What exactly is a chain restaurant? The question seems to have popped up in a local kerfuffle over chef Michael Mina’s plans for his restaurants here in San Francisco.
This has been bothering me for several weeks, since the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Inside Scoop” blog outlined Mina’s intention to turn his flagship restaurant location into Bourbon Steak. The chef’s steak houses by that name in Detroit, Miami, Scottsdale, Ariz., and Washington, D.C., have shown success, offshoots of his Stripsteak in Las Vegas. In my view, that one is among the top two or three steak houses in the U.S.
The comments to the Chronicle’s blog came fast and angrily. Apparently, there is a loud coterie of San Franciscans still fuming five years after Mina opened his namesake restaurant off the lobby of the Westin St. Francis Hotel. Some took some glee in what they saw as the failure of a fancy chef who, as they see it, desecrated holy ground. But mostly they hate the changes he made to a space once occupied by a San Francisco institution.
“Bring back the Compass Rose,” was the gist of the comments. “We don’t want another chain restaurant.” The irony of complaining about a long-closed local icon—in a hotel that has been part of a national chain for several decades—seems to have been lost on these folks. Besides, the Compass Rose, never a great restaurant, had become a pale imitation of itself.
Of course, none of these posts mentioned that Mina was simply moving his signature restaurant, at the conclusion of a five-year contract, to another location not encumbered by ties to a hotel. He is currently remodeling the space that had housed Aqua, the restaurant where he first made his name. It will become the new home for his Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning wine cellar, too.
He made that move when negotiations with Westin looked iffy for new contracts, both for the space and for labor. On reflection, he realized that a steak house made a better fit in a downtown hotel bustling with business visitors and tourists. He toyed with the idea of calling it something other than Bourbon Steak, but in the end it made sense to link it with the other four locations.
Does that make it a chain? It seems to me there’s a big difference between that and, say, Outback. Bourbon Steak falls into the category of chef-driven restaurants such as Charlie Palmer Steak and Wolfgang Puck’s Cut. They have more than one location, but they are not cookie-cutter restaurants. They rely on talented chefs and local products to be individuals, an essential part of the new-style steak house. And they all go deep into wine (as do high-end steak-house chains such as Fleming’s, Morton’s, Ruth’s Chris and Del Frisco’s, which are special because they do put serious effort into their wine lists).
Maybe we need another word to describe what modern talented chefs such as Puck, Palmer, Mina and the likes of Mario Batali can do in multiple locations. At their best, they offer more than simply brand recognition. It’s like the road company of a Broadway show. Done well, those productions can occasionally be as satisfying as the original. It all depends on the talent involved.
Richard Gangel — San Francisco — August 27, 2010 2:04pm ET
Hoyt Hill Jr — Nashville, TN — August 27, 2010 2:54pm ET
Andrew J Walter — Sacramento, CA — August 27, 2010 4:54pm ET
Merlin Guggenheim — Zurich, Switzerland — August 28, 2010 1:48am ET
Marc A Dibella — Hartford, Connecticut — August 28, 2010 12:40pm ET
Michael Schulman — Westlake Village, CA — August 30, 2010 7:40pm ET
Louis Robichaux — Highland Village, Texas — September 1, 2010 4:45pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — September 1, 2010 4:56pm ET
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