Polishing a Hidden Gem: A radical makeover brings visibility to a new restaurant tucked away in an obscure corner of the city, while maintaining a sense of discovery for diners.
Just a few years ago, the idea of planting a hip, upscale restaurant on a sleepy alley in San Francisco's China Basin neighborhood might have seemed nuts. But the local scene is rapidly changing.
At the city's eastern edge, once dominated by fading industrial structures, China Basin and the adjacent community of Mission Bay are reemerging as two of San Francisco's fastest-growing sections. In 2000, the Giants' baseball stadium, now called AT&T Park, opened here. More recently, the new 43-acre Mission Bay campus for the University of California, San Francisco catalyzed the nearby proliferation of office buildings and luxury condos.
- Skylights: O’Keefe
- Windows/Glazing: Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope
- Paints and stains: Benjamin Moore
Into that bubbling mix came Twenty Five Lusk, a restaurant named for its otherwise obscure address. “Even 10 years ago, it wouldn't have been viable to open this sort of restaurant on this little alley, south of Market Street,” says Cass Calder Smith, the architect who designed the venue and 60 other restaurants before it. The semi-hidden location presents both a challenge and a latent asset: the risk of burying the place versus the potential for invaluable cachet. “It needed visibility,” he continues, “but we also knew people like discovering something hidden at the end of an alley.”
The design of the 9,800-square-foot restaurant encourages further wandering and discovery. Its brick building, from 1917, was originally a meatpacking and -smoking plant (later dot-com offices). Working with the four owners to create Twenty Five Lusk, their first restaurant, the architect deftly exploited and opened up unexpected sequences: from the remains of vast carcass-handling halls to small meat-smoking chambers.
From outside, you get an initial taste of Smith's design strategies. Here, a glossy white-glass-and-metal storefront with a sleek canopy plays against the earthy existing redbrick shell. The counterpoint is clear: You would never mistake the new for the old. “Usually we have to warm up a place,” he explains, “but this one was already so warm, with brick and wood columns and beams, we could actually insert flashes of coolness—sleek, sassy, modern elements—with an infusion of luxury.”
Right over the threshold, you arrive at a glass balustrade overlooking a dramatic 20-foot-high space, rising from the bar and lounge below. Orblike hanging fireplaces of stainless steel with tall, gleaming flues punctuate the scene. Cocktail-clinking men in crisp shirts with collars open and women in stylish little dresses hover about the bar and hearths. But it's not obvious how to get down to that cozy “den” level. To your left, between planes of smooth white Venetian plaster, stairs go up—but not down. The idea, says the architect, is for guests to meander upstairs, through the main dining zone, before descending two levels. Curiously indirect, this circulation evokes a house party, where you have the run of the place. (Further investigation near the entrance reveals a discreet elevator and a “speakeasy” back stair to the lower level.) As you soon discover, low walls throughout the restaurant open up lines of sight—most strikingly, the overview from the fine-dining area, on the mezzanine level. Twenty Five Lusk is clearly a place to see and be seen.
The milieu is “a cross between Studio 54 and a ski lodge,” as a writer for the San Francisco Bay Guardian characterized the industrial-chic aesthetic. Smith plays modern against vintage not merely by giving his insertions a cool palette and sleek surfaces (featuring white or gray glass and the ubiquitous stainless steel) but by skewing or tilting them off the existing structural grid. The entire mezzanine level—with seating for 110 diners, plus a small bar and an intimate, private-dining room—is essentially a long white bridge, obliquely spanning the interior. Rhythmic horizontal fins poke through the bridge's walls. Once in the dining area, above the din of the jostling cocktail crowd, you recognize these projections as the ends of tabletops, luxuriously and whimsically rendered in bold black-and-orange-striated Macassar ebony, finished in high-gloss resin. Here, chef Matthew Dolan, one of the four owners, serves up seasonal American cuisine. Views into the glassed-in kitchen, as well as to the lounge below, lend this area expansiveness, despite relatively low ceilings. And the seemingly casual separation and interpenetration of space give the owners flexibility to offer all, or parts, of the restaurant for parties, weddings, and other events—a successful side business.
Tinted mirrors, skillfully positioned throughout the interior, amplify the already generous space. Some even bear translucent images of smoke, recalling the building's meat-curing history. The shadowy colors and imagery, along with sofas around the fireplaces (though fuel-fed and smokeless), create the illusion of a seductively smoky ambience—in a city where lighting up in bars and restaurants has been illegal for more than a decade.
The laid-back-luxe setting has generated an impressive happy-hour buzz. For a chance to gather around mod campfires, lounge on buttery leather cushions, and sip Red Monkeys, customers sometimes line up down the block—discovering just the sort of out-front mingling ideally suited to an undiscovered alley.
Cost: $3.5 million
Completion Date: October 2010
Gross Square Footage:
9,800 sq-ft restaurant/lounge
5,200 sq-ft commercial office space
Architect and Designer:
44 McLea Court
San Francisco, CA 94103