The Presidio Plots a Dining Coup

Rebecca Flint Marx | June 4, 2014 | Food & Drink Story Eat and Drink

When Traci des Jardins opened the Commissary in the Presidio late last month, the occasion marked not only the chef’s first fine-dining foray since she launched Jardiniere in 1997, but also the park’s second go at destination dining—the short-lived Dixie, you may recall, opened in 2012 and shuttered last April. It's a collaboration that marked an auspicious and potentially game-changing moment for both parties: as Craig Middleton, the executive director of the Presidio Trust, says, “we had always viewed our role here as a couple of different things. One was to take care of the Presidio, to make sure it was financially self-sufficient and to make sure the buildings were rehabbed and the landscapes were nice. The second piece was to make it really public, to make it a place where people are really welcome.”

And so the Commissary is the first of several food-based projects planned for the park. In September, if all goes according to schedule, the historic Officers’ Club will become home to des Jardins’ Arugello, a Mexican restaurant and bar with a California cuisine slant and lower prices than the Commissary. A Mexican restaurant, Middleton says, “makes a lot of sense” within the context of the Presidio’s history; Arguello’s namesake is Mariano Arugello, the state’s first Mexican governor who took over the Presidio when Mexico won independence from Spain.

Plans for the Officers’ Club have already sparked some criticism: when Inside Scoop announced Arguello’s imminent opening, a number of commenters posited that its food and prices would be geared towards a more affluent slice of San Francisco. “I’m sure on my officer’s pension whatever Ms. Des Jardins serves there would be out of my price range,” one wrote. Middleton counters that he can “understand the trepidation,” particularly as the “club absolutely carries with it a set of memories for a lot of people over 50.” He’s gotten a lot of feedback from “people who tell us that they want affordable options, and healthy options.” The idea, he says, is to design the club so that it becomes a “living room for the Presidio, a really comfortable place.” And, he adds, “I can tell you one thing: the food will be better.”

After rolling out Arguello, the plan, Middleton says, is to install a visitor’s center on the new parkland being developed on top of the highway. The existing Transit CafĂ©, he adds, will probably be re-imagined as a lower price point, something “more accessible than the Officers’ Club.” Additionally, the Trust is looking at other areas to develop food-wise; Middleton is even thinking of a place where people could buy picnic provisions.

The challenge in all of this, of course, is getting people to venture out to the edge of the city to enjoy the park, much less eat there. “I remember not that long ago, you could throw a baseball here and not hit anybody,” Middleton says. “It was pretty empty here five or six years ago.” But he sees a promising precedent in Off the Grid’s twice-weekly Picnic at the Presidio. “I’m philosophical, being a little bit older and understanding that the way things get saved and sustained is by having generation after generation fall in love with them,” Middleton says. “My strategy is, let’s make them fall in love with the Presidio. All I have to do is get them out here.”

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