In Hayes Valley, the new 35,000-square-foot SFJAZZ Center is the first permanent home for SFJAZZ. The new center is already a major draw for musicians and jazz fans locally since every seat in the house offers amazing acoustics. Now, jazz fans also have their own watering hole with casual bites. This week, Chef Charles Phan opened South restaurant, with craft bourbon cocktails by Erik Adkins and food ranging from fried beignets (by Pastry Chef Chucky Dugo) to alligator sausage, tender spicy beef jerky and oysters baked or fried. Bar food is a definite departure from the clean award-winning Vietnamese fare Phan is known for, but South gives him a chance to play and riff. Phan has been open with Bay Area Bites about his growing love of bourbon, and is due to open the bourbon and fried chicken Hard Water concept on the Embarcadero. He just returned from a research trip to Kentucky with Adkins and architect Olle Lundberg and the trio sampled from up to fifteen barrels each day. “We had to stop at that point,” he said with a laugh. Lundberg's renderings of the space can be seen below.
With a growing empire of Bay Area restaurants including the highly regarded Slanted Door, Phan said he is happy to be a part of this new San Francisco institution, even if he did at first say no to the prospect. Turns out, he does know how to provide quality sustenance for hungry musicians and their fans and has put some thought into how to do that: “A lot of them are always on the road, and it’s tough for them to get a good, warm meal. They’re like gypsies. At the end of the day, we want to provide good food and value.” Because Phan also oversees the SFJAZZ catering and green room operations, he hopes to get musicians to enjoy the food so much that it will be one reason for them to return, again and again.
SFJAZZ Trustee and Boonville author Robert Mailer Anderson helped raise the money to build the new center. He and his wife Nicola Miner are friends to many musicians and writers (including me, full disclosure) and are major Obama fundraisers. Anderson will eagerly share the details of where to get his favorite late night meal of al pastor tacos--San Jose taqueria, here we come. Regarding why Phan was chosen to head up the food for SFJAZZ, Anderson is quick to sing Phan’s praises, “We’re a cutting edge jazz center so we should have someone who is cutting edge in the culinary world.”
He is also quick to second Phan’s notion that food is important for any musician: “Because musicians travel so much, they are always talking about food. With the guys, they tend to talk about food and women. The perfect night out seems to include music, food and drinks.”
The fifty seats at South have full window views of the outside scene and the space is perfectly set up for a quick The Battle of New Orleans cocktail and nibble. Part of the South bar peers into the Robert N. Miner auditorium through a large glass panel. SFJAZZ’s Marshall Lamm confirmed that bar patrons can nab a peek during live performances, which may be markedly different in both vibe and appearance than other music spots (guests do need a ticket to take in any performance). Phan noted that because the Miner auditorium holds up to 700 guests, it makes more sense for jazz patrons to plan on getting a cocktail, versus food, at South. During performances, there is also an upstairs bar with views onto a wall filled with breathtaking black-and-white images of jazz greats.
South currently offers eleven cocktails priced at $10, and draft beer and local wine are also available. The Blenheim ginger sparkler is a kicky and not-too-sweet refresher for designated drivers and best of all, concertgoers can tote their drinks back into the auditorium in compostable glasses.
Prominent jazz vocalist and fourth generation San Franciscan Kitty Margolis sounded relieved and enthusiastic over Phan’s menu. She noted that his fare is miles better than the sort of dry "bandwiches" she has endured during her career. Since I had never heard the term bandwich, she explained it: a “bandwich” or “gigwich” is an unappealing catered sandwich that is often served to musicians. Sometimes, it may happen that the musicians are performing for a group that is enjoying a fancy dinner that looks and smells great, from afar. The musician’s cold bandwich usually arrives wrapped in plastic with grey mystery meat in between two slices of old looking bread. Condiments are an afterthought for bandwiches and forget about seeing some fresh and green Little Gem produce that Phan is using in his celery root remoulade dish at South. Bandwiches are so terrible that Margolis, who has performed in Italy, Japan and all over the world, now specifies in her rider contract that bandwiches are forbidden.
Phan’s seasonal touches are evident on the menu, which he said can draw from the south of Italy and south of Spain. Margolis and Anderson both discussed how similar jazz and cooking can be, due to the use of improvisation. At first bite, the South menu looks more like improv from the American historic south, with a seasonal and California twist: chive-rice ball (called a calas) with red pepper jelly, cornmeal crusted fried oysters with remoulade, black-eyed pea spread paired with poppy seed crackers, duck rillettes with Creole mustard, and chicken gumbo. The menu is geared towards small plates that seem to point to a lighter approach that incorporates sharing. Breakfast and lunch are slated to begin next month, and Phan hopes that South will draw in locals as well as musicians. “That’s why we’re doing breakfast and lunch, for the folks who live nearby. We want people to use the space all day long.”