On April 11, 2006, Jeff Hanak slept soundly for the first time in two years.
It had been opening night at Nopa, the restaurant that he and his partners, Allyson Jossel and Laurence Jossel, had poured countless hours into building. But from the second the doors opened on the corner of Divisadero and Hayes, it was clear they had created something special.
“We had put everything on the line for this new restaurant,” Hanak says. “And that first night when people came in, I finally wasn’t worried.
“I thought, ‘This is actually going to work.’”
Ten years later, it’s clear that the restaurant has done more than just “work.” A consistent Northern California menu brings in tourists from around the globe while also catering to an ever-expanding family of regulars, both in the restaurant industry and out. From the cocktail program to the communal table, Nopa has popularized many industry trends now ubiquitous in the Bay Area. And in doing so, it has established itself as a quintessential San Francisco restaurant.
The trio set out to create a neighborhood gathering place, and succeeded. Whether intentional or not, Nopa has ended up defining a neighborhood, both literally and figuratively.
“Part of the reason we were drawn to this location was because there was a community of people living here — neighbors, familiar faces on the street — but the sense of community ended up feeling disjointed,” says Allyson, who runs the front of the house with Hanak. “It was like, ‘You live in Alamo Square, I live in Western Addition. But we’re a block from each other.’”
What the neighbors were missing, they felt, was a central meeting spot. At the time, only a few other restaurants stood on that stretch of southern Divisadero — Bean Bag Cafe, Cafe Iberico and the newly opened Little Star, among them.
When considering names for the restaurant, one of Laurence’s friends pointed out that the address was located in NoPa. The North of the Panhandle moniker didn’t register.
“We were like, ‘Huh? What’s NoPa?’” Allyson recalls.
Still, they decided it was the perfect name given their mission of bringing locals together. And as the years progressed, a true commercial stretch — with high-profile food businesses like Bi-Rite, Bar Crudo, Ragazza and the Mill — has opened up around it. Yet Nopa, which sits in a grand old bank building, has remained the neighborhood’s unofficial anchor tenant.
Opening night may have been a relief for the trio, but it was anything but calm. Even a decade later, as they sit reminiscing on a quiet afternoon, the three laugh remembering the chaos of that first service. Toward the end of the night, they began to run out of food, so a customer brought in chicken from Popeyes across the street.
“I don’t remember that,” Allyson says.
“I do,” Jeff says, laughing. “I went up to that guy, he was at table 50, and I brought him our own french fries.”
“Yeah, and do you remember I was freaking out?” adds Laurence. “You said, ‘Don’t worry, I got this.’”
The three banter, comparing notes, arguing over details forgotten, and sharing stories about former employees — like the time a server threw herself in front of Allyson’s pregnant belly when an intoxicated customer started causing trouble.
They have the familiar rapport of family. Before opening Nopa, they had all worked at Chow. Since then, they’ve traveled around the world as a team, from Bhutan to Cuba to Toronto. And their children — Laurence and Allyson have a 7-year-old son and Hanak has two daughters, one of whom is off to college this fall — have grown up together, with Nopa a large part of their collective stories.
Of course, as time has gone by and they’ve opened additional restaurants, day-to-day roles have changed. Hanak spends many of his nights at Liholiho Yacht Club, which he started last year with chef Ravi Kapur and which recently earned a James Beard Award nomination for the country’s Best New Restaurant. Allyson divides her time between Nopa and Nopalito, their more casual Mexican offshoot.
Laurence still spends the most time at Nopa, overseeing the kitchen, hitting as many as five farmers’ markets a week, butchering whole animals and overseeing a menu executed by chef de cuisine Alejandro Rodriguez, who has been with them since the beginning and whom they describe as “the heart of the kitchen.”
The three of them are hardly in the same place anymore, but they remain close.
“We started working together because we realized we had the same goals,” says Laurence. “We liked taking care of people, and taking care of each other.”
That has been especially true for the Nopa community. In the beginning, the team brought in their neighbors to help with the interior, including designer James Lagoc and muralist Brian Barneclo, who is responsible for the wall art depicting the area’s history. And in 2009, when they realized that two of their line cooks, José Ramos and Gonzalo Guzman, were making restaurant-worthy Mexican staff meals, they opened Nopalito so that the duo would have a place to showcase their talents.
Their actions speak as loudly as their words — and customers take note.
Harry Hollander is a physician at UCSF who has been going to Nopa every week for the past decade. It was the initial buzz that drew him in, he says, but admits that with other restaurants, that excitement is usually fleeting.
“What kept me there was the relationship focus of Jeff, Allyson and Laurence, and how they treat everyone from their customers to their employees to their suppliers,” Hollander says. “They do things right and have created a very special community in addition to a great restaurant.”
But what differentiates Nopa’s success from many other hot spots is how the restaurant industry has supported it, and vice versa.
“Another reason we chose this location was because we knew a lot of restaurant people lived in the neighborhood,” Laurence says. “We wanted to have a place that was open late, so we knew we’d get that business.” Nopa remains one of the few spots that serves a full menu until 1 a.m., when most other kitchens have closed for the night. Those long hours also contribute to several seatings of the restaurant and at the lively bar — on any given weekend night, they may average more than 500 covers.
“And what better advertising than your own breed?” Laurence continues. “We’ve always done an industry discount. We recognize how hard people work, and we want to take care of them.”
Rajat Parr, a sommelier best known in San Francisco for overseeing the wine program for the Mina Group, was one of the original industry regulars.
“Every time you would go there after work, around 11 or 11:30, you would know at least 10 people around you,” Parr recalls. “Everyone goes there late, so the atmosphere is just special. You have great approachable soulful food, good drinks, and your friends around you. You can’t beat it.”
The industry impact of Nopa goes beyond the physical walls of the restaurant. Laurence also talks about the give-and-take between restaurateurs, and how the sharing of ideas has raised the tide for so many San Francisco spots. The communal table in the front of Nopa was inspired by the one at Town Hall, he says, although it was still a relatively new concept a decade ago.
The idea that a chef would spend much of his week at the farmers’ market wasn’t nearly as common then; now, it’s expected. And although Absinthe had a stellar bar program when Nopa opened (the trio tapped Absinthe’s Jonny Raglin to put their bar menu together), San Francisco didn’t have the serious cocktail scene it does now.
Hanak and the Jossels managed to take some of these early trends and run with them, and they’ve been open to experimentation — not to mention eating their words — along the way.
Take, for example, the Nopa reservation policy. Originally, they decided that they wouldn’t accept reservations, except for an hour prior to opening. The first night, they filled up within 15 minutes, so they started answering the phones at 2 p.m. The same thing kept happening, until they decided that they should take reservations.
“But it was all by hand,” says Allyson. “We didn’t want to do OpenTable.”
“Yeah, it was like, ‘No OpenTable, no OpenTable … OK fine, OpenTable,’” Laurence adds, laughing. “And then we said, ‘No American Express, no American Express … OK fine, American Express.’”
Jokes aside, it was this ability to listen to what the customers wanted that helped to build a loyal following. It’s part of the reason Laurence likes to keep signature dishes — the thick-cut pork chop, baked butter beans (see recipe) and the hamburger — on the menu. The custard French toast, for example (see recipe), crafted by former pastry chef Amy Brown (who now owns Marla Bakery), would likely cause an uproar if pulled from the brunch menu.
Although the bones of the menu are fairly set in place, the ingredients and combinations change daily, depending on how Laurence does at the market.
“I’ve had everything on the menu more than once,” says Hollander, a regular. “There is a level of consistency with all of the food they do that is extraordinary and rare, even in San Francisco dining circles. It never gets tired because the menu gets tweaked.”
Laurence also employs a practice that doesn’t happen in every restaurant. Each night, at 5:45 p.m., right before opening, the kitchen puts out every single dish on the menu for the entire staff — front and back of the house — to taste. It prevents the customers from becoming guinea pigs and allows the staff to give opinions.
Still, the team deals with the same issues as many of their industry colleagues — namely, staffing. It’s hard to find great people who want to stay when the city is so expensive. They’ve had to adjust through health care taxes, rising ingredient costs and other industry-wide expenses, all of which have affected prices. On the opening menu, for example, the pork chop was $19.50; now it’s $29.
And, admittedly, the scene has changed.
“This week I was looking around and was like, ‘Is this the new San Francisco? I don’t recognize any of these people, and they’re young,’” says Laurence, dragging out his last word.
“I agree and disagree,” counters Hanak, explaining that, maybe, the unfamiliar clientele isn’t such a bad thing. “I mean, we’re getting older too, so of course it has to change; otherwise it would be boring. I just think we need to adjust better, and recognize who we need to take care of.”
As they head into the future — they recently signed another 10-year lease — they’re prepared for additional challenges dictated by an ever-changing Bay Area. Allyson compares the restaurant to a child that doesn’t grow up; it needs not just your intention, but your time, she says, and constant love and attention. That’s an omnipresent challenge.
Fortunately, the principles on which they founded the restaurant remain the same, and keep them true to the original goal.
“Part of our mission statement was to create sustainable communities,” Allyson says. That’s not something that changes if the city becomes really expensive, or if your neighbors are new people, she explains. “Sustainability, by its nature, is something that lasts.”
Amanda Gold is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Instagram: @agold_sfchron Twitter: @AmandaGold
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