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Contents Under Pressure

Sara Deseran | September 23, 2014 | Story Restaurants

A few years ago, I alighted on a new restaurant owned by a pair of talented chefs. Rumors of its debut had been swirling around for a while, and I had great expectations. After it finally opened on a less than likely stretch of Fillmore Street, I stopped in for dinner—only about two weeks in. My takeaway? I appreciated the whimsical dim sum kind of service, but the carts made for a bit of a traffic jam. The brown pegboard walls were barren of art, and the lighting was too bright. And while much of the food was very good, some of it didn’t gel. These are all very typical fresh-out-of-the-womb problems for a restaurant, especially an ambitious one. And yet, first impressions are powerful, and mine were not altogether positive. I didn’t return for quite a while because, well, I was on to the next new spot.

Slowly but surely, word on the street got out that this little restaurant—State Bird Provisions—was pretty much the second coming. Lines formed. National press flocked. And then, in 2012, Bon Appétit named it the best new restaurant in the country. Well, the egg on my face was thick indeed. How did I miss such a shining star in its infancy? Why did I judge it so soon? I think I know why: Like so many people here, I got caught up in San Francisco’s frothy restaurant race.

In many parts of Asia, friends greet friends with the question “Have you eaten?” In this town we have a similar, if less ancient, tradition—we say, “Have you eaten at the latest restaurant?” I overhear people having this conversation in the checkout line at the grocery store. I see it on Facebook. And friends routinely ask me to recommend the newest spots since it’s my job to know these things.

As a food writer, I’m expected to be at the precarious, often bloody, front lines of restaurant dining (I know—it’s like war reporting for milequetoasts). But what I witness in those tender first weeks of a restaurant’s life can be truly grisly: chaotic service, long waits, food that raises an eyebrow, music as loud as Beyoncé at AT&T Park, and—most painful to watch—sleep-deprived owners with their hearts, souls, and credit cards on the line, smiling maniacally and running around in circles.

But in this era of “Yelp first, ask questions later,” fueled by sites like Eater and UrbanDaddy (which post slide shows of a restaurant when it opens), it’s not just we writers who get carried away by the buzz. In the Bay Area, the decidedly enthusiastic general dining population considers it a point of civic pride to get a taste of a hot restaurant early on. But believe me: The chance that you’ll have a transformative—or even fully realized—experience when you eat at said new restaurant is slim. And there are good reasons for this.

Unlike, say, a Broadway musical—which has a similar plethora of moving parts and people, yet is granted a couple of months to rehearse, not to mention a run of preview performances—an independently owned restaurant literally can’t afford to practice on nonpaying diners for longer than a few days. Food, booze, and labor are prohibitively expensive. While a small core group may have been plotting the restaurant for a year or more, much of the front and back of the house isn’t usually hired until a few weeks before opening—typically, employees are still getting to know each other’s names on the first night. Then, as Pim Techamuanvivit of the Thai restaurant Kin Khao tells it, “You have two or three days to do friends-and-family dinners. But that’s not the same thing as the first few weeks of real service, no matter how carefully you plan it.” And that, she says, often leads to miscues, if not outright disasters (ask her, for example, about the searingly hot curry she unwittingly sent out to lauded chef Corey Lee of Benu). “It’s fair for the diners to come in and expect us to be perfect—they’re paying the money,” she says. “But it’s so damn hard.”

The service, of course, needs to be as on point as the food, but staff attrition at a new restaurant tends to be scarily high. “I would guess that you’ll lose about 20 to 30 percent of your staff in the first six months,” says Jardinière chef-owner Traci Des Jardins, who in the spring opened the Commissary, her sixth restaurant. “People find the work too hard or not what they thought it would be. There’s always a lot of turnover.”

And unless an owner has the pecuniary girth of a Michael Mina or a Thomas Keller to finance the inevitable delays in construction and city permitting, a dwindling bank account can force a restaurant to open long before the last tile is grouted. Alvin Garcia, co-owner of Causwells, which opened this summer in the Marina, says of day one, “We didn’t have most of our light fixtures, we had zero art, and our general contractor had built the space but had moved on to his other job, leaving smaller things unfinished.” (Case in point: Six weeks in, the dining room’s mural was just being painted.)

Furthermore, there’s no way to gauge how many people are going to show up for dinner when a restaurant first opens. On the Friday night of week one, Causwells served 70 covers. The following Friday, it served 140. “We ran out of things because we just didn’t know how business was going to go,” says Garcia (who, by the way, was not complaining).

And then there’s the dance of the ego. A chef might have a genius idea that turns out to be not so genius. In such cases, a smart chef listens to feedback: “When we first opened, we didn’t have printed menus for the diners,” says Stuart Brioza of State Bird. “I thought that was the coolest thing ever until I realized that people didn’t get a chance to try [our signature] fried quail. I got some complaints from some friends, and I realized how stupid that was. We did a lot of these things.”

And in the midst of all the newness, along come the city’s finicky diners, armed with iPhone cameras, Instagram accounts, and predetermined expectations of a restaurant based upon the anticipatory Eater plywood reports they’ve been following. Most arrive with congratulations and the best of intentions. But then, of course, some of them turn to Chowhound or Yelp to vent their frustration when things aren’t perfect (which, if you think about it, is kind of like Yelping your friend’s newborn baby and demoting it to two stars for being bald, red-faced, toothless, and, let’s admit it, not all that cute).

While it might be a notch in the belt for the diner, a restaurant owner often has a different, and very mixed, perspective on this early bird dining. There is undying gratitude for the seats that are filled, but there’s also a bit of stifled panic. Brioza admits to me that he was horrified when I, a paid food writer (though not a critic—they’re even scarier), casually walked through the doors of his restaurant that first month. “I was like, ‘Why are you here?’” he recalls, a little hurt still in his voice almost three years later. But I wasn’t there to judge, I prtest—just to check it out. He retorts: “As humans, it’s just in our nature to pass judgment.”

Which brings me to the biggest problem of all: If you pass negative judgment (even a smidge) on a restaurant, what’s the incentive to return when there are endless shiny new restaurants beckoning to you? There is none—so you end up prematurely dismissing some clear gems. In fact, I experienced something of a comeuppance when I was invited to dine at the remodeled State Bird not long ago with a bunch of friends. I looked around—and my, how everything had changed. The poppy artwork was pitch-perfect, the food was creative and overall fantastic, and the service was spot-on.

Clearly, based on State Bird’s mad success, Brioza and his wife, co-owner Nicole Krasinski, know the secret to the public’s heart—and it has to do with sincerity and tenacity. It’s something often lost in a city that prefers the American Ninja Warrior approach to dining, sprinting from one novel experience to the next. “I think the most interesting restaurants are the ones that evolve over time, and evolve with emotion and experience,” Brioza says. “I think it would be amazing if the voice that actually spoke about restaurants came later. What if you were the final one to speak out?”

He’s right. And so I’m making myself a promise—for my own sake, and for the sake of the chefs who have put their everything into the restaurants we want so badly to love. I’m not going to stop dining at new restaurants (my editor would flip if I did), but I’m going to return to them after they’ve had time to get into their rhythm, figure out who they are, and, at the very least, learn to crawl.

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

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