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.