Michelin-starred Marlena decamps Bernal Heights for an upscale downtown popup
Every San Francisco restaurant contorted itself through a multitude of pivots to survive the pandemic. In the case of Bernal Heights’ Marlena, they actually opened during the pandemic in September 2020, and their ongoing metamorphosis is unlike any other restaurant opening story you have ever heard.
The City’s introduction to chef-owners David Fisher and Serena Chow Fisher was via their takeout picnic baskets, packed with housemade pâtés and roasted chicken sandwiches — and designed to be enjoyed in nearby Precita Park. Once on-site outdoor dining was allowed, the couple started stretching their wings, offering an elegant-but-approachable four-course menu in their newly constructed parklet. Next, they were able to open limited indoor dining, and guests didn’t have to watch their garnish fly away with a rowdy SF breeze. The $65 prix fixe meal gained notoriety among the gourmand set, and the couple went on to earn a Michelin star.
Their plan to do a voluntary structural upgrade and redesign of their historic Edwardian building’s more than 110-yearold dining room was looming. (It didn’t make sense to do it during the pandemic, since they didn’t know if and when indoor dining would return.) They strategized how to retain their talented team during the anticipated six-week construction closure (staffing is currently one of the biggest issues for restaurants). When city departments caused unexpected delays, the impact of staying closed for an additional three months was going to be pretty devastating.
Marlena business partner Ryan Cole, of Hi Neighbor Hospitality Group, is known for entrepreneurial solutions and suggested they look for a venue they could temporarily move into until construction was complete. The challenge was to find a closed location that still had a permit to operate, with an active beer and wine license. Cole homed in on Rambler at the Hotel Zeppelin, near Union Square. After the untraditional deal was signed, he re-engaged Tracy Radeff McConnell of Radeff Design Studios — she helped him transform The Vault into The Vault Garden, arguably one of the City’s best pandemic pivots.
The concept of Marlena Summer Camp quickly came together and debuted in late June. Drawing on fond memories of family cabins back East, the Fishers strove to create a popup experience that was fun and elevated but not stuffy. In an astounding two weeks, they massively transformed the Rambler space on a tight budget: Radeff McConnell outfitted it with firewood, classic books, taper candles, lanterns, plaid blankets and antique fish nets. She even installed recycled carpeting that fit the theme. It’s cozy and eclectic, the way the best cabins feel. Longtime San Franciscans will recognize the former Postrio’s wood-fired oven as they walk downstairs into the 45-seat dining room.
A seven-course, $125 tasting menu (with optional wine pairings) has temporarily replaced Marlena’s popular four-course prix fixe, which will return in Bernal (the eventual plan is to offer both four- and seven-course menus). The current offerings not only evoke nostalgic summer notes — one presentation includes an oyster smoked with hickory wood — but also hark back to the restaurant’s beginning: The duck liver mousse and pâté de campagne were part of the initial picnic basket. In addition, the menu features the showstopping tomato two ways, with Blenheim apricot burrata foam, as well as roasted black cod nestled in a Brentwood corn nage with morels, English peas and fava beans. Enjoy beats of horseradish leaf oil or vegetal brininess in the plankton pappardelle. Guests finish with playful DIY s’mores at the table, composed of cinnamon graham crackers and vanilla bean marshmallows.
The à la carte lounge menu includes a reprise of the burger and Buffalo chicken sandwich from when Marlena launched takeout. They don’t have a full liquor license at Marlena, so they launched a new cocktail list here, too. Luis Padilla and Fernando Becerra are former bartenders who were excited to craft creative cocktails that utilize excess ingredients from the kitchen, like syrup from a peach compote in the El Capitán.
Book your table soon because the entire concept is only temporary: Marlena Summer Camp ends September 3. It’s a clever project that deserves recognition for its nimble ingenuity.
Marlena Summer Camp at Hotel Zeppelin
545 Post Street, San Francisco.
Through Saturday, September 3, Tue–Sat: bar opens at 4 p.m.
Dinner begins at 5 p.m. | marlenarestaurant.com