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Fried grain–stuffed Monterey squid with Tomales Bay oyster sauce at the Progress.

The Squid and the Quail

Rebecca Flint Marx | December 1, 2014 | Story Restaurants

Getting Stuart Brioza to describe what's going to be on the menu at the Progress, the restaurant he and his wife, Nicole Krasinski, are about to open next door to State Bird Provisions, is a bit like herding an especially cagey cat. “That's a good question,” he says.

“When it comes to revealing that kind of thing, I have a less-is-more philosophy.” He pauses. “The real reason is because I don't think you actually know what you're doing until you're doing it. I know that sounds totally ludicrous, but this is how State Bird really started. We've realized over the years that we tend to work a lot better like this. We’re watching it evolve and happen and making decisions and alterations as we go.” One thing that he can say unequivocally, however, is this: “The Progress was the restaurant we always saw ourselves opening.”

Before they birthed State Bird Provisions in 2012, Brioza and Krasinski dreamed of owning a family-style place where food was ferried to tables on big platters meant for sharing. A pair of former art-school students who had previously cooked at Rubicon (as executive chef and pastry chef, respectively), they were inspired by meals they’d eaten while traveling through South America and France. In Lyon, Brioza recalls, they spent a particularly memorable evening at a “little family-run bistro where you kind of came in and had a whole dialogue with the waiters without saying words: You’d point at a carafe of wine, and food would just arrive.”

Back in San Francisco, the pair put their large-format dreams on hold to open State Bird on Fillmore near Geary, where they honed a dim sum–on–psychedelics approach to famously successful effect: After Bon AppeĢtit declared State Bird the best new restaurant in America in 2012, a line formed outside that has remained there, night after night, ever since.

Not long after State Bird took off, Brioza and Krasinski announced their plans for the Progress, a new restaurant to be located next door in the former Progress Theater, a long-defunct movie palace opened in 1911. They imagined, Brioza says, that there would be a “symbiosis between the two: At State Bird, we’ve got our small-plates, dim sum–style service, where the Progress is going to be about the banquet meal. I want it to be as if you’re going to a friend’s house, and you’re not sure what you’re going to get.”

The larger goal, Brioza says, is to explore what family-style dining means. “Is it a large steak that’s put on a platter, or is it a dish that you can run a spoon through and gather all the ingredients into a couple of bites? I don’t really know, to be honest. I think that we’re much better telling our story on a plate than telling our story in words.”

Though the menu may remain elusive—save for the fried grain–stuffed Monterey squid with Tomales Bay oyster sauce, escarole, and nori pictured above—Brioza is happy to lavish descriptors on the restaurant’s dining room, which will have about 60 seats, two small mezzanines, and an 8- to 10-seat bar. During a tour of the long, narrow space, which was designed by Wylie Price, who also did State Bird, the chef points to the gleaming, 23-foot-high curved ceiling, which has been coated with high-gloss paint. “I didn’t want it to be perfect; I wanted it to show its age,” he explains. “The paint shows everything, every slight.” The room’s other major distinguishing feature is a 60-foot wall of exposed lath that Brioza inadvertently uncovered while picking at plaster one day.

The finished space will be, Brioza says, a study in “really cool extremes.” There will be exposed iron columns and a wealth of copper, brass, and California cypress. There will be plates and bowls by local artist Mary Mar Keenan, a pastry kitchen for Krasinski, and Spanish–style tiles in front of the bar, which will be overseen by Jason Alexander, the former wine director for Gary Danko.

Brioza is aware that a certain segment of San Francisco has spent the past two years anticipating the restaurant’s opening, which will be sometime in December. But he’d rather dwell on the sheen of the ceiling or the way the rough wooden lath feels as he runs his hands over it. From the decor to the plates to the food, “there’s a theme of really nice texture,” he says. “Now we’ve just got to figure out what we’re cooking.”

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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