Four years ago, the husband-and-wife team of Darren Lacy and chef Jen McMahon took over North Beach’s decades-old Da Flora from founder Flora Gaspar. Since then, the couple has staked a claim to the corner of Columbus and Filbert, serving up their regulars the kind of Italian fare that bridges old and new: sweet potato gnocchi, meatballs, spaghetti with clams.
Da Flora is currently open for takeout and al fresco dining. We recently spoke with Lacy about a number of topics, from how they’ve maintained during the COVID era to his experiences as a Black restaurateur in the Bay Area.
Resy: You recently reopened for sidewalk dining. What has that been like?
Darren Lacy: Yes, we are able to serve outside now. It was a bit challenging to get through the permit process with insurance documents, et cetera, but at least it was free and the city’s Shared Spaces Program was very helpful, responding to my emails within a day. It’s nice to have folks at tables again, although San Francisco weather is sometimes not cooperative. It’s hard to encourage folks to dine earlier, and we do our best to explain that 7:30 is maybe not the best time to be dining al fresco. But San Franciscans are pretty smart — some bring blankets.
What has it been like, owning a legacy restaurant like Da Flora?
We became owners of Da Flora four years ago June 1st. My wife, Jen, had been the chef here for more than 20 years. We have been together for over 20 years, too. She has worked here for our entire relationship, and I have been working here for about 13 of those years in every capacity, both in the back and front of house.
We are very grateful to Flora for giving us the opportunity to buy the business. She knew that we would preserve the integrity of what she started and give it our own touch as well. This is the restaurant business — it has ups and downs. Anyone who comes to Da Flora can see it is very unique and special. It’s rewarding to be a huge part of it.
Restaurant people are such creatures of habit. What have you missed most during the shutdown?
We certainly miss many things about pre-COVID-19. Mostly going out ourselves, seeing our friends and family, going out to a bar, having a post-service drink commiserating with peers and our staff. Ah, the good old days. Now it’s making sure we are up to date with whatever new rule or restriction that pops up. Honestly, just working harder now than ever just to keep up. My wife and I always say we have to stay positive and focused.
Given the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement in America, what are your thoughts on racism as it pertains to the restaurant industry, especially in the Bay Area?
As a Black man in this industry for 30-plus years, I have experienced racism my whole life and in restaurant work throughout my whole career, from my beginning as a prep cook to ownership. From overbearing sous chefs, chefs, and GMs, to guests in my dining room who marginalize me and ask to see the manager, not knowing I am the owner. Through all of this up to now with #BlackLivesMatter.
I hope that this country can learn and grow. I think of my father, who lived through the Civil Rights era in the ’60s with the hope that things would be better for his sons, only to see the same patterns of hatred that never really ended. But it seems that this generation is saying, “Enough.”
There have been a lot of dark days in the last three months. What has given you hope and strength?
I must admit with everything that is going on in our industry, it’s hard to persevere. We had to make some tough decisions: cutting hours for staff, boarding up the windows for fear of vandalism. What gives us hope is our longtime guests that never turned their backs on us. They continued to support with takeout, gift cards, kind words, and genuine caring. They were the ones asking when we were going to be open, so they could be among the first to sit and dine with us outside. We believe if you love a place you should go there and support it. Especially when times are hard. Our guests give us that.
As we enter this new era of dining, what do you want to tell diners?
We are in a different era for our industry. There was pre-COVID, and there is post-COVID. With where we are as far as the virus goes, there will be spikes in cases and could set us back as far as how we can serve for quite some time. Diners should be patient. Hopefully the vaccine will come sooner than later.