San Francisco’s Newest Hotspot Wilder Reinvigorating The Marina District’s Social Scene

San Francisco’s Newest Hotspot Wilder Reinvigorating The Marina District’s Social Scene

San Francisco’s Marina District’s newest hotspot, Wilder, comes to the neighborhood from the team behind the popular country Western destination Westwood, a spot known for its mechanical bull, live music entertainment, 100+ bottle whiskey collection, elevated Tex-Mex and more. Proof Partners and Wilder co-founders Kingston Wu and Lily Peng, have designed Wilder with a mix of International comfort food influenced by fresh California ingredients and globally-inspired flavors.

“The neighborhood enjoys traveling in packs—eating, drinking, and celebrating with new and old friends alike. We wanted to build an experience that celebrated those social interactions with food and drink that are easy to understand (international comfort food/riffs off classic cocktails) but elevated to feel special,” explains co-owner Wu.

“We’ve made a subtle nod to the pack mentality of the night scene with woods and animal motifs in our wallpaper and framed artwork. We even curated fun portraits of animals with human bodies to place in our dining room—we all have a spirit animal (perhaps several spirit animals) and it may change when we’re hungry or thirsty!”

Wu and Peng tapped Jesus Dominguez to helm the restaurant’s kitchen. Dominguez, who is also the current Executive Chef of Westwood, has an extensive background in opening and operating restaurants including Delfino, Americano, and Spork, and has spent the past decade at two Michelin-starred Taj Campton Place as its Sous Chef.


We sat down with co-founder Kingston Wu to talk about the space, new restaurant concept, Westwood and it’s new developments, pandemic pivots and more. Here’s what he had to say.

What was this restaurant before Wilder moved into space? Talk about how you’ve updated the design, look and feel.

Prior to acquiring the space, this restaurant was operating as Cow Marlowe which was known for its bright, airy, “Nantucket” inspired decor (lots of white walls and a beautiful blue and gold hued marble bartop). Given our deep experience with the neighborhood, we felt that our busiest hours would be dinner service, as well as Saturday and Sunday brunch.

To play to these popular service times, we wanted to warm the space up by introducing darker hues and earth tones. We kept the location of the bar and most of the walls intact, but repainted, wallpapered, and place hardwood on every floor, wall, booth, and ceiling afterward to give the space its new woodsy, “Tahoe Chic” personality.  

Was reconstructing the space and opening your new concept Wilder tough during the continued pandemic times? Were there any unforeseen challenges?

Yes! The biggest challenge was deciding how, when and how much money to spend on our build-out. Back in May 2020 (even now) there were widely different theories for how long the pandemic would last, and how strict or relaxed businesses could operate in this environment. We weren’t entirely confident we should have purchased a restaurant to begin with, but knew that leaving no money in the bank to weather the lockdown would have been equally foolish. 

We worked closely with our contractor (a friend) and our new landlord (who was very supportive) in making focused and incremental changes to the space when cash flows would allow for it, and during the evenings and off days as we were operating a pop-up of our other concept – Westwood – in the parklets outside.

We are so grateful that our customers were not only supportive of our Westwood brand during Covid (we pivoted our menu to BBQ during this time) but also turned the other eye to the construction materials lying around in our main dining room floor and private den during this time.

Can you tell us a little bit more about Chef Jesus Dominguez, who oversees both Wilder and Westwood?

Chef is an amazing individual, in addition to being a talented Chef. Chef is the most process-oriented person I’ve ever met, and one of the rare Chefs that doesn’t have an ego when it comes to his food. He’s never too prideful to take feedback for his dishes, and willingly makes the necessary changes to improve them, if warranted. He’s constantly watching what food comes back into the kitchen to see what was (or wasn’t) eaten, and reviewing reports to understand what is (or isn’t) ordered.

He asks a ton of questions to our team so he can tweak the recipe, presentation, or actual dishes featured on the menu, to hone in on what the neighborhood responds favorably to. He also has a deep knowledge of all types of food from different cultures, which is perfect since Wilder purposefully (and proudly) features international comfort food.

Have there been any new changes for Westwood, while you focused on opening Wilder?

While Chef was working on the new menu for Wilder, he had to re-invent Westwood’s menu during the same period. When food sales became the only way to make a little bit of money during the pandemic, our team realized that a damn-good burger or steak guac weren’t differentiated enough to stand out among a platform of literally thousands of restaurants that were popping up on the delivery apps.

So we retooled our kitchen, purchased a smoker (which Chef never used before) and built recipes for smoked brisket, ribs, sausage and chicken while on a tight timeline. He developed a product that has won rave reviews in our neighborhood.

Fun fact: We later learned that the smoker we purchased is geared towards smoking birds… which explains why it took him so long to figure out the most ideal placement for the various meats on our menu! We are purchasing a new/better smoker once we have some extra cash set aside.

Let’s talk about the mechanical bull at Westwood. How are you handling the participation during the pandemic?

Our mechanical bull has been hibernating for this past year, eagerly waiting for its ‘new’ first victim! Now that restrictions are loosening, we’ve put in a plan to re-oil the mechanics and get our bullpen ready for new customers in the following ways:

  • First, customers will have to keep their masks on while riding the bull (unless that restriction is relaxed). The inflatable mattress surrounding the bull is nearly 20 ft in diameter which means a rider is ~10ft from the near ride, but we don’t want to take any risks!).
  • Hand sanitizer and surgical gloves are made available to every rider, pre- and post-ride.
  • The bull is regularly wiped down with Biocide, which our arcade friends at Coin-Op turned us onto which they use on their arcade machines. It’s one of (now) many cleaners which not only kills Covid, but has an ‘up to 24 hour’ protective window. We plan on wiping down the bull many times throughout the night.

What will we see from the beverage program at both establishments and who is responsible for keeping the drinks flowing? ‘tini-time looks like it will be a hit at Wilder with the variety of martinis like the espresso-tini.

You can’t neglect the cocktails, and luckily our team is perfect for the job! Our bar manager Sean Doolan works hand-in-hand with our General Manager Brian Mitchell and bar supervisor Shane Caudill in making sure our cocktail program hits all the right notes for both of our concepts.

At Wilder, they’ve decided to prominently highlight our martinis, both with various sizes (i.e. the ‘mini-tini’) and flavors (the Marina District’s choice is the Espresso-tini). They’ve also stepped up our olive game, offering customers a choice from three different stuffed olive types.

However, the one drink that has surprised us with its popularity is our Smokey George. It’s a cross between a Negroni and Manhattan, on which we use a special consumable bar tool called a SmokeTop to scorch oakwood, and infuse that smoke directly into the drink. This is done at the bar, but can also be done table side for guests that request it. Not only is it a delicious drink, but the tendrils of smoke that come from the drink once the top is removed are very popular for the ‘Gram’.

What’s new at Westwood? I hear mimosa-time is in the works. 

At Westwood, our tried and true cocktails are our Whiskey Sours. We’ve spent time curating 100 bottles of American-made bourbons and whiskeys from around the world to feature in our back bar, which can be ordered neat or infused into a cocktail. (Actually, Sean mentioned that our American-heavy whiskey list may have hit 120 bottles now which means we’ll have to redesign our menu!).

On weekends, as a way to draw customers in from the Marina Green, we’ve planning on launching a “mimosa-time” promotion with $25 bottomless mimosas (with entree purchase and a 90 minute time limit), featuring rotating flavors and upscale champagnes. We can’t wait to bring the “yeehaw” back into Westwood!

How has Wilder been received so far since you opened this spring? Do you see the Marina becoming a popular going-out destination once again post-pandemic?

The Marina has been handling the pandemic well… staying safe with masks and socially distancing, especially with to-go, delivery, and outdoor dining. We’ve noticed that our customers have been very supportive of our business, ordering often and tipping well, in a bid to keep us, their other favorite restaurants, and our employees

around for the recovery. While the neighborhood population thinned this past year, we see signs of a rebound not only in the population of the area, but in the general ‘energy’ of the customers as restrictions are loosed as vaccination rates climb and caseloads drops.

We’re excited to get back to welcoming guests to our restaurants, introducing Wilder to the neighborhood and beyond, and welcoming Westwood back to our loyal fans.

Is there anything else you’d like future guests of Wilder or Westwood to know?

I want to recognize the creativity and tenacity of my team, and also the landlords/ vendors that supported their tenants/ customers this past year. While there are certainly restaurants that built their reputation and operations around to-go and delivery, many of the operators I know didn’t… and pay a premium for prime real estate (in large quantities) and invest in expensive build-outs (and associated sound systems/AV) to provide customers with amazing in-person experiences.

We’ve suffered quite a bit relative to the Starbucks and McDonalds of the world, and I feel fortunate that through a combination of landlord/vendor/customer support, government grants, and resiliency of character, our business is around to see the world buck COVID-19.

Published at Thu, 10 Jun 2021 22:32:47 +0000

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