For Bradley Levy, owner of Firefly Restaurant in San Francisco’s Noe Valley, food is the language of togetherness.
“I always loved food and cooking and had a good example in my mother of caring for people through cooking,” he says.
Levy got his culinary start among family and friends, whipping up recipes for people in college, and entering the restaurant industry because other friends had — and though he enjoyed it; he considered it a hobby, not a profession. His perceptions of a future in food began to change when he was promoted from dishwasher to cook at a restaurant in Rhode Island.
“I made myself at home there,” he says, “I realized, this is the only thing I feel like doing, and I enjoy doing it.”
Lured to the West Coast by the California Culinary Academy, Levy began working and going to school in San Francisco, where dreams grew in the kitchens. He imagined a place that evoked the convivial atmosphere he and other young restaurateurs had encountered in their earlier days preparing food and; just like that, in the windy fringes of Noe Valley, Firefly was born.
“We wanted to create something with that kind of experience that we had at home and cooking with friends,” Levy says. “Not making it feel like a business, that’s the biggest success we’ve had.”
A mainstay in the restaurant scene since its opening night in 1993, Firefly has continued to be guided by its original principle: creating a welcoming space akin to stepping into a close friend’s house for a meal. That may come in the form of Chef de Cuisine Haley Sausner visiting tables, chatting with regulars and meeting new diners; or it may manifest as simply knowing that you can have your favorite dish on the new American menu crafted to meet your dietary needs (hint: gluten-free eaters? You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how many options you can indulge in).
“A restaurant’s biggest strength is the feeling people have when they’re there, the way they’re treated, the way people interact with them and each other,” says Levy. “We have that genuine feeling in the way we cook, and we care that our food is nourishing and satisfying. We cook the same way we cook for our families. A lot of recipes come from stuff we do at home.”
And then came COVID-19.
When the pandemic swept San Francisco, Firefly shut its doors shortly before the city closed down restaurants out of concerns for its staff’s safety. The community has been quick to support Firefly by purchasing gift cards, often with thoughtful notes; that will help Levy sustain the restaurant and his staff (he is trying to keep on as many of his employees as possible) while business is suspended. But Levy and his team look towards an uncertain future, both in terms of when they will open again — the restaurant is also undergoing renovations — and what dining out will look like when they do.
Firefly was formed around the idea of community, of chefs and guests chatting and forging relationships, of providing a home-away-from-home for locals; many of whom have been frequenting the restaurant since it opened over two-and-a-half decades ago. Levy reflects on offering takeout or serving food on long paddles to reduce contact between servers and diners, modifications other restaurants have taken in light of the pandemic, but which veer from his original concept of Firefly.
“With reopening, those are the biggest challenges. How do you recreate something that’s so person-oriented and genuine and caring? How do you dedicate yourself to sustainable products when everything is disposable? We don’t know what those parameters are going to be,” says Levy.
What may help Firefly weather the challenges is what brought it to life in the first place: a vision of a place for people to come together. Through the difficulties, Levy is committed to supporting the Firefly family. The core staff has been at the restaurant between 5 and 15 years, and among them you will find collaboration, best friendships, inspiration, and partners. Levy’s wife works as the bookkeeper; and his daughters, now 12 and 14, are “there all the time.”
“We guide each other and support each other. I wouldn’t know what to do without them,” says Levy. “This restaurant is part of my family. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”