Noe Valley Voice February 2007

Brett's Wild Ride: Birth of a Bistro

By Brett Emerson

Editor's Note: Ever dream of opening a restaurant in San Francisco? You first might want to chat with Glen Park resident Brett Emerson. After 10 years of working as a professional cook at such popular places as LuLu, sBizou, and Greens, Emerson is six months away from unveiling his own small neighborhood bistro, on Castro near 24th Street (in the spot once filled by Castro Computer). He plans to call it Olallie--for the berry--and to serve rustic seasonal foods and wines. Since he landed the space last spring, he's been wending his way through the byzantine city planning process. To keep up his strength, last fall Emerson started a diary of his restaurant quest on his food blog In Praise of Sardines ( Updates on the Olallie saga, also known as "The Wild Ride," pop up there every few weeks or so. Here's a journal entry Emerson made in October. We're sure it will whet your appetite for Olallie's grand opening, currently set for summer of 2007.

October 3, 2006

I've done it. I am now the proud owner of an elongated shoebox in which I hope to fit my little restaurant, the one I've dreamed of opening for the past decade. Let the real fun (and hard work) begin!

Before I start my tale of floor plans and sledgehammers, duct tape and copper pipes, let me back up and tell you the story of how I secured the future home of my restaurant.

Back in February [2006], as I sat in a local hangout waiting for my tea to steep, I lazily flipped through the community newspaper from a nearby neighborhood [the Voice, as it turns out]. One sentence, on page 28 or so, shot a bolt of excitement up my spine: "On Jan. 31, the Board of Supes approved changes to the planning code that will allow three new restaurants or bars to move onto 24th Street." That was it. No more details.

My curiosity piqued, I later searched the Web for details and discovered an earlier article in a previous issue of the same paper. I learned that our local supervisor, Bevan Dufty, had, with the help of members of the neighborhood and merchants associations, drafted legislation to lift a 20-year moratorium on new restaurants along the 24th Street corridor. The new legislation paved the way for three new restaurants over the next five years. Pretty cool, I thought. I like Noe Valley. Then I promptly forgot about it, as I was flirting with buying another place at that time.

Fast forward a few months. Growing increasingly despondent over the futility of my restaurant quest, I decided to look beyond the list of currently available restaurants and started browsing all commercial listings. Listings for clothing stores, laundromats, art galleries, and video stores now joined the pizza places and Quiznos franchises (why are these always up for sale?) in my e-mail inbox. Although every restaurant class I'd ever taken had advised me to buy as close to "turnkey" as possible and warned me to avoid attempting to convert a non-restaurant space into a restaurant, I covered my ears, closed my eyes, and marched on. Ignorance is bliss, no?

What's all the fuss over converting a commercial space into a restaurant? Just two silly little issues, really: time and money. Floors need to be ripped up to install plumbing and gas lines, walls need to be torn open to upgrade electrical wiring, and a sturdy location needs to be found up on the roof to support the enormous motor that sucks grease and soot out of the kitchen. Construction horror stories and delays are as familiar to restaurateurs as molten chocolate cakes are to local diners.

(For the record, my style of cooking is really best described as "San Francisco Bay Area regional cooking." I'm a card-carrying member of Slow Food. While the spicing of each dish may vary, my dishes never fail to adhere to the "field to fork" philosophy of seasonal and sustainable cooking that is as much a hallmark of our regional cuisine as gumbo and jambalaya are of New Orleans'. I ask the farmers what's best that day, and that's what I serve. I can't imagine cooking any other way! Call it Californian, Cal-Med, New American, whatever makes you happy.)

All the construction tasks pale, however, when standing in the shadow of the most frightening beast that must be confronted. Yes, before you, the aspiring restaurateur, can take on any other exciting challenges, you must enter into the dark, cold, musty halls of the Labyrinth and slay the Minotaur City Hall and face the Planning Commission.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I decided to focus on the positive examples, the stories of happy chefs I'd met who had successfully built their own restaurants from vacant laundromats and such. If they could do it, maybe, just maybe, so could Namita and I. After many a long heart-to-heart, my wife and I decided we only had one life to live and we might as well pursue our passions and go for broke.

After looking at a few duds, we discovered the small storefront location on Castro Street, and really liked the location. How could we not? It's just off the main drag of a charming, family-oriented neighborhood that boasts its own little farmers market. The space is just the size I've been looking for, somewhere between 1,100 and 1,300 square feet--big enough to hold 40 guests, more or less. At the time we were looking, the space was occupied by a successful computer repair store, which has since moved a block and a half up the street to a larger corner location.

Just as I had done at the countless other places I'd looked at, I first checked to see what the zoning of the property was. (As an aside, in the past few years, I've learned that every square inch of San Francisco is governed by the insanely detailed City and County of San Francisco Municipal Code Planning Code, a.k.a. "the Code." Every address resides in a particular district, which bears its own special zoning regulations. Most neighborhood commercial districts also carry their own rules and regulations, which determine the types of businesses allowed, the business hours, the size of signs, etc. Trust me, ignorance was indeed bliss.)

The property on Castro Street resided within the "24th Street Noe Valley Neighborhood Commercial District." A light went off as I suddenly recalled that article I had read a few months earlier. Three new restaurants are allowed. There was a good chance this space could work!

Next, we met with a brilliant architect who knew more about restaurants and the Code than I could hope to learn in a dozen lifetimes. Over the next two to three months, he helped us draft and then file the complex paperwork, including detailed drawings of the existing space and of the changes we intended to make. There were nearly a dozen requirements to satisfy. We learned that our application would be the test case for the legislation that permitted three new restaurants. In other words, if approved, our restaurant would be the first of the three new Noe Valley restaurants. (Note for locals: The new restaurants opening on Church Street are not governed by the 24th Street regulations.)

We also met with members of the neighborhood, such as the head of the merchants association, to garner support. We even tried to meet with Supervisor Dufty, but he chose to remain neutral. We did everything we could, short of kissing babies. As far as we could tell, with the exception of one person who called the Planning Department to inquire about the restaurant's hours, no one had opposed our application. But still, we were apprehensive. There were some issues surrounding the interpretation of the specific wording of the legislation.

Finally, a couple of days before Namita had to fly off to New York to complete her graduate courses, we went before the Minotaur, er, Planning Commission to present our case.

Attending the weekly Planning Commission meetings is a chance to see bureaucracy democracy in action. The commission consists of a tribunal of seven commissioners, who listen to the opinions of members of the community, then debate, and finally vote on issues concerning the Code. A majority of four votes is required to gain the commission's approval. Several times over the course of the afternoon (and evening), a few commissioners would leave the room to use the bathroom or perhaps grab a bite to eat, so the meeting would have to recess until at least four commissioners were present.

The meeting began at 1:30 p.m. We patiently waited for our application to come up. As we listened to debates over thorny issues like regulations surrounding new billboards and medical marijuana dispensaries, we gradually realized how piddly our little application was. Still, it seemed that even no-brainers, like whether or not to allow a long-dormant utilities building to house a new private high school (duh!), had opponents ("It will bring gangs"). Each issue seemed to take longer to discuss than the one before it.

Finally, eight hours later at 9:30 p.m., our application came up. There were only four commissioners remaining (the other three had gone home), so all of them had to vote in favor of our application. Our architect made a quick, 90-second presentation.

Four votes. Four "yays." And two big sighs of relief!

For more on the birth of Olallie restaurant, check out Brett Emerson's blog at