My husband Joe and I opened our fifth restaurant, Chino, in June. As of October, we’re heading into month five. Based our own experience and talking to other restaurateurs, I feel like six months is a fair amount of time to allow a restaurant to get on its feet (or maybe it’s more like its hands and knees). Some days, I feel like Chino is crawling and prone to tantrums. Other days, I walk in and it appears fully formed, with that synergy you’re always striving for. Under our string lights is a crowd of happy people slurping up noodles and cocktails; servers are doing their job and having a good time; and the kitchen and bar are cranking. Watching a restaurant hit its groove is a total high.
But compared to Tacolicious, which after four years has a pretty strong sense of self, Chino is still a toddler. I feel like we have to hold its hand at all times to keep it from running in front of a car. (Clearly, I still haven’t recovered from my son Silas doing that when he was little.)
Consistency is our current goal. We’re still finessing the recipes (the vegetarian hot-and-sour soup got nixed; the sesame noodles get the award for most improved). We’re constantly trying to educate the staff so they understand where this restaurant came from (an addiction to Din Tai Fung, to start). And there are always the niggly bits, like the women’s bathroom has a strange, rubbery smell that I still can’t pinpoint and someone stole our aromatherapy candle.
Unfortunately, though understandably, the first six months of a restaurant’s life is when the biggest, and most public, judgment calls are made. Magazine editors (guilty as charged) and bloggers can smell old news a mile away and have no interest in a restaurant after too long. The first-to-review culture of Yelp feeds into this frenzy too. But now that I’m straddling both sides of this industry’s fence, I’ve started to understand how vulnerable this nascent stage is. I don’t think it’s wrong to assume that in this competitive city, if you don’t win diners over in the first six months—if you don’t get your food on their A-list of cravings—your restaurant might end up on the periphery. Or worse. And honestly, it’s too expensive to run a business in San Francisco to be anywhere but at the top of people’s minds.
So I’m not going to lie. “Contents Under Pressure,” my latest piece for San Francisco, is very personal. (I wanted to call it “Premature Speculation,” for the record.) I didn’t write about Chino specifically, because I wanted to show how tender these few months are for all kinds of restaurants, even the ones that seem unstoppable like State Bird Provisions. Chef Stuart Brioza, who’s now working on opening his second restaurant next door to SBP, emailed me in response to the piece to say thanks for bringing the subject to the table and to quip, “As we are ramping up The Progress, you reminded me of all of this fun to be had, so thanks.” I sense some sarcasm here.