When Nightbird reopens on June 23, it will mark the first time in roughly 16 months that chef-owner Kim Alter‘s singular Hayes Valley destination will welcome diners back to on-site dining. But during that time, Alter has been very busy — feeding the city’s vulnerable populations (with the help of SF New Deal), serving takeout, facilitating pop-ups, and of course, keeping her business afloat and team intact.
Now, as Nightbird and adjacent cocktail bar Linden Room return, we spoke to Alter on all things related to the reopening.
First things first: Nightbird is reopening on Wednesday (June 23) for on-site dining after a long period. Linden Room opened last week. What went into the decision process to reopen both Nightbird and Linden Room?
I probably should say it was a very well-thought-out plan, but I swear, one second we thought we wouldn’t be able to open until fall, and then the next day it was like: “You can open up tomorrow! No rules!”
It kind of shocked me and all the COVID plans, chemical sprayers, plexiglass thoughts, et cetera seemed to not be relevant and we started to get worried that we were going to be the last restaurant to open. I think we are the last restaurant in Hayes Valley to open. Since we have staff, because we are still cooking meals for folks, it was all about safety and our staff’s comfort levels. The more I think about it, I feel I should have thought it out a little more, plan and let the books be open longer … I mean we have been closed for 17 months — what’s two more weeks?
What can diners expect with the “new” Nightbird? How has the experience/menu changed since March 2020?
Well, unfortunately, we did have to raise the price $35. [Ed. note: The tasting menu is $185.] The pandemic has made meat, produce, and insurance skyrocket. We are paying our staff more, paying 100% of everyone’s health insurance. We put a decent amount of money into sprucing her up a bit, and taking out three tables. I don’t think this price raise will balance out all of that, but I had to be proactive. I did feel if we raised the price, we had to raise the experience, so we are adding bites and courses, making our wine pairings more eloquent, and overall, we are just trying to enhance the experience.
How, if at all, has your approach to cooking, and especially fine dining, evolved over the last 15 months?
Since I have only done a handful of fine dining events throughout the pandemic, I wouldn’t say I have changed dramatically. These past few weeks, as we started to plan the reopening, I struggled writing the menu because I felt I had to be different then what we were, but the more I worked on it and cooked, I realized I like my style. I don’t need to be so precious and in the end, how the food tastes is the most important, so I am trying to evolve how I was, but hold on to what made Nightbird.
We are continuing to cook for unhoused folks with SF New Deal once we open up so working that into our already crazy day is something I am trying to make sure happens.
Now that the city has reopened, what are the big things that you want diners or bargoers to know, to keep in mind as we all try to navigate the new world?
I would love diners to hopefully start to understand more about the actual costs of running a restaurant. To support local farms, pay your staff a livable wage, pay your bills — it costs money and I think, across the board, the industry has not charged what it costs to run a business. You can’t do all the above things and expect to get a taco for $1 or a humanely raised chicken for $18.
I also think we all need to be more patient. Even before COVID I thought technology was making folks a little impatient, so I hope everyone knows we are all trying hard with the staff and the limitations we have right now. When we open, it is like opening Nightbird from scratch. New menu, new employees, and new systems, but we aren’t new, so people already have high expectations.
What are your hopes for the restaurant industry, both in the short and long term?
In the short and long term, I hope we can all take a breath and then put forth all the energy we have left to make a change in this industry. Right now the narrative across the board is restaurants are bad places to work, restaurant owners are bad people to work for, and while a percentage of that might be true, like in every profession, there are a lot of us who are trying to make a difference. Being a part of coalitions throughout this pandemic and seeing the difference chefs can make, whether with advocacy, the city government, or business practices, has been really inspiring.
Now is the time to make a change to the imbalance, diversity, and equity in restaurants. I always thought we were doing a good job at Nightbird, and I learned during the pandemic that we can do better. It has changed how we hire, the plans we are putting in place, and the conversations we have with our staff and guests
Lastly: Nightburger! Your pandemic pop-up was so special. Will San Francisco ever see it again?
Ahh thanks! It was fun while it lasted. I would never want to say never again. Once we get comfortable in our new world, I think Nightburger might make an appearance once a month … maybe.