Jonathan Waxman’s arms were crossed high as he looked out over the bay from the northern edge of Ghirardelli Square, his hair blowing in all different directions, almost like a tease of the celebrity chef’s brazen personality.
“I’m going to be the pioneer,” the 65-year-old Berkeley native said of his sprawling new Ghirardelli Square restaurant, exuding equal parts fun and bravado. “And I don’t mind that.”
The Tuesday opening of his restaurant, named Waxman’s, will be the culmination of what has been a long — and in some cases, contentious — redevelopment of the historic complex, long dismissed by locals as a tourist attraction. The attempted overhaul began almost a decade ago with the unveiling of the Fairmont Heritage residential boutique hotel, but in the years since, it has seen multiple new landlords, lawsuits, failed leases and massive delays.
Being the pioneer is not a new role for Waxman. He shaped the course of California cuisine in America, first as chef of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse in the late ’70s, and then by bringing the movement to Los Angeles and New York.
Waxman as the anchor tenant of the complex is significant, not only because it represents his homecoming, but also because there’s an underlying pressure for the chef — whose last California success was over two decades ago — to turn the square around and bring both tourists and locals back.
This has been years in the making.
By the time the current restoration began, Ghirardelli Square had already become a shadow of its former self.
“When the square was originally curated (in the 1960s and early ’70s), it was pure genius,” said Waxman. It was home to the Mandarin, Cecilia Chiang’s revolutionary Chinese restaurant; Modesto Lanzone, a popular northern Italian spot; Señor Pico, an offshoot of Trader Vic’s; and Magic Pan, which went on to become a successful crepe chain. All are defunct now, including the Magic Pan restaurants, though Magic Pan was reintroduced as a mall crepe stand by Lettuce Entertain You of Chicago in 2005.
“I grew up in the East Bay — the best thing was to jump in the car with my parents and come here,” he said.
“Then at some point it turned into a place for tourists.”
When Jamestown Development brought the property in 2013 for $54 million, the complex had already been through several failed would-be renaissances. Jamestown president Michael Phillips had the task of finding a tenant to fill the 6,000-square-foot Mustard Building space that had just been released by Gary Danko, who had been planning to open a brasserie there. But after dealing with too many headaches surrounding the property, the chef backed out.
“We ended up having legal battles and landlord issues,” Danko explained. “We finally had to move on.”
Danko, who counts Waxman as a friend, said he carries no hard feelings about the situation. In fact, he seemed downright relieved to be on the other side of it.
“The climate in San Francisco is tough right now; it’s hard to find good help. You’d probably need over 100 people to staff that space,” Danko said. “For me, it was probably a blessing in disguise.”
Still, he said, “I can’t wait to have (Waxman’s) roast chicken.”
Phillips has already brought in some new businesses: Marina bakery Le Marais is currently selling pastries and Stumptown coffee in the old Kara’s Cupcakes space, which now looks like a Parisian patisserie. Bluxome Street Winery brings a modern sensibility to a restored late 19th century brick structure at the center of the square.
But the Mustard Building space was the big one. Phillips polled members of the chef community to find out how to bring some of that history back to the square. Getting Waxman drummed up excitement within the industry, he said, mostly because of his history in the area and his reputation as a passionate American chef.
Waxman came of age in the Alice Waters era — following Jeremiah Tower as the chef at Chez Panisse — and earned his reputation for shaping California cuisine at Michael’s in Santa Monica. He was credited with bringing that style — a blend of rustic European technique and fresh, local ingredients — to New York, where he opened the wildly successful Jams in 1984, at the age of 33.
There, he became a nationally known chef, a role he stepped into easily, especially given his affection for the stage — before moving into the kitchen, Waxman had played the trombone professionally, in jazz and rock bands.
Currently, he and his business partner, Howard Greenstone, operate Barbuto in New York, which is now in its 13th year of business. They also own Brezza Emporia and Pizzeria in Atlanta, as well as Adele’s, named after Waxman’s mom, in Nashville. Just last year, they reopened Jams in New York’s Midtown. This year, he was nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Chef: New York.
“It’s an interesting come-full-circle moment,” said Nancy Oakes, chef-owner of Boulevard and Prospect, who has known Waxman since his early days in the Bay Area. “He was here in such a formative time for the Bay Area food scene and then was a great ambassador, taking this food back to New York.”
Luring the customers
As a celebrity chef making frequent television appearances, Waxman is hoping to reach the tourists as well as the locals, and as Phillips suggested, both are necessary to keep a business alive in this part of town. “Any time you have a successful environment, it has to start with a commitment from the local people, and then the tourists will follow,” said the developer, who has restored other high-profile, food-centric properties like Chelsea Market in New York.
Walking through Ghirardelli Square earlier this month, Waxman was already generating buzz. A couple from Kansas City stopped to take a photo with him on the front patio; elsewhere, he shook hands with one of the Fairmont residents who inquired, in joking impatience, about the restaurant’s opening date.
“Everyone is off-the-charts excited,” said Scott Broccoli, who owns the Pub, a barbecue restaurant and bar on the ground floor of the complex. “Whenever you can get a name like his to be on your block, that’s a good thing. He’ll draw more attention and give us a level of sophistication and maturity that the square has needed for a long time.”
But opening Waxman’s won’t come without its challenges.
This new restaurant — his first in San Francisco — is his largest undertaking to date, and the size alone means something different in the pricey enclave of Russian Hill-Fisherman’s Wharf than it does in Atlanta or Nashville.
He’s divided this 110-seat space into two sections: an upscale restaurant on one side, and a fast casual cafe on the other. The menu showcases Waxman’s current style, a blend of seasonal Italian and Mediterranean cuisines. Dishes are more refined in the restaurant, while scoop-and-serve salads, carved roasts and sheet pan pizzas — think in the style of Ottolenghi and Princi in London, or Gusto in Los Angeles, Waxman said — are featured in the cafe. Both sides offer his famous roast chicken, in different forms.
The dining room — which he designed with the help of some local talent — is grand, light-filled and elegant. It feels like a clean, modern warehouse, complete with impressive cross-sections of walnut and cypress trees and what he hopes will be local art adorning the walls.
Waxman will spend the bulk of his time here — he admits that he’s looking for a house — but will also keep roots on the East Coast. His wife and three children are there; his 19-year-old daughter at Princeton and his two sons, 16 and 13, in school in Manhattan.
If the New York Times review panning the recently opened Jams is any indication — Times critic Pete Wells called the restaurant a “zombie … stiff in the joints and short on joie de vivre” — he’ll have his work cut out for him with fickle, sophisticated Bay Area diners. This is not an easy crowd.
Still, he is anxious to be a left-coaster again, and his colleagues and contemporaries are looking forward to his return.
Fellow restaurateur Oakes said it’s nice to have a confident chef coming back to California, and she can’t wait to go back to the square — “we haven’t had a reason to go in a long time” — though she, too, admits he’ll have some catching up to do.
“We have a long growing season here, and it’s different than it used to be,” she explained. “The ingredient list is longer. It’s different in New York.”
But conceivably, Waxman should be poised for some positive noise. And according to Le Marais owner Patrick Ascaso, the new customers are already coming to the square.
“I had a woman walk in the other morning who lives near here. She had walked along the water and wanted a pastry and coffee,” Ascaso said. It’s a good sign, he feels; one that suggests the locals are realizing the allure of such an upscale development in a beautiful location.
“Everything within a square mile of here is fast food,” he said, though he believes there’s a new blend of businesses right in the square that will cater to the locals, especially once Waxman’s opens. “The goal is to bring back people who love the area but who have been shy to go there because there hasn’t been a great local offering.”
For the first time in decades, this particular mix of tenants may bring Bay Area residents back to the waterfront. And if history is any indication, another restoration will be just around the corner if it doesn’t.
Amanda Gold is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Instagram: @agold_sfchron Twitter: @AmandaGold
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