Pictured above: Rocco’s Cafe Owner and Chef Don Dial
San Francisco’s restaurant scene is home to many tourist hotspots, but to experience a real San Francisco tradition, you’ve got to visit Rocco’s Cafe.
Owner and Chef Don Dial is a third generation Italian-American restaurateur. He named his cafe, which opened in 1990, after his grandfather, Rocco Coscarelli, an Italian immigrant who came to San Francisco in 1920 and opened Rocco’s Fine Foods. His sandwiches were served at the 1937 Golden Gate Bridge opening party.
Don is no stranger to hardships as a restaurant owner. He opened Rocco’s when he was just twenty-five, six months after the 1989 earthquake that toppled much of San Francisco’s infrastructure, and in the midst of the AIDS epidemic that claimed millions of lives worldwide.
But the current pandemic is, in Don’s words, “atrocious.” Despite coming from a strong family of other restaurateurs (his uncle owned the Monte Carlo restaurant in San Francisco), nothing could have prepared him for this.
Back in Business
Rocco’s reopened May 29 because Don expected things to be returning to normal after April.
“The mayor says the city is open for business. Open for what? There’s no tourists, no ball games, no concerts, no Pride parades. No one is staying in the hotels. I have more people in my kitchen at home than in my restaurant.”
Don attributes the lack of business to the nearly three month long closure. ““There’s a rule in the restaurant business: Be open seven days a week or as many days as you can because you will break habits if you close. People will find other food sources, start bringing their own lunch, or go to different places.”
The pandemic has altered lifestyles and broken many of the everyday habits that restaurants like Rocco’s relied on.
You can order the traditional, hearty Italian-American fare for breakfast, lunch, or dinner from Rocco’s and pick it up, or have it delivered via Grubhub (but remember that the app will pocket 30%).
Don says customers typically spend an average of $40 when they dine in, because they order a drink, appetizers, and entree, and finish their meal with a latte and dessert. But the average delivery orders are only about $20.
“Eating no longer seems to be a social experience. People order food out of necessity now. Eating is like putting gas in your car.”
The Show Goes On
Don aims to make Rocco’s a unique culinary experience for all customers, no matter how they order their food. The specials are ever-changing based on available ingredients and the weather.
Some weeks Don cooks smoked salmon or lamb shanks, and others, he cooks game like wild duck. Chicken Marsala and polenta are some of the most popular main menu items.
While many of Don’s regulars have retired and moved or passed away (including former mayor Ed Lee), Don says he feels very fortunate to be in business because four restaurants on his short block have already closed due to rent prices.
“Owning this restaurant is all I have done in life because it is so hard to do. I have such a love-hate relationship with it. I cry as much as I laugh because I can have the best and worst of times all within the same day.”
The best and worst…which is why Rocco’s presses onward.