Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Archive for the ‘restaurants’ Category

Free business idea – serious coffee in Las Vegas

Posted by shannonclark on July 20, 2010

I was in Las Vegas last week for my friend Tara Hunt‘s birthday, a bunch of her friends from all over the world gathered in Las Vegas for a few days of celebration. The full tales of the revels are the subject for another post (and for someone else to write, alas a bout of allergies meant I missed the Karaoke at 2am in a Vegas suite).

But while I was in Vegas, staying at the Mandalay Bay, I found myself curiously surprised by the lack of good coffee anywhere along the strip. I was told about The Beat Coffeehouse in downtown Las Vegas but didn’t manage to make it there. Apparently they are a true Third Wave coffeehouse, they roast their own beans and take their coffee very seriously.

However within the major casinos along the strip the coffee of choice appears to be Starbucks and even the coffee served at the high end restaurants which I was fortunate enough to try wasn’t very good by San Francisco standards. The Mandalay Bay in particular is already the home of some of the most famous and best chefs from San Francisco (MIchael Mina, Herbert Keller etc).

So here is my, freely offered, business idea.

Open up a Las Vegas branch of a serious, third wave coffee roaster. From San Francisco I’d suggest Blue Bottle, but Ritual Roasters, Four Barrel, Sightglass or from around the bay Mr. Espresso, Verve, or Barefoot Coffee Roasters would all be great options. Intelligentsia from Chicago & LA or Stumptown from Portland (and now NYC) would be other great choices.

What I would envision would be with some Las Vegas style & flair. The main location would include an onsite roaster and serious baristas and one cup at a time brewing. But given that this is Las Vegas I’d also imagine letting the Baristas have free reign to create adult coffee based beverages (i.e. in many cases with alcohol) and I would imagine that this space would be open 24hrs a day and ideally should have wifi and in the case of the Mandalay Bay have some business services available (private meeting rooms perhaps?). I’d also suggest that the roaster then provide coffee (and perhaps barista services/training) to the restaurants in that hotel as well as open up some kiosks to serve coffee at peak times (which in Vegas might be starting early and ending fairly late).

Done well this location might then be a natural location to host barista competitions and for serious coffee cuppings and for guest baristas to show off what they can create.

It would certainly also improve my next Las Vegas trip (since I don’t do much gambling or drinking, Vegas isn’t exactly my first choice though the shows & food are good).

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Unique and useful stores around the Moscone Center in San Francisco

Posted by shannonclark on March 31, 2009

In this post I will highlight a number of my favorite little hidden gems of stores in SF which are a short walking distance from the Moscone Center and/or near to hotels where people often stay when in SF for a conference. This is a sister post to my post yesterday about where to eat, drink and entertain around the Moscone. I have also included a number of stores which while not exciting are useful to know about for last minute needs when in town for a conference. This post is not intended to comprehensive nor does it highlight the dozens of great stores in the various neighborhoods of San Francisco. 

Of course I will have missed many great stores, please add your favorites and your experiences in the comments below. 

Useful stores to know where they are located

Near to the Moscone Center are two great resources for last minute computer emergancies. For Mac users, the large Apple Store San Francisco (1 Stockton at the corner of Market near 4th St, Mon-Sat 10-9, Sun 11-7) is one of Apple’s flagship stores with well trained Genuis bar staff, frequent events and most importantly for conference attendees with last minute tech needs a deep inventory.

For PC users Central Computers (837 Howard St between 4th and 5th, Mon-Fri 9-7:30, Sat-Sun 10:30-6) offers a good selection of PC hardware and parts at competive, if not always the absolute lowest prices. But if you need a replacement monitor, an extra hard drive, a PC cable or the like they are just a half block from the Moscone Center. 

Cole Hardware (70 4th St between Mission and Market, Mon-Fri 7-7:30, Sat-Sun 8-7) is a local San Francisco institution and a great local resource for hardware. If you need last minute hardware or items to fix your tradeshow booth they are just a block away from the Moscone and have friendly and knowledgable staff.

Utrecht Art Supplies (149 New Montgomery between Howard and Mission, Mon-Fri 8:30-7, Sat 10-6, Sun 12-6) ) is small national chain, based out of NYC which offers a range of art supplies catering to the needs of San Francisco’s art schools and local artists. For a conference attendee they are a great alternative to an office supply store for last minute needs at a conference. I recommend the small leather bound Rhodia notebooks they stock, I carry the reporter’s notebook size in my back pocket at conferences for when there is no substitute for a pad of paper. For last minute booth needs they can offer a wide range of useful items.¬†

Fun, unique independant stores of San Francisco

Blocks from the Moscone Center is Union Square and Grant Street which are the heart of San Francisco’s tourism and high end retail shopping, all of the major national chains, luxury stores and retailers can be found either around Union Square, along Grant St, or in the nearby large Westfield Center. However scattered nearby are a few local and more unique gems which I would recommend checking out over the stores and retailers that can be found in any major city (and indeed many small suburban malls).¬†

While the long time San Francisco institution Stacy’s has now closed, a few blocks from the Moscone Center is a truly wonderful new San Francisco store Fog City News¬†(455 Market St between 1st and Fremont, Mon-Fri 8-6, Sat 12-4, Sun closed) offers 1000’s of magazines from around the world and hundreds of carefully chosen premium chocolate bars. When I travel and stay with friends I nearly always stop in at Fog City News first and purchase chocolates to bring as gifts, nearly always also picking up a new magazine or two to read on the plane.¬†

Gumps (135 Post St, Mon-Sat 10-6, Sun 12-5) is a San Francisco retailer with nearly 150 years of history as a purveyor of luxury goods. Shopping at Gumps is a small piece of San Francisco history updated with highly modern works. This is luxury goods shopping with many one-of-a-kind items and designer goods. I enjoy browsing for inspiration, though my budget hasn’t allowed me to buy at Gumps frequently.¬†

In my last post I mentioned the Ferry Building, if you are at all interested in great food a visit to the Ferry Building is well worth it. If you can get there on Saturday morning during the Farmer’s Market (Sat 8-2, with a much smaller market Tues 10-2) you are in for a treat. While nearly every store in the Ferry Building is worth a visit a few of my favorites are: Frog Hollow Farms – amazing jams, world renowned orchard; Far East Fungi – I buy mushrooms from among the some 40+ varieties of fresh, many wild, mushrooms they sell for non-locals they also have a great selection of dried mushrooms; Cowgirl Creamery¬†– one of the best cheese shops in the world. Be sure to ask to taste a few cheeses and get recomendations then go next door to Acme Bakery and pick up a loaf of freshly baked bread then go to Boccalone Salumeria and pick up a selection of locally made (pork based) cured meats.¬†

The result is a nearly perfect picnic lunch. 

And if you need wine, the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant offers a wide selection of wines for any price point or need. They also have a great wine bar with snacks provided from nearby merchants.

For your speciality drink needs I recommend Cask Spirits (17 3rd St between Market and Mission, Mon-Sat 11-7, Sun Closed) They are the retail branch of the rather unique Bourbon and Branch¬†and offer a carefully currated selection of small maker distillers and bar equipment. I am not a drinker so there isn’t much for me personally to buy here but as an example of a store run with passion and with a very carefully selected inventory they are a great and unique to San Francisco new retail store, worth a visit by anyone interested in how great retail can and should work.¬†

There are many other great stores in San Francisco, many in the various great neighborhoods of San Francisco. In particular if you have some time I recommend exploring the small shops of Hayes Valley, most of which are unique and local to San Francisco. Scattered throughout the Mission District are also many great and also uniquely local stores and there are many others in other neighborhoods. 

Have I missed any great retail shops in SOMA (near the Moscone) or just across Market? Shops which are unique to San Francisco or which are great resources to know about if you are here for a conference? If so, please leave a comment below.

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Where to eat, drink & entertain around the Moscone Center in SF

Posted by shannonclark on March 30, 2009

Last year as part of my coverage of Web 2.0 Expo for Centernetworks I wrote a post offering a guide to San Francisco near the Moscone Center. This post is an updated version of that post, written in advance of the 2009 Web 2.0 Expo here in San Francisco but I hope it will be a resource for anyone visiting San Francisco for a conference. Please add other finds and feedback in the comments below.

This is not intended to be comprehensive there are literally 100’s of restaurants, cafes, bars and hotels within a half mile of the Moscone Center in San Franciso. ¬†Rather this guide is a list of a small, selective set of restaurants, cafes, and a few bars which are notable and worth trying. These are places that as a local to San Francisco I return to frequently, these are the restaurants where I personally entertain – whether it be for an afternoon meeting over coffee, a light dinner with friends, a professional working dinner or a business entertaining event. My focus is mostly on great spots for coffee or daytime meetings and on dinner. I will include a few suggestions for lunch but often at a conference lunch is part of the conference – and since the networking over confernce lunches can often be the most valuable networking I would, reluctantly, recommend that you eat the bad food in the interest of the networking.

But perhaps chase the conference lunch with great coffee or tea at one of the places I suggest below. 

With one exception I am also concentrating on locations which work well for events during the week, most of these places are open every day during the week (but I would always recommend calling and making a reservation for professional dinners).

Breakfast meetings 

Around the Moscone Center is not the best of places in San Francisco for working breakfasts, any number of local hotels offer acceptable business breakfast meeting options, near to the Moscone I would recommend XYZ at the W hotel (181 3rd St Р3rd & Howard inside of the W Hotel). 

A less formal and lighter option, but one I would highly recommend, is the nearby Blue Bottle Cafe¬†(66 Mint St – corner of Mint & Jessie, between Mission & Market just after 5th St, Mon-Fri 7-7, Sat ¬†8-6, Sun 8-4) which offers a small but seasonal and very good selection of breakfast food along with their world renowned coffee. This is serious, film crews come from Japan to shoot all day long, barrista’s compete in national competitions level coffee and they offer coffee & preparations to serve all tastes. One strong suggestion taste the cappucino’s and lattes before you doctor them – they really don’t need any sugar.¬†Blue Bottle’s Cafe is, I think, one of the absolute best cafes anywhere in the world. I have been known to take multiple contacts to Blue Bottle in the course of a single conference day – last year I went there at least three times in one day with three different business contacts. ¬†Besides great breakfast foods they offer great if also highly selective food options (always light and seasonal) during the course of the day.

If your conference continues into the weekend my suggestion is that you take some time on Saturday morning to get breakfast at the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market¬†(Building with a big clock tower at the end of Market St on the water. A short taxi ride or a manageable walk from most conference hotels or the Moscone Center). Widely considered one of the finest farmer’s markets in the country the market starts at 8:30, though some stalls will be set up earlier. I highly recommend arriving before 10am as the market quickly gets crowded. It continues until 2pm on Saturday. Inside of the Ferry Building are many great local shops and markets which are open 7 days a week. Blue Bottle Coffee has kiosks they operate during the Farmers Market (and they are opening up a full cafe in the Ferry Building later in 2009). Of course you can spend hours shopping at the many local (and mostly all organic) stalls each with a seasonal selection. A few highlights I recommend to my guests: Flying Disc Ranch¬†– for an amazing selection of locally grown dates; Frog Hollow Farms¬†– they have a stall inside so are available 7 days a week, Frog Hollow is I think the best orchard in the Bay Area and offer amazing seasonal stone fruits (peaches, nectarines, apricots), pears, Meyer lemons and more. Year round they have great jams and marmalades which I frequently give as gifts; Primavera – a locally run organic Mexican restaurant only open on Saturdays during the Farmer’s Market (located in the far corner by the water) they offer a small selection of handmade from market ingrediants Mexican breakfast and lunch items each day (homemade tamales, varieties of chiliquiles and much more). This is regional Mexican cooking most likely unlike anything you have had unless you have traveled extensively in Mexico.

A breakfast meeting at the Farmer’s Market will not be a quite or entirely private one but I can think of few better or more energizing ways to start my Saturday morning.¬†

Meetings during the daytime

As I noted above, Blue Bottle Cafe is a great option, one I turn to frequently. 

For non-coffee drinkers, or just for a great change of pace, I recommend Samovar Tea Room inside of Yerba Beuna Gardens (730 Howard St. Literally above the Moscone North, stairs are just to the left of the conference entrance. Sun РWed 10-8, Thurs-Sat 10-9). Samovar serves amazing teas accompanied by a great selection of light food. This is a calm, peaceful oasis above the Yerba Beuna Waterfall and sitting above the Moscone North entrance. This is not where to go for a fast, quick, hurried meal. But it is a great spot to take a break from a conference and to have a highly civilized and usually productive business conversation. My personal preference is to meet at Somovar in the afternoon, after lunchtime. For small groups Samovar is also a good option for post-conference dinner. Not a heavy meal but a tasty one and not a place to drink (other than great teas). 

For a great lunch option, as well as a good place to have daytime working lunch during a conference I have three suggestions just a few blocks from the Moscone Center. All three are part of the Westfield San Francisco which is just blocks from the Moscone between 4th & 5th and between Market & Mission.

First, ‘Wichcraft (866 Mission St at 5th) which though it is a small scale national chain and owned by celebrity chef¬†Tom Colicchio (of Bravo’s Top Chef fame) is also a purveyer of amazingly tasty sandwiches. For the quality and flavor, one of the real bargains for lunch in the city. They close relatively early but are a great option for lunch or a quick, early casual dinner. They have plenty of seating and even a large party can usually seat together at one of their large communal tables.¬†

Second, Out the Door (basement level of the Westfield Center). Ignore the minimalist website, Out the Door is the more casual spinoff of the world renowned Slanted Door restaurant, one of the finest Vietnamese restaurants in the country (and also at times one of the hardest to get a reservation at). Out the Door offers quick and very tasty Vietnamese food, prepared artfully and skillfully and served in their large and spacious dining room. A great option for a group of nearly any size for lunch and just blocks from the Moscone. They are also open for early dinner, though I prefer them for lunch. The food court in the basement level of the Westfield Center is a very good one (much better I think than the food court in the Metreon) with options for any palate. I personally like Coriander which offers very tasty Thai food, had lunch there today in fact. 

Third, Straits (4th floor of the Westfield Center). Straits offers upscale Singaporan food, though it is a small scale chain (here in CA, Atlanta and later in 2009 Houston) I highly recommend them for great and unusual food. In particular I like Straits for working business lunches. They are not cheap, but the quality is very high and though they are in a Mall (albeit a mall which cost some $440M to rennovate) once inside Straits is a great restaurant for working lunches (not working as in open up the laptops, working as in serious conversations over good food and if you want great drinks). They are open for dinner, though I prefer them as a working lunch venue (late night at times they turn into a nightclub). 

Dinner

San Francisco is a food and restaurant town, there are 100’s of restaurants, dozens of great ones throughout San Francisco. Here are a few of my absolute favorites, places I take people to frequently.¬†

For a serious dinner with clients, over great food and drink, here are my top suggestions in SOMA.

Town Hall (343 Howard on the corner of Fremont, Mon-Fri 11:30-2:30, Sun-Thur 5;30-10, Fri-Sat 5:30-11). Townhall offers amazing, contemporary food in a venue that is also exceptionally well designed. Great food at a price which is a great value for the quality and service. They also have a private dining room which can handle up to 40 people seated or 80 people for a standing reception ($1000 min for lunch, $2000 min for dinner, offers full audio-visual capabilities and Internet access). One of my favorite restaurants in San Francisco and a place I suggest to locals and visators alike.

Salt House¬†(Mission between 1st & 2nd; open Mon-Thur 11:30-11, Fri 11:30-12, Sat 5:30-12, Sun 5-9:30). Salthouse offers contemporary American food, locally and seasonally sourced, with a fantastic selection and level of quality. It can be a bit loud so is best for relatively small groups, no more than about 6, but offers some of the absolute best food in San Francisco. I have business contacts who insist on a visit to Salt House everytime they are in San Francisco and I’m more than happy to comply.¬†

or Anchor & Hope (83 Minna St, just off of 2nd, Mon-Fri 11:30-2, Sun-Thur 5;30-10, Fri-Sat 5:30-11). The third restaurant from the trio who founded Town Hall and Salt House, this is their take on a contempory American seafood shack. Currently top on my list of restaurants to try next, given the amazing quality of their other two restaurants I feel very comfortable recommending Anchor and Hope. 

There are other great options, but these are three of my favorites in SOMA for serious food all great options for a small business dinner.

For a large group dinner, especially on a budget, my goto suggestion in SOMA is Canton Seafood and Dim Sum¬†(655 Folsom St on the corner of Hawthorne betwee 3rd and 2nd, Mon-Sun 10:30-9:30). For lunch and on the weekends they offer cart service Dim Sum at very reasonable prices and of exceptional quality. But what I really love going to Canton for is to bring a large group for a banquet. They can almost literally accomodate any sized group (upstairs they have a dining room that seats up to 450+ people, downstairs they seat up to 300, though a reservation is advised). I generally modify one of the banquet menus ending up with a 7+ course feast, including Dim Sum (which I request as a substitute for other appetizers and fried rice) for a price of about $25/person. Typically this feast includes a whole fish, Peking Duck, Salt & Pepper Crabs and more. Amazing, tasty food, very reasonably priced with inexpensive drinks and friendly service. I’ve had dozens of groups events at Canton Seafood over the past few years and have never once been disappointed – and they have done great whether I’m dining with a few friends or have brought 100+ people.¬†

Professional networking quality drinks

San Francisco has many great bars and has become well known for some of the most serious wine bars and serious mixed drink bars in the country. If that interests you, I encourage you to do further research (or leave suggestions here as a comment) but here are a few great to know about venues nearby to the Moscone Center. 

House of Shields (39 New Mongomery between Market and Mission, New Montgomery is between 3rd and 2nd, Mon-Fri 2pm-2am, Sat 7pm-2am, closed Sun). A 100+ year old San Francisco institution. Not the fanciest of drinking estabilishments by far, but a goto establishment for afterwork, post-conference networking over cheap drinks. Not fancy, but also likely a spot where many speakers at tech conferences may end up (and certainly a spot favored by locals).

The Press Club SF (20 Yerba Beuna Lane, just off of Market across from Yerba Beuna Gardens between 3rd and New Montgomery, tasting room hours Mon-Thur 4-9, Fri 4-10, Sat 2-10, closed Sun). An urban wine tasting room, this large space features 8 bars serving wines from 8 different wineries, with representatives from each winery pouring the wine. They also have a selection of light foods to pair with the wines and upstairs a retail store featuring wines from all 8 wineries. For business purposes besides being a very upscale place for after conference drinks and conversations, they also have a private dining room/boardroom with full a/v which can be rented for private events. During Web 2.0 Expo they are closed for a private event on April 1st. 

These are my suggestions. As I stated, I’m sure many of you reading this have others. I hope this is helpful, please leave your own experiences and suggestions below in the comments.

Posted in personal, restaurants, reviews, San Francisco, web2.0 | 24 Comments »

Business advice case study – Bohdi restaurant in San Francisco

Posted by shannonclark on December 10, 2008

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This post is my personal opinion and advice, unsolicited and uncompensated for by anyone, so take it accordingly.

A few nights ago I had dinner at Bohdi restaurant, a ¬†Vietnamese restaurant here in San Francisco which I have long walked past but haven’t previously had a chance to try. It is a huge restaurant occupying two storefronts in the Mission, in a part of the Mission which has long been borderline but is rapidly gentrifying with new restaurants, shops, galleries and cafes opening up all around Bohdi.

As I ate my dinner I looked around, counted the chairs and tables, counted how many other people were eating that evening (a Sunday night), I watched the one waitress managed the two large dining rooms, and I puzzled on what and where this restaurant had gone wrong. 

Unfortunately based on my observations of hundreds of restaurants over the years, I would predict that Bohdi restaurant will close within the next year, probably sooner rather than later unless they make many changes. 

I should pause here a bit and explain my views and my purpose in writing this post (especially if you are reading this without being a regular subscriber of my blog or a long time reader). I’m a fairly serious foodie and longtime “chowhound”. Back in Chicago I was an active poster and participant on Chowhound, and then later on LTHForum which friends of mine started as an alternative to Chowhound (this was before CNET purchased them). Since college (early 90’s) I’ve been an avid explore of restaurants, especially Asian restaurants, and eat out often.¬†

I’m the amateur in my family, my father has had a 40+ year career in the food industry helping to design and build food processing processes and factories throughout the world. He’s written many textbooks on food processing and hundreds of academic papers on the food industry. I grew up learning to cook from both of my parents and talking serious food with my whole family. My sister’s long time boyfriend is a former food critic for the New York Times and has recently sold his 3rd and 4th cookbooks which will be published next year. He’s edited recipes for many cookbooks and has worked on multiple TV food series.¬†

In short my immediate family takes food very seriously. I’m also a serious cook.

And professionally I’m a consultant and entrepreneur, so I look at restaurants not just with the eye of someone who loves food, but also with the eye of someone who is an entrepreneur and who advises businesses.¬†

So with that said, here are some of my observations about Bodhi specifically and my suggestions for them to consider Рand more broadly for anyone who has a food (or indeed other retail) business to think about. 

The good news

  • Bodhi serves flavorful and tasty food. The food is good, not without some serious issues (more on that below) but at least they are starting from a good basis of chefs who cook their cuisine well
  • Bodhi has a large space with lots of potential. They literally have one of the largest restaurants I’ve seen in San Francisco, not the absolutely largest but a very big space, I counted a bit over 90 seats as they currently have their tables and chair arranged and they are legally licensed for 108 people.
  • The location has a lot of potential.¬†They are located on a stretch of Mission St which is almost at the beginning of SOMA. It is a still rough neighborhood but all around them are new galleries, restaurants, shops and cafes which have opened in the past year. The location does not get a large amount of foot traffic, but it is close enough to many parts of the city and parking is still manageable that they could draw a good crowd, and indeed within a few blocks of them are restaurants which are always busy and usually packed.¬†

The bad news

  • They are nowhere near busy enough.¬†They should be serving 200-300 covers nightly for dinner in a space this large, if not more. Instead I’d guess that they rarely serve more than 40-50 covers a night, if that, with perhaps a few additional takeout or delivery orders.¬†
  • Their portions are far too large.¬†Large portions may seem like a good deal, but for a restaurant they mean people do not order as many dishes or as many courses. In many cases they likely mean wasted food and certainly increase the costs to the restaurant of dishes they serve. In large part I think this is in part because they serve food on overly large plates.
  • The decor, especially the cheap tables and chairs without any tablecloths is at odds with the menu.¬†They are using uncovered, cheap four or two top rectangular tables and basic standard stackable chairs. In short tables and chairs right out of a discount restaurant supply house. The have a single flower in a small vase on each table but not tablecloths. Everything except the physical size of the space shouts discount, cheap location. ¬†The prices, however, are not exceptionally cheap though neither are they overly high, a few dollars higher for most dishes than the cheapest of Vietnamese restaurants, though the quality is higher.¬†
  • They only have a wine & beer license and no bartender. Though they have a large bar with 9 barstools at it, they have no bartender and are licensed (based on what is for sale) only for wine and beer. And they do not stock a wide range of drinks at that, nor do they push them on customers. Alcohol makes up much of the profits of any successful restaurant, yet they are seriously forgoing this.¬†
  • The layout and single waitress does not draw people into the space. As I sat and observed people walking by and on first entering the restaurant they often looked around a bit puzzled. Here was a huge restaurant spanning two storefronts yet only a few patrons and you have to walk in, past a fountain, and look around to find someone, anyone to guide you to a table somewhere in the vast space.¬†

So what does all the above mean in terms of suggestions I would offer?

For starters I would suggest that Bohdi make the following changes:

  • update the decor at a minimum by adding tableclothes to hide the cheapness of the tables. Better would be to replace the tables and chairs with more natural and rich appearing materials. Tables of real wood, chairs with some design to them. This would be much more in keeping with the neighborhood which is edgy and arts oriented and would make the space feel higher end
  • leave no part of the space unfinished, cluttered with storage or apparently unused. At present there is an entire seating area, between the bar and the bathrooms which looks like it is never used. The tables and chairs are just scattered around that space haphazardly. If the demand for that space as a dining area is not there, then perhaps it should be transformed into an extension of the bar and made more functional.
  • Remove much of the visual clutter, such as the odd central fountain and the very old (and cheap) art hanging on the walls. Did I mention this is an arts district with countless galleries in the area? Make a deal with one or more of them to hang art on a rotating basis that is more in keeping with the neighborhood (and not coincidentally might suggest holding an opening party in the space each month)
  • Simplify the menu still further to have fewer dishes which are even more seasonal and always using fresh ingredients. Write about the choices and suppliers used. Reduce portions (while keeping prices at current levels or even higher in some cases – use local, organic meats and charge a few dollars more for example) . Add weekly or daily specials to try new recipes and to make it special to dine in the restaurant.¬†
  • Upgrade the wine, beer and sake selection. Again look for local supplies, there is Sake brewed here in the Bay Area for example as well as many local breweries and lots of local wine. Include imported sake, beer, and wine but emphasize quality and pairings with the food. Add special beverages for non-alcohol drinkers and train the waitresses on selling pairings.¬†
  • Get demand higher so that the bar has a full time bartender and give very serious consideration since the space is so large to transforming one section to a lounge and to upgrading the license to a full liquor license (which is, I admit costly especially for a space this large). Consideration should also be given to getting a public performance license though that depends on if the space would be used frequently for non-dining events. At a minimum a license that permitted use of one of the two rooms for private events on a regular basis would be a good idea.
  • Add the chef’s name to the menu. This is assuming that there is a chef behind the restaurant (if not, get one). But restaurants with the chef’s name attached enter a different category in the mind of patrons than those that are seen as ethnic, cheap dives. With a space that could seat nearly 100 people and should probably see 300+ people a day if not more (since they are open for lunch as well as for dinner) they should be targeting a higher end audience.¬†
  • At the moment I would guess the average cover is less then $20, making these changes would likley move that closer to $30 perhaps even $40 if most tables are getting a bottle of wine or a couple of beers or cocktails. At the moment few patrons would get appetizers, entrees and desserts for everyone at the table, and it did not appear that most were buying wine or many drinks. However throughout San Francisco there is clearly demand for restaurants where the average cover is far higher than $40 and indeed this could be a great date or group dining restaurant where a couple could have a great experience for less than $100.
  • With new furniture make a wider range of table types to signal a wider range of customers. At present they have only a very few two tops and every other table is a four top. There should be a few tables set up for larger groups, perhaps arranged for semi-private dining experiences and there should be far more two-tops set up as with only one exception every single group I observed at the restaurant was a couple out on a date.

A few general underlying premises behind my suggestions (here’s where things may be a bit more broadly applicable):

  • Curation adds value.¬†It is hard to create a streamlined space and in the case of a restaurant menu. But a tightly focused menu (or selection of goods) signals quality – the assumption being that there is nowhere for a chef to hide on a short menu. Also that every decision has been made with care and attention (as it should have been). A short menu also allows for frequent changes to reflect the best possible ingredients and suppliers. In a non-restaurant context think about the visual difference between higher end retail shops and dollar stores – very few (if any) high end shops are cluttered – instead they sell a relatively small but in theory highly curated selection of goods. Likewise a restaurant with a short, tightly focused menu signals that the chef is very confident – and is only offering the best possible dishes and is not catering to the broad public but to discerning patrons (and everyone wants to be respected)
  • Design suggests audience and price. In an artistic neighborhood show respect for art and design. Lazy choices about art to hang on the walls (i.e. stuff that was very cheap) or the use of bulk, cheap furniture, signals a lack of design. Just a few blocks away the new Four Barrell Coffee shows one great approach to furniture – they have all custommade from recycled materials tables and chairs, the effect is striking and well in keeping with their desired audience of “hipsters”. Their other choices, such as playing vinyl for their music and not having wifi are other signals. And they are almost always packed with customers paying premium prices for high quality coffee.¬†
  • If you don’t ask people won’t buy. Years ago I met a professional waiter who shared with me his secret to having average covers which were nearly double his fellow waiters, if they averaged $20 he averaged closer to $40 (which meant his tips were also double or more than double his fellow waiters’ takings). His secret – he asked people if they wanted things. He asked if they wanted to start with a cocktail, he asked if they wanted appetizers, if they wanted wine with their meal, if they wanted dessert, if they wanted an after dinner drink. Especially with couples on a date his technique worked extremely well.¬†

Sure this last point is simple – but the simple things are often the most important. I’m always surprised by how few restaurants train their waitstaff to always ask if I want something to drink, to check if I want dessert before giving my the bill for my meal. To see if I want some appetizers to start the meal. The better restaurants train staff to do this as a matter of course – and as a result sell much more.

I do not know all of the numbers for Bohdi restaurant, but my very rough estimate would be that between lunch, dinner and delivery they gross far less than $500k a year, probably less than $400k. In s apce that large, however they should be grossing over $3M or more a year (potentially a lot more). And yes, to gross that much they would need to have far more staff, buy more supplies, do more active promotion, spend more on printing, cleaning of tablecloths and the like, but I suspect they would net vastly more than they do today Рand with some further changes could net far more than $3M a year (which is based on an average cover of $25, shift to $40 or higher and to high alcohol sales on a regular basis and profits could be much more. 

If I were wokring with a client such as Bohdi restaurant I would start with the following questions (see above for some of the probable results):

  1. What strengths does the business start with?
  2. What is working already?
  3. What resources does the business have?
  4. What is the initial impressions of the business (if retail on walking past, on first entering, if online on first visiting the site)
  5. What does that impression signal about the target audience and especially about the price expectations of that audience?
  6. Does the actual experience then reinforce (or call into question) those initial impressions?
  7. What could be done immediately to start to change? 
  8. And then what further changes should happen, ideally looking to make changes that reinforce other desired outcomes and build on it (i.e. start with tableclothes, move to partnering to improve the art, then throw opening parties to build awareness and get people in, then change the menu to help grow revenues, then reinvest in getting better/higher quailty furniture, then in expanding/enhancing the bar options etc)

As I noted this is based on my experiences of walking past Bohdi and of eating there once as well as my long time observation of the restaurant industry. It is certainly possible that I’ve missed some key aspects to Bohdi’s particular situation (they might do a booming lunch business for example though I doubt it). And as in every case, if I were working with the business it is likely that there would be other issues that would be discovered and would need to be addressed – every situation has surprises and unique aspects.

But hopefully this (admittedly long) post helps them (if they see it) and inspires others to rethink their particular business.

And yes, I’m available to do extended versions of this type of consulting work (the first meeting is free but after that I charge).

Posted in customer service, Entrepreneurship, restaurants, reviews, San Francisco | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

My review of Slow Food Nation 2008

Posted by shannonclark on August 31, 2008

A few months ago I launched a second blog, Slow Brand, to cover my views on a slow approach to branding, as I launched it I promised to cover both Branding and Food topics, the name is most definitely an homage and reference to the Slow Food movement.

Well this weekend was the Slow Food Nation series of events here in San Francisco.

I’ve written my review of the Slow Food Nation Taste Pavilions along with my feedback and suggestions for 2009.

Please take a read and add your comments and experiences, your suggestions and reactions to my suggestions. I’ve been thinking a lot about events of late as I start to organize for future MeshForum events.

Posted in personal, restaurants, reviews, San Francisco | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Communities I speak

Posted by shannonclark on August 10, 2008

A few days ago I wrote about the communities all around us as I rode the Muni back from the Farmer’s Market this afternoon I thought a lot about the Communitites I speak – i.e. those groups I can participate in, can speak the lingo, know the references, pay attention to the key events and sources.

I think there are many different ways to define community. In the past I have written about how what we pay attention to helps form and share the communitites we are a part – who we are is what we follow. And indeed this is one key aspect at least of the active, current and potential communitites we could be a part of (we might pay attention to a community without being an active part of it). But there is another key part of the puzzle – what we can “speak”.

Speaking a Community

I am gifted at being a very quick study and learner. In part because I have always been and remain to this day an avid reader of books, magazines and more so in the past then today of newspapers I have at least a passing knowledge of tons of subjects and topics. Especially today with most of the world’s knowledge at your fingertips via well crafted Google searches (plus knowing what resources to use when Google isn’t enough) I can fairly quickly come up to passing speed on nearly any topic.

But this is not fluency in a given Community, rather it is merely an ability to perhaps get a quick glimpse, to exchange a few words, perhaps to ask some smart questions and likely to learn how to learn more, which is itself often pretty vital.

However there are quite a few Communities that I do speak, communitites where even though I may not have been active in them for quite sometime I could jump right in and participate quickly. Here are a few that come to mind, I’m sure there are others and I’ll note a few special cases.

  • Chess. I learned to play chess at the age of 4 from my grandfather. In high school I was the captain of my chess team for 3 1/2 years. Since then I have read probably 100’s of chess books and though I haven’t played a serious game in a few years, a few years ago I played regularly with the serious players at North Ave Beach (and in Old Town) in Chicago, drawing or beating players up to about 2100 or so. So yes, I can “speak” chess at a serious level. In Paris a few years ago I tested this, I went to the Luxumberg Gardens where there have long been public chess boards, there I played an English Barrister who is one of the only Englishmen to practice law in France. I met him over the chess boards where Chess, more so than French was the language of choice.
  • History. Especially of the Medieval Near East. I haven’t studied this in a few years (and though it happens slowly historians do over time make progress in learning more about the past as new works are found and increasingly made more readily available via technology) but I could probably have a good conversation with any historian generally and specifically anyone who is interested in the Ottomans, Byzantines, Armenians, or to a lesser degree some aspects of English or Italian history as well as the history of the Crusades. I studied history in college in the early 90’s, so quite some time ago, but being a historian is a particular approach, a particular view and also a way of thinking – a way of taking information, often limited, and pulling it together into a cohesive narrative and story. The type of history I prefer is an archival history, a history of digging deeply into primary sources and using those sources to reveal more about the past – sometimes telling small, specific stories, sometimes piecing out a bigger picture and a greater narrative. An active historian might be more up on the latest books, the places to be published, job opportunities, but we very likely would quickly find ourselves sharing a common language, a common approach and at least some related interests.
  • Slow Food and related to this Cooking. I am a foodie both in terms of where I like to eat and what I like to cook. Again there are many people who are even more active than I, more deeply focused on food, food culture and the professional aspects of food, people who have attended culinary school, who work some part of the food industry at restaurants, magazines or other parts of the food industry. But I definitely speak the language. Doesn’t hurt that my sister’s boyfriend is a professional food critic (for the NY Times) and cookbook author, so though to my friends I may seem fairly seriously a foodie, I have a sense of what I would consider “real” foodies are like. But probably I too qualify, even if I haven’t fully found my community of fellow foodies here in San Francisco quite yet. A few friends who usually like my cooking, a few people I see at the farmer’s markets but I’m not active in the local Slow Food groups, not active in an online forum such as Chowhounds or Yelp and in short not deeply part of the food community (or more accurately many different communities) here in the Bay Area.
  • Programming. I am not an active programmer today, I haven’t written a line of code in a number of years nor do I have a degree in computer science, but I first learned to program at the age of 7, took serious programming classes in high school and a couple of classes in college and though I have only occasionally been a paid programmer, I “speak” programmer. In the late 90’s I worked for Perot Systems (yes owned by Ross Perot) mostly working for Swissbank and later UBS after they merged doing source code administration, in which role I supported over 1000 programmers around the world working as one of the people running the source code servers for those programmers and teams. I also worked with each group on building and compiling their programs. To do this did not, in fact, require that you be a programmer yourself, indeed most of my coworkers were not programmers, but I was able to speak programmer with the project leads, hold a different conversation with them than my coworkers, a conversation about programming methodologies, about language and tool selection, and about to some degree techniques. I’m a bit rusty today, haven’t been keeping up, but generally speaking I can “speak” programmer even if I’m not up on the latest languages, programming challenges, toolkits, libraries or other development tools.
  • Gaming. Today this term often refers to online, computer or console games. But though I know a lot of people who play those games fairly seriously (and some who cover the gaming industry as journalists or work in the industry) I have never been much of a computer gamer, haven’t been one since the early 90’s and I do not own a TV or any gaming consoles. But I was a serious gamer of other types of games for many, many years. In high school I played various board games and roll playing games nearly every week with a group of friends both at our homes, in the high school as part of a gaming club, and at a local games shop we all frequented. In fact one of my high school friend’s father was a game designer for Mayfair Games and we often playtested games. At that time I went to Gencon many times and I ran a lot of games there and locally. In college however though I did play card games with friends I didn’t play many board games or role playing games (though I had prior to college assumed that I would play a lot of role playing games when in college). But in the mid-90’s I supported myself for a year as a professional Magic the Gathering card dealer and player, at that time I was most definitely part of a serious community. Later in the 90’s and early part of this century I played a LARP in Chicago which was part of a very active community, a worldwide community in fact. I played in fact at one of the first games so I definitely spoke that community, but I was also not entirely of the community. Over the years I didn’t make it to every game, in this century I became very involved in starting a company and drifted away from the game. I briefly tried to reconnect with a branch of the game (which is still ongoing) here in California but didn’t fully “click”. But all that said, I certainly can and do speak Gamer – whatever the game whether paper, board, computer or console.
  • Politics. I am fairly passionate about politics, have voted in every election I was eligible to vote in, follow the campaigns and care passionately about many issues. But at the same time unlike many of my friends who are, in some cases, professionally interested in politics (among others I have friends who have run national campaigns for president, served as candidate’s CTO’s, and in some cases run for office themselves) my interest and passion is not professional. In a small way I have helped with a non-partisan public policy group, Hope Street Group whose goals and mission I fully support. But politically I am centrist of neither party. I can certainly, however, speak Politics. And at times I have even toyed with the idea that someday I might run for an office myself, albiet only when I think someone with my centrist views and aethistic leanings could stand a chance of winning (probably rules out running for any national offices in the foreseeable future).
  • Being Jewish. I am Jewish could emmigrate to Israel and would qualify – much more than the past three generations of my mother’s family have been Jewish. I grew up in a household where Yiddish words were sprinkled into conversation with some frequency (my mom’s influence). Every year as a child in our Christmas stockings my mom gave us Hanaukah Geld. But I didn’t attend Hebrew school, wasn’t Bar Mitvah’ed and if I didn’t tell you noone ever guesses that I’m Jewish – my name tends to lead people to another assumption. In fact one Jewish friend with whom I was staying in New York City once called me on a Friday night while I was in NYC and wasn’t sure if I would be comfortable meeting him at his friends whose Shabbat dinner he was enjoying, he assumed I wasn’t Jewish (if he had realized he probably would have invited me to join him earlier). But in college I taught an Israeli friend of mine how to cook Kosher (first having to help teach her how to cook) for the local Hillel Shabbat dinner. I am not religious but I do consider myself Jewish at least as an ethnic and cultural identity. At the same time to some degree I don’t fully speak “Jewish”, I was raised more as a Roman Catholic, went to a Catholic elementary school and the world around me has generally engaged with me not as someone who is Jewish so I haven’t had the experiences positive or negative that might convey. One of my most vivid memories of my childhood is a day when I realized that attending a Catholic elementary school was limiting my perspective on the world considerably. I remember thinking that everyone is Catholic – certainly that everyone I knew was. Yes, I knew that my mom wasn’t, but it was that moment when I realized the danger of being fully immersed in a community, the danger of too much of the same being all around you. I think it was the next day I started asking my parents to transfer me into the public junior high for my 7th grade a move I’m still grateful for to this day.
  • Being Roman Catholic and Irish. I was raised Roman Catholic, went to mass nearly every Sunday for most of my childhood, recieved my First Communion and went to Confession. My father was and is deeply active in his church, he gives the homilies with some frequency and is a very active member of what is a fairly atypical Roman Catholic community, a community that has mass in a school gym and has music played with guitars and where laypeople take a very active role in the service. My aunt is a Roman Catholic nun. I grew up half a continent removed from most of my aunts and uncles (who were and are mostly still back on the East Coast) but we had large family gatherings around the holidays and heard stories of what it meant to be Irish earlier in this century in the US. Stories which reinforced an identity outside of the mainstream of Protestant America (stories of “No Irish allowed” type signs and workplaces). At the same time, however I was not immersed in an Irish idenity, we didn’t learn Irish folk dancing or cook much corned beef at home (though we did eat a lot of potatoes). I also rejected the Catholic church at a very young age, I refused to be Confirmed being unwilling to publicly vow something I did not believe or would want to honor. To be Confirmed is how you join the Catholic Church as an full adult member, it is your act of publicly affirming that you believe in God (which I do not), agree with the Roman Catholic faith and will both be an active member of the Church and will raise your children as members of the Church. All of which I would not swear that I would do – not the least of which being I feel how children are to be raised should be a mutual decision by both parents – which makes it very hard for me to feel comfortable taking such a vow on my own. So while I can speak Catholic, I am not (in a very formal sense of the word) a Catholic. I’ll always be, I guess, Irish – that’s my other side of my family.
  • Web 2.0. Since moving out to the Bay Area I have become, I guess, immersed in the emerging community around Web 2.0. My friends are the bloggers covering the companies, the CEO’s, founders, programmers, and investors in Web 2.0. When I go to a conference on the topic I usually know both the organizers of the conference and a majority of the speakers. I speak “web 2.0” with a high degree of fluency. I use many of the web 2.0 services though like everyone else I don’t use every service or have the time to try everything. I’ve covered Web 2.0 myself as a blogger for Centernetworks.
  • Business. I do not have an MBA. Though if you were to look at my bookshelves you would be forgiven for assuming that I might have one. As a child I read, at least some sections, of the Wall Street Journal from almost the time I learned to read. I have always followed the workings of business with a great deal of interest, I read a relatively large number of business books each year (increasingly books whose authors I might in fact know) and I try to stay up on the many nuances of business. However not having an MBA, not having spent much of my career working up the ranks of a large corporation (or a large services firm serving corporations) there is also a very real sense in which I do not speak Business, some nuances of relationships and interactions I simply don’t get or am at least very rusty about. I was never very good at internal company politics or at the wink and a nod aspects of how a lot of business actually occurs (over games at a golf course and the like). I’m not a member of right health or private clubs, I don’t rack up the frequent flyer miles, and I don’t go to very many business focused conferences or events. But I probably would fit in even at a very high level with people at most large corporations, I could ask the right questions, hold serious conversations, make useful contributions and introductions.
  • Social Networks. In 2004 I formed MeshForum. In 2005 and 2006 I organized a three day conference on the study of Networks both Social Networks and many other types of networks. Speakers at MeshForum included experts from the Pentagon, professors of many fields and from many different schools, entrepreneurs, investors and artists. In 2007 I held a series of smaller one day MeshWalks and I intend to hold more MeshWalks and another MeshForum in the future. As a result of my involvement in organizing MeshForum and in participating in online discussions such as the SOCNET mailing list I have become very well versed in the theory of Social Network Analysis as well as have been a student of the emerging class of web sites (and other services) around “Social Networks”. But I am not a practicing Social Network analyst, I haven’t published research and increasingly I am unable to keep up with the all too many different social networks around which people I know engage (and even less so able to track and follow the countless other networks where few if anyone I know engages). But I most definitely speak Network in all the many permutations of that word and concept. Heck, I can even hold my own in conversation with my friends who are telecomunitions policy or technology wonks. (and in my case that includes people who literally invented major pieces of our current technology stack and or who founded major companies or worked on major policy)
  • and I’m sure I am missing many other Communities I can speak to as well – science fiction fandom, art, the music industry, gay/lesbian communities (I’m most definitely straight but have many friends who are not, many of whom are very active in a range of communities around sexual orientation and idenity) and even sports fandom (the last of which is perhaps a bit of a secret even to some of my friends – for all of my life I have listened to a lot of sports talk radio at times I have followed different sports with some degree of passion – but somehow this hasn’t overlapped with my social circles much).

So what Communities do you speak?

Posted in geeks, meshforum, meshwalk, networks, personal, politics, restaurants, San Francisco, web2.0, working | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Quick ways to judge a restaurant or cafe

Posted by shannonclark on March 29, 2008

I take food seriously. Professionally I organize large group dinners after conferences and other events on a regular basis, my friends and family often ask for my recommendations for places to eat for a range of occasions. Though in my family I’m the amateur, my sister’s boyfriend of many years is a professional food critic for the New York Times and multiple book author, just sold a major cookbook with one of the hottest chefs in NYC (and thus one of the hotter chefs in the world), that book deal being for enough that he doesn’t have to do much beyond writing that book for many years.

But even in that company, I would like to think I hold my own when it comes to finding and discovering restaurants both where I live and as I travel. In Chicago I was a very active participant on the old Chowhound (before CNET purchased the site) and then later on a site and discussion board my friends set up after being fed up with the slow software of chowhound – lthforum. In San Francisco I have occasionally contributed reviews to Yelp and the occasional post back on lthforum or on my blog, but mostly I haven’t been writing about dining out as often I used to do.

Here, however, are a few of my personal rules of thumb, offered to help you (and to help anyone running a restaurant or cafe) as you choose your next place for a meal or a coffee. These are not all firm or universally true, but most of the time they offer a very useful filter. For the sake of many restaurants I sometimes wish I didn’t always notice these small details – but many times over the past year my instincts have been proven right more often than not – restaurants I walked past and my instincts said “will be closed soon” are now closed and for sale, restaurants I entered with a group (their choice, I tried to convince them otherwise) were indeed horrible meals as I predicted.

Breakfast or Brunch

  1. Coffee from a can or vacuum pack bad, from a local specialty roaster good. Breakfast places start with the coffee, if they take that seriously enough to buy it from a local roaster (and incresingly most states and cities have at least one)  that holds promise for the rest of the menu
  2. Real maple syrup. The best breakfast and brunch spots just offer real maple syrup and don’t offer any alternatives. Some okay to good spots offer real maple syrup as an option. With very very few exceptions spots that don’t offer real maple syrup at all aren’t particularly good (at least don’t take their food very seriously)
  3. Fresh squeezed juices in season. Fresh squeezes seasonal juices squeezed on the premises are another sign of a restaurant that takes what they serve seriously and are rarely found at a bad place.

Note that I didn’t focus on the exact dishes of a breakfast or brunch spot, though I do also tend to find that restaurants with smaller, more focused menus generally speaking have better food that restaurants with pages upon pages of breakfast or brunch options. But these simple elements – coffee, maple syrup, fresh juices are all signs of places that are almost certainly worth trying. Oh and any breakfast spot that names itself after breads (Toast to take one commonly used example) better bake those breads on the premises if they truly want to be worthy of the name.

Lunch

There are many approaches to lunch. When making suggestions for places I differentiate between places for working, professional lunch meetings and places for dining alone or with friends and colleagues. For the former, price is not an issue but speed, quality, quiet and privacy can be key factors. For the later, price is often a factor, quality, suitability for a range of diets, and speed.

In San Francisco there is quite a range of lunch spots. Here are a few that I can recommend highly.

  • Medicine Eatstation – located in the heart of the Financial District of San Francisco in the Crocker Galleria this is one of my favorite places to get lunch in San Francisco. They are known for their vegan and vegetarian cuisine, Japanese Zen temple foods, but they have a range of fantastic fish dishes as well. Lunch will typically run you about $15-20 a person here, so this isn’t a budget place but neither is it overly expensive and the quality of food is amazing. The service is order at a counter and then find a spot at many large communal tables, so this is great when dining alone, or fantastic for informal meals with a group, though not ideal for a private meeting or discussion. However for the quality of food and the ability to provide an amazing meal for vegan or vegetarian friends this is well worth dining at (and more times than not I eat vegan when dining here though I’m a confirmed omnivore)
  • E & O Trading – I generally do not suggest chains, but I make an exception for E&O Trading. Their location in San Francisco which is just off of Union Square makes for an ideal location for a business lunch. The food is quite good, but what makes E&O Trading ideal for business lunches is that the design of their booths is ideal for private business conversations with 2 to 4 people, and they do have larger tables (though generally a bit less private depending on the table location) for larger discussions. Well worth knowing about when meeting with clients in town for a conference and staying near Union Sq.
  • Canton Seafood and Dim Sum – One of my favorite restaurants in all of San Francisco, a restaurant I frequently use for large group dinners, greatly enjoy going to for lunch when near Moscone Center, and which I have also always enjoyed their dim sum weekend brunches. What makes Canton a great restaurant to know about is that they offer very high quality Chinese cuisine, at amazingly reasonable prices, and are very willing to accommodate large groups with a fixed price menu. (Feel free to mention my name if you book for a large group, the managers all know me as I have group meals there on a regular basis). For lunches they have even been known to open up their upstairs banquet hall for large groups.
  • Spork – located at Valencia and Hill in the Mission District of San Francisco Spork has, I think, the best hamburger I’ve ever eaten. Not best in San Francisco or best in a long while, but best burger I’ve eaten in my lifetime. Every ingredient works perfectly, the price is right ($8 for a single, $10 for a double) and the toppings, bun, and sauces as well as the quality of the cooking just combine to make for an amazing meal. They also serve a great dinner but for lunch they are now my go to place when dining in the Mission. They offer a small, very focused menu at lunch highlighted by the burgers which are amazing. A place that takes the food they serve seriously but don’t take themselves too seriously – the result is one of my favorite discoveries of 2008.

And those are just a few of my favorites. There are many, many other great options scattered throughout San Francisco and for that matter most cities.

A few things to look for for a business lunch location:

  • Style of tables and booths – for a private, business lunch an open layout with tables crowded near each other is not good. For serious discussions high booths or private rooms offer the best venues
  • Fixed price menu option – if you are organizing a business lunch or dinner for a large group arranging for a fixed price menu or taking advantage of a regularly offered fixed menu greatly facilitates either splitting the bill, or streamlining the ordering process allowing for more time for business discussions and less distractions around the ordering process. Any good restaurant catering to a professional business crowd will include a range of foods on such a menu, with good options for vegetarians and lighter dining options. Further the foods should be “clean” to eat – i.e. not messy, not finger foods generally speaking.
  • A seasonal menu and specials that actually change from day to day – these are related elements. A very good sign for nearly any meal is a restaurant that prints up new menus each day (implying they take their food and sourcing of that food fairly seriously though you do have to watch out for places that are trying to hard and can’t deliver). Baring a menu that changes frequently at a minimum great places have true daily specials that are, in fact, special to that day and season. If the “daily specials” board or menu in the window look worn and faded that’s probably, generally speaking, a bad sign.
  • A short, focused menu – whether for lunch or dinner my broad, general rule of thumb is that a short, focused menu is a sign of a restaurant that takes the food seriously. Nothing on that menu should be bad or below their standards. In contrast all too many restaurants have pages upon pages of menu both for lunch and dinner and as a result while they have an occasional dish they do exceptionally well, they almost certainly have many other dishes that are rarely ordered, use poor quality (often frozen) ingredients and are often quite disappointing. This rule of thumb holds exceptionally true for lunch.

Cafes

  • Large tables – one of my very simple tests of a cafe is the style of tables they use. Small, tiny tables (“French bistro” tables while looking pretty imply a place that does not have people sitting down, sharing tables and working together. My strong bias is for cafes that are laid out for people to be social and to work, with room at the tables to have a couple of laptops out plus beverages.
  • Coffee source – frequently truly great cafes, if they have the space or the facilities nearby, roast their own beans. I take coffee seriously and in San Francisco we’re blessed with many cafes of different styles who likewise take the coffee they serve quite seriously as well.
  • Small drinks menu – this is a personal preference. As a rule of thumb, though not universally true, I find that cafes that have a very focused drinks menu (often forgoing syrups, frozen drinks and the like) are places that take the coffee they serve very seriously indeed. But this is not always the case, there are exceptions, mostly when I’m selecting a cafe (for the coffee) I look for signs that they take what they make seriously. “Latte art” is almost always a sign that they have highly skilled baristas.
  • Looseleaf teas – not every cafe serves great tea and great coffee, but as a general rule of thumb cafes which have looseleaf teas which they then use to make either pots or individual cups of tea are typically places that are owned by owners who care about the quality of what they are serving. There are many sources for teas today, so I am relatively agnostic about the vendor of the teas a cafe serves, but almost always places that take tea seriously enough to have looseleaf tea take everything else pretty seriously as well (there are, in fact, many cafes where they don’t do a good job on the coffee, but do serve looseleaf teas and otherwise have great spaces so I just order tea there and enjoy them that way)

But a cafe is a highly and deeply personal thing. For me I like places that have wifi, a busy but not overly loud atmosphere, power outlets (though I can forgive a lack of one if the cafe has other redeeming features РRitual Roasters in SF comes to mind) and which show signs of design and thought having been given to them to make the cafe a place that appeals to adults. A growing trend which I celebrate is cafes which also serve wine and beer, not so much that I partake, but that they tend to serve a more adult clientèle and almost always also have tasty food options to go with the drinks.

My personal preference is also for cafes which stay open late into the evening, but a great cafe that is only open during the day also has its place.

Dinner

  • Focused menu and theme – fusion can work, but almost never does a restaurant that tries to combine many cuisines into one, often overly long, menu do justice to any of the dishes. In contrast most restaurants with a tightly focused, often seasonally influenced menu at least start from a place where it is likely they can prepare good, tasty foods. The cooks and ingredients still need to be of high quality however.
  • Busy when restaurants should be busy – not every great restaurant will always be busy, some haven’t yet been “discovered” but, for example, a restaurant which is quiet at 7pm on Valentines Day (one of the busiest dining out nights of the year) is almost certainly a restaurant which is not going to be open much longer and should be kept away from. Now, a busy restaurant is, however, often not a sign of a good one, but an empty restaurant when most places would be busy is typically a major warning sign.
  • Ethnic restaurants with mostly non-ethnic tourists is a very bad sign – sure the restaurant may have been written up by national press and be in all the guide books, but if the restaurant, particularly if in a particular ethnic neighborhood does not also cater to the locals you are almost guaranteed a disappointing meal in my experience. Whether in Little Italy or Chinatown this is not always a completely accurate guide, but more times than not it helps you avoid the truly bad places for places that have a better than average chance of serving great tasting food (though you still have to figure out what to order if you don’t read the menu/speak the language)
  • Attention to the details – this can be hard to judge from outside of restaurant, but look at the tables and the menus in the window or step inside and ask for a menu. Generally speaking restaurants that have paid attention to the details at each table, that haven’t used the cheap, standard issue items from mass restaurant supply stores (cheap napkins, salt & pepper shakers etc) likely are paying attention to the food and the rest of the elements of the restaurant.¬† In looking over a menu, without being pretentious does the writing of the menu communicate care about the foods being served? Does it show a point of view? Does it make sense as an overall menu?
  • Pricing that is fair but not too cheap – this is a personal preference, but though my pocketbook might at times appreciate cheapness, my stomach almost never does especially if I take it to an extreme. Cheap restaurants or for that matter any place that feels it has to compete almost solely on price is generally speaking a sign of a restaurant that is either owned by someone who doesn’t know the business well or someone who is getting desperate. This is a rule that especially also holds true for cafes and lunch spots, generally speaking great restaurants charge a fair but not cheap price for what they serve counting on the quality of what they serve and the overall experience to bring people back again and again. This is not, however, to suggest that restaurants which appear to be expensive will also be good, generally speaking they are not, these are often restaurants which are catering to people on an expense account or people who do not eat out frequently – so quite often overcharge for foods (and especially for wines) without making up for it by serving great food and wine.

There are many other factors I look for when I look over a menu and decide about a restaurant. A few smaller tips, generally speaking menus where every dish has lots of ingredients and sauces are rarely good. This is bit of a personal preference, but I find that such dishes usually suffer from elements not being of the same quality and of being drowned in the respective sauces. My preference whatever the cuisine is for chefs who start with extremely high quality ingredients and prepare them with extreme skill and restraint, not overwhelming the dish with too many flavors or too much of any one sauce.

If you are looking at dishes of other people who are eating a few other simple signs which can be warning signs of a potentially bad restaurant.

  1. Lots of leftovers – if everyone leaving the restaurant has doggie bags or if most tables have lots of dishes that seem to have been uneaten (especially true of family style restaurants) this is a sign of a restaurant which is likely both serving too large portions and likely a kitchen which is highly uneven. Both tend to be signs of a meal that will almost certainly be a disappointment.
  2. Garnishes – plates with lots of parsley or other garnishes tend to be a sign of a restaurant which is also trying too hard.
  3. People waiting to place orders or pay bills – both are signs of either waitstaff that don’t care or are overworked, and both in turn are signs of a restaurant that is not being managed well (and that usually is reflected in the food as well as the service). A related issue is if people seem to have empty water glasses, or if messy tables are left messy for long periods of time
  4. Messy plates – there are many types of food and dining, not every restaurant is going to serve food that is photographic ready, but if the food is leaving the kitchen sloppy, it is almost always a sign of a kitchen that is lax, that is taking shortcuts.

I hope these tips help please leave comments with your own additional rules of thumbs, suggestions and tips & tricks to selecting a great place to dine – whether by yourself or with a large group.

Posted in customer service, Entrepreneurship, personal, restaurants, reviews, San Francisco | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

A few reasons I will live in NYC someday soon…

Posted by shannonclark on November 13, 2007

I love city life, the hum and buzz of people around me. I take comfort in the knowledge that I can feed myself and solve nearly any problem I might face with resources which are nearby. Not for me a lifestyle deep in the heart of wilderness unsurrounded by my fellow man – I am an urban creature.

I am also a night owl. As such, life on the west coast, though it has many advantages, may not, I fear, be where I end up living – at least not solely. Many times every week I find myself looking to eat well after 10pm – the hour by which the majority of businesses (and apparently people) on the west coast have closed up shop and gone home for the evening.

This current trip to NYC has reminded me of the many reasons I love NYC and convinced me yet again that I need to live here someday soon – likely not full time (and perhaps less of the time in the heart of the wintertime and the peak of the hottest parts of the summer) but enough of the time that my urbanist instincts can be satisfied.

A few of the many parts of the city that convince me of why I want to live here:

32nd St just east of Broadway – also known as Koreantown this one block (and a bit) stretch of NYC has almost literally more late night, 24hr options than the entire city of San Francisco. If not literally very nearly so (my mental count of dining options in San Francisco after midnight is not a long list in the least). And if the Korean may not be quite as good as I’ve heard you can get in LA (and perhaps for some dishes in parts of Oakland – though I haven’t yet tested this) and Chicago also has some very good Korean options as well – the block more than makes up for that by having quite good dining options available at all hours. And, if you are interested, many other options – such as 24hr spas and Karaoke.

The fact that Momofuku Ssam Bar is open for dinner until 2am 7 nights a week.  I ate here for dinner for my first time this trip. It is incredibly good, well worth all the accolades. (for example see what the NY Times critic Frank Bruni wrote in his beyond glowing review back in Feb 2007) Are you back from reading that?

Yes, it is that good.

And open everynight until 2am. So here in NYC instead of making do with instant noodles or a greasy diner (about the sum total of SF’s options after midnight though there are a handful of other options) you could head to the East Village and get a 2 star (NY Times) meal.¬† And yes, it will be more than you pay at that diner, and no the bread & butter is not free (in fact it is well worth the $8 that is the price for amazingly good bread and two types of fresh, full of flavors goat and cow butters).

And that is only scratching the surface of this city. Gems (and duds) lie around every corner. There are multiple 24hr Starbucks (and yes, they are Starbucks, but still – internet + coffee at all hours in many parts of city = happy Shannon).

Sure, NYC doesn’t have great Mexican dining and it does get very cold in the winters, very hot in the summers. And though there is Central Park, for many miles and long stretches throughout NYC greenery is in short supply. And the traffic can suck, people can be rude, there are always tourists, and you can easily add to that list (high rents – really really high rents, 5th & 6th floor walk-ups, window AC units, bugs, rats, poor schools etc).

But. And it is a big but. This is New York!

I love how diverse the city is and how populated. Not as populated or dense as, for example, New Delhi, but denser in all ways than either Chicago or San Francisco the two major cities where I have lived. Sure the prices mean that you can’t go out every night (unless you really strike it rich) and the prices mean that if I think it unlike I’ll be able to buy in San Francisco it is even less likely I can buy in NYC (though certainly one goal of being an entrepreneur in technology is to eventually be able to buy whatever I want wherever I want).

The bookstores are more common in San Francisco (though in NYC you get sidewalk used booksellers in many parts of the city Рbut fewer used bookstores and independents) and the coffee and cafe culture in San Francisco is truly amazingly good. Plus the tech scene in the bay area is unrivaled, there is tech in NYC but there is also advertising, fashion, wall street, banking, media,  Broadway, and countless other options pulling at and attracting the best and brightest (and the not so good and not so bright or talented as well).

For every Momofuku Ssam Bar there are countless other unmemorable restaurants in NYC (though luckily the worst usually – though not always – soon close). On a personal level I have heard that dating in NYC is difficult though there also do seem to be a great many women of around my age here in NYC (always hard to tell who is single however but they can’t all be dating or married). For someone, like myself, interested in smart, ambitious women and open to a great diversity (heck attracted to women from around the globe) NYC is a place full of some of the smartest and most ambitious people from across the planet. Even today as expensive as NYC is and has difficult as the US Government makes it to live and work here if you are not a US citizen (heck to a degree even if you are) NYC is still a place that attracts people from across the globe.

So sometime soon, likely sometime in 2008, I am going to look into finding a place of my own in NYC – perhaps a place to share with others on a timeshare basis of some sort, but a place of my own nonetheless. I still need to be in the Bay Area and I love my apartment there and my friends – but every time I am in NYC I realize more and more that for an urbanist like myself, this is most definitely the place to be (and not a horrible place for me in my role as a cofounder of a new advertising network either).

Posted in advertising, NYC, personal, restaurants, reviews | 1 Comment »

Visiting NYC – some of my favorites – McNally & Robinson, Don’s Bogam and other usual haunts

Posted by shannonclark on November 10, 2007

I visit NYC almost once a month, though it has been a few months since I was last here, spring in fact. For about the past year when I have visiting NYC I have stayed with a friend who has an apartment on the upper west side. Without the costs of a hotel (and the hassle that is finding and booking a NYC hotel room) my trips to NYC can and have been longer and more frequent.

Often while I am here I have business events to attend, tech or advertising industry conferences and the like. This trip I covered Ad:Tech for Centernetworks. Most evenings I ate out with a group of people who were also in town for the conference, I did also manage to get to a few of my old standbys (and one new favorite).

I am here in NYC until Tuesday, this weekend my plan is to explore the city (and the city’s cafes) further. I may hop on a subway and head over to Brooklyn which I have not explored in the past.

Here are a few of my old and new favorites, spots I try to get to on most trips to NYC.

McNally & Robinson bookstore and cafe

On Prince St in the Nolita neighborhood, a neighborhood in the middle of many other, more well know parts of NYC, is a large, well organized and well lit independent bookstore and cafe. The cafe serves great teas, coffee and snacks and has free wifi with a purchase. The bookstore hosts frequent author signings and other events and is well stocked with an eclectic and carefully chosen selection. And not a small selection, this is not a cramped, small bookstore, but a multiple story, airy and wonderful temple of books and reading. In short, my kinda place and my kinda people.

I discovered McNally & Robinson on my last trip to NYC and now it is a place I return to again and again. I often here a lament that NYC does not support good bookstores anymore, but here is proof that at least a few can buck the trends (though one part of San Francisco I do relish and love is the multitude of fantastic independent bookstores both new, used and often both (something rarer in many parts of the country).

For one of the many group dinners at Ad:Tech I invited a group of people to join me at one of my favorite Korean restaurants anywhere – Don’s Bogam BBQ & Wine Bar. (I haven’t yet found their official website, will add that link when/if I can).

They are located at 17 E. 32nd St a block east of the heart of Koreantown. Unlike the more touristy places to the west, Don’s serves impeccably fresh panchan and meats all cooked on grills at your table. The design is modern, clean, minimalist yet functional. And though the prices are a bit higher than some of the tourist spots, the quality is very high as well. Typically I find it ends up being about $40/person (with light drinking, more if you drink a lot) and for that you get appetizers, tons of panchan, and very fresh and wonderful BBQ meats (and their non-BBQ dishes are also wonderful). I have yet to have a bad dish at Don’s Bogam. The service is usually great, though you may have to insist on help – and having a Korean speaker with you probably would help but is not at all necessary to have a fantastic meal.

Other notes on NYC

When I am in NYC and the weather is nice I often find myself walking. I have had trips where I have walked from Columbus Circle (or even points north of it) to as far south as Ground Zero – generally via a non-straight line through the East Village.

On this trip however I have taken a lot of subway rides and only a few cab rides. At the conference for the most part after the conference on the way to dinner or to other events groups of us would take a cab – for two people they are actually more expensive than the subway, for a group of three or four they are a toss up. In at least one case this week, however, we got out of the cab nearly 8 blocks from our destination because traffic was so bad that the pedestrians were far outracing the cars.

So far having been in NYC for 5 days I have spent over $26 on subway rides (at $2 a ride) and not counting airport cabs (which between to SFO and from JFK were about $70 worth of cab fares) I have spent about the same on taxi rides. Over the weekend I anticipate many more subway rides, my plans include wandering around Manhattan and likely Brooklyn which will involve multiple cab rides as I head out in the morning to get a late-breakfast/brunch, head to an interesting area to do some shopping & touring, find a cafe to work in for a few hours, then perhaps explore another area or two, finally finding someplace to get dinner – and then perhaps catch a movie or a show or something else typically NYC (with possibly a trip back up to the Upper West Side to drop off any purchases etc)

What I love about NYC – and which I miss even in San Francisco is the sheer density of people and population – and thus activity of a dense major city. San Francisco has a few areas which have a lot of people and a mix of residential and commercial sections, but NYC is fairly unique in the US for the overlay of commercial and residential across so large an area – in nearly all parts of at least Manhattan there are literally 100’s of stores within a short walk of any apartment. Nearly everywhere there are at least some shops which are open 24hrs a day. Many restaurants and stores stay open late – I suspect there is almost no good or service (other than perhaps government related) which cannot be found at almost any hour of the day in NYC, nor which can’t somehow be arranged to be delivered.

While there are not a huge number of bookstores in NYC, I have walked past many open until midnight. Slowly in just the last couple of years I have seen (and my observations are just those of a frequent visitor) a growing number of independent cafes and many more places than even just a few months ago who offer free wifi access.

Posted in NYC, personal, restaurants, reviews | 1 Comment »

Visiting Chicago – join me for dinner on Wednesday

Posted by shannonclark on May 29, 2007

I am in Chicago this week catching up with friends, networking, and working. Today (Tuesday) I will be in the city most of the day. Wednesday during the day I will be mostly in Evanston.

On Wednesday night I am organizing a dinner for friends (old and new) at TAC Quick in Chicago. RSVP to me directly or via upcoming if you want to join us.

While I am in town I would love to meet up with people for coffee or lunch, drop me a line if you are around/reading this and have time to meet (or leave a comment here)

Posted in personal, restaurants | 4 Comments »