Kuleto readies latest S.F. restaurants
Sunday, January 20, 2008
As construction was wrapping up on Pat Kuleto's two new restaurants opening on San Francisco's Embarcadero later this month, it was decided that an olive tree would grace the piazza that joins them.
The idea seemed simple enough. An order went out for a small tree, a few inches in diameter.
When Kuleto heard about the size of the tree, he balked.
"I said we can't do that. I want a big, gnarly, massive tree," said Kuleto, a bear of a man who, were he an olive tree, would surely be a Sevillano, the noble olive of martinis.
Kuleto headed north, to an olive ranch near Corning (Tehama County), where he found a nearly 200-year-old Sevillano to his liking - one with an ample trunk and presence. A ranch hand named Manny delivered the tree and planted it between the restaurants, Waterbar and Epic Roasthouse, at Rincon Park.
Kuleto named the tree Manny and patted himself on the back.
"I wasn't going to have a puny tree," said Kuleto.
This is a man who hasn't done things in small ways for the 40 years he has been building and designing restaurants. With his partners in the side-by-side restaurants, JMA Ventures of San Francisco and chefs and co-owners Mark Franz (Waterbar) and Jan Birnbaum (Epic), Kuleto revels in the waterfront real estate.
"They should call this Treasure Island," he said the other day, awaiting delivery of the eels, crabs, oysters, anchovies, Garibaldi and some of the other 30 species of fish bound for the two 1,500-gallon aquariums that rise like pillars at Waterbar.
Waterbar is the seafood house and Epic Roasthouse - the name is intended to send a message this is no pedestrian steakhouse - is a house of chops, steaks, poultry and seafood. Both will seat about 200 and another 100 can drink and dine on the piazza.
The yin and yang restaurants open Jan. 29 at the park they share with "Cupid's Span," the Claes Oldenburg bow-and-arrow, on the Embarcadero between Harrison and Folsom streets. Construction of the two restaurants is costing "north of $8 million," said Todd Chapman, a principal in JMA Ventures, and $11 million is being spent on interiors, said Kuleto.
In the restaurant industry, a world of slim profit margins, construction inflation ranging from 15 to 20 percent in the past few years and a high failure rate, Kuleto is the designer of hugely popular establishments in San Francisco where he teams with celebrity chef co-owners: Boulevard, a place with a Belle Epoque aesthetic, with Nancy Oakes; Farallon, the undersea fantasy, with Franz; and Jardiniere, a sophisticated establishment, with Traci Des Jardins.
On Tomales Bay, at Marshall, he and Franz opened Nick's Cove, a restored 100-year-old restaurant and cottages, in July. He and Todd Humphries have Martini House, a restaurant with a 700-bottle wine list, in St. Helena.
Kuleto built countless steakhouses and restaurants before he reached his current place in the restaurant industry hierarchy, but at every turn in his career, including the Rincon Park project, Kuleto and his partners have followed a simple rule: They looked for what is missing in the neighborhood and beyond.
"There is room in San Francisco for a great meat house, and I wanted to do a great, legitimate seafood restaurant on the water," said Kuleto.
The opportunity presented itself in a circuitous way, after the Port of San Francisco carved out the 2 1/2-acre park after the 1989 earthquake and subsequent freeway demolition. With one 12,000 square-foot restaurant in mind - one that would generate revenue for the city - the port began negotiations in 1999 with famed cook Reed Hearon. Hearon and his architect, Cass Calder Smith of San Francisco, dumped the single restaurant theory as unwieldy and suggested two smaller ones - but then had to drop out of the deal.
The port transferred the negotiating agreement to JMA, and Kuleto came aboard. The first thing Kuleto wanted was control over both restaurants. Since then, one review board after another, including the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, has had its way with Kuleto's design. It's an experience that Kuleto says pales compared with the nine years of hoops he passed through to open Nick's Cove.
For the design of the Rincon restaurants, Kuleto imagined San Franciscans in the wake of the 1906 earthquake and fire, vowing never again to be without sufficient water to fight fires. In his fantasy, the city in about 1910 built a steam-powered pumping station (now the site of Epic Roasthouse) and a distribution center (Waterbar) to deliver water from the bay throughout the city. In the fantasy, the buildings are lovingly restored for fine dining, but tell a story woven with rich San Francisco history.
None of that is true, of course, but fantasies are useful guiding lights for Kuleto. The restaurants were built from scratch on land that only 25 years ago was at the edge of a forlorn piece of San Francisco that extended to what is now AT&T Park.
The review boards threw some water on Kuleto's fantasy in the name of making the exterior of the buildings better fits with the park, but Kuleto has brought his dream to life with the interiors - the limestone at Waterbar and the bullwheel at the Roasthouse - that are nods to the industrial era.
"I wanted a bulkhead-style building, slightly canted, but I got aced out of the program," said Kuleto.
Now 62, Kuleto was born in Los Angeles, the son of a fire-sprinkler contractor and a housewife, and reared in the Silver Lake and La Crescenta areas - "an aesthetic wasteland," in his view.
He was a less-than-stellar student, save for the things that interested him, but Kuleto could build things: "From forts to bigger forts to seven-story forts, I could do it all."
He was drawn to Lake Tahoe, to wait tables, play the bass, work as a carpenter, ski and party. At 19, when he was building houses, a radial-arm saw cut off the tips of two of his fingers. "Blood and fingers hit the wall and my buddy passed out," Kuleto recalled. More than cutting short his career as a bass player, the accident changed his life.
Kuleto received $2,700 in workers' compensation money. With $280, he bought a one-way tourist class ticket to Europe on the Queen Elizabeth, and both on board the ship and throughout the continent over the next year he encountered an unfamiliar world.
It was "a life of style and luxury and joie de vivre," said Kuleto, who knew that he wanted to incorporate some of that style in his life and career, someday.
"It was a complete epiphany. The people love to live, and they have an appreciation of that and history. It was a long way from Silver Lake," he said.
Still, Kuleto saw the good life in Europe from a distance. "I ate one hot dog a day. Whichever country I was in, I would get whatever weenie they served," he said of his year abroad.
Kuleto, the carpenter, settled in Marin County, where in the late 1960s he helped build the second in a chain of Refectory Steakhouses in Greenbrae. There followed a long association with steakhouses and their bill-of-fare brethren.
When he got his general contractor's license at 24, he had a simple business plan: "I said, 'I can design your restaurant and if I can build it for cost plus 10 percent, then I'll design for free.' "
In 1985, Kuleto made a major splash, and helped establish restaurant design in its own right. Fog City Diner opened in San Francisco, with Kuleto designer and general contractor. It was his 110th design, and it was an instant hit. Lines were long.
"When I walked in I just screamed," said Harry Denton, the proprietor of the Starlight Room at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. "He just has it," Denton said of Kuleto's restaurant atmospherics.
The Chronicle's Herb Caen, a patron, called Kuleto over to give him his review. "He said, 'It works,' and that's what I wanted to hear," said Kuleto.
Kuleto went on to design Buckhead Diner in Atlanta, Papagus in Chicago and Postrio and Kuleto's in San Francisco as well as the McCormick and Kuleto's, later named McCormick and Schmick's, restaurants. In all, he's done more than 175 restaurants in the United States and abroad.
It was his good fortune that, as he was making his name in design, Bay Area cuisine was becoming increasingly refined and celebrated, "and with it the design thing ultimately merged," said Kuleto.
"Pat obviously has great instincts in knowing who to partner with, and in 20 years I've never heard anyone badmouth him," said Joan Simon, founder of Full Plate Restaurant Consulting in San Francisco. "That translates into staff loyalty and consistency, key ingredients for any successful enterprise."
"A guy like Kuleto is perfect" for the Rincon project, said Smith, the architect, "because the key is capital, chef talent, marketing and operations, and I don't think Kuleto has a weak spot."
Smith, the designer of a Peruvian restaurant, La Mar, to be constructed at Pier 1 1/2 - a competitor with Kuleto - said of the Rincon project, "It's very ambitious."
"He really is key in transforming the restaurant culture in San Francisco," said Todd Chapman, a principal in JMA Ventures. "We feel like de facto partners with Pat and his team."
The restaurants are opening amid headlines that a recession is nigh, if not already in place, and that no doubt adds to risk in the effort to fill seats.
"But I think short-term concerns are outweighed by the fact there is very little dirt like that available in San Francisco," Kevin Westlye, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, a trade association, said of the Rincon location.
"He is partnering with two nationally known chefs so he has every opportunity to be successful and we believe he will be," said Westlye.
The Roasthouse Burger will sell for $25, and Waterbar entree prices will run from $26 to $36.
There are certainly the trappings of success at Kuleto's 800-acre ranch and Kuleto Estate Family Winery, and his stone house, named Villa Cucina, or kitchen house, atop a ridge off Sage Canyon Road on the eastern rim of the Napa Valley.
The view to the west is of Lake Hennessey, and to the east are the rear are the mountain slopes of the Hennessey Basin on which are planted some of Kuleto's 125 acres of vines - Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sangiovese. He's producing 9,000 cases annually now, and expects to get to 15,000 cases in three or four years. It's a boutique, but winery guests are welcome by appointment.
Kuleto, divorced and the father of an 11-year-old son, Daniel, lives next door at Villa Cucina, along with three Labradors, cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, ducks, geese and nine ponds of fish, and acres of organic gardens, fruit trees and olive groves for oil.
Everything has a name. The fireplace, where 4-foot logs are burned and the flue is capacious, is "Santa's Wet Dream."
The dining room table is made of walnut, from a tree that fell on the property, connected by a narrow, windy road to Sage Canyon Road and the Napa Valley below.
Kuleto has one regret. His mother died when he was 22 and, he said, "I never proved to my mom that I could be the things that she always believed I could be. My dad always called me a big, dumb oaf, and I was. But I knew that I could do anything I put my mind to."
E-mail George Raine at email@example.com.