The success and persistence of a pioneering restaurant in San Franciscodolphinit can come down to a bowl of spaghetti: a humble, timeless dish served with warmth and simplicity every night.
It continues to impress chef Craig Stoll. "Our most famous dish is spaghetti with tomato sauce," he says with pride and a little surprise. “But if you want to come to a nearby restaurant, what do you want? You want roast chicken, steak, a bowl of spaghetti, a glass of wine.
After 20 years on 18th Street, Pacific's James Beard Award for Best Chef opens sister restaurant Valencia Streetinn, and four locations of Pizzeria Delfina (gfifthalong the way), Delfina is much more than a neighborhood restaurant. But for Craig and her partner Annie Stoll, Delfina's first strength, seeing her restaurant as a dining room for residents and treating all customers as neighbors, kept their business alive.
"We didn't do it to be in the warehouses," Stoll says, "we didn't do it to win the awards — but he came and brought more cigarette butts to the seats, keeping the restaurant open."
If anything, Delfina's has redefined neighborhood dining, and Annie's has created the informal yet personal service that Bay Area diners have come to expect. Meanwhile, Delfina has created its own neighborhood, promoting the 18th Street Corridor in particular and the Mission in general as a dining destination.
More broadly, Craig and his kitchen helped create a new regional style of cooking: Cal-Italian, a way of cooking that envisions the Bay Area as its own corner of Italy. This philosophy, encouraged by Delfina, gave way to many new classics such asA16(2004),SPQR(2007), Flour + Water (2009),Beat up(2011) iCool(2018).
"When people spoke California Italian in the pre-Delfina era, they often thought Wolfgang Puck," says LongtimeSan FranciscoMagazine restaurant critic Josh Sens. "At Delfina, Cal-Italian meant a traditional Italian approach with local ingredients that still felt distinctly old."
In 1998, years before 18th Street, tourists lined up for Tartine breakfast rolls and salted caramel ice cream atBi-Rite Dairy, young Craig and Annie Stoll shopped at the recently reopened grocery storeBuy Bi-Rite. At the time, nearby Dolores Park was better known for crime and late-night heroin sales than for all-day picnics. In 2010, a veteran police officerremindedThe park's bad old days: In the early and mid-1990s, shootings and stabbings were a weekly occurrence, he claimed.
And despite established taquerias and a few new restaurants like the Slanted Door (opened in 1995 and now housed in the Ferry building), culinary-wise, the working-class mission was literally off the map. The essential element of a hotel roomWherethe depot would stop south of Market Street, excluding the neighborhood entirely.
Bi-Rite owner Sam Mogannamhe remembers18th Street as a block full of metal bars and empty storefronts. In 1998, the longtime Carl's Patisserie—now Tartine—was empty at the corner of 18th and Guerrero.Dolores Park Cafeand Fayes Video recently set up shop. A few houses away at 3621 18th Street, Brazilian restaurant Canto do Brasil announced it was for sale by posting a sign in the window. Mogannam knew the Stolls hoped to open a restaurant and noted the vacancy.
"We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Sam," says Annie.
After running around to 17 banks, Annie and Craig secured a $100,000 loan to open Dolphins. They used their credit cards as collateral.
The 2018 Delfina is a well-oiled machine: outside it gleams from the street, and inside its energetic dining room hums with chatter and laughter under sparkling pendant lights.
But 1998 was a different story. Originally, the restaurant was half the size of what it is today. The starting budget is moderate. And instead of humming, with no soundproofing, the restaurant was a "screaming inferno."San Francisco Examinercritic Patricia Unterman wrote in her review. Wine was stored under the banquettes and the bathroom doubled as more storage.
But if Delfina was very crowded, at least it was crowded. “When we started looking, the idea was to open a nearby restaurant that our friends wanted to eat at,” says Craig. These friends and some new people showed up on the first day.
“We were excited from opening day,” says Annie.
"It's like they're waiting for us to arrive," says Craig.
Now visitors from all regions come to the Mission. Five restaurants in the area have Michelin stars.
"Places like the Dolphin and the Angled Doors made the Mission a food magnet that attracted the people" [read: the wealthy], "whose presence helped attract more and more ambitious and interesting restaurants," says food critic Sens.
The food boom has its upside: According to Bi-Rite's Mogannam, where there were only 30 jobs in 1998, there are now 300 jobs on 18th Street. But some, including politicians, see the downside. Citing decades of gentrification in the area — of which its restaurant scene may be both a consequence and a cause — city lawmakers have put a legallimiting the number of restaurants in the Missionthis year: 167. Right now there are over 140.
Told one way, Delfina is a love story: a romantic comedy set in a diner in the mid-1990s.
"On the first date we only talked about restaurants, and on the second date we fantasized about opening our own restaurant together," says Craig.
The pair finally met after years of close encounters. "We knew all the same people," Annie recalls, "but we didn't know each other. . . . So I ate at Moose's," the politicians' favorite restaurant in Washington Square, which is nowPark Inn"And he went in to greet his friends in the kitchen."
They eventually met in Mill Valley: she ran the Depot Cafe, a former railroad depot that sold books and coffee, and he worked at the Frog and the Peach, a hip new restaurant across the street.
"He had long hair - I just rejected guys with long hair," she says. "He finally cut his hair and I noticed him."
At the Depot, Annie made Craig coffee and convinced him to call her. Maybe it wasn't hard. "I knew from the moment I met Annie that we were going to date," says Craig.
If there's a secret to Delfina's success, it might be the Stoll relationship.
"They make a hell of a team, the two of us," says Anthony Strong, Delfina's longtime chef who recently launched his own Prairie restaurant.
“One of my favorite things about Craig and Annie that tends to come through the ranks is [the idea] that everything is important in a restaurant — that the food on the plate is just as important as the welcome people get when they walk in. at the door."
As dot-com businesses boomed in '98 and '99, so did fine diningFifth floorwhile downtown and Bacar in SoMa attract an affluent tech clientele, Delfina has remained informal.
"We didn't have tablecloths, we were playing rock and roll – it was all unheard of," says Craig. “We were in our thirties and to this day I don't feel particularly comfortable in a formal restaurant, with all the rituals and trappings. I did not like it. But people seemed to feel that if they had a restaurant, they should do it." The Stolls disagreed.
To pay the bills while building the Dolphins, the couple kept the day job. Craig was a caterer and worked part-time at Rockridge's upscale Italian restaurantOlive grovewhile Annie was a waitress and hostess at Scala's Bistro downtown.
"I worked with amazing people [at Scala] who looked like robots sitting at their desks," he recalls. "They wore bow ties, they made them wear uniforms. . . . Some philosophies say that waiters should be invisible."
“I spent time with these people, either in the waiting room or after work, and they had these great personalities. So when I opened Delfina, I took some of those people with me and said, "I want these personalities to appear on the table."
Idea: "If the waiter is comfortable, the guest is comfortable."
The waiters at Delfin rolled up their sleeves and showed off their tattoos. They consulted tables next to the wine without immediately addressing the sommelier. Annie chose her employees carefully: "The only compliment I get is that I know how to hire," she says. But it also strengthened its employees.
“There was nothing on the menu we wouldn't try. There wasn't a wine on the menu that we didn't try,” says Jeanine Gade, Delfina's longtime waitress.
“They took us as seriously as they took their chefs, which was a revelation to me. That didn't happen in the other restaurants I worked at."
When the first reviews came in, Delfina was a hit. “Michael Bauer gave us an amazing review and that's where it all started,” Annie recalls. "Once he wrote about us, we started getting a lot of national press."
"Who would have thought such a small restaurant in the Mission would make so much noise?", Bauer,San Francisco Chroniclefood critic,wrote in 1999noting that "Stoll cooks like he's in Italy."
Gourmetthe magazine noticed. Mark Bittman visited "a lot of people" forNew York Timeswith a 13-year-old daughter, is celebrating"simple but great food." Years later, Bittman's daughter went to work in a restaurant.
The so-called dolphinAtlanticCorby'ego KummeraHe wrotein 2001 it had simplicityin Panis, Oliveto iZuni Cafe, the same "basic Italian vocabulary and a desire to bring out the local and fresher."Food and winenamed Craig Best New Chef in 2001.
Looking back, the local Sens critic comes to a similar assessment. "While it's nowhere near the same in its domestic range as Chez Panisse or even Zuni, I think Delfina is something of a kindred spirit that emphasizes really great seasonal ingredients made with incredible care, but without a whiff of confusion. ."
“Today, we take that attitude for granted, but it wasn't always that way, especially when it came to Italian cuisine — which either leaned toward Italian-American red sauces in North Beach or fancier places like Acquarello. Delphine shared the happy difference between them.
As Delfina and her reputation grew, the Stolls saved and began to prosper. Securing a loan from the Mission Economic Development organization, they annexed the old novelty store next door, doubling the size of Delfina. They hired Douglas Burnham, lead architect at Envelope A+D, to design the space: they've now used his work for 20 years and four consecutive openings, as well as their own home in Cole Valley.
"We weren't one of those entrepreneurs who came in and said, 'We're going to open five restaurants,'" says Craig. "The restaurants in town, we basically launched them all — bank loans and using the cash flow from one to open the other." In today's world of venture capital-backed SF restaurants, that approach is increasingly rare.
In 2005, another vacancy opened up on 18th Street and the Stolls opened Delfina's Pizzeria next door. “I like to joke that this was before there was an authentic Neapolitan pizzeria on every corner,” says Craig. Before opening, he went to Naples on a research trip while Annie stayed home with their young daughter, now 16.
For Craig, inspiration from Italy is the main ingredient. Delfina is named after Da Delfina, a restaurant in Tuscany where he exhibited. Craig worked all day and lived in a restaurant that owner Carlo Cioni named after his mother Delfina. At the Culinary Institute of America, where Craig studied before his trip, "I was taught that everything was always a French technique, so there was a lot to unlearn."
When it came time to open his own restaurant, Craig wrote to the manager of Da Delfina asking for permission to use their name.
“He was such a big influence and a big influence on the way I cooked that I wanted to pay tribute. He said, "Yes, as long as you explain that they are not related."
So far, the union can't hurt. Guests jumped from one restaurant to another, and Craig continues to send chefs to the Da Delfina stage: Locanda chef Melissa Reitz was there this month.
"[Delfina] happened at the same time that people realized there were regions of Italy," says Stoll. He tried to imagine the Bay Area as one of them. "I was there and I thought, 'Okay, we're working with wild fennel, we have wild fennel [in the Bay Area].' Cole Valley where I live.” in West Marina.
"I wasn't the first or the only person to do that," Craig says, citing restaurants like New York's Babbo, which also opened in 1998. "But I came back and started working hard."
In the first Pizzeria Delfina and in all the rest (California Street, opened in 2008. Burlingame in 2013; and Palo Alto in 2014), the mural makes the metaphor literal by replacing San Francisco Bay with the Bay of Naples. A new mural in another Pizzeria Delfina openingat 688 Mission Streethe will do the same next year.
The Stolls have seen their ups and downs in the past, but as they prepare their next restaurant, doing business in San Francisco might not be any harder. "We're really lucky because we've been through all these financial ups and downs," says Annie. "We were still very busy - we weren't a high-end restaurant - but in the city it's getting harder and harder."
Craig agrees. "I would say it's the hardest of all."
“Costs have gone up significantly – we can't raise prices any more than we have,” explains Annie. "It's hard to get staff, front and back." After Locanda lost several managers, the group decided to close the restaurant two days a week.
"We've had a lot of ups and downs - it's really hard," says Craig.
Losing beloved staff was always a blow. ownerRangeCameron West worked at Delfin before leaving to open the restaurant, and most of the Stoll team left to follow him. This happened again with Flour + Water, whose launch crew included several Delfina servers.
That's how it works, the Stolls discovered. They have matured and softened along with their restoration. "In 20 years of doing something, you learn not only business, but how to treat people right," says Craig.
“I always knew how to run a restaurant,” says Annie. "But I didn't know how to run a business." Currently, Delfina has 300 employees and half of her work is working with the human resources manager to ensure strict compliance with California labor laws. It's a lot of paperwork.
Delfina's food, for all its classics, has also evolved. "We managed to get more and better products. No one had burrata. you couldn't get burrata when we opened,” says Craig.
“The dish will evolve over the years - that fucking chicken that's still on our menu and we can't get rid of it because people love it... even that has evolved over the years. What I'm constantly trying to learn is to look critically at everything you do every day."
During a kitchen renovation in January, the team installed a wood-burning grill. “The same steak we had on the menu is better than ever: we have a new source of beef, the wood grill. You never let your foot off the gas."
"It's like a ministry," Annie says. "He's never a robot."
Difficulties aside, when the doors open each night, the Stolls are still in a rush. "I feel like we're going to have this amazing party," says Annie.
The guest list varies. After all these years, Delfina is a tourist destination that celebrities likeKylie Jenner stopped by for dinner— but it's still the cornerstone of its neighborhood, just as the Stolls intended.
"A family lives behind us, they're still here, and when we built the restaurant, their kids were 4 and 6 years old," Annie recalls. “These two guys worked for us, one in the kitchen, the other in the front – they took care of our baby, our baby. And now they are adults and will have children of their own.
"People used to celebrate births and weddings here," says Craig.
Now it's time for the anniversary. On November 19 and 20, the restaurant will offer a special menu, live music and champagne for the occasion.
3621 18th Street, , CA 94110 (415) 552-4055 Visit the website
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