The septuagenarian servers at Sam's Grill on Bush Street are notoriously gruff, but one of them drops the act after Tyler Florence orders the Hangtown Fry.
"Hey, you're the guy on television, ain't you?"
Months later, when Florence strolls into the Financial District's crowded Barbacco during the Friday lunch swarm, heads swivel and fingers actually point at the celebrity chef. Florence is immediately greeted by owner Umberto Gibin.
"Thank you for the flowers, sir," says Gibin. "They were lovely."
Florence, you see, sent congratulatory flowers to Barbacco after its big three-star review.
The cherubic-faced Food Network star has been a common sight in the Financial District lately, and as Barbacco's bouquet can attest, he is doing his best to fit in with his neighbors as he prepares to unveil his first restaurant, Wayfare Tavern, in June.
It will be housed in the former Rubicon, one of San Francisco's most storied restaurants and once upon a time a breeding ground for some of the city's best chefs. As if that isn't enough, Florence is also opening two more restaurants - El Paseo in Mill Valley and a rotisserie shop in Napa - soon thereafter.
For the Marin resident, it makes perfect sense.
"If you ask parents if it's easier to have triplets or have a kid every two years, they'd say having triplets is easier, because you do everything at one time," he explains.
Now 39 years old, Florence is entering his 15th year on the Food Network. His latest show - a cross-country race called "Food Truck Wars" - starts filming this week. But as evidenced by the burn scars on his forearms, he spent years in New York kitchens before fame arrived. More than a decade later, he's ready to make a splashy return to the restaurant game.
He's picked a doozy for his flagship; 558 Sacramento St. has long been one of the city's most revered spaces, best known for its reign as Rubicon under mega-restaurateur Drew Nieporent. Florence is reinventing it as a gathering place inspired by the city's Barbary Coast era.
A working fireplace topped with a stuffed mammal head is slated for the ground floor, just past the raw bar and open kitchen. The second floor will feature a billiards room; in the adjacent alley, Florence plans a beer garden. There's a lot going on.
"We're doing three restaurants between now and August. For me, it's really just the next level of growth," he says.
That enterprising mentality seems to define him. During the aforementioned Barbacco lunch, where his shiny new iPad also gets its share of stares, Florence takes phone calls, casually tossing about six-figure dollar amounts between bites of risotto.
What do you do? Later, when asked how he describes his job to his children, he has a frank answer.
"I'm a businessman. And I love food."
Florence isn't a chef by any typical definition: He's an entrepreneur who lists moguls like Ralph Lauren and Martha Stewart alongside chefs Charlie Palmer and Tom Colicchio as his role models. He's taken his brand to unprecedented places: organic baby food, a $4.99 iPhone app and, in October, his own wine label. Oh, and the guy has 181,000 followers on Twitter.
"The food community expects their chefs to be poor, little humble guys that hunt mushrooms by the third moonlight of the third full moon of the month," he muses. "I've set myself up to have a vertically integrated, multitiered company."
Then there's Applebee's. In 2006, Florence became the face of the chain, quickly opening the floodgates of criticism (and jokes) from industry cohorts who saw the endorsement as a sellout. That said, the ends might have justified the means.
$3 million "I wouldn't be here now if it wasn't for that opportunity," which, he says, netted him nearly $3 million.
Though he's unsure if he would do it again, the Applebee's money made the next steps possible in the midst of a recession: a house in Marin, a retail shop and, eventually, a restaurant empire. Soon he will replicate the Napa rotisserie shop across America, with a second location already scheduled for SFO's new terminal and leases looming at several high-profile malls.
So what's the endgame?
"I want to have a winery up in Sonoma where my wife and I can just kick back, play with our grandchildren and watch the grapes grow," he says. "And I'm starting that process now."
It's not going to be easy. Yes, there will be epic crowds on day one at Wayfare Tavern. Neighborly flowers aside, there will also be reviews, Yelpers and a city wary of the cult of the celebrity chef.
But Florence doesn't seem worried.
"Everything I've done in my entire life boils down to this moment. You know, it's really my game to lose."
Rest assured, San Francisco will be watching.
Eating at Tyler's Tyler Florence plans to open the following restaurants this summer:
Wayfare Tavern: 588 Sacramento St., San Francisco.
El Paseo: 17 Throckmorton, Mill Valley.
Tyler Florence Rotisserie & Wine: 710-740 Main St., Napa.
Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/04/22/DD951D10JV.DTL&type=food#ixzz0lwkYH6yu
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