San francisco restaurants

For San Francisco restaurants, the closure of Jardiniere signals the end of an era

In a move that sent shockwaves through San Francisco, chef Traci Des Jardins announced last month that her flagship Hayes Valley restaurant, Jardinière, would close after a final dinner service on Saturday.

There’s arguably no Bay Area restaurant that better personifies the opulence of San Francisco restaurant aesthetics in the late 1990s — white tablecloths, supple leather booths, exposed brickwork, illuminated ice buckets the along the balustrades of the mezzanine – that Jardiniere.

“It was one of those places that I never thought would close,” said Michael Dellar, founder and managing partner of San Francisco’s One Market restaurant. He described La Jardinière as one of the most influential restaurants of his generation.

For many locals, the closure is an acknowledgment of culinary mortality – every restaurant has its time and, as iconic as it is, will be forced to adapt to changing restaurant demographics. The closure of Jardiniere, for many people in the restaurant industry, represents the end of an era of restaurant business in San Francisco.

When Jardiniere debuted in the fall of 1997, it was a blockbuster, featuring a dream team of San Francisco’s top restaurants. The project was primarily a stage for Des Jardins, a culinary talent who was already on the national radar, having been named America’s Top Rising Star Chef by the Beard Foundation in 1995 during her time at the Rubicon on Sacramento Street. His partner at Jardinière was Pat Kuleto, a generational talent in restaurant design who, at the time, had just scored two huge successes in Boulevard (1993) and Farallon (1997). (Des Jardins bought Kuleto in 2012.)

The Hayes Valley Cathedral in Des Jardins quickly drew crowds and garnered praise from the local and national press.

WHATSNEW17 (1)/C/09SEPT97/FD/JG Pat Kuleto and Traci Des Jardins at the soon to open La Jardinière bar on Grove Street. PHOTO COLUMN BY JASON M. GROWJason M. Grow / The Chronicle

Here “was a queer young female leader who turned the city on her ear. The place was both old school and modern, which is terribly difficult. But when we strike that balance, we realize what’s really good about San Francisco,” said Thad Vogler, who worked as a bar manager in Jardinière and now owns several local restaurants, including Bar Agricole and the newly opened Obispo.

Following the traditions of Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower, Des Jardins has advanced California cuisine. In doing so, his restaurant has become an incubator of stellar culinary talent.

“Jardiniere was a cuisine sought after by many young chefs looking to perfect their technique and learn more about gastronomy,” said One Market chef Mark Dommen, who hosted (internship) at Jardiniere and saw the kitchen become a hub for chefs in the region.

Then there was the impact on the neighborhood: in the 1990s, Hayes Valley was a far cry from the culinary destination it is today. When it opened, La Jardinière was the most ambitious business in the region.

“She went into a place knowing that at some point that was going to be the place,” said Kim Alter, chef-owner of Nightbird a few blocks from Hayes Valley. “Hayes Valley wasn’t the nicest neighborhood, but she was smart.”

In 1999, City Hall reopened after a seismic upgrade, a few years after the Central Freeway fell. Once the work was completed, the Jardinière quickly became a beacon for a demographic directed towards the symphonies and operas of the region.

La Jardinière’s best years, according to its leader, were in the late 1990s and early 2000s. On nights when theater crowds flocked to the neighborhood, Des Jardins said it was not unusual to seeing the restaurant do three rounds, meaning each table had three separate diners, so the kitchen could serve around 600 meals in one night.

Multiply that number by three to four dishes, made up of dozens of menu options, with each dish containing multiple components, and you’ll understand what such a business can be – and what happens when things slow down.

“With Jardinière, you want to see growth, year over year. When you get into a period like ours where you stop seeing that, it gives you pause,” Des Jardins said. “We We weren’t in a dire situation or anything like that. It just seemed like the right time to make that decision.

Ice buckets and wine lamps on the bar are integrated into the design of the French restaurant Jardinière, as seen here on Sunday, April 21, 2019, in San Francisco, California.
Ice buckets and wine lamps on the bar are integrated into the design of the French restaurant Jardinière, as seen here on Sunday, April 21, 2019, in San Francisco, California.Paul Kuroda / Special at The Chronicle

High-end dining, in general, is still booming in the Bay Area, home to the most three-Michelin-star restaurants in the United States and a place where a new restaurant with tasting menu seems to pop up every week.

What has changed is the business model.

Upscale Bay Area restaurants with 75 or more seats that have closed since 2010 as different business models have proven to be more sustainable.




Steak Bourbon

Path (Oakland)

Dirty water

Fifth floor

lily flower

Pican (Oakland)

Redd (Yountville)

Pink Gun


Terra (Saint Helena)



“I think restaurants the size of Jardinière may be outdated,” said Umberto Gibin, co-owner of the 12-year-old Perbacco in San Francisco. “You have to have regular customers in the dining room every day. You must have fannies in the seats.

The closure of Jardiniere is emblematic of the plight of San Francisco’s high-end a la carte restaurants – operating costs are too high and profit margins too thin. There’s a reason why smaller restaurants — often less than 40 seats — that only serve one tasting menu option are proliferating, while choose-your-own eateries like La Jardinière, which has more than 180 seats. on two levels and a myriad of menu combinations, are Disappearing.

“La Jardinière was the high-end place that welcomed everyone: a five-course meal at midnight after the opera, drinks after work, oysters at the bar. It’s hard to recruit staff for that kind of place,” Vogler said. “You have to have the manpower to cover whatever happens, which means being careful and maybe keeping too many people working and too many staff these days is dying.”

San Francisco’s colossal fine dining restaurants are quickly becoming relics of the industry’s past, a time when chefs’ ambitions weren’t limited by square footage. Real estate has skyrocketed over the past two decades, as has minimum wage, pushing overall restaurant operating costs to new levels.

Meanwhile, more and more chefs like Des Jardins are finding solace in more casual ventures, as success is no longer measured by gastronomic accolades. Once La Jardiniere closes, Des Jardins plans to focus on Mexican food and casual service, two avenues running through some of its other San Francisco restaurants, like Arguello and Mijita.

Traci Des Jardins greets her friend, April Bloomfield, and Amy Hou, right, at the soon to be closed French restaurant Jardiniere, Sunday, April 21, 2019, in San Francisco, California.
Traci Des Jardins greets her friend, April Bloomfield, and Amy Hou, right, at the soon to be closed French restaurant Jardiniere, Sunday, April 21, 2019, in San Francisco, California.Paul Kuroda / Special for The Chronicle

Great restaurants are still opening in San Francisco. The lasting lesson of the Jardinière race, however, may be the importance – and some might argue, the perils – of an integrated audience.

“We have always been an old restaurant in San Francisco. Even in the rise of dot-coms, we haven’t captured much of this (new) activity,” Des Jardins said. “Our audience was sort of older wealth. These are the families that have been in the city for a long time. People who go to the theater a lot. It’s a much less transient crowd. Our main customers, people who have been here for more than 1,000 visits, they are the ones who come for the whole trip.

Michael Mina’s Trailblazer Tavern opened in December 2018 with 215 seats across 7,000 square feet, but resides in the Salesforce East building where it has a captive crowd. The same could be said for the Vault, the new 160-seat, 4,800-square-foot restaurant at the bottom of the Bank of America building at 555 California, home to thousands of Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs employees. Mourad Lahlou’s eponymous Moroccan restaurant in the Pacific Bell Building at 140 New Montgomery has over 150 seats on two levels; it has 26 office floors above.

Jardiniere could have catered to other crowds, like the various tech workers over the decades, Des Jardins said, by adding trendy items to the menu or adjusting the aesthetic to fit the rest of the community. culinary scene, but that wouldn’t have seemed right.

“We could have done those things. We just haven’t done it and we haven’t been able to get those new repeat customers that a place needs,” Des Jardins said.

The business represented the heights of a past generation of restaurants – a la carte menus, large crowds and ambitious floor plans. The restaurant was also a harbinger of change as Hayes Valley became a culinary destination. But now, as it bids farewell, Jardiniere will be the latest addition to San Francisco’s growing list of past restaurants.

“Hardly any restaurant is forgotten once it closes. This fact is sad but also quite beautiful; they come and go. Planter is an exception to this rule,” Vogler said. “I think it will join a few places, like Ernie’s, like Stars, that are being talked about for years to come.”

Justin Phillips is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: jphillips@sfchronicle.comTwitter: @JustMrPhillips