I’d never heard of the term “approachable fine dining” until I watched a video of 25 Lusk’s executive chef, Matthew Dolan, describe his restaurant as such. I didn’t quite grasp the concept until I interviewed Matthew for myself and learned about 25 Lusk’s approach: it’s a high-end vibe without pretension and an ingredient-forward menu without oversimplification. 25 Lusk is a destination bursting with multi-floored versatility. There’s a private event space, an expansive dining room, and a rooftop bar with pizza ovens. The restaurant doesn’t boast exclusivity; its design simply allows for the food culture of San Francisco to come in all its varying forms.
25 Lusk is owned by executive chef/partner Matthew Dolan and partner Chad Bourdon, who oversees the bar and front of house. The two met at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. As they parted ways after graduation, they always agreed that they’d like to work together. Matthew and Chad shared the same ideological approach towards how restaurants should run.
“Chad and I – we knew it wasn’t about us. It’s about the guests. It takes a village to run a restaurant. Chefs are usually egocentric, but that’s not for us. You can’t do it by yourself. It’s about working together as a team and creating a beautiful guest experience,” Matthew said to me over the phone. As someone who’s done time in the restaurant industry myself and dealt with my share of hair-trigger chefs, I smiled. These two aren’t typical by any means.
After culinary school Chad moved to San Francisco and worked in some of the top restaurants in the Bay Area, while Matthew traveled and worked for fine dining restaurants around the world. Years later, their shared vision finally came true when an investor called up Matthew and asked to start a restaurant with him. By then, Matthew had moved to San Francisco himself, got married, and was expecting his first child. Matthew called up Chad and asked him to be his business partner. Chad said yes.
For two and a half years, Chad and Matthew renovated a warehouse into a gorgeous, hip venue. In 2010, 25 Lusk opened to crowds lining up around the block. Their excitement was short-lived however, when they encountered a major snag: one month after their opening, a critic from the SF Chronicle reamed 25 Lusk in his review. For the two partners, who had such prominent careers before this, it was a huge blow. Matthew told me what he announced to his staff the day the review hit the streets: “If you believe what you read in the paper, we understand if you want to pack up your knives and go. But I don’t believe what I read in the paper. And if you don’t either, then let’s keep working. Let’s prove them wrong.”
Not one staff member left and prove them wrong, 25 Lusk did. A year later, the restaurant landed on Esquire Magazine’s prestigious 20-spot list of “Best New Restaurants in America”. Other awards followed, including those from SF Weekly.
The road to success was paved with change and a dedication to sustainability. The restaurant increased their private events and shifted from a traditional European concept to a California-focused, ingredient-forward menu. Matthew insists on 25 Lusk making a minimal impact on the environment while sourcing his ingredients locally. He was inspired by the way restaurants source their ingredients in Europe, where chefs go to the market everyday and they personally know the people who give them their produce and meat. Additionally, he cited his wife, who’s a passionate environmentalist, for influencing him and opening his eyes to how his actions affect the planet.
Presently, it’s just Matthew and Chad running 25 Lusk. They do takeout and delivery orders through a third party app, making sure each dish is being prepared carefully and doing zero contact pickups. When I asked Matthew about his employees, I could hear sadness in his voice as he explained how he had to let everyone go.
“It was heartbreaking. Miserable. Half of the people were there in 2010 when I made my speech about the Chronicle review. We paid them out and said that when it’s time to come back, we’ll let them know. Everybody was lovely about it, so understanding.” Matthew went on to say how they’re a determined restaurant. They’re not giving up.
When I asked him what he’d like to tell the San Francisco community, he said, “I’d challenge them to find a restaurant who pours as much of their heart and soul into their restaurant, their guest’s experience, and the community as we do. We have the highest levels of sanitation. When this is all over and you get to dine with us again, you’ll be safe and you’ll have a good time.”
People often associate snobbery with fine dining culture. In regards to 25 Lusk, I’d encourage people instead to associate fine dining with grit, determination and humility.