Restaurateur ANNA WEINBERG will WINE, DINE and entertain you at her growing empire of SAN FRANCISCO HOT SPOTS.
As the morning unfolds in the SoMa high-rise Anna Weinberg shares with her husband, financier and CEO James Nicholas, and their toddler, Leo, Weinberg (who hails from New Zealand) waves her iPhone like a baton over the joyful cacophony that is the music of her life. Following cuddles with the couple’s adorable 2½-year-old towhead, this particular day holds great excitement: Weinberg and Nicholas, co-founders of the Big Night Restaurant Group (which includes Marlowe, The Cavalier and Marianne’s, S&R Lounge in SoMa, and Park Tavern in North Beach) are to sign the lease on their soon-to-open project, Leo’s Luxury Oyster Bar, in collaboration with partner-chef Jennifer Puccio. “Under chef Puccio, our focus is a fresh raw bar paired with craft cocktails, rosé and Champagne,” Weinberg explains. “Leo’s is about glamour. And excess, because I’m determined to bring daytime drinking back in vogue.”
Located in the city’s Financial District just two doors away from Wayfare Tavern (owned by their Food Network star pal, chef Tyler Florence), the Leo’s space is, for the moment, stark. But that only fuels Weinberg’s team’s collective creative vision. Led by interior designer Jon De La Cruz (lead Marlowe and Cavalier designer under the direction of Ken Fulk, who serves as Big Night’s brand guru and creative partner), the group has gathered to animatedly debate the Mad Men-era decor vision, comprising tile floors, vintage rattan and a back room. “I’m always looking for a back room,” enthuses Weinberg, who already has one to her name—Marianne’s, a late-night, Rolling Stones-inspired, members-only spot behind The Cavalier. “After the birth of Leo, James insisted on buying me jewelry,” she recalls. “But all I wanted was a cool, sort-of-secret back room. So Marianne’s is my ‘push prize.’ ” The request fits with her decidedly rock ’n’ roll, yet sleek and structured fashion sense (Saint Laurent cigarette pants, Rag & Bone blouse, chunky Alexander Wang jewelry)—a look that is embellished with a touch of boho-chic. (It’s worth noting that at heart, she is also a rugby-mad tomboy.)
“Anna has a rare gift: She’s a mad genius with natural élan who innately understands how to bring hospitality to a new level. Some nights you feel like crap. But that’s not allowed in front-of-the-house—what we do is performance art.” —Jonathan Waxman
“When Anna was my Barbuto maitre d’, she was a hot mess,” says Jonathan Waxman (the pioneering, James Beard Award-winning New York-based chef, who cut his teeth at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse) with a hearty laugh. “But she brought a party atmosphere to the game, which instantly increased our nightly covers. Together we transformed a good restaurant into an amazing one.” At the time, Weinberg was 24 and going through a divorce. She had yet to meet Nicholas, a fifth-generation San Franciscan, who was also in the Big Apple at Princeton Capital, where he launched his venture capital career. “Anna has a rare gift: She’s a mad genius with natural élan who innately understands how to bring hospitality to a new level. Some nights you feel like crap. But that’s not allowed in front-of-the-house—what we do is performance art,” Waxman continues. “With chef Puccio’s skill and James’ business acumen, they make a mighty team.”
Nicholas recently lent those skills to Waxman, assisting the Berkeley-born chef on lease details for his new Italian restaurant opening later this fall at Ghirardelli Square. The couple’s team also includes top investors, many of whom rank among San Francisco’s tech titans: Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom, Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, financier Carl Pascarella and angel investor Ron Conway.
“Anna and James have added high-quality restaurants to the San Francisco scene,” writes Conway, via email. “Anna brings so much energy to the culinary experience.”
So deeply entwined is Weinberg in each space that she fondly describes her restaurant children as “fraternal” rather than “identical.” And she easily thumbnails the vibe of each: Park Tavern is “all-occasion” chic, attracting the likes of such grand dames as Denise Hale. Marlowe is a haven to budding techsters and hipsters. The Cavalier is the go-to for tech types toiling nearby at Twitter, Salesforce and Uber. The menus at each star Puccio’s beloved Marlowe burger and signature crispy Brussels sprout chips bar snack. In 2014, star pastry chef Emily Luchetti signed on with Weinberg and company. And all three Big Night restaurants landed on the 2015 Top 100 Restaurant list by vaunted San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer.
“But we don’t want to grow too big,” says Nicholas. “The restaurant business is service-driven and all about quality of experience and food. Our goal is to keep that experience polished to a high gleam.” Yet even as they strive daily to create stellar memories for their guests, Weinberg and Nicholas are often challenged to make time for their own experiences. In addition to being CEO of Big Night, Nicholas is also an angel investor. Weinberg not only hustles to make her guests happy but also their 380-person staff: Between greeting guests, flash-solving any problems and keeping an eye out to promote talent and create actual culinary careers for her employees, she often spends 15-hour days shuttling between their restaurants.
“There are days when we’re dying to see each other. But sometimes I’m not home until 2 a.m. And James is awake by 5:45 a.m.,” Weinberg says. “When it works, we’re a bit like an old couple: We have a standing 4:30 p.m. date for an early dinner at Swan Oyster Depot.”
In-between the Leo’s lease-signing and a 6 p.m. design meeting at Fulk’s loft, Weinberg sneaks in a break at Wayfare Tavern, where Florence’s wife, Tolan, has the staff set out delicious snacks and refreshing Tom Collins cocktails. She wonders aloud if she’s crazy to open a fifth spot—although, as Leo’s will only hold 35 seats, she’s thrilled to be starting small again. “But large or small, the second guests walk into our restaurants they are greeted by an engaged staff, who are not staring at their phones sending texts,” says Weinberg, whose own phone is tellingly emblazoned with typewriter-style letters that spell out “Type A.” “Those guests are not even going to think about going somewhere else because our staff makes them feel like they’ve landed at the best party in town.” She praises her husband for being an amazing analyst, who will “game out” any possible business scenario: a trait balanced by Weinberg’s understanding of the theatricality inherent in the restaurant world, where she occupies a front-row seat.
“I’m lucky because I get to know some of our guests who are creating amazing things that are changing the world,” she says, recalling her teen years as a budding TV soap-opera star. “If the restaurant’s front-of-the house performs well—and this is coming from a self-proclaimed failed actress—then some nights you savor applause at the end of our show.”
Written by Catherine Bigelow.
Photography by Aubrie Pick.