Something is up when, in the same week, the chef and wine director of a destination restaurant both pull out of the business they helped found. In the past few days, both Debbie Zachareas, who created an exciting wine list with more than 200 offerings by the glass, and Arnold Eric Wong, the chef who invented my favorite mussel dish, announced that they were leaving San Francisco's Bacar, citing differences with the new owners.
Wong, Zachareas and a business partner, David O'Malley, opened Bacar, which currently holds a Best of Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator, in December 2000. Its exposed brick and soaring ceilings provide contrast against the cozy, modern jazz bar at the front. The Asian fusion food hits a high standard, and the wine list dazzles. But despite critical success, Bacar was never a highly profitable restaurant. "The investors have not seen a dime in six years," said David O'Malley, one of the original partners. He sold his interest in 2003, but is back as part of group led by two investors who "wanted Arnold and Debbie to spend more time in the restaurant," O'Malley said.
In fact, Wong had been devoting more attention to Bacar after divesting himself of his interest in Eos, the Haight District restaurant and wine bar he and Zachareas founded before Bacar. Zachareas also owns Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant and, with her partner there, Peter Granoff, is developing a new retail wine shop at the Oxbow Market that's under construction in Napa.
Bacar had its financial troubles from the start. The South-of-Market location was in the heart of San Francisco's dot-com district, which went bust in the months after the restaurant opened. Bacar survived that, the stock market tumble that followed and Sept. 11, 2001. Now that its neighborhood, adjacent to the San Francisco Giants' AT&T Park, has come back strong, business is better.
But it's still struggling. Rumors of the restaurant's demise have circulated for years. Meanwhile, Wong kept turning out his wok-fired mussels, with those incredible Southeast Asian flavors, and Zachareas kept opening wines from the far corners of the world for thirsty customers, even if the by-the-glass selection settled at "only" 65. But all the parties involved agreed, they needed to put the business on a more solid footing. Their differences centered on how best to do it.
After the group that included O'Malley outmaneuvered Wong and Zachareas for control of the restaurant on Feb. 3, Zachareas knew the wine list, currently at 1,400 choices, was going to have to shrink.
"Cutting back may be a great idea, and I could probably put together a really interesting wine program within those restrictions," Zachareas said by phone. "Maybe it wouldn't have all the Burgundies I would love to have, but on the other hand, we are not really a Burgundy house. And we could shave off some of the California Cabernets, because there are just too many of them. But is it what I really want to be doing?"
For Zachareas, it's the wine shops. Wong has a bakery in South San Francisco called Raison d'Etre, which provides scones and other pastries to the trade. He said he would devote his energies to that, and travel some with his wife of one year, "but I have some restaurant ideas that have been on the back burner," he added.
One obvious possibility is a restaurant associated with the Oxbow retail shop. "Debbie and I have worked together for 16 years," Wong noted. "I can see us doing something again."
Meanwhile, they both remain partners in Bacar and want to see the restaurant succeed. "Bacar is a great restaurant, with an amazing group of employees," Zachareas added. "I would never want people to think badly of it."
Jim Gallagher — Jim Gallagher — February 22, 2007 3:18am ET
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