On February 14, 2004, on a quiet end of Chestnut Street in San Francisco’s Marina District, A16 opened its doors. Ten years later, the always-packed spot is stronger than ever. We recently got together with A16’s dynamic duo, owner and wine director Shelley Lindgren and executive chef Christopher Thompson, to talk about the restaurant’s last decade in service.
Why did you decide to open on Valentine’s Day?
Shelley Lindgren: We were already a week behind schedule, and it just so happened that the two options for opening were Friday the 13th or Saturday the 14th. Friday the 13th is not a bad luck day in Italy, but I didn’t want to do it. The great thing about opening on Valentine’s Day was we got a lot of the overflow business from restaurants that were booked around town. We didn’t know how busy we were going to be. We ended up having 100 covers on our first night, which was more than we hoped for or expected.
Why do you think A16 has lasted so long?
SL: Recently, I was I giving a wine seminar to the staff at A16 — we have a wonderful group of people and I was excited to congratulate the team on the James Beard nomination [for Outstanding Wine Program]. We’ve been nominated five years in a row, and it really defines our success as a restaurant. There is this balance between food and wine and service that just works. I believe in investing in our people, sending them to Italy to learn things and giving seminars, so they can speak to the customers about the unique wines we offer. A restaurant is as much about the people as it is about the food.
Christopher Thompson: It’s a different combination of things, and the most noteworthy is continuing to maintain high level of standards and fundamental hospitality. Shelley is such a gracious woman and commands the dining room floor. She’s so caring toward the guests. A16 is our home and we treat every guest as if we were inviting him or her into our house — that ideology really creates an atmosphere that people want to come back to.
How has the restaurant evolved over the past 10 years?
SL: We’re constantly changing. I was just in Italy and seeing what’s happening there changes us here. For example, when we first opened, we could only get five wines from Etna [a wine region in Sicily], but now we can get 50. The wines coming from there have evolved and hit a different stratosphere. In terms of wine, we’re really searching for quality and value, and we really hope that our guests come in and want the same thing.
CT: Since I started at the restaurant three years ago, we’ve gotten a lot more farmers and different purveyors onboard. We really work with them and have these special dinners where they bring their products in. I love using a new and different cut, a different animal like goat or rabbit, and a different rancher. Also, something that I definitely introduced to the restaurant is many more varieties of salumi and charcuterie. I want to add a lot more fresh pasta to the menu. A16, historically, hasn’t really been a pasta-driven restaurant, so that’s an area that could be improved upon.
What do you think is the future of Italian food in San Francisco?
SL: I have been in this industry in San Francisco for 22 years, and when I first started, there were many more French restaurants compared to the quantity of the Italian food we have currently. There is always room for pizza — there is definitely a great selection of restaurants offering pizza — and we think of ourselves as more than just a pizzeria. You can come for pizza or for antipasti, salads and pastas. Pizza could be part of your meal, but not your whole meal. Italian food is at an all-time high in San Francisco, for sure, and it’s really fun for someone like me who goes to Italy often for work.
CT: It’s hard to say. When A16 started out, there weren’t very many people in the city doing the kind of Italian food we do; but now there are many pizzerias that are full every night. The future of any type of food in this city depends on how the population continues to develop. The tech scene is pushing people out, and a lot of good line cooks can’t afford to live in the city. It’s harder and harder to find young cooks — that’s why Oakland is the next frontier.
What other Italian restaurants in San Francisco do you enjoy?
SL: La Ciccia, of course. Delfina and Pizzeria Delfina. My kids love the focaccia at La Brea Bakery. There is a lot of Italian heritage in San Francisco. I do like to go to Alioto’s on the Wharf for crab every winter. There are a lot of places I haven’t tried. Acquerello has always had a wonderful wine list. Of course, Cotogna and [Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star] Quince, too.
CT: I like to go have a pizza at Tony’s [Pizza Napoletana] because he does so many different styles, and he does each of them very well. I’ve been eating a lot of different stuff lately, non-Italian — Stones Throw and The Square on Washington Square. I’m really excited to check out Trou Normand’s charcuterie program. They have more than 30 or 40 types.
What can we expect for the summer season from the kitchen and cellar of A16?
SL: We have a lot of fun at A16 because we’ve barely tapped into this huge swamp that is Southern Italy. There’s always dishes where we think, “Why haven’t we made this yet?” Our salumi has never been better. Chris recently went to Naples and he got certified in pizza, which brought a whole new understanding to what we’re doing.
CT: We have farm dinners every last Sunday of the month. The end of May, for us, is such an exciting season. Once you start hitting spring and summer, the food is just off the charts. It’s really exciting to get the ingredients that Mother Nature has given us, interpret them, not do the same thing we’ve done in the past and make them the best they can be.
SL: We’re also really excited about all the different sparkling wines from Southern Italy and the sparkling reds. They are the best value and we’re dedicated to the farming processes of winemakers in the same way that we are with our purveyors of food. We try to be focused on what we are doing. We are totally into our community and supporting everyone as much as we can. We are true to what we believe and that’s about as much we can do. We know there is a lot to work on and we’re not trying to pretend that we’re perfect. We just want to keep everything going strong.
Photos Courtesy of A16 and Frankie Frankeny