After building a dining empire that includes a Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning restaurant in San Francisco, Michael Mina feels a certain satisfaction at arriving back where he started. Last week he signed a lease to take over the Aqua space, the San Francisco upscale seafood restaurant where he first gained fame in the 1990s.
"The city embraced me and the restaurant, and I'm going to do everything in my power to bring that back," said Mina. "Those were important years of my life. Aqua molded me. I grew up as a chef there and I expected to be there my whole career."
Mina was No. 2 in the kitchen to chef George Morrone when Aqua opened in 1991, and took over when Morrone left in 1994. Owner and founder Charles Condy extended the concept to Las Vegas and added other restaurants to the group. Mina left in 2002 and started his own group, centered at first on the Las Vegas restaurants.
After Mina left, Aqua remained an outstanding restaurant under chef Laurent Manrique until last year. But Manrique departed as the restaurant's ownership deteriorated. Condy's death in 2006 sent the fortunes of the Aqua Group tumbling, as the heirs went to court to settle their differences. The group announced late last year that it would relinquish the lease on Aqua when it runs out in April.
Mina bid on the space but lost out to the Bacchus restaurant group, which operates Spruce in San Francisco and the Village Pub in Menlo Park. Last month Bacchus decided to forgo the contract, however, and the company that manages the property turned to Mina. The chef agreed, but stipulated that he could change the concept if he wished.
Does that mean Mina will move his signature restaurant, Michael Mina, from its current location at the Westin St. Francis hotel to Aqua's freestanding space with high ceilings and curved walls in the Financial District? It's not the first option, but it's a possibility, Mina said.
"It's one of the very best restaurant spaces in the country," Mina added. "The architecture is stunning and the kitchen is a great space." But first Mina has to deal with deferred maintenance. "The plumbing is old and needs to be redone. There's a lot of issues to fix. Until I know the price of that, we can't know which of my four or five ideas we can afford to do."
Whatever he does, Mina said he will not repeat any of the concepts he has succeeded with elsewhere, such as his Bourbon Steak and SeaBlue restaurants. "I don't want to do something that I've offered someplace else," he insisted. "It's too special a place for me."