Prelude in blues: opening Gardenias

Margie Conard (left) and Dana Tommasino are opening Gardenias at 1963 Sutter Street.

Margie Conard (left) and Dana Tommasino are opening Gardenias at 1963 Sutter Street.


A  new restaurant. In San Francisco. Which should give fat pause.


The first day we’re officially in the place, I’m out on the street assessing our storefront. A smiling kid I don’t know, maybe 15, from Winfred’s, the longstanding hair salon next door, walks up quickly and asks: “You the new owners?” and, without losing stride, wide-arm hugs me congratulations.

* * *

My girlfriend Margie Conard and I had been looking for a space for years, then finally lost the lease to our restaurant, Woodward’s Garden, which was a funky diner under a freeway in the Mission when we bought it. There was no changing it for kids like us, just starting out and planning at the time to conjure a French-inspired dinner bistro. We rolled paint on and made do for 22 years.

The new space is by far the best thing we’ve ever come across. We name it Gardenias, swooping a little bit of our past Garden into our future.

Inevitably, every friend who first walks into the new space begins to beam and says hushed, reverently, how perfect it all seems: location, size, back patio, kitchen, feel. I glow with it all, too; know what they mean. Know in my bones this is right. And part of me hopes to hell it’s all true.

* * *

What will you do here? What’s your concept? These modern, well-meaning questions.

* * *

Several friends whose eye I admire mention the Hague blue of nascent gardenias — a slate deep hue, grey-tinged almost. I call it up. It is without question a color … bold, bottomless. It is for some reason also the color. The blue of the original bathroom tiles is aqua. We float gloss turquoise on the walls and ceilings above it, naturally. It is a scene.

I tweet: “My new restaurant, it turns out, is about all the blues & I can’t help but think of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets.” Nelson’s book is a remarkable series of connected essay fragments on the color: Admit that you have stood in front of a little pile of powdered ultramarine pigment in a glass cup at a museum and felt a stinging desire. But to do what? Liberate it? Purchase it? Ingest it?

What does blue have to do with Gardenias? How will it infuse us? And, of course, how not to think of blues in relation to the history of the great Fillmore District itself.

* * *

A friend stops by with a fancy, pungent smudge stick of blue-green sage, then tears up when she reminds us to “ask for what you want” as we walk around with it. (Which is, of course, the gift.)

A restaurant. In SF.

Our 14-year-old daughter walks into Gardenias for the first time and, after some taking-in, says: “I can’t imagine how anyone could be anything but happy in this place, mama. It makes me so happy.” Which is the true smudge.

* * *

This space was newly built-out four years ago and with obvious tenderness by the previous owners to become Roostertail. It is already clean and sweetly boned. We are not out to upend what is here. We work with what we have, try to bring ourselves into it, make it reflect us. Our “concept” is paint, our well-used pots, vases, soft lamps, an oddly dramatic 100-year-old Spanish chandelier with its patina of years of smoke and restaurant life. There is no theory for how this will unravel.

I don’t believe in making food as original as possible either, but in cooking with what you know, as a translation, as tapping into memory, in making things beautifully believable in your way, for an ephemeral, bluish moment.

There will be the clear clean flavors of vegetables under the melting spiced meats of the rotisserie; pomegranate and tangerine jewels with almonds, greens, shaved radish and soft feta underneath; wide pounded cutlets sauteed golden with the spike of chilied lemony scallion chimichurri; warm plums oven-roasted with cinnamon sticks over saffron ice cream … a kind of painting, I hope, or a blues in our dishes.

* * *

The few paintings we’ve collected sporadically over the years — some in muted green-blue-browns — all speak intimately to the new walls, as though we assembled them for the place itself. The large one on the right as you come in is of the intersection under the freeway our old restaurant faced. The artist, Larry Morace, stuck his head in our door 20 years ago, saying he thought we might like to see it. We bought it in trade on the spot. It now hums through Gardenias.

When we painted the walls dark blue, something tingled in me. I tweeted: “Paint party with generous friends, and oh how Gardenias was transformed from a rotisserie take-away into a restaurant; how I felt that in my throat.”

* * *

Blue is said to be an undesirable color against food, an appetite suppressant. But then there is that blue of stinging desire, and the blue of passion and titillation — blue films. You might say there are also blues of hunger. And it’s those I want to mine.

Plus, we are contrarians through and through.

* * *

At some point, exhausted, alone in Gardenias with unpacked boxes, tools, paint-rivered hands, white sanded wall powder everywhere, I try to see it full, humming, and have one of my rare pauses; wonder if it will in fact be that way, if it will carry us. The quick blue of incertitude.

A friend tweets about the prospect of our new restaurant: “So — yes — tongue rolling, seizures and reverie.”

I notice recently that some gardenias are so white they’re almost blue, star-bright blue.

Dana Tommasino is chef and co-owner of Gardenias, at 1963 Sutter Street near Fillmore, slated to open any moment now. It will be open for dinner every evening except Tuesday.

TABLEHOPPER: “Gardenias Softly Opens