad that what he calls “a decade of San Francisco just being Cali-Italian salumi and pizza places” has given way to unique, inventive and intimate menus.
Such sentiment brings to mind Daniel Patterson’s musings—famous or infamous, depending on your perspective—a decade ago in the New York Times Magazine. Patterson lamented the predictability of San Francisco’s dining establishment back then, which he blamed on what he called the tyranny of Chez Panisse, and its philosophy of sourcing the best, freshest local ingredients and cooking them simply. Boring, he sniffed. The piece seemed to encourage other chefs and food celebrities, many from the East Coast—and, it should be noted, overwhelmingly male—to make snide remarks about Alice Waters and her penchant for figs on a plate or the perfect peach.
The East Coast vs. West Coast restaurant rivalry is a long simmering one. The old saw—New York has the chefs with culinary chops and California has the raw ingredients—no longer holds true, says London, a graduate from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
“In the last couple of years everyone is upping their game here,” he says. These days, Northern California chefs aren’t shy about showcasing techniques—from fermentation to sous vide. “There’s a new generation of cooks opening their own places, and we’re cooking just as good if not better than New York. And we benefit from access to amazingly fresh produce. So we’ve got an unfair advantage.”
About the food at AL’s Place: London likes to mix things up on his menu, while keeping choices limited. Meat is moved to side-dish status. Small morsels designed to whet the appetite, like radishes with preserved bergamot butter or chickpeas in romesco sauce, are dubbed “snackles.” He’s fond of seafood: Cured trout is popular, as is fish mullet with preserved lime and garlic dip.
London’s signature dishes include pickled French fries with smoked apple sauce and baby lettuces with crushed avocado and pistachio crumble. Other dishes suggest global influences and acknowledge seasonality. Black cod curry is accompanied by stone fruit, blueberries, green beans and charred lime in the summer; pear, squash and persimmon jam come into play in the fall; sunchokes and citrus make an appearance during the winter. He’s partial to peas and beans used in inventive and unexpected ways.
Bon Appétit’s deputy editor Andrew Knowlton gave London high marks for his technique-driven, produce-centric food served in a fun fashion, labeling it “genius!” and “bonkers!” The kitchen does deliver pretty bowls and plates of tasty, colorful, fresh fare. For his part, London wants to coax out layers of flavor from diverse ingredients—but he doesn’t want diners to get caught up in the technical aspects. He wants them to simply have a dynamic dining experience and leave feeling upbeat, well fed and taken care of.
He’s serious about his veggies. Rose Becker of Blue Dane Garden in Grass Valley grows exclusively for Al’s Place and delivers her biodynamic produce—some of it still in the soil—once a week. “She brings it in trays on her truck, we put it down in our basement on metro shelves with grow lights and we pick right before service,” says London. “So our garden is kind of two hours away and it’s also in our basement. It’s important for me to cook like that. It’s a Bay Area thing.”
London is best known for his four-year tenure at Ubuntu, the pioneering vegetarian restaurant in Napa. Jeremy Fox made a name for himself as head chef at Ubuntu; Becker managed the restaurant’s garden. When Fox left in February 2010, London took over the kitchen; the popular restaurant closed in 2011. London had his sights set on San Francisco.
Prior to Ubuntu, he’d worked in restaurants in New York City, Montreal and France over a period of about eight years. He left the Bay Area at 18 and thought he’d never come back.
But he did. San Francisco was where he wanted to have a place of his own. London had to wait more than three years for that to happen: An initial project with partners in a Hayes Valley location stalled; it is still yet to open. While on hold, he bartended at Locanda in The Mission for what was supposed to be a few months and ended up being a couple of years. Itching to cook professionally again, he opted to strike out solo.
When he found the AL’s Place location, things moved quickly, in just a couple of months. He opened lean in February, with two sous chefs, Garrett Benedict and Leo Batoyon, both former Ubuntu cooks. “It was just the three of us in the kitchen, each holding down a station,” he recalls. “It was pretty brutal, a gnarly time; I had to call in a favor from my buddy [chef] Brandon Jew to expedite.” (An aside for avid restaurant opening watchers: Jew’s highly anticipated Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, Mister Jiu’s, is currently slated to open at the beginning of 2016.)
It’s still early days for AL’s Place but London wants to put down roots. He signed a seven-year lease, with two five-year extension options. This mixologist would like to open a bar nearby; he’s actively looking for a space. London says he’s in this business for the long haul. If he wasn’t cooking London doesn’t know what he’d do but he’s pretty sure the kitchen keeps him out of trouble.
There have been downsides to the accolades. The biggest: Loyal La Langua locals (that’s the name for the sub-neighborhood on this sleepy stretch of Valencia), industry colleagues and friends who supported the restaurant from the start have a tough time getting a table 10 months down the track. “I should be happy just to have guests, but it sucks when you have a regular who emails and says: ‘Hey I used to eat there once a week, how do I get in now?’” The restaurant has begun saving 30% of tables for walk-ins. Come November it’s taking a risk by blocking even more seats for spontaneous guests. Serving the neighborhood is important to London. He wants the folks flying in from New York for one night and the locals who come regularly to find a seat at the table.
Some recent Yelp reviews have been less than complimentary. Not everyone, it seems, thinks AL’s Place is the best, let alone all that. And Yelpers don’t hold back on the criticism. Clearly, there are high expectations and some diners come in with a specific notion about what a best new restaurant should look, feel and taste like. “We seem to get five star reviews—people understand and love us—or one star reviews saying ‘no way is that the best restaurant in the country,’” he notes. No matter; he’s not going to change a thing for the professional or civilian critics.
London knows he can’t please everyone. He finds such negativity unfortunate but he’s philosophical about it. “I just try to stay grounded. I remind myself of these things: It’s always been my dream to open a little restaurant. I love my little restaurant. I love every person who works here. It’s exactly how I wanted it. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Making Sense of the Spotlight
Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski have been in London’s shoes. And then some. The partners in work and life are the masterminds behind the industry original State Bird Provisions, their cart-centric dim-sum-like concept on a modest stretch of Fillmore Street, just south of Geary Street, in the Western Addition.
Bon Appétit dubbed State Bird the best new restaurant of 2012. In 2013 their peers weighed in with a James Beard Award for best new restaurant in the country and Zagat included the spot in its 10 hottest restaurants in the world. This year the pair earned a Beard for Best Chef in the West, oh, and they picked up a Michelin star along the way.
Ever since the 2012 national magazine nod there’s been a line of 50 would-be diners out the door for walk-in tables every evening at this restaurant open seven days a week. Tech types have even built bots to try and nab online reservations. Opened with 42 seats, they made room for another 10 diners or so before closing for a couple of months in 2013 to expand the dining space, which now seats 72. They do two to three turns a night.
Brioza and Krasinski may be breathing rare air but they are down-to-earth types. A seven-year stretch cooking in the center of the country rubbed off; they have the aura of sensible Midwesterners about them. Delighted by their success but not daunted by it. It took getting used to, though.
“You’re not actually even thinking ‘We are the best new restaurant in the country,’” explains Brioza, who has a fondness for plaid and a warm and welcoming manner. “You’re really thinking ‘How am I going to handle the tsunami that just hit us and live up to what we’ve been trying to do?’ There’s no time to reflect. The first few months my stomach would get nauseous every time the door opened.”
The pair looks back on the unlikeness of their success. Veterans of San Francisco fine-dining stalwart Rubicon, they’d been out of the restaurant game for three-and-a-half years. The Hayes Valley residents had just had a baby and didn’t have a lot of disposable income or free time. They weren’t eating out; they didn’t even really know the current crop of restaurant players. They’d been consulting and catering while they waited for their restaurant space to take shape but, in all honesty, they felt a bit rusty.
The dining duo never even set out to open State Bird Provisions. But they struck a deal with their landlord for two connected spaces; one already had a kitchen, albeit a grease-laden one, while the space next door, where The Progress is now, needed a zone change and complete build out. While construction for the more elevated dining experience at The Progress took shape, they decided to wing it with an idea they’d kicked around for a while for a more casual concept in the former pizza parlor next door.
That’s how State Bird was born. When Bon Appétit’s Knowlton came and ate at the standing bar, Brioza didn’t even know who he was. The chef-owner just did what he did at the time: Cook, bus plates and host, all at once. Self-taught pastry chef Krasinski, now 39, also worked service; they had 16 employees back then so everyone did a bit of everything. These days,across both restaurants, they have a staff of 98, including 17 managers.
So what does it even really mean to be dubbed the best new restaurant in the country? It’s a gift, is what it is, says Brioza, also a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
Reflecting now Brioza, 41 in November, says it allowed the quirky restaurant with its concrete walls, eclectic modern art (hello peg board) and handcrafted feel to become “the restaurant we didn’t even know that we wanted to be.” What remained the same: cooking with flexibility, curiosity and a spontaneous sensibility. Not bad for a couple who have been together two decades and worked in the same kitchens for 14 years. “If I’m perplexed about a dish Nicole is still the one I like talking to the most about it,” says Brioza. “We can count on each to be honest when a creation falls short and there’s freedom that comes with this kind of stability.”
Certain dishes are so popular they never leave the menu. The quail is a given, so is the garlic bread with burrata, oyster with kohlrabi kraut, the trout, the duck liver mousse, dumplings and pancakes. There’s quite a list. Just like a traditional dim sum house, people go expecting to see certain items on the carts or trays. Others, known as “commandables,” can be ordered through a waiter. Despite the staples, Brioza says there’s still plenty of room for free-spirited improvisation in the kitchen.
Success has given them leverage—with investors, staff, community, artists and purveyors. It’s also allowed them to give back in meaningful ways. For example: Each Tuesday they spend about $2,500 at the farmers market in Berkeley. They’re not just buying bags of produce; they’re buying several flats worth of, say, figs. Originally from the South Bay, these former art students met at De Anza College in Cupertino; in both restaurants they showcase the craftsmanship of artists whose work they admire. As they’ve expanded they’ve been able to commission large-scale projects from one-shop artisans, whether furniture makers, ceramicists or metalworkers.
Brioza has served as a mentor to London, who says he has leaned on his colleague for advice about location selection, the building process, pre-opening planning and post-opening hiccups and hurrahs. London is a huge fan of his friend’s restaurant. “State Bird Provisions was a game-changer and almost four years later I’m still excited to eat there,” he says. “The cart concept is a big part of that. I don’t like waiting for stuff. I want it now. I want to physically see the food and grab it and put it in my mouth.”
Seasoned diners agree. “Eating at State Bird Provisions is by far the most memorable and refreshing dining experience I’ve had at a restaurant in a long time,” says professional eater Lisa Rogovin, owner of food tour company Edible Excursions, who eats out about nine meals a week, on average. “It’s a novel, fun, delicious package.”
The Leap From Cool Newbie to Industry Icon
Novel, new and fun is exciting. So are awards and accolades. But what makes a restaurant likely to last for the long haul? Quality rules, says Brioza, but it’s not enough; there are plenty of restaurants around town with talented chefs in the kitchen, he says, whose seats are half full. Location, ambience, service—all play roles, of course. Consistency is key too. Vision, a willingness to delegate to talented staff and a positive kitchen culture, are all crucial, adds Brioza. And then there’s that indefinable special sauce a standout place simply oozes.
It is, indeed, the whole package. For many, the Zuni Café on a triangular corner of Market Street with its huge windows—ideal for watching streetcars and pedestrians go by—is the whole package. Emblematic of the best of the California food revolution. There’s nothing faddish or gimmicky on the menu. It’s unfussy, comforting and familiar: Quintessential San Francisco. And it has been for decades.
Opened in 1979 and successful from the start, the late Judy Rodgers came on as chef in 1987 and reimagined the menu. The beloved restaurant with an extensive oyster bar is known for such homey staples as whole roast chicken, shoestring potatoes and Caesar salad. The restaurant is in a funky neighborhood with unorthodox layout and its style of service can be, ah, aloof. Somehow it all adds up to magic.
“Zuni is a beautiful iconic space. It captures a very specific era of California cooking—it may not be the new California cooking—but they’ve kept that snapshot the same with great success,” says London. “Going there is like going to a place in time. They do what they do well.”
Brioza agrees. “I crave certain things on that menu like the chicken or their anchovies. There’s a vibe in there too that makes you want to come back; you know what to expect and those expectations are met. After we got married at City Hall we had our wedding lunch there,” he says. “When we travel we usually drop off our bags and walk over to Zuni and have a welcome back to San Francisco meal. It is that kind of place.”
That kind of staying power is hard to predict. Whether Al’s Place or State Bird Provisions or another restaurant of the moment becomes a quintessential San Francisco restaurant with legs, it’s too soon to tell.
But both Brioza and London are investing in the future. For his part, London got going “quickly and cheaply”; now he’s pouring whatever profits he’s making into beautifying and improving his bare-bones space: acoustic panels, window shades, indoor plants.
Brioza and Krasinski are already on to their third act in the same location: a private dining room above The Progress opens this month. But there’s no set banquet menu or catering service. These innovators don’t want to be boxed in. Instead, interested guests receive an ingredient list that calls out local ranchers, fishermen and farmers and prospective diners are encouraged to choose foods they’d like to see at the table. The chefs, though, determine the actual dishes. It’s the right recipe, Brioza believes, for success:
“It’s that balance between customer choice, diner engagement and the element of surprise coming out of a kitchen. That’s what keeps things interesting.”
BEYOND THE BUZZ: Fellow Best New Restaurant Winners, Aaron London of Al’s Place & Stuart Brioza of State Bird Provisions, on Recipe for Success was published in the Fall 2015 issue. © 2015 Edible San Francisco. Photographs © 2015 Alanna Hale.