A spread at Wilder.
Wilder, the newest hotspot of San Francisco’s Marina District, comes from the team behind popular country western destination Westwood, a place famous for its mechanical bull, live music entertainment, a collection of over 100 bottles of whiskey, upscale Tex- Mex and is known more. Proof Partners and Wilder co-founders Kingston Wu and Lily Peng designed Wilder with a blend of international home cooking influenced by fresh California ingredients and globally inspired flavors.
“The neighborhood likes to travel in packs – eats, drinks and celebrates with new and old friends alike. We wanted to create an experience that celebrates these social interactions with easily understandable food and drinks (international home cooking / riffs of classic cocktails) that feel special, ”explains co-owner Wu.
“With forest and animal motifs in our wallpapers and framed works of art, we made a subtle allusion to the pack mentality of the night scene. We’ve even curated funny portraits of animals with human bodies that we can place in our dining room – we all have a power animal (maybe multiple power animals) and it can change when we’re hungry or thirsty!
Interiors by Wilder.
Wu and Peng hired Jesus Dominguez to run the restaurant’s kitchen. Dominguez, who is also the current Executive Chef of Westwood, has an extensive background in opening and running restaurants such as Delfino, Americano and Spork and has spent the past decade as a sous chef at Taj Campton Place with two Michelin stars.
We sat down with co-founder Kingston Wu to talk about the space, the new restaurant concept, Westwood and its new developments, pandemic focus areas and more. Here’s what he had to say.
What was this restaurant before Wilder went into space? Talk about how you’ve updated the design, look, and feel.
Prior to the purchase of the space, this restaurant traded as Cow Marlowe, known for its light, airy Nantucket-inspired decor (lots of white walls and a beautiful blue and gold marble beard top). Based on our extensive experience with the neighborhood, we felt that our busiest times would be the dinner service as well as the Saturday and Sunday brunch.
The bar in the Wilder.
To play at these popular service hours, we wanted to warm up the room by introducing darker hues and earth tones. We left the location of the bar and most of the walls intact, but then repainted, wallpapered and added hardwood to every floor, wall, cubicle and ceiling to give the room its new woody “Tahoe Chic” personality.
Was rebuilding the space and opening up your new Wilder concept difficult during the ongoing pandemic times? Were there any unforeseen challenges?
Yes! The biggest challenge was deciding how, when and how much money to spend on our expansion. As early as May 2020 (already now) there were very different theories about how long the pandemic would last and how strict or relaxed companies could act in this environment. We weren’t entirely sure we should have bought a restaurant initially, but we knew it would have been equally foolish not to leave money in the bank to get through the lockdown.
We have worked closely with our contractor (a friend) and our new landlord (who has been very supportive of us) to make targeted and incremental changes to the premises when cash flows allow, and on the evenings and days off when we have one Pub operated -up from our other concept – Westwood – in the parklets outside.
We’re so grateful that our customers not only supported our Westwood brand during Covid (we switched our menu to BBQ during this time), but also turned their eyes to the building materials lying around in our main dining room and private den this time.
A selection of drinks and food.
Can you tell us a little more about Chef Jesus Dominguez who oversees both Wilder and Westwood?
As well as being a talented cook, Chef is an amazing personality. Chef is the most process-oriented person I have ever met and one of the rare chefs who has no ego when it comes to his food. He’s never too proud to take feedback for his dishes and willingly makes the changes necessary to improve them when warranted. He’s constantly watching what foods come back into the kitchen to see what has been (or not) eaten and reviews reports to understand what is being ordered (or not) being ordered.
He asks a ton of questions to our team so they can tweak the recipe, presentation, or actual dishes on the menu to see what the neighborhood is responding to positively. He also has a deep knowledge of all kinds of foods from different cultures, which is perfect as Wilder deliberately (and proudly) offers international home cooking.
Have there been any new changes for Westwood while you focused on opening Wilder?
While Chef was working on the new menu for Wilder, he had to reinvent Westwood’s menu over the same period. When selling groceries became the only way to make some cash during the pandemic, our team realized that a damn good burger or steak guac wasn’t differentiated enough to stand out from a platform of literally thousands of restaurants, which appeared in the delivery apps.
So we upgraded our kitchen, bought a smoker (the Chef’s never used), and made recipes for smoked breast, ribs, sausage, and chicken on a tight schedule. He created a product that has won rave reviews in our neighborhood.
The wild burger
Interesting Fact: We later learned that the smoker we bought was geared towards bird smoking … which explains why it took him so long to find the ideal placement for the different types of meat on our menu! We’ll buy a new / better smoker as soon as we have some extra cash aside.
Let’s talk about the mechanical cop in Westwood. How do you deal with participation during the pandemic?
Our mechanical bull has been hibernating since last year and is eagerly waiting for his “new” first victim! Now that the restrictions are being relaxed, we have a plan in place to re-oil the mechanics and prepare our bullpen for new customers in the following ways:
- First, customers must wear their masks while riding the bull (unless this restriction is relaxed). The inflatable mattress that surrounds the bull is almost 20 feet in diameter which means a rider will be ~ 3 feet from the close ride, but we don’t want to take any chances!)
- Hand disinfectants and surgical gloves are provided to each driver before and after the journey.
- The bull is regularly wiped with biocide that our arcade friends at Coin-Op have entrusted to us and that they use on their arcade machines. It is one of (now) many cleaners that not only kills Covid, but also has a protective window of up to 24 hours. We plan to wipe the bull several times throughout the night.
What will we see of the beverage program in both establishments and who is responsible for ensuring that the drinks flow? ‘tini-time looks like it will be a hit at Wilder with the variety of martinis such as the Espresso-Tini.
You can’t neglect the cocktails and luckily our team is perfect for the job! Our bar manager Sean Doolan works hand in hand with our general manager Brian Mitchell and bar supervisor Shane Caudill to ensure that our cocktail program hits the right notes for our two concepts.
At Wilder, they decided to highlight our martinis, both in different sizes (e.g. the ‘Mini-Tini’) and in flavors (the Marina District’s choice is the Espresso-Tini). They have also improved our olive game, offering customers a choice of three different types of stuffed olives.
However, the only drink that surprised us with its popularity is our Smokey George. It’s a cross between a Negroni and a Manhattan where we use a special consumable bar tool called a SmokeTop to burn oak wood and put that smoke straight into the drink. This is done at the bar, but can also be done on the table side for guests who wish to do so. It is not only a delicious drink, but also the smoke tendrils that come out of the drink after removing the lid are very popular for the “grief”.
What’s new at Westwood? I hear the mimosa season is in the works.
Our well-established cocktails at Westwood are our whiskey sours. We’ve spent a lot of time curating 100 bottles of American bourbons and whiskeys from around the world for our backbar, which can be ordered neat or poured into a cocktail. (Actually, Sean mentioned that our American-heavy whiskey list has now reached 120 bottles, which means we need to redesign our menu!).
On weekends, to attract customers from Marina Green, we plan to start a “Mimosa Time” promotion with bottomless mimosas worth $ 25 (with appetizer purchase and a time limit of 90 minutes) with changing flavors and upscale champagne. We can’t wait to bring the Yeehaw back to Westwood!
How has Wilder been received since it opened this spring? Do you see the marina as a popular place to go out again after the pandemic?
The marina handled the pandemic well … staying safe with masks and social distancing, especially when taking out, delivering and eating outdoors. We have found our customers are very supportive of our business, order often and tip well to keep us, their other favorite restaurants and our employees
Wilder’s filled olive martini
all about recovery. While the population in the neighborhood has thinned out over the past year, we are seeing signs of recovery not only in the area’s population, but also in the general “energy” of customers as restrictions are relaxed, vaccination rates rise and case numbers fall .
We look forward to welcoming guests to our restaurants again, introducing Wilder to the neighborhood and beyond, and welcoming Westwood back to our loyal fans.
Anything else you would like to share with future Wilder or Westwood guests?
I want to acknowledge the creativity and perseverance of my team, but also the landlords / sellers who have supported their tenants / customers over the past year. While there are certainly restaurants that have built their reputations and operations around to-go and delivery, many of the operators I know have not … and pay a premium on prime real estate (in bulk) and invest in expensive upgrades (and associated sound systems / AV) to deliver amazing personal experiences to customers.
We’ve suffered quite a bit compared to the world’s Starbucks and McDonalds, and I’m happy that through a combination of landlord / seller / customer support, government grants, and resilience, our business is able to save the world from COVID-19 .