Laïola is a casual restaurant in San Francisco, California. This self-described “California restaurant inspired by Spain” opened in mid-2007 to acclaim. Managing partner Joe Hargrave conceived of the mostly-Spanish wine list, with many wines available by the carafina, or carafe. Chef Mark Denham buys whole pigs and lambs and makes dry-cured sausage on premises. Hargrave provides the details:

Laïola Restaurant San Francisco, CaliforniaLaïola Restaurant San Francisco, California

The name:

“It’s an archaic Franco-Basque word that means a small gathering place.”

The concept:

“I just wanted a place that restaurateurs would appreciate: casual, ingredient driven, where you could come and go as you please. It’s a cliché at this point, but we wanted the food to be sustainable and local. We wanted it to be Spanish, but we thought it important to forgo authenticity and use local when possible. I just made a shirt for the chef that says ‘Locavore’ on it. Except for the prosciutto, all the produce, fish and meats come from within 100 miles.”

The menu:

“Everything’s meant for sharing and served family style, but the four dishes preceding the sides are larger. (View the Laïola menu.) The menu is like a pyramid, with the smaller dishes on top and the bigger dishes on the bottom.”

Laïola's Sardine PlateLaïola's Sardine Plate

Why it’s not a tapas bar:

“I feel like tapas have been misconstrued in the American mind. At a true tapas bar, there are prepared foods at room temperature and maybe one or two ‘house’ tapas. At Laïola, we have local olives and almonds and little croquetas, but other than that, our dishes are pretty composed. We have a full line (of cooks) working all the time.”

The wine program

“I came across the carafinas (carafes) at Avec in Chicago and thought it was so clever. It’s great value for the guest. The wine list at Avec doesn’t say you’re getting a carafina (an 8-ounce pour in a glass carafe), so I thought the wines were expensive. Then when it showed up, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a generous portion.’ People absolutely love it. They feel like they’re getting a bonus. The most consistent feedback we get is about the value on the wine program.

Laïola's Bacon-wrapped Medjool datesLaïola's Bacon-wrapped Medjool dates

“I knew nothing about Spanish wines when we set out to do this, but when I realized there was not one place in all San Francisco doing an all-Spanish wine list, I thought it was a niche opportunity. Now, out of 114 wines on our list, 111 are Spanish. I feel that Spain is about 20 years behind Châteauneuf-du-Pape price wise. I have amazing bottles of wine on my list for $35. If they were from France, they would be three times the price.”

Selling unfamiliar wines:

“We approach every table and let them know that we know the list is esoteric. We say: ‘Let us help you. Don’t feel uncomfortable. We know it’s intimidating.’ That disarms people. We open at least one bottle every day for the staff. They don’t know all 114 wines, but they know the regions and what the wines from each region taste like. Customers don’t need an encyclopedia; they need guidance.”

One great idea:

“The wine program is so much fun, and unique for the staff. If a server is passionate about a particular bottle, we’ll put it on the wine list as “staff selection,” and we’ll sell a lot of it.”

Visit them at: www.laiola.com
or at
2031 Chestnut Street, San Francisco, CA t: 415.346.5641

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