Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Serpentine: Erin Rooney


Serpentine is one of our neighborhood restaurants that the Mister and I loved from day one. Good honest California cuisine and the minimal aesthetic suited our taste, so much so, that we ended up having our wedding party there. It of course helped that Erin Rooney also owned Slow Club another one of our favorite restaurants. So, it seemed only natural to start this project with Erin a gal who knows what it takes to create a timeless and inviting space to serve you tasty warm dishes and delicious cocktails, really, exactly what you hope from a neighborhood restaurant. What project you say? Well, Celia and I hoped to bring these interviews and views into our favorite restaurants and what goes into creating them awhile ago but well... it never did get off the ground. But I would hate for them to remain here on my hard drive for no one to see and read so here our first of 3 interviews that Celia of,  Life According to Celia, and I collaborated on a little over a year ago. 

UPDATE: Celia has a really lovely description about how this project got started. She really is so much better at expressing herself through words than I am. I'm much better at imagery and well design of course.  That's why I thought we would make a perfect pair for this project and then of course our backgrounds fit together  nicely as well... anyhoo, you should read her version on it. 

Q: Would you describe your space and the concept behind creating it

I naturally tend toward very striped down and minimal design.  The space at Serpentine allowed that restraint.  The high ceilings, brick and light were such special building blocks, we didn’t want to distract their simple beauty.

Q: Do you have a favorite dish from the restaurant, past or present?

ER: I have always loved our salads.  Since we work directly with local farmers, the greens are amazing and we adorn them with interesting combinations of fruits, nuts, cheeses, grains, occasionally meats and vinaigrette's. 
On the opposite end of the spectrum, some of my favorite dishes have been braises.  From rabbit sugo with pappardelle to braised duck leg on corn puree.

Q: When you think of other establishments who gets it right and why?

ER: Stable on Folsom:  how did they make that little driveway feel so romantic?  I don’t know the owners, so I’m not sure what’s at play here, but it all feels very right in a smart, contemporary European way. 

Q: There are obviously things you need to to spend a little more on and things you need to save a little more on. How do you find the balance to make it all work?

ER: It would have been easy to spend millions on design, but then we would have to be a high-end restaurant, charging a lot of money for precious ingredients on special occasions.  I would have to basically ask my kitchen staff to work for nothing and have no life.  It is so ironic that there are places that boast fair trade ingredients while simultaneously asking their staff to work long hours for little to no pay. 

Q: Okay we have to know is there a favorite dish to make at home? 

ER: Fish tacos.  I have a tiny grill on the deck and I like to make a special side:  grilled corn & squash salad or a grilled fruit: fresh peaches or pineapples.  It’s easy and everyone can choose what they like.

Q: Serpentine isn't exactly on Main Street so how did you get the word out about your establishment? 

ER: Mostly word of mouth. I have paid very little for advertising and that has been for friends’      projects like Meatpaper or Slow Food. We participate in a lot of fundraisers. 

Q: You already know how much we love the design of the space so tell us how did you choose the designer/architect to bring your idea to fruition?

ER: I was really lucky to meet Eric Heid (the designer/contractor for Serpentine). He was building Spork, my friends’ Bruce & Neil’s restaurant, and we met at their job site. His talent and dedication to functional beauty were a perfect match for the space. 

Q: I can't help but think of a Serpent (possibly in the bay?)  but how did you come up with the name Serpentine? 

ER: In the process of making the entrance wheelchair accessible, we dug up the front part of the restaurant. Under the foundation was all this green rock: Serpentine. We had an idea to incorporate it into the design, but never found a place for it. Come to find out, Serpentine is California's rock. Now that I know what it looks like, I see it all over Dogpatch and Potrero Hill. 

Q: How did you get started in the business?

ER: My first restaurant job was as a busser at my aunt's restaurant in Carmel Valley. I worked there for a summer when I was 15 and have worked in restaurants ever since. I was a server at 42 Degrees when Jim Moffat owned both Slow Club and 42 Degrees. I bought Slow Club from Jimmy in 1998.

Q: Did the same team that did your restaurant work on your identity package as well? If not, did they communicate with each other on the overall look? Or was it a complete separate venture?

ER:  I had to laugh at this question because I feel like my operation is so small that I don't have teams or an identity package, but I'm really proud of everyone that made Serpentine come together. Eric Heid designed the restaurant. He was also the contractor and worked with some very talented artisans that did the actual build out. He made it clear that wanted to create my vision for Serpentine and I think he did a beautiful job. For me, the simple and intimate feel is timeless. Molly Tuttle is the graphic designer that created the logo for Serpentine. She met with Eric and me and we spent several days creating a very elaborate and vintage design that we then striped down to the current logo. Molly is a wonderful designer and my best friend since third grade. 

Q: Seeing as internet is king in our culture, there are a lot more voices and opinions out there. What effects have blogs had on the business? How noticeable is it?

ER: I think there is so much information available that it becomes diluted. The rise and fall of Yelp has been interesting to watch, but I don't see that it has had a direct affect on our business...but I never even read it. Blogs like Tablehopper and Eater helped put us on the map, but at the end of the day, I still think of us as a neighborhood spot that caters to people within a mile or two. I could be way off, but I'd like to think that community and word of mouth (powered by the internet, of course) still drives the bulk of our business. 

Q: What's the feeling you want everyone that walks into your space to have?

ER: Because the main windows start at 12 feet up the wall, we were obsessed with making sure that people would not feel like they were at the bottom of a swimming pool, but wanted to preserve the secret, hidden-gem quality. We wanted to create an oasis from the hectic highway of Third Street and the industrial stretch of Dogpatch. When someone does see the little candles in the entrance and makes their way in the front door, they will feel like they stumbled upon a real find: a special space with some lovely design details serving quality food and tasty cocktails in an unpretentious setting. That's the idea. 

Q: How do you choose the artwork for your space and what function does it serve?

ER: I don't have a background in art and felt very intimidated to choose the art myself. I asked our neighbor Peter Kirkeby to choose the art for the space and most recently, Bruno Mauro from Ampersand gallery. For me, it is more about showcasing a local person's work and getting to know their community in the process. Because art is such a subjective and evocative component of the ambiance, it has been really interesting to watch the reaction of different shows...and how some people don't even notice! I think it would be a great premise of a satire film. 

Q:  Favorite music to dine to?

ER: I personally love acoustic based indie rock. When I go out to eat, I love to walk into a restaurant that is playing the music that you can tell the the staff genuinely enjoys, whatever it may be. When the staff is comforted by their familiar music, they are more at ease and treat guests like they have come to a dinner party at their house, not like a stiff robot being paid to bring you food. 

SERP05 All photography Kelly Waters

Thanks Erin for taking the time to give us such honest and straight forward answers and for also being our first interview. And to all our readers expect the next interview next Tuesday. 


Thomas Hornblower said...

I can't think of anything more uncomfortable to sit on at a counter than the hard, metal, backless stools in the pictures. Mind you I'm 60 and my body has lost much of its padding, but I don't see most restaurants these day's being designed for comfort. Perhaps they're designed to ensure a high turnover rate.

Kelly said...

Hello Thomas I was debating about whether or not to publish your comment or not as I'm sensitive to this not becoming a free for all of negative comments but I think you are really more addressing a concern and are just having a visceral reaction to the stools.

I think this thought that restaurants are designing for a high turnover is something I've heard pretty consistently. And while this may be true for a small fraction I think it's actually more complex than that. For example I've heard that in regards to the noise level in restaurants (one of my personal pet peeves, I won't return to a restaurant that pierces my ears b/c they haven't designed it appropriately) I also know that from designing and permitting restaurants that it's one of the last considerations and it's expensive and when the city has sucked you dry of money with all their fees there isn't much left over to apply to such things especially for a business that has a very slim profit margin. Although if they can't afford it at first there should be a plan to add it later as money comes in.

Personally I think the stools are a design choice. They work with the minimal and austere interior and I personally don't find them uncomfortable at all but we all feel differently about these things. There are also the very comfortable booths right behind the bar.

I'd also like to challenge you about designing a restaurant for comfort. You are there to dine not to lounge and tuck in and read a book. And dining does assume a certain posture and a certain amount of manners. I sometimes think our society has become a little too casual. There is also the design consideration that getting in and out of stools with backs is often difficult to maneuver.

I don't know if those insights help at all but if I can help navigate and explain design decisions and make it a little more transparent to people I'm more than happy to.

Thomas Hornblower said...

Thank you so much for publishing my comment and taking the time to share your views/insight with me. I agree, by design the stools work great, it's just that my bad back is getting frustrated trying to find restaurants and home furnishings that not only look appealing, but have some comfort built into the equation also.
In regards to noise levels, I'd like to share with you this article from the SFGATE.com, "Dining with Decibels" http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/1998/03/11/FD72751.DTL , telling the story from both sides. I suffer from hyperacusis so like yourself, I'm sensitive to loudness.
Love your blog and thanks again.

Kelly said...

Thanks for the article Thomas and I'm glad I answered/published too.

And yes finding items that are both useful comfortable and good looking can be a challenge. I wonder if the answer lies in some sort attachment to yourself? Like a pillow one brings on the plane? Could be an interesting project for the right industrial designer.

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