In the restaurant business, making it to 20 years is a major milestone, especially in San Francisco where diners are always seeking out what’s new. Farallon restaurant opened to rave reviews two decades ago, not just for the food under the direction of co-owner and chef Mark Franz but also for the fantastic underwater-themed interior design by co-owner Pat Kuleto. But how does a restaurant like Farallon stay relevant? We spoke with longtime general manager Dale Forrest and Farallon’s current head chef Jason Ryczek, who joined the restaurant in January 2016, to understand what creates staying power.
What is the essence of Farallon? What sets it apart from other restaurants in San Francisco?
Dale Forrest: It’s a collection of things: it’s the ambience, attention to detail, quality of product, and the level of service that’s approachable yet very, very knowledgeable.
Can you point to some of the wins that have kept the restaurant busy?
DF: We’ve had tremendous success with the happy hour. We were smart to do something more casual and to work to draw a more local audience. It’s become a great source of revenue. The economy has been the biggest catalyst. In 2008, when the economy wasn’t doing well, we looked at how can we put a product out there and not compromise.
Jason Ryczek: The caviar program has really taken off. Making it in-house, a couple things changed. The turning point wasn’t just that we made it ourselves but that we became a distributor so we could afford to sell it at a better price point. We could even put it on the happy hour menu. So, we have the highest quality and fair price point with the most differentiated menu.
With two decades of success comes two decades of challenges. Can you talk about what they are and how you’ve met them?
DF: With the ups and downs of the economy, we’ve learned how to be very efficient without compromising. Keeping the restaurant top of mind for diners is a challenge with so many other restaurants out there. Union Square [where the restaurant is located] has changed immensely over the years. Now, there are a lot more neighborhood restaurants. And the temporary closing of Moscone Center was a big hit. The Square is still fun, but it’s not a go-to anymore. But being here has also led to our longevity.
Since opening the doors, what are the biggest changes that have been made over the years?
DF: The addition of the raw bar in the front of the restaurant in 2005 was a big change. It gave us the wow factor and also the ability to produce a quality experience on a more casual level. The style of service had to change a little bit, to accommodate pre-theater diners.
JR: We tried different things to see what would stick. What stuck was based on the market. We embraced a more simplified style, and that came down to the cover count — cuts in covers demanded simplifications.
What was it like coming to work at Farallon as a chef?
JR: It was fun! Farallon has to be constantly getting better. I had three meals here before I started and each was better than the last. It isn’t about redoing the classics but seeing what’s in season and rebuilding dishes and being up to date. The restaurant really supports me; we work as a team.
How do you approach the menu?
JR: When I look at the menu, I want something for everyone. It’s less creativity and more craftwork — how do we take the ingredients and put them together in a way that makes sense where price point and approachability are concerned. I get feedback from the sommelier and the manager. A greater focus on the eating experience is better — how do we make it “Farallon appropriate” each night? For example, we do abalone chowder. It’s chowder, but it’s not clam chowder. We have a burger, but it’s only served at the bar and it changes all the time. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should; it all comes down to what works for the customers.
What keeps you excited about working here?
DF: It’s a lot of different aspects, Mark Franz is amazing to work for. I’ve had a great experience, and it’s great to have a different energy with a new chef. It’s about creating a positive environment, one where employees want to come to work, where they love the challenge. Having something that is larger than life that you can be proud of every day.
JR: Farallon had been a legend. I had my first job at age 12 which was the same year Farallon opened; I always heard about it, and now that I’m here, it’s been the most enjoyable kitchen job I’ve ever had. It’s fun to hop on the train and see it continue to succeed. You have to set the bar for yourself because it’s already been set so high.
How do you maintain staff?
DF: Front of the house is a little more fortunate with tips, but it comes down to creating a great and healthy environment. Back of the house, it’s teaching a craft. We promote a good quality of life, and the overall philosophy is to promote within and offer consistent scheduling. Quality of life is the the most important thing we can offer. It’s also creating a great culture. Longevity with employees leads to a better guest experience and less turnover rate.