With a menu designed by Traci Des Jardins and cocktails from Enrique Sanchez, School Night is an Intriguing Private Event Space and Weeknights-Only Bar Hybrid Experiment in the Dogpatch
At first glance, a bar being closed on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights is like a Financial District coffee shop only being open on weekend evenings or a sports bar strictly serving weekday lunch. It makes you raise your eyebrows as if you’re a judge on “Shark Tank” and begs you to ask the contestant, “Are you trying to lose money with this business plan?”
Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll realize that this structure for the Dogpatch Sunday to Wednesday nights-only newcomer, School Night, is actually pretty smart, if unconventional. It may even be brilliant. In present day, start-up-centric San Francisco terms, it’s a “disruptor.” Some “disruptors” truly do disrupt normal life in a negative way and are annoying pests like all of those electric scooters on the sidewalks. Other disruptors like how the Los Angeles chef Dave Beran serves dessert bites throughout the tasting menu at his new restaurant, Dialogue, are initially met with heavy skepticism for being different but then win approval because they end up being a clever change-up from the status quo that nobody knew they wanted or needed.
School Night is definitely the latter type of disruptor. Let’s get one thing straight about how it manages to be a restaurant and bar industry disruptor — it isn’t just a restaurant and bar. School Night is an open to the public part of a spectacular two-year old event spaced called “The Pearl.” The venue’s Co-Founder and Managing Partner, Adam Mendelson, knew that he couldn’t just open another restaurant in the traditional format when he decided to go into the hospitality business with a background in renewable energy finance (talk about an unlikely path!). Hopefully this isn’t breaking news to the dining public but it’s no secret in the restaurant industry — owning a restaurant or bar or winery or pretty much any food and beverage concept — is not going to make sustainable money. It’s even more daunting in a competitive and outrageously expensive market like this one.
The Brooklyn Winery in New York’s flexible business model served as one inspiration for The Pearl, as did multi-purpose art galleries and newer hotels. That aforementioned urban winery, for example, is really a winery, event space, casual place for a few bites, and weddings destination. These are venues that serve multiple functions and attract different crowds for different time periods. They are dynamic concepts.
School Night is enormously helped by The Pearl and The Pearl is greatly enhanced by School Night. Mendelson described the relationship to us as a “virtuous cycle” where The Pearl wouldn’t be on the radar for many Bay Area residents because private event spaces are a small and not very talked-about niche. Everyone pays attention to restaurants and bars. So, much of the public is now aware of The Pearl because of School Night.
At the same time, School Night gives The Pearl another prime event space on the big nights for those (Thursday-Saturday), which makes a much more substantial amount of money than a restaurant or bar. On those four traditionally slow nights for private events, School Night is its own destination for eating and drinking the creations of one of San Francisco’s most celebrated chefs and one of San Francisco’s most talented bartenders. Besides, who goes out on weekends anymore? Isn’t Monday night the new Saturday night?
It’s hard to tell if this is a positive or negative result of #adulting. On one hand, you still have to wake up to work on a Tuesday morning and an 11pm third round of pisco sours might make that less fun. On the other hand, adults (non-parents, that is) don’t have to worry about calculus homework or going to soccer practice because we don’t have the dreaded “school nights” anymore.
For many people, this writer included, “school night” still sends shivers down our spines like how “flight delay” or “jury duty” makes you freeze and clam up. The term has negative connotations of writing essays about Faulkner at the dinner table and your parents telling you to go to sleep by 10pm even if the Giants game is only in the eighth inning. In other words, school night meant “no fun.”
Luckily, we have School Night the bar to bring back the “cool” in school night. We’re so over weekends.
School Night is an 87-seat bar, open kitchen and dining area located next to The Pearl’s spectacular three-level space, entered from a separate door on 19th Street. The bar’s design is compelling everywhere your eye wanders. It’s worth a trip to the Dogpatch just to see the plant-themed faded prints on the three-dimensional wall fixture near the entrance. But, it’s the Latin-inspired food from Traci Des Jardins and chef de cuisine Audie Golder and the cocktails by Enrique Sanchez that really are the reason to skip the Netflix watching and yoga classes after work in favor of going out on the sleepy town.
The food menu is split between composed kitchen dishes and items from the kitchen’s retro red, wood-burning oven named Bertha, brought in from Portland, Oregon. Acquring Bertha from our neighbor to the north isn’t as random as it sounds. One of The Pearl’s main investors is Kurt Huffman, a powerful Portland restaurateur with his ChefStable group. Yes, that’s the connection of why Portland’s beloved pig-centric sandwich shop, Lardo, popped up at The Pearl at the end of April. Keep an eye on a closer Portland-San Francisco dining relationship that has, for the most part, been a distant rivalry.
From Bertha, guests can enjoy surf, turf or vegetables with baby back ribs “costillas” slathered with tomatillo barbecue sauce ($16); clams and mussels cooked by the flames and paired with angel hair pasta and aji amarillo aioli for “fideos” ($17); or blistered vegetables ($14) from Mariquita Farms, the Watsonville farm that Des Jardins works closely with. Queso fundido ($16) is a gooey mix of Oaxacan, Provola and Fontal cheeses melted by Bertha and teamed with chorizo and poblano peppers, then ready to be formed into a kind of DIY quesadilla with flour tortillas.
Des Jardins nods to her mother’s and grandparents’ Mexican heritage throughout the menu at her Presidio restaurant, Arguello, and serves a classic plate of tacos al pastor ($15 for three) at School Night. Bay Area diners often cringe at the thought of eating something like duck hearts and gizzards grilled on anticucho skewers ($13), but hopefully can get past that offal mental block because they be some of the most tender and flavorful cuts of duck, beef and chicken. Another unexpected bird preparation emerging from Bertha partners fried quail leg with a moist achiote-marinated quail breast ($23), accompanied by fried plantains and a zesty onion escabeche.
Both Bertha and kitchen dishes aren’t necessarily small plates or large plates. Think of the non-snack dishes as larger tapas that are great for sharing with a friend or enjoying on your own as a two-to-three dish dinner.
Those snacks for setting the stage of a full meal or just filling an empty belly while drinking include lime, jalapeño and coriander-dusted pepitas ($4) and housemade tortilla chips with tomatillo-chipotle and guajillo-arbol chile salsas ($6).
From the kitchen, diners can order meat-free Impossible meatball “albondigas” one at a time ($3) and learn that the Impossible burger meat might actually excel more in meatball form with tomatillo salsa than as a patty on a bun with ketchup and mustard.
It’s not as surprising to find Impossible meatballs on this bar food menu as it might seem. Des Jardins’ Hayes Valley high-end flagship, Jardinière, was one of the first restaurants in the country to serve it as a burger (and as Impossible beef tartare!). She started her role as a culinary advisor for the Silicon Valley start-up long before it launched in restaurants a year ago. For a little perspective on the company’s growth and Des Jardins’ importance in it, Jardinière and Cockscomb (Chris Cosentino’s meat-centric, opposite of vegetarian SoMa restaurant) were two of the first three restaurants to serve the Impossible burger and now 1,000 restaurants do just over 365 days later. It’s a borderline phenomenon.
Elsewhere on the menu, instead of serving fries, the duck fat-confited fried potatoes ($12) are smashed, crisped and served with guajillo mojo and crema.
Cebiche ($13) at School Night comes Peruvian-style. That means raw local halibut comes in small cubes, not heavily diced, is only briefly marinated in the lime-based leche de tigre and comes with hominy and corn nuts, instead of tortilla chips as would be done in Mexico. It’s also given the Peruvian spelling of a “b,” not “ceviche.” Sanchez learned this in high school and insists on it, just like one of his mentors (and Peru’s most influential chef), Gastón Acurio.
Salads are generally the last thing on most bar-goers minds but like with the little gem spears at True Laurel and the kale salad at Trick Dog, are given real respect at School Night. The Mexican chopped salad actually is a plate of little gem lettuce cups filled with jicama, cucumber, avocado and pepitas ($13). Meanwhile, the straightforward Tijuana Caesar ($13) is the answer to one of food’s great trivia questions: “Where was the Caesar invented?” Yes, Caesar’s restaurant in Tijuana’s Zona Centro.
Sanchez, a native of Lima, Peru, is one of the city’s great ambassadors for that country’s spectacular cuisine and, of course, pisco. The Peruvian brandy gets its own section on the cocktail menu (all cocktails are $12), as do agave spirits and whiskey. If you’re after a daiquiri or a Negroni, don’t worry, it’s a full bar and you’ll be perfectly happy. But for Sanchez’s menu of a dozen drinks, split four per spirit category, trust the master and enjoy his witty and delicious creations.
Without question, the bar’s most Instagram-friendly drink is the Maracuyá Sour, essentially a passion fruit and cacao-pisco sour with a “school crossing” symbol stenciled onto the foamy egg white top from a Peychaud’s bitters spray.
The Principal’s Punch is a play on the San Francisco-invented pisco punch, adding falernum and the herbal French liqueur, Génépy, to the tried-and-true trio of pisco, pineapple and lemon. There’s one catch to that trio. Instead of the usual pineapple gum syrup most recipes for the drink call for, Sanchez makes a pineapple agua fresca-like mix of pineapple juice from the fruit and pineapple water from the skin. Agua fresca and fresh fruit have been a pivotal part of Sanchez’s life since his boyhood when his grandmother had a roadside kiosk selling both.
In addition, Sanchez makes his own labor-intensive version of the purple maize-based agua fresca staple in Peru, chicha morada, from pineapple skins, apples, cloves and cinnamon, all stained a deep, dark purple hue from the maize’s cob. It’s served in the, you guessed it, Purple Maize cocktail with pisco, amaro, lime, and orange liqueur. The chicha morada and the pineapple agua fresca are also served on their own as non-alcoholic options ($5). And if you’re wondering, Sanchez, doesn’t make his own version of Peru’s beloved sugary soda, Inka Kola, nor does he actually enjoy drinking it these days.
For a spirit-forward pisco option, spring for the Pura Uvas with Madeira and vermouth. Note how it is garnished with a frozen grape because the drink has only three ingredients and each one is made from grapes, as Sanchez playfully mentions in its menu listing.
In fact, many of the drinks have fascinating histories or sarcastically comedic stories behind their names. Sanchez does a great job of offering insights into his drink creations, both with drink description paragraphs on the menu and recipes on the back of bar coasters.
Under the “whiskey” section, the bourbon fizz Teacher’s Pet cocktail doesn’t refer to a nickname for Sanchez in school. It’s actually a tongue-in-cheek reference to a whoopie cushion-like trick he and a friend played on a teacher they didn’t like as mischievous 14-year olds. Cochineals are tiny insects found in cactus around Latin America and South America. They have a vivid red color that, well, gave the teacher a colorful bottom when he sat on the cochineals that had been discreetly placed on his chair in a matchbook by the two young students.
Along with making teachers angry, the bugs are often used to naturally color alcohol and cosmetics. Campari discontinued using cochineal for price reasons a few years ago but Cappelletti, one of the key ingredients in the Teacher’s Pet, still adds it. Don’t be grossed out. Cochineal eventually has no taste in the final products.
Elsewhere on the whiskey side, Hierba Buena is a rye mint julep-like ode to San Francisco’s history as “Yerba Buena” and also the name of the mint leaf used in the drink, providing a minty doubleheader with a San Francisco favorite, fernet. The menu’s Manhattan-style offering is The Queen of Lima, stirring together bourbon; Negra Ciolla (a pisco made of the Negra Criolla grape); mistela (a fortified wine blending pisco and regular grape wine); and Peruvian-made Chuncho bitters.
At this point, you might be wondering why was whiskey singled out as a specialty on School Night’s menu? An old-fashioned is Sanchez’s drink of choice when going out and the way for him to quickly judge a bar’s potential. On cue, his old-fashioned, Bertha & The Smoke, includes his own blend of bitters (Angostura, orange and Dale DeGroff’s pimento) smoked in Bertha, then stirred with high-proof rye, and poured over a large rock snugly nestled in a previously smoked tumbler.
As these approachable but elaborate drinks suggest, Sanchez is one of the under-the-radar stars of San Francisco’s bar community. He’s not a celebrity bartender because he doesn’t seek the spotlight or have his own bar, but he is an icon to his fellow city bar managers and one of the most entertaining bartenders in the city to chat with. If you want to learn every minute detail about smoking bitters or a particular pisco grape, then get ready for a lesson at School Night. There may be homework afterwards.
He arrived in San Francisco from Peru as a 21-year old and grew to become the lead bartender for Acurio’s first restaurant outside of Peru, La Mar Cebicheria Peruana, when it opened on the Embarcadero a decade ago. Sanchez is a big reason why pisco sours are now one of the most ordered drinks across the Bay Area. But, his career has also taken him to a few Mexican concepts, like Tres Agaves and Arguello, that have opened his eyes to agave spirits right at the same time that mezcal started having its “revolution” moment. As a Peruvian, pisco will always “be in his blood” but Sanchez acknowledges he’s really excited by mezcal and tequila nowadays. That’s why agave is the third part of his menu.
His version of a margarita is Mr. Kotter, splitting the difference of a classic recipe’s use of orange liqueur and the Tommy’s way with agave nectar, and serving the drink on a hibiscus-infused rock for a color flourish. Tequila isn’t an expected base for a martini but it is in Pancho’s Martini, smoothed out with the salty embrace of manzanilla sherry.
The menu’s best match for a poolside cocktail is, appropriately, Spring Break, a smoky mezcal drink on ice pebbles with pineapple gum syrup and hibiscus. Finally, if the lecture at School Night is making your eyes feel a little heavy, it’s time for the Recess Reboot. The mezcal drink is an interpretation of how Mexican coffee often has cinnamon, cloves and piloncillo. Sanchez makes the spiced coffee as a cold brew to mix with amaro and whipped cream for a richer body when poured over crushed ice.
Outside of cocktails, four local beers are served on draft ($7), Peru’s national Cusqueña lager is available by the bottle ($5) a few tempting sherries are offered ($6-$8) and three wines are poured by-the-glass on draft ($12).
Obviously, in order to make this weeknight-only concept really work, Mendelson knew all along that his grand plan could thrive only if he has an all-star team. He certainly found that with Des Jardins and Sanchez. Des Jardins might not be the national icon of a Thomas Keller or Alice Waters, but the two-time James Beard winner and Central Valley native deserves a place on the local chefs’ Mount Rushmore for her influential work at restaurants and in the community. She sits on the board of La Cocina, is active in all sorts of charity and education activities, and helped launch the Giants’ centerfield garden with the Bon Appétit Management Company a few years ago at AT&T Park.
On the restaurant side, she started with no culinary training (no school nights!) but landed apprenticeships with many legendary French kitchens including La Maison Troisgros, Alain Passard’s L’Arpège and Alain Ducasse’s Le Louis XV. After learning classical French techniques from the best mentors possible, Des Jardins’ career brought her back to her home state and the wonderful ingredients of California. She was an opening chef in various capacities at some of the most important restaurants of the 1990s including Patina in Los Angeles (the only one still open); Aqua; Japantown’s fascinating Japanese-French fusion restaurant, Elka (here’s an interesting throwback article about that important but oft-forgotten place); and Rubicon. That last one is where Des Jardins finally could run her own kitchen as Executive Chef and where she won the 1995 James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef of the Year award.
Her solo debut, Jardinière, opened in 1997 and still is as strong as ever, balancing a nightly crowd of theatergoers, older regulars and eager, young food-obsessed diners. Des Jardins also owns or co-owns Mijita, a taqueria in the Ferry Building and attached to AT&T Park; Arguello, TRANSIT and The Commissary in the Presidio; and Public House at AT&T Park. Her restaurant concepts are eclectic in style and location to say the least. After helping to put the Presidio on the San Francisco dining map, it’s exciting to see her help elevate the Dogpatch dining scene in the complete opposite corner of the city.
Along with Mendelson, Des Jardins and Sanchez have a strong team of industry personnel and non-traditional hospitality personnel to make sure this concept isn’t just an experiment. The Pearl’s General Manager is Jon Larner, a Founding Partner of The Independent concert venue on Divisadero. School Night’s General Manager is Riley Bartlett (Pizzeria Delfina, Spruce) and Amy Reynolds is the Director of Operations for Des Jardins’ medium-sized stable of restaurants.
So, The Pearl is its own operation and School Night is an overlapping one between the chef and The Pearl. As far as event spaces go, you’d be hard pressed to find a more impressive venue than The Pearl. It’s a three-level loft-chic space with a gorgeous rooftop patio. The main floor boasts several intriguing maps as pieces of art by Alexis Laurent and a ceiling-high living indoor garden on built-in giant cranes à la New York’s High Line. For a bar next door to not seem like a low-key supporting act to such a stunner...good luck! With Laurent’s help, School Night has managed to be architecturally notable on its own.
Seating is split between the bar, central high-tops and wooden booths on the non-bar side wall. The latter two areas have full service. A partition made of glazed glass cubes and a stack of firewood greets diners at the door and then a chic-industrial theme dominates everywhere you look when walking to a seat. Exposed pipes run overhead with oversized lamp bulbs dangling down from the ceiling. They immediately draw your attention to the skylight (trend alert!) that gives the airy space an even grander aura.
There are four main design features that the Instagram and gallery-frequenting crowds will appreciate. We mentioned the three-dimensional plant print wall fixture by the entrance, made by Laurent. The bathrooms are right next to it and each stall has an eye-catching tile wall. The bar’s background is a giant menu board that seems partially inspired by the one at Toronado and partially like a chalkboard in a classroom. The far end of the room features a wheel-like light creation by Laurent that has a steampunk vibe to it.
Clearly, School Night has the talent and the design to make it a hit on what are usually the most sluggish evenings of the week for bars and restaurants. Plus, the $12 cocktails are “a deal” by San Francisco’s inflated standards and the venue is in a neighborhood going through a huge building and housing boom. There is a lot working in School Night’s favor.
School Night is an intriguing industry strategy and one that will be closely watched. We’ve seen other restaurants in the city make daring changes, whether it’s having ticketed reservations or serving high-end cuisine in no-frills spaces. It’s up to San Francisco diners and drinkers to fill our the report card for this concept. However, one thing is for certain — when our adult homework involves tasting cebiche and pisco cocktails, we look forward to school nights.