Welcome to 10 Years In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their 10-year anniversary.
Lindgren and Thompson. [Photo: Patricia Chang/Eater.com]
On Valentine's Day 2004, wine director Shelley Lindgren and chef Christophe Hille opened the doors at A16, a restaurant that offered a rarity in San Francisco at the time: Neapolitan-style pizza. In the following years, Lindgren and co-owner Victoria Libin would steer A16 through official VPN certification (aka approval from the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana), pizza cult status, and a couple major "Rising Star" awards: a StarChefs award for Hille in 2005, and a James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year award for Nate Appleman in 2009.
But the restaurant has weathered many changes: Hille left San Francisco in 2006, moving to New York City to open Northern Spy Food Co. (and contribute, on occasion, to Eater NY). Appleman famously departed just two months after his Beard Award win, leaving both A16 and its sister restaurant, SPQR, which opened in 2007. In 2011, Christopher Thompson joined the A16 family, taking over the executive chef reins the following year. "I definitely feel like I'm coming into my own here, developing my own style, and really pushing what the average San Franciscan finds to be 'Italian salumi,'" Thompson says. "I really look forward to all the things to come in the next few years; it's amazing to see what's happened in the last three." Here, Lindgren and Thompson look back on the restaurant's early days, talk to Eater about the science of dough-making, and reveal A16's plans for its next decade.
How did the original concept for A16 come about?
Shelley Lindgren: My husband Greg and I were thinking about opening a pizza and wine bar, because I had been studying wine for many years already. I'd gone to cooking school, but I wasn't necessarily thinking I was qualified to be the chef yet. And my business partner [Victoria Libin] was mentioning to me — before we knew we were going to be business partners — that there was a lack of Neapolitan pizza in San Francisco. This idea that Greg and I had naturally evolved into being Neapolitan pizza with wine. I wanted the service of wine to be accessible, because that was another passion that we shared. And then when we met Christophe, our original chef, his experience was mainly in French cooking. So, he took off the French gloves, went to Campania, learned the local pastas. He was cooking the pizzas every night.
How did the original pizza recipe come to life?
SL: Greg and Christophe tiled the oven together. And when we first fired up the oven — it's a long process — he had about two weeks to really get the dough right. So we had piles and piles — stacks — of [dough]. Think of, like, the highest stack of pancakes times 1,000, piled high of pizza, pizza after pizza. People would walk by, and we'd be like, "Want a pizza?" So, it was definitely hours and days of trying to make sure that you had it the way you wanted: the fire just hot enough, the dough just right, things like that.
Has the pizza recipe changed over time?
"It was a fun process. It was like the high school chemistry lab."
SL: The weather plays a big part. We live in an area where there really isn't a need for air conditioning, because it's so temperate. Even though there's not [temperature] extremes, there's a lot of dampness in the air, humidity, and fog, so that's a big part of it. Sometimes you have to adjust to the weather.
Christopher Thompson: You can use the same recipe for 10 years, but every day, the conditions within the kitchen are going to be slightly different: what the humidity is, what the heat is, how long that bag of flour sat on a shipping container across the Atlantic before it got to you. All of those things come into play with the characteristic of the dough. We slightly modified our dough recipe post-pizzaiolo training because we had acquired a new mixer: To continue on our path of VPN certification, one thing that VPN was asking us to do was to get a Italian-style mixer. We tried to make our original dough in that mixer, and the character wasn't the same. So, it was a little [like] tug-of-war trying to figure out how to make our signature A16 dough in that machine. And it took maybe 12 or 15 different batches of dough, with different flours, yeast, and salt ratios. We had the owner, Victoria, in for lunch three weeks in a row, just trying the different dough recipes until we're like, "That's it. That's the one." It was a fun process. It was like the high school chemistry lab: building these charts, writing our ratios of flour and yeast and salt and water; what the temperature in the room was when we made the dough; how long we proofed it. It was a lot of fun.
Looking back, how did you end up in this specific space?
SL: This is all about the ovens. It was really, really difficult to find a wood-burning oven in San Francisco at that time, with the laws: There was a moratorium on having that particular type of oven. So, we needed an existing space with that oven. We looked at the location on Chestnut Street, where we're at, and way out in the Excelsior, and that was a completely different style of place. We were fortunate enough to get into this location. It's always a risk anytime you open a restaurant, and we just dove in head first.
What was the neighborhood like 10 years ago?
"When we first opened 10 years ago, there were definitely more French restaurants than Italian restaurants."
SL: It was so different. When we first opened, there was really not much going on, especially on our side of the block. We're closer to the Golden Gate Bridge and the Presidio than the heart of the street; the main artery of the street is packed with place after place after place. We're just two blocks up; so, it was even more of a gamble. And the street is so much fun. Every time I walk down, I feel like I see something new that's opened; trends have changed. When we first opened 10 years ago, there were definitely more French restaurants than Italian restaurants, and now I feel like a lot more Italian restaurants have opened. You see different ebbs and flows of things that are popular, or the direction of the chefs, and a lot of it has to do with our product that we're able to get here from the farmers. But you do see things changing. I think there was more pizza opening for a while, and I haven't seen quite that influx of it [lately]. But, there can never be too much pizza.
CT: Competition just makes us better.
Tell me about opening night, which was on Valentine's Day.
SL: Opening night was great. I'd been working around the city, now, it's been 27 years. I had friends who — because it's such a busy night for people and it was a Saturday night that year — I had good friends that were fully booked, and they were calling, saying, "Are you opening tonight? Can we recommend people come to you?" I said, "Absolutely." So, opening night was, "Get out your roller skates and make it happen." We were just so excited to have customers.
We look back at our opening wine list, and there was so much Italian wine that was not [what you'd expect]: a lot of my winery friends were like, "I can't believe you're asking for this wine, we don't even show it and nobody ever wants it." So, my opening list was so inexpensive, because people gave me — they weren't giving it away — but compared to what I'm paying now, I'm like, "What? I remember when that wine was this much." We did things on a shoestring budget.
[Photo: Patricia Chang/Eater.com]
What were the early reviews like?
SL: We were worried because we were just doing what we thought was "classic" for Southern Italian, especially focused on Campania. And we weren't really sure how it going to be received. The first reviews that came out were way beyond our expectations, and really set a stage for us. I remember our first review came out, and I sat at line-up with our staff, and was incredibly grateful for all their hard work. And I said, "Guess what? Our work has just begun now. Because we had a wonderful review, our expectations are really high, and we have to be that much better now." I basically was like, "That wasn't the finish line, that was the starting line." So, we try to keep that attitude always: We have so much work to do, because that's the nature of the restaurant business. It was really exciting. Christophe had a lot of people coming to eat that he has looked up to for years and years; and it's continued to be that same way.
Christopher, before you worked for A16, what were your perceptions of the restaurant?
"Coming here shattered the mold of what I understood avant garde cuisine to be."
CT: I think I had a similar experience as chef Christophe did, spending most of my career before getting here studying French cuisine and embodying those techniques. So with that school and train of thought, coming here kind of shattered the mold of what I understood "avant garde" cuisine to be. I really dug in and learned what the Southern Italian ingredients were all about. I was taken aback by the different flavor profiles, the different ingredients, and the passion of the people that produced these ingredients.
It was a completely different experience than I was used to, and I was very taken aback by that. It put me in a good place, it humbled me, and it made me hungry to learn more about this lesser known, unexplored region of Italy. It's crazy to see what's happened here, what the history of the space is, and the shape of things to come. I agree with Shelley wholeheartedly; we're accomplished so many things, but at the same time, it's just the tip of the iceberg.
How has the menu changed over time?
CT: Obviously we have a few dishes that are classics, things that have become signature dishes and are really menu staples. So, those have their foothold on the menu, but probably 60 to 70 percent of the menu is fluctuating: Whether it's seasonality, or a different focus, or different ingredient interpretation. Sometimes we're trying to dig deeper into Puglian dishes, other times we're digging deeper into Campania dishes. Sometimes, it's that we found this amazing cheese from Basilicata, so we're going to try to push another flavor component, another ingredient from that area. The menu fluctuates and changes. The character of the restaurant has maintained, but there's a lot of things on the menu that I feel I've got my hands in and pushed for the better.
Shelley: You opened SPQR in 2007, but waited until 2009 to expand A16 — and that was in Tokyo. Why Japan?
"They were looking for, in Tokyo, what they call 'California Italian.'"
SL: They approached me and were looking for, in Tokyo, what they call "California Italian." There was a new building that Mitsubishi was developing, and they had this wonderful location, so they were doing their research here and they approached me. And when I told my business partner, I thought she would think this was really farfetched, but we went to Tokyo and it ended up working out. It's been four-and-a-half years since we opened there, and it's been a really wonderful cultural relationship. We get to go there, they get to come here, and we just feel really fortunate that worked out.
What made the timing right to do an A16 in Oakland?
SL: We never rush into these decisions. We love our team and we want to grow as we can, and we were waiting for the right location to become available. We looked and looked and finally we found this great spot that some friends who had a restaurant there for many years were selling. And so, it just was the right moment. It's funny, we definitely could've called it something else, because it is so different from A16. But, the south of Italy is a huge swath to take [inspiration from] — so the philosophies are the same, it's just completely different interpretations. We serve Neapolitan pizza, but there's more of a crudo over there where we have a salumi program in San Francisco; so, there's differences along the way. We have a full bar there, and we have a larger wine list in San Francisco. It's also really new, so there's lots to develop, still.
Looking back at the last 10 years, is there anything you'd do differently?
"We feel lucky that we were even able to pull it off."
SL: It's hard to say. We opened with such a shoestring budget that we feel lucky that we were even able to pull it off. Now, it would've been harder and a lot more expensive to open, because back then we just didn't know as much. There wasn't a budget to hire someone, you just did it yourself. … We're very conservative, because we like to keep our prices at a place where you can come in on a daily basis, on a weekly basis, just like in Italy. We really just want to be a part of our community, and I feel like that is something I would want to do all over again. So, do I think I'm the best person to have made our check presenters? Probably not. [Laughs] That kind of thing we would do over again. But, you do the best with that you have. And that's all anyone can ask.
What goals do you have for A16 moving forward?
CT: One thing that I take tons of pride in and I value extremely is the relationship I have with my sous chefs and my cooks. I really take a lot of pride in providing a great place for people to work. In any kitchen across the city, you're going to have to work hard. That's just a baseline expectation. But when you can have a kitchen full of really great people who really believe in what they're doing, and really encompass and embody what A16 is, it's those types of relationships that allow the type of growth that we continue to have. You can only open a new restaurant if you have amazing people working for you that can take on those new responsibilities. I definitely see a lot of grooming of the next generation of leaders in the organization happening here. That's definitely what I see happening in the short-term and the long-term, for sure.
"You're always juggling, and that's part of the fun of being in the restaurant business."
SL: We want to continue to nurture that and to grow. I feel like we have a really wonderful team; it would be fun to think about being in a place where we could maybe even help teach and educate our community. We haven't really set ourselves up for it: People say, "Can you do wine classes? Can you do pizza classes?" And we haven't really been able to because we can only do just what we can to get our passes of the day done. But I feel like we're in the place where we can be organized enough... to be open to what's next, what's happening now.
So, the more organized we are in our business, the more we will be prepared to take that next step, whatever it is. You just have to keep your options open. You're always juggling, and that's part of the fun of being in the restaurant business. It's about being open to possibilities, so if something became available — the right space, the right thing within our group, whatever it might be — I feel like we'll be ready for that next thing, whatever it is. We don't know. [Laughter]