Tyler Florence Talks About His Budding Bay Area Empire

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Photo: Courtesy Tyler Florence

In 2008, Food Network star Tyler Florence relocated from New York City to Mill Valley, where he opened a kitchen store and has been raising three kids along with his wife Tolan. As many of you have likely heard, Florence is taking over the former Rubicon (which still, oddly, has a website) and reinventing it this May as the Wayfare Tavern, with a menu of new takes on turn-of-the-twentieth century San Francisco dishes. But in the months following this opening, Tyler is also revamping the once Michelin-starred El Paseo in Mill Valley with help of Sammy Hagar, and also launching what will likely be the first of a franchise of casual eateries called Rotisserie & Wine in downtown Napa.

Florence spoke to Grub Street this week about how the three projects are coming along, and what we can expect to find when the Wayfare Tavern makes its debut.

How is the construction at Wayfare Tavern coming along?
It looks like a million bucks. You know, it's three floors, and on the first two floors we're trying to create something that feels really warm and authentic, as if it's been there for a hundred years. Sort of like Balthazar meets Tadich Grill meets Grand Central Oyster Bar. A lot of reclaimed wood and antique details. Up on the third floor was Rubicon's wine vault, which holds like 5,000 bottles, and we're trying to patina it down and make it fit in and feel like a natural part of the space.

Have you hired a chef de cuisine yet?
No, we're still looking at a few candidates. A couple from here, one from Florida, a couple from New York.

Anything you can tell us yet about the menu?
It's a big menu, very California-focused with things like crayfish from the Sacramento river. And it's going to feature a lot of classic dishes that people can identify with Old San Francisco, like cioppino, and we're going to have a bone marrow appetizer with shallot pickle relish and herb salad, and an example pasta dish: ricotta dumplings with chanterelle mushrooms, cavallo nero, bicycle radishes, Meyer lemon and parmesan.

And how about El Paseo? You're keeping the name the same?
Yes, we're keeping the name. That's a really incredible space. It's set back in this alley that feels like it's right out of Spain, and it was built by a schoolteacher in the 1930s who came back from Spain to Mill Valley and wanted to recreate something like what she saw there here at home. It's been a continuously operating restaurant since 1936, and I'm seeing the menu concept there as being totally in rhythm with the season. Very locavore. Very myopic. We'll be sourcing everything except salt, pepper, and wine right from Marin County, and I'm even looking into a salt guy who's harvesting sea salt up in Inverness, so it may be everything except pepper and wine is hyper-local.

The place had a Michelin star when it was open, but it was always kind of a mixed message with a French menu and a Spanish feel. We want to turn it into an old American tavern — a farm-to-table gastropub. El Paseo should be open by the end of June or early July.

Tell us about the Napa project.
It's called Rotisserie & Wine, and it's going to be in the Riverfront complex right on Main Street in Napa [Ed. Note: This would be the same complex where Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto is opening an "organic" restaurant this summer.], and there what we're trying to do is our first casual concept, something that I could see opening elsewhere in California and after that, in other parts of the country. It's got 120 seats, and we'll be serving organic Petaluma chicken and Mondavi lamb on the rotisserie, really simple. Just some impeccably roasted proteins, great side dishes, and wines by the glass or bottle. That should be open by July or August, and there's going to be a really cool kitchen store attached, on the opposite side of the building.

You've been pretty damn busy, also with a cookbook on its way?
We just finished shooting for the cookbook, and it's going to be really great, all about eating locally. It'll be out in October and it's called Tyler Florence Family Meals: Finding the Feast in Your Backyard.

And you just signed a deal for your own signature-label wines?
Yeah, I've been working on my own wine for a while with Crush Pad. Our first bottle, the '07 TF Zin, got 92 points from Wine Spectator, and I'm really trying to show people I'm serious about this. I just signed a deal with Mondavi to make four varietals: Pinot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Sauvignon Blanc, with the Tyler Florence label.

We assume you'll be serving the wines at all the restaurants?
Absolutely. And wait 'til you taste them.

Earlier: Tyler Florence, Lark Creek Restaurants Coming to Napa [Grub Street]
Tyler Florence Plans Marin Restaurant; Pulls Plug on Bar Florence [Grub Street]
Tyler Florence Partnering with Sammy Hagar on "Rustic American Tavern" [Grub Street]