restaurants in relationship

loris diner

photo courtesy

My first apartment in San Francisco as a recent college grad was about 200 square feet. I had one window, a tiny little kitchenette, a mattress in a drawer (that when pulled out crashed into the couch so I had to sleep with my feet inside the drawer), and a beautiful old tiled bathroom. It was in a barely post-1906 building with a bird cage elevator and a view of the back of the buildings on the north side of Sutter Street. I loved it. The cable car took me to work at Scott’s Seafood at night and the train took me to my day job at a design office in Sunnyvale. Needless to say I wasn’t home much and couldn’t cook anyway, so local cafes became my dining rooms. My favorite was the original Lori’s Diner on Mason which was practically brand new. It wasn’t so much the food as it was the cute boy who worked the grill overnight on the other side of the counter. I’d sit at the counter and try to look alluring or interesting or cute or whatever I thought might turn his head away from his grill. And eventually we became friendly. No romance or happily ever after, but that relationship was one of the first I created as a newcomer to San Francisco.

photo courtesy The Chronicle/John Storey

That’s what diners have always been good at…connecting customers with the people making their food. Creating relationships. The last few years have given us a plethora of open kitchens with the hope that showing customers the kitchen would do the same thing. Yea….not really. All this has done is elevate the chef to a pedestal that the rest of us can’t possibly access, nor do we really want to. Large egos wielding big knives don’t build great friendships. But lately that tide seems to be shifting. At the really high end, Saison makes their attempt at relationship by circling the kitchen with diners and even having the chef who makes each dish (they serve a tasting menu) serve it tableside. Unfortunately I haven’t experienced this first hand as hubby is still recovering from our last expensive dining event. But I certainly appreciate the intention and see it happening, slowly, in less stratospheric price ranges as well.

photo courtesy Michael Short/The Chronicle

photo courtesy Michael Short/The Chronicle

A few weeks ago I went to dinner with a friend at The Commissary in the Presidio. We sat at the kitchen counter, on the grill side and thoroughly enjoyed chatting with the two cooks making our food. All of the watching and talking and smelling even inspired the addition of a couple of items to our bill! Of course the food was delicious (with a team like Traci des Jardins, Robbie Lewis, Reylon Agustin and Bon Appetit Management Company it’s hard to go wrong), but what made the meal special was the engagement we got to experience with the staff. And our new friends were kind enough to share a few cooking pointers!

Even the bakers of the world seem interested in bringing their customers into their bakery kitchens. Dominique Ansel (of Cronut fame) is opening a new bakery that he’s calling ‘Dominique Ansel Kitchen’ in New York’s West Village. Says Dominique: ‘When people walk into the shop, I want them to feel like they’re in the middle of the kitchen. A lot of fine dining restaurants will invite you into the kitchen at the end of the meal. I remember being at Daniel, and watching people walk into the kitchen, being amazed by it all. I’ve always wanted to invite people into the kitchen, so our layout is a whole open kitchen. There will be mirrors above the kitchen, so you can stay and see the action.’ Get me a plane ticket….I’m in!

Keep in touch,

2 replies
  1. Gary Sanford says:

    Hi Leslie, I learned to cook in one of the family owned coffee shops similar to the one in the photo with the red stools and black and white checkered floor. It was in 1954 and located in Daily City, California on Mission Blvd. near School Street. It was called Sanford’s Coffee Shop, It’s now a Jack-in-the-Box.

    I’ve always liked to eat at a coffee shop with a counter and stools, because you can easily meet other customers and chat with staff. I got to know a lot of our regular customers, who were almost like family.

    I’ve been in the commercial kitchen design business since 1969, working for a consultant in San Francisco on Union Street. In 1974 I moved to Calgary, Alberta, Canada and opened up a branch office for the SF company, now I have my own design firm, designing a wide variety of facilities all over North America. Many included coffee shops with stools as part of a hotel foodservice package. I still seek out coffee shops with a counter and stools. It brings out found memories.

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