Great eats alert: in the very near future, Dennis Leary will open two new spots--Cafe Terminus and a to-be-named bar at the corner of Geary and Leavenworth in San Francisco. The chef has also added a 40-acre Capay Valley farm to his roster and is the chef-owner of spots that showcase culinary consistency (pulled pork with mustard cabbage sandwich on freshly baked bread, anyone?) with a deeply personal feel: from Canteen, to Golden West, The Sentinel and a bar, plus House of Shields. Leary’s goal of operating seven eateries is getting closer to becoming a reality—the name of his corporation is Pleiades, which means “seven sisters” and is from Greek mythology. Leary presents as a focused and driven chef and is not one to use Twitter or other social media, although he lets his staff post menu updates since they are excited to do so. He appears to be succeeding without being trendy--an example being no TV or clock for a definite old school charm at House of Shields. He is exploring a "100 Menus Project" based upon the 1971 tome, The Hundred Glories of French Cuisine by Robert Courtine at Canteen. A "100 Menus" dinner costs "around 50 bucks." His office is above the Sentinel and is lined with books and historical images. We caught up in person recently to find out more about his new spots and ideas on hospitality. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Bay Area Bites: As a chef and businessman, what would you like to be known for?
Leary: A lack of pretentiousness (laughs). Which in its way may be pretentious. I don’t know if a restaurant is a form of art. I have mixed feelings about consumption and it is a big generalization that I have to qualify. I won’t argue for empty storefronts but I’m concerned that bookstores are disappearing. Take public transportation, walk around or go to restaurant and you’ll find that people are on their iPads or phones. I have a restaurant stocked with books from my own collection and no one reads, or they rarely do. One of the great things I love is literature. I think I’m part of a dying species. In my way I want to maintain San Francisco bohemianism that is under threat.
Bay Area Bites: Who are your mentors & how have you grown in this business?
Leary: My business mentors are Angelo Sangiacomo, Drew Nieporent and Chip Conley. Alain Rondelli is a great chef. Angelo and his wife called to congratulate me when I was first starting and I admire that he is self-made, 100 percent. After awhile in this industry, it has become just self-taught and self-directed for me. I don’t think my style is derivative. I have a lot of customers who trust what I do and get it.
I got a nice letter of congratulations from Thomas Keller. That was such a classy gesture and a cool thing for me to see ‘oh, he’s paying attention.’
Publicity upsets the balance. People come in with expectations. I built a restaurant with $50,000 and it’s next to a bathroom and dorm by the Academy of Art. I’m not using fancy china and there aren’t plush seats. Whatever money I make goes back into the restaurants. I’m using the most basic packaging and china, and keeping it as simple as possible. I want people to go in and enjoy themselves with a dining experience that harkens back to maternal child connections. Pretty much every meal we eat, that dynamic is at play and it is always present with just the very act of being served. However, you’re paying for it. That is a relationship that’s attractive to a lot of people and they want a clean transaction.
The service industry has exploded and people don’t make their lunch anymore. They go and get it. With my places, we want to provide sustenance and not get in the way. I love talking to people and feel like I have a real connection to my customers.
Bay Area Bites: Tell us about your new places and farm in Capay Valley.
Leary: The two San Francisco deals are technically done and we’re applying for our liquor license for the bar. I haven’t spent more than 30 seconds in there but am interested in the bar from a design and hospitality standpoint. It’s a tiny place that will become small and beautiful. We’ll have some great cocktails. The area where the bar is still feels urban and interesting and getting the bar space was one of these six degrees of separation things: there’s a whole network of brokers and listing agents that you talk to all the time. Getting the spot has to do with the fact that basic politeness pays off and we made an offer that is attractive.
For Café Terminus, we’re dedicated to simple food and drinks, also with strong hospitality. People want their name remembered—I know I like places where the staff remembers me. There’s more competition in the Financial District now: get a sushi burrito, or visit the grilled cheese chain. But that doesn't matter. I’m more concerned in referencing culinary tradition in a way without being retro and nostalgic. When you’re trying to do old timey SF nostalgic shit, it doesn’t work.
I use knives and wooden spoons in my cooking style and don’t use a lot of fancy new techniques although I am certainly familiar with them. I’m just not interested and feel like food should not get in the way. I’m not selling an experience. What I want is a lively dining room with a convivial atmosphere and food to be delicious and well-prepared. It’s a business. I’m not trying to prove that I’m smart and it’s not a monument to myself.
I have a 40-acre farm in Capay Valley called Gauchito Hill Farm. There’s a river through it and two farmers, Thea Rittenhouse and Andres Marega own and run their own business and are my tenants. Their business is expanding and this summer I will use some of their produce on my menus. I want to help them out to the extent that I can and not be in the way. They have lettuce and spring mixes, Asian greens, carrots, and herbs. In Capay Valley, there are people who have lived for generations up there. I appreciate that.
I will also start taking my restaurant compost up to the farm, and started training my staff on doing that. I’d rather use the compost myself than see it go to Recology.
Bay Area Bites: What factors are at play with your culinary work in a small restaurant space like Canteen?
Leary: The economics of the Canteen space demand that the food be very simple. It is a business. No one goes into the restaurant business to make a living. You go into it because you enjoy it. I’m not some East Bay idealist and use organic everything and then fail. My food is dominated by necessity and I have to factor in, “What can I get that people will like?”
I’m not there to prove that I’m smart or forage or pickle my own things. Now there’s a whole legion of people doing that and when I did have the time I used to pickle, cure and butcher. Now it comes down to, “What’s a realistic use of my time?”
It’s just me and the sous chef working there and we want things to taste right and go out hot or cold, as they are meant to.
Bay Area Bites: Your sandwiches are creative and have a popular following downtown. What are the bestseller sandwiches for the Sentinel and Golden West?
Leary: At Golden West, it’s the short rib sandwich. Corned beef is the best seller at the Sentinel. I rarely eat anything when I’m at the Sentinel. I just pick and choose bites of things. Our production kitchen is over at Golden West, so there is a lot of logistics to coordinate there.
Bay Area Bites: Where do you like to eat in the Bay Area?
Leary: I like Yuet Lee, and places in North Beach, where I live. I like Calzone’s look and that it has neon on the front. They’re nice there and it's fun to go there on a Monday night. The places I like have been in San Francisco for years. You don’t have to wait in line. They’re not flooded with people. They’re real. You can’t try to be authentic. You need a little weariness and to have been around for awhile. The whole notion of an instant classic, I don’t buy it.