Above: Da Flora sits on the corner of Columbus Avenue and Filbert Street
Darren Lacy was in love. Not the kind of love you’re in when you take the first bite of smoked prosciutto while overlooking the San Francisco Bay on a calm evening, but real love that makes people fall hard.
By the end of a night at the now-defunct Elbo Room with mutual friends, Lacy’s life would never be the same after meeting his future wife, Jen McMahon.
“My friend…was talking to my [future] wife, who I had met outside. I had to introduce myself,” said Lacy.
“I was like, ‘This guy’s rude. Hi, my name is Darren,’ and then we held hands, and we danced…I didn’t see her again for another month, and then we had our annual Christmas party, and we kind of reconnected at that Christmas party.”
From the turn of the millennium onward, the rest was history: Jen and Darren started dating and eventually got married in 2009. While live music is what initially brought the couple together, a mutual bond through food tied them even closer. Jen had entered her current role as a chef at Da Flora, an Italian-inspired osteria in North Beach, where Darren started waiting tables shortly after. And as their marriage grew, so did their roles – the couple purchased Da Flora in 2016.
After taking over, Lacy and McMahon continued championing Da Flora’s farm-to-table concept within an intimate 30-seat dining area. Both source all food products locally, often going shopping together before opening Da Flora’s doors on late afternoons.
The extra efforts pay off. Appetizers like the crostini Sicilian eggplant caponata boast an unforgettable sweet and savory flavor. The sweet potato gnocchi turns comfort food into a high-end delicacy with sherry cream and housemade focaccia bread. And of course, classics like chicken parmigiana and risotto add predictability to the main course menu without sacrificing quality.
On the surface, Lacy and McMahon have made owning and operating Da Flora look easy. But when Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation in May and June, Darren reflected on his experience as a Black restaurateur, detailing racism he has faced in the industry.
“And…they’re [saying] ‘Let me speak to the manager,'” said Lacy when looking back on interactions with racist customers. “Little do they know that…you’re actually speaking to the owner.”
Elitism and racism are cousins that usually find themselves at the same family reunion. This is especially true in high dining, where Lacy has dealt with despicable predecessors of modern-day Karens, their husbands (Kens?), and other oblivious racists. Then and now, they have indulged in pointless complaints riddled with double meanings and passive aggression, discrediting his status along with his accomplishments.
Still, Lacy believes non-Black people are finally taking a harder look at themselves in the mirror.
“I feel like with everything that happened…people [are] just kind of going to look at these little subtle instances of racism.”
Hoping this wave discourages vile behavior from customers in the future is one thing. However, holding everyone accountable for their actions—regardless of the setting—helps make this dream achievable. Restaurants are integral to San Francisco culture, but that shouldn’t need to be said to justify why Darren deserves better.
The couple has also faced additional challenges with their restaurant during the COVID-19 pandemic. Operating with limited staff adds pressure to ensure employees are as well trained as possible. This is especially the case in fine dining, where customer service is needed to retain small but loyal customer bases.
Nevertheless, the restaurant’s response puts it in a class of its own. Service concerns sparked Darren to recreate Da Flora’s intimate dining environment to become pandemic-proof and outdoor-friendly.
Then Da Flora reduced the prices of menu items by up to almost 50 percent. In the wake of COVID-related economic hardships, lower prices make it easier to enjoy a quality dining experience that helps patrons bust out of quarantine with more excitement.
“With outdoor seating, you want to be able to make the experience as comfortable as possible for people,” said Darren.
“But San Franciscans are pretty, pretty resilient people. If they want to go out, they’ll dress accordingly. You know, they’ll bring an extra jacket or some of our guests bring blankets…to make it a little bit more comfortable.”
What Lacy said is true — San Franciscans are resilient people. So resilient, as a matter of fact, that they might be the solution to this COVID response thing:
“I said this to other restaurants. If they really enjoy it, or if they have a place that they like, you need to get out there and support these businesses, because if you don’t, they’re gonna be gone.”
Everybody’s struggling. But going through this alone won’t be the answer.