It was nice to see two restaurants that I worked on, Terzo and Perbacco, featured in a recent article on Eater SF. The article highlighted 13 restaurants that have survived—and thrived—in San Francisco for at least 10 years. The take-away from the article was that the longevity of a restaurant is not based solely on a restaurant’s location, cost, quality of food, service, or ambiance, but a balanced combination of all five elements.
As a restaurant designer, I have always approached each project with a fresh eye, and tried to completely understand the operator's goals before concepting the space. I have been fortunate to work with talented and ambitious chefs and operators like Staffan Terge and Umberto Giben from Perbacco, and Mark Gordon and Laurie Thomas from Terzo. Each of them already was an ace chef or operator before deciding to open a new venture, which certainly made our collaborative task of designing their restaurant a little easier. But their experience also generated higher expectations, which gave rise to unique challenges in the work. With both Perbacco and Terzo, the spaces the restaurant took over were in very poor shape, and just developing the infrastructure to support a full-service restaurant was no small feat. Understanding the technical requirements of gas, power, water, sewage, and exhaust service is a significant part of the design process, and only after you get that figured out can you even start to think about the creative aspects of the design.
As pros in the restaurant business, the chefs and operators at Perbacco and Terzo knew how to deliver great food and service. Although they chose very different locations and spaces for their restaurants, and their menus were very different, they let us bring our view of design to their projects. They respected our input and allowed us to be creative partners in their efforts.
Perbacco is a both a mainstay for business diners and a destination restaurant, with solid regional Italian fare. Staffan celebrates the food of the Piemonte and Liguria, with inventive offerings within this particular range. The location of the restaurant draws substantial guests from the Financial District, but also pulls in a busy, lively social scene on weekend evenings. The space is large and bustling, and we designed it for an urbane, sophisticated clientele. We divided the large space into a number of discrete areas, to allow for different dining experiences depending on seating location. The space can also flex to accommodate different group sizes. Guests can see the action in the kitchen, but they aren’t overwhelmed by it. The intimate bar at the front always makes the restaurant look lively, and windows that open to the street connect it to the larger urban context. Perbacco possesses a unique ability to offer cozy seating that gives diners individualized attention , but within a larger environment that makes them feel part of a significant social experience. As the operator, Umberto's easy, warm hospitality and impeccable style add to the atmosphere; as the chef, Staffan's commanding, capable presence in the kitchen evokes a captain at the helm of a large ship.
Smaller and more intimate than Perbacco, Terzo is a classic neighborhood restaurant, with a sampling of Mediterranean fare. Its turn of the century building tells a special story. Relocated at some point (from up the street) to make room for another building, a portion of the structure formerly housed a stable. The old stable door opening adds a unique architectural character. Despite its relatively small size, Terzo offers a bar and a variety of seating, and a small private dining room. The kitchen opens to the bar and communal dining area at the front, while the restaurant becomes more intimate at the back. With such a small kitchen, a separate building at the rear of the property houses storage and prep space. Chef Mark’s personality—observant and unassuming—fits the restaurant perfectly. And as Terzo’s operator, Laurie draws on her wide social network, using the intimacy of the space to enable her natural hospitality.
So, given the very different personalities of these two restaurants, what common “formula” explains their longevity? What lessons can other restaurateurs learn? First, a restaurant must make money. The cost of providing a meal must be less than what a customer is willing to pay for that meal. And as I (and my clients) have realized, good design can materially impact profitability. Ideal design reveals itself in balance between the size and function of the kitchen; a well thought-out relationship between back-of-house, bar, dining areas, and service stations; and flexible and comfortable seating. For example, too large a kitchen demands too many people to staff it, and not enough customers to pay the labor bill; too small a kitchen requires a streamlined menu with food coming out slowly, and sub-par service. A poor layout between the back-of-house and front-of-house also increases labor costs and drives up stress on staff; this in turn degrades the diners experience, reduces customer loyalty, and drags down revenue. Inflexible and uncomfortable seating also reduces the number of daily tickets and return customers—and ultimately, revenue.
In the case of Terzo and Perbacco, we worked with each restaurant’s spatial constraints to enhance their quirky nature and maximize the revenue-generating factors of the physical space. Perbacco was long and tall, with two-stories. Terzo was low-slung, divided into many small rooms. We exposed and elaborated on existing materials like brick and concrete, and made sure that we balanced the elements of the layout as discussed above. We played close attention to how diners would experience the restaurant, and designed effective and comfortable acoustics and lighting. We used straight-forward and honest materials. We gave a nod to the history of San Francisco and its dining traditions, but we ensured that the design was of today—and also added little bit of what we predicted about tomorrow. In the end, both restaurants reflect the creative team who worked together to get them opened.
We offer our congratulations to Staffan and Umberto, and Laurie and Mark, for the milestone recognition. And we wish them the best for another ten successful, rewarding years.