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Baker & Banker: back where they belong

Baker & Banker's dining room manages to be glamorous and homey all at once.

Jeff Banker moved to San Francisco on December 31, 1997, ringing in a new year and a new life as the chef he always knew he would become. He found a job at Postrio, Wolfgang Puck’s Union Square hot spot, and an apartment on Bush Street, not far from a popular neighborhood restaurant called the Meeting House.

“It was really close to my house,” he says. “I used to walk by that place all the time, and something drew me to go in and ask for a job. I wanted to work in a small restaurant again.”

By then he had been at Postrio for two and a half years, but still he was a little surprised to be hired as the Meeting House chef de cuisine. Soon he realized that’s because the partners were splitting up. “It was a big, weird mess,” he says.

He’d married pastry chef Lori Baker, another Postrio alum, and she’d come to love the Meeting House space as well. But they let it go and moved on to work in some of San Francisco’s favorite restaurants — Bix, Bizou, Fifth Floor, Eos and Home, plus stints in Paris and Italy and travels in Asia.

“We were both obsessed with food,” Banker says. “The whole time we knew we wanted to open our own restaurant. We always had a really clear-cut vision. We were just looking for the right place.”

And then one day he saw on Craigslist that Quince — the successor to the Meeting House — was moving and that the space at 1701 Octavia was available. They scrambled to make it happen, and on December 1 Baker & Banker opened in the space of their dreams.

“It’s fate,” Banker says. “That’s what it is.”

On a recent Saturday evening, the black and gold dining room was still humming at 11 p.m. They served a record 120 diners, some lured by a glowing review the day before by critic Patricia Unterman, who cooed, “Everything works. It’s just plain fun to eat here.”

Striped bass bouillabaisse

“Our vision was to create a neighborhood place,” says Banker. “We always wanted a restaurant where people with sophisticated palates could go on a normal night of the week — not just for a special occasion.”

The menu is small and made up of fresh local ingredients they buy directly from farmers and other suppliers they’ve cultivated during the last decade. Starters range from $9 to $13 and include grilled calamari, smoked trout and a winter vegetable tempura with a magnificent shiso leaf on top. Entrees, from $19 to $27, include seared black bass with Thai shellfish risotto, coriander-crusted ahi and bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin.

The flavors are big and the accents and side dishes are exacting — short rub stuffed twice-baked potato, anyone? — but you may forget all about them when the desserts arrive. Lori the Baker lives up to her name. There’s sticky toffee pudding, pink peppercorn shortbread and huckleberry-stuffed doughnut holes with a side of Meyer lemon curd. And a XXX dark chocolate layer cake that lives up its name, too. All desserts are $8.

Chocolate peanut butter brownie with roasted banana
ice cream and peanut toffee

When the permits come through, the desserts and house-made breads will be available for take-out through a side entrance on Bush Street. The city has tentatively set a hearing this month on their request to operate a bakery during daytime hours. [UPDATE: Bakery approved.]

“The concept is not a full-service bakery,” Banker says. “The idea is that people will walk into a working kitchen and buy the kind of fresh-baked bread they had the night before.” Or the chocolate cake.

If the bakery can help cover the overhead, then the restaurant stands a better chance of being profitable, Banker says. And the expansive kitchen — which is twice the size of the dining room — provides the possibility of catering, too.

Unlike Quince, Baker & Banker vows to remain accessible to locals. The seats are not reserved at a small new wine bar — which offers more than a dozen wines by the glass and an ecologically correct wine list from small producers around the world. They hope to accommodate 10 to 20 walk-ins per night, with the wine bar and new benches out front making it more comfortable to wait for a table.

“We’ll figure out how we can continue to be a neighborhood place once it takes off,” Banker says. “The intimacy of what we’ve created and where we’re located — I really do think it’s a special spot.”

Banker is the voluble one, yet Baker’s name is first on the marquee. That’s partly because of the focus on the baking. But, he adds, “In this economy, we didn’t want to mention the banker first.”

Read More: 1701 Octavia: a place with a past

FIRST PERSON | Jeffrey Banker
Jeffrey Banker

Baker & Banker is an idea that has been pretty well crystalline for over a decade. While the idea itself has been clear from the beginning, the execution has proved to be an incredibly unique, time consuming, and — at times — incredibly rewarding challenge. From a back-of-house perspective, this all could have happened a lot sooner; we have been walking our current culinary line for a while now. All it would have taken was a sufficient space in which to cook and the relationships with the farmers we’ve known for years. We have just always been sold on the idea of serving as a local institution. For our idea to work, we needed to find a location into which our food and style of service fit seamlessly with the surrounding neighborhood.

As is something of a local tradition, we sought to build a warm, inviting space wherein our guests could come and fulfill all of their cravings for serious food, while doing away with the pressure of coming to a place that felt dauntingly “high-end.” We are helplessly devoted to serious food, but not so much to dress codes, hushed tones and overpriced dishes.

What we found in our space at 1701 Octavia is something of a dream location in which to bring our ideas to fruition. We have roughly twice the space for the production of food, wine storage and so on than we do in the dining room. This allows us the freedom to realize any number of our loftier ideas with relative ease. Functionality aside, this beautiful, perfect space is surrounded by a neighborhood of people who happen to know and love great food. In our short time here, we’ve already established a strong core of regular guests, some of whom dine with us almost nightly, taking advantage of our daily menu. Our bakery is set to open sometime this spring, which we think will really strengthen our tie to the neighborhood. We plan on selling fresh bread, pastries, desserts, great Four Barrel coffee and maybe even some sandwiches from the side entrance of the restaurant on Bush Street.

When pressed to describe our food, we generally fall back on “market-driven New-American cuisine.” While the ingredients themselves are almost exclusively Californian, we really love adding fresh, refined takes on both classic and esoteric culinary ideas that originated all over the world, particularly Japan, Morocco and old Europe. Our menu changes just about every day, based on what our farmers have to offer. Our wine list is unique, with a focus on minimally handled, naturally produced wines from sustainably farmed grapes. While it’s largely Euro-centric, a number of our favorite local producers make appearances, as well as a healthy little collection of classic Bordeaux, Burgundy, and so on. We have a steady core of wines by the glass that we supplement with many daily specials, culled from our bottle list. We find it keeps things fresh for our regulars, keeps our staff excited about the wines and makes for a broader range of potential food and wine pairings.