Longevity is one way to measure how well a restaurant is doing. But staying relevant, especially in a fickle and competitive location like San Francisco, is a real feat. Nancy Oakes has pulled it off with Boulevard.
Oakes, partnering with the legendary designer Pat Kuleto, opened the dramatic Belle Epoque-style American restaurant in 1993; in the 18 years since, Boulevard has consistently ranked among the top 100 Bay Area restaurants in San Francisco Chronicle critic Michael Bauer's annual tally; earned a star in the city's Michelin Guide; regularly scored among diners' favorites in Zagat and local media surveys; and has had multiple James Beard Outstanding Restaurant and Best Service award nominations, including one this year. Oakes won a Beard Award as Best Chef in California a decade ago.
Any chef/owner would kill to have the kind of endorsement offered by San Francisco Weekly: “It's nearly impossible to go wrong at tony, wildly popular Boulevard, from the sumptuous interior by Pat Kuleto to Nancy Oakes' flawlessly executed New American menu.”
Arguably one big reason why Boulevard succeeds is because of Oakes's early foodservice experience: While studying at the San Francisco Art Institute, she took a job as a host at Alexis, a fashionable San Francisco restaurant that closed in the 1980s. Between then and 1993 she owned two restaurants and opened L'Avenue, a neighborhood bistro that cultivated a devoted following. Somewhere along the line the self-taught Oakes started cooking, first what she called “my mother's food,” then, after traveling to France and Italy, evolving into the more sophisticated style that she made her own.
Because Oakes has worked the front of the house, she has a better handle on the big picture than the average chef. To ensure the kind of service Boulevard is known for, she follows the popular philosophy that a well-treated staff-in this case, 123 people in a 150-seat restaurant — will in turn provide the best service to guests.
Accordingly, managers are asked to eat in the restaurant at least once a month to help them see things from the customers' point of view; employees have healthcare coverage and paid vacations; and Oakes often cooks the staff meal, she says, since “I think people need to know what good food is. It gets them used to high-quality food and food that is respected, and it shows that I respect them. Food is a very powerful teaching tool.”
Respect is one of the pillars of Boulevard's culture: respect of the guests, the product and other employees. It's understood that staff members have lives and families outside of the restaurant. “We respect and listen to what people have to say and try to take that into consideration,” Oakes explains.
Excellence is the second pillar. Oakes, g.m. Kathy King and the rest of the managers set the bar very, very high and train heavily to make sure new hires buy in.
That respect and excellence are two of the main reasons Boulevard has outlasted the comings and goings of trendier places and the changing tides of a sometimes volatile local economy. Boulevard is, in a word, consistent.
The Chronicle's Bauer, who has seen it all in his years as a restaurant critic, credits that consistency and stability, especially among the management team, with keeping Boulevard among the Bay Area's dependably elite.
“A lot of their business is tourists, which is what any good restaurant in San Francisco needs,” he observes. But consistency and repeat customers contribute to its longevity. And, Bauer adds, “the food is still always interesting.”
Of course, any appraisal of Boulevard can't minimize the role of the kitchen. Oakes is known for complex interpretations of comfort food and seafood. Examples include the wood oven-roasted heritage pork prime rib chop with butterball potatoes, Parmesan and crunchy prosciutto croutons, sauteed swiss chard, smoked dates and kumquat; or Maine lobster and gulf white prawns with vialano nano risotto, watercress greens, fava bean and lemon relish, crisped fava leaves and sunchoke.
From the beginning, Boulevard's culinary team has embraced the locavore mantra; it's something Oakes has practiced for more than two decades. “We use California products in season as much as we can, and we try to increase the amount every year as much as possible,” she says. Lately, the restaurant has bowed to market pressure by producing more on the premises. “It used to be that you could buy cheese; now you have to make it in house,” Oakes observes.
That tweak and many others are ways that Boulevard has stayed relevant to its current and would-be audiences. These moves are what Oakes calls “being involved and being very excited about food.”
Staying relevant also means reaching out to a younger audience. Boulevard attracts a wide spectrum of ages, and Oakes is mindful of maintaining that balance. “It helps that the average age of our employees is about 26, so we listen to them,” she says. It's also why, for the first time, Oakes finally decided to target a younger crowd with a more affordable product.
At one time, Oakes claimed she wasn't looking at expanding, but eventually the bug bit her. Three years ago, she and Boulevard veterans King, executive chef Pam Mazzola and chef de cuisine Ravi Kapur hatched a plan to open Prospect, a casual, more affordable offspring just a few blocks away from the flagship.
At Prospect, now-executive chef Kapur creates contemporary American fare, with small plates dominating the menu. Choices include potato dumplings with arugula pistou, crushed hazelnuts, maitake mushrooms and pecorino cheese; or pork cheek and belly accented with toasted grains, pluot relish and radishes. Desserts include twists on favorites such as a chocolate root beer cake with vanilla bean ice cream, fudge sauce, cherries and root beer foam; or petite s'mores, with house-made marshmallows, graham wafers and a Syrah reduction.
The 120-seat loft-like space in a new high-rise is furnished in earth tones, natural fibers and reclaimed wood; artisan-crafted wrought iron chandeliers and soaring windows create a bright environment.
A review by the Chronicle's Bauer a few months after it opened last year admired Prospect's ability to get up to speed quickly. “From the start, the place performed like a thoroughbred. Even after only a month, it was as if the restaurant had been open a year,” Bauer wrote. He suggested that branching out a mere stone's throw from Boulevard might seem like a gamble.
“Yet it's as if Boulevard has sired a beautiful young colt. If this were a horse race, Prospect just might win the Triple Crown. As it stands they'll have to stand for triple stars.” Actually, the influential critic awarded the upstart three and a half stars, then added it to his 100-best list this past April.
Meanwhile, Boulevard continues its legacy as one of America's best damn restaurants. Period.