How Now, Grass Fed Cow?

OK, where to start? There’s a lot to go over, I guess.

It’s time for us to change things at the Linkery, to make the next step into being the restaurant we want to be. We need to do that, because in these times, only the best restaurants are going to survive and thrive.

It was our belief, as we’ve seen the numbers change over the last year, that we have plenty of loyal members of the Linkery community, but that you just can’t afford to come in as often as you like. Our survey bore that out. You told us that:

* You love the quality of the food we’re putting out
* You would come in more often if we could find a way to offer a broader selection of mid-priced food at the same high quality
* You aren’t particularly tied to any specific dishes

I think this lays out our path quite clearly.

We need to focus not on any specific dish or menu, but in taking these special ingredients we get, building on our special relationships with farmers and brewers and winemakers, and putting together a broad range of delicious offerings at a neighhorhood-friendly price. Beyond that, we need to make it easy to come in for just a drink, for a drink and a snack, or a memorable dinner.

At the same time, it’s become apparent to me, over the last year, that the mission that’s animated us for the last five years no longer requires us in quite the same way.

In 2005, we opened our first restaurant and discovered how awful the local food system was, and saw that we would never get great ingredients for our community restaurant if we bought the food we were being offered. For over five years, we have dedicated ourselves to doing everything we could to helping build a robust local and independent food system that we could count on for the best quality ingredients, food that you could serve in a world-class neighborhood restaurant.

By early 2010, it started becoming apparent that the local food system had, in many ways, reached that level. Not good enough yet for the city as a whole, but good enough to build a legit farm-to-table restaurant on (which we did, in fact, with El Take It Easy).

Earlier this year I was talking with Lucila from Suzie’s Farm about how large their farm is and about their ability to deliver to restaurants five days a week, and I found myself saying: whatever difference the Linkery has made in the food system the last few years, the ball isn’t really in our court any more; farms like Suzie’s are what is going to bring the movement forward now while we are watching and cooking and eating. It’s great, and scary, to make that transition from being at the center of what’s going on in a movement, to being just another face in the retinue.

So, what now? Well, what makes a great neighborhood restaurant?

With all this great food at our fingertips, finally in large quantities, we can first of all create a menu that serves you well and that we don’t have to change every day. It’ll probably change every week, still, after all, we still have growing seasons. But not every day.

This one change, to a more stable menu, will allow to serve you so much better in many dimensions: deeper product knowledge to share with you; more time to spend with each dish finding better ways to bring it to life; the ability to be more accommodating in hospitality, freed of the anxiety regarding the intricate dance happening every day between our kitchen and our farms.

Will there still be limits bounding our food? Yes. We will run out of things. We will still buy whole animals, and serve through a given part until it’s gone. When asparagus or winter squash goes out of season, we’re not going to buy it from remote corners of the globe. Pomegranate season in San Diego will probably continue to be about a week long, at least at our farms.

What shall become of the sausages? We don’t know yet. Making great sausage always be in our repertoire, and I suspect it will be on our menu, but it’s important for us all to remember that any one dish is not the point. The point is for us to get the best ingredient from the best farmers, and to make you great food, with love, that you can come in and eat. If running a sausage factory (which, seriously, is what we do now) means that we can’t do that job at a price you can afford, then the sausage factory is expendable. Serving you great food as often as we can, is not.

I feel sadness in recognizing the ultimate unimportance of sausage, because we’ve invested 6 years getting good at it. Even in the last few months, I judge that we’ve attained a new level of quality, and I’m proud of it. I love offering it. But in the end, it’s not central to why we’re here, in the same way that making great meals for you is.

So, you ask, what’s the program? Expect the following:

* Starting now, we’re shifting our beer and wine buying practices to allow us to offer a broader selection of excellent craft beers and wines at the lower end of the price scale (about $5 for beer, $6-9 for wine). At the same time, we’re simplifying, and will (except for special events) reduce our selection of cask beers from 4-6 to 1-2, and bring the wine list down from 60 or 70 down to a more manageable 30 or 40.

* In about six weeks, we’ll shut down for a few days to implement all these changes. If there’s something on the menu that you really really love (green beans, choucroute, picnic plate, burger with an pastured chicken egg on it, etc.), now’s a good time to come enjoy it. We’ve got a great event lineup planned in November, too, including Beer Week events. And, before we say goodbye to the current Linkery, we’ll have some events (a Reuben Tuesday, and so forth) to celebrate all the great things that have happened in this iteration of the Linkery. I think there is a lot to celebrate.

* We’re going to do a “refresh”, like a remodel but only over a few days, in which we reconfigure the space to make it as comfortable as possible whether you want to just come in for a drink, come in for small plates, or have a special dinner. We’re going to get rid of the cafe booths, reconfigure the bar area, and add a private dining room in what is now the North Park Meat Co. We’re going to improve the aesthetics and make the space cleaner, modern, cozier, and better suited for whatever mood you’re in.

* We are going to figure out a way to keep serving our bacon clientele. We treasure your loyal patronage!

* We will re-open with a new menu, based on providing you great dishes made with the best local produce and the best, properly raised meats in the country, all at prices that make sense in our neighborhood and in this economy. With a menu designed around the ingredients we have access to, we’ll be able to make even fewer compromises than we do now. We will serve only grassfed beef, heritage breed pork raised outdoors, local pastured poultry, and pastured lamb and goat. ‘Cause that’s the restaurant we want to be.

It’s funny, we did something quite similar to this in 2006, back at our old 50-seat location, and it worked out amazingly well. In fact, that was the change that propelled us forward to where we are today. The biggest difference is that, in 2006, I think we planned the whole thing over drinks on a Thursday, and by Sunday nite we were closed and doing the remodel. Meanwhile, at our current scale, a six week lead time is aggressively fast!

While change is always scary, the more we’ve worked on this project the last couple weeks, and the closer we get to it, the more excited I get. One one hand, there is so much to be nostalgic about, in what the Linkery has been a part of the last few years. On the other hand, the only way out is up: into being a better restaurant, serving you better, using only the best ingredients, creating a more comfortable place that you can come more often.

We asked you, you laid out this path for us, and I like it. I am confident that you will too.

And, please, for the next six weeks, please keep coming in, enjoying the new wine and beer selections, and the last dance with the current menu. It’s all something to be celebrated, after all, while we look forward to what comes next.

NOTE: Due to all the publicity this has been getting, I’ve closed the comments on the post, as this sort of thing tends to bring out a lot of people who aren’t part of the Linkery world, who have an axe to grind for whatever reason (don’t like the service charge, don’t like places that try to use better ingredients, don’t like my hair, whatever). Since these changes we’re discussing are about you, our core patrons, I really don’t want to open the conversation up to the random malcontents of the online world. If you’d like us to know what’s on your mind, please feel free to email me. Thanks for reading.