How Stonestown Galleria became a culinary destination

Huh, that’s a pretty nice trend. Wonder if we can get DTF somewhere in SF rather than Palo Alto next…

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“You just always want to try the new thing,” said Audrey Aguirre-Woo, who joined the line from Daly City.

Cynical semi-rant: the diners who fit this profile always want to try the new thing - provided it has enough marketing and PR oomph behind it for it to catch their interest and it helps a whole lot if the new thing is already famous and popular somewhere else.

There is still, right now, a stand smack in the middle of the Stonestown food court serving Central Asian and Russian dishes made by a guy from Kyrgyzstan. That is inarguably novel to most diners in SF - in other words, it is definitely a “new thing”! But it has never been jammed with customers, nor did it even make it into Bitker’s piece, because its owners are a family business rather than a multinational corporation, because it’s a humble stand instead of a full-on retail space with Instagram-friendly design and lighting, and because it serves a very un-trendy cuisine instead of trying to capitalize on whatever concept was a hit in Japan/Korea/HK/Taiwan/LA/NYC a few years ago.*

So yeah. I realize that most diners aren’t the types to really go exploring like the HO/FTC/Chowhound crowd. But it would at least be nice if writers like Bitker asked more critical questions like “what is the impact of these trendchasers on the overall Bay Area food scene, and are the businesses that serve them really making the area richer from a culinary perspective?”

*yes, I realize this specific business isn’t necessarily making food that’s setting the world on fire quality-wise. My point is that even if it were, it’s unlikely that it would make much difference to its success or failure as a business, because the customers described in this piece don’t actually care as much about eating outstanding food as they do chasing the latest trend. In the last few years SF has been blessed with the openings of several excellent Arab and Turkish restaurants, at all price ranges from Tahini to Tawla. La Torta Gorda is making food from Puebla that I have never seen outside of Mexico. Casa de la Condesa makes killer Mexico City-style dishes. All of these places fly under the radar and enjoy modest success at best (at worst, in Tawla’s case, they’ve gone under) because they aren’t “destinations” like whatever’s going into the mall.

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I think malls with a substantial Asian population around it seems to go for chains with substantial name recognition. Valley Fair has Din Tai Fung, then Ramen Nagi. And Stonestown. Anchoring the mall (partially) with these eateries instead of shops, which is not a bad idea for the mall, since while people are waiting for a table, they will happily spend some time in the surrounding shops.

With that said, these malls also hosts shops with high name recognition. So its a strategy that applies to the shops as well. So shoppers and eaters who have contrarian taste probably shop, and eat elsewhere.

Right, I get that your average mom-and-pop does not have the kind of capitalization that would allow them to go into a prime spot, formerly occupied by B&M retail stores, in a typical mall. And I also get that given current consumer behavior, it totally makes sense from the mall’s perspective to encourage more restaurants in the mall. So what inevitably goes into these spaces in the mall is going to be a chain of some flavor or other. My beef is more with the attitude of the customers Bitker is quoting - and with journalists like Bitker uncritically accepting those customers’ framing that what they are gravitating to is the “new thing”.

For all that the Bay Area likes to congratulate itself on its culinary scene, it is often shockingly conformist, with most eaters’ tastes sharply delimited by the stuff that has already become popular in larger markets. This piece is a classic, classic example of that.

adding that the Chron’s editorial choices are if anything only making this tendency worse: I get that there is a balance to be struck and that you can’t totally ignore Michelin and the mall in favor of finding every hole-in-the-wall gem in town, but exactly what journalistic need is served by sending two reporters to liveblog eating at a new Shake Shack in Larkspur when it isn’t even the first Shake Shack in the Bay Area?

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Well… if there’s enough media blitz, I’d be intrigued to give it a shot. But even with that, if there isn’t a sustained input of people coming back then that place would be a failure.

Well, lets start doing a review on HO and maybe that’ll give them a boost.

I’m actually excited to see Stonestown not be a ghost town. I remember a few years ago in Serramonte mall and its surrounding area being kinda dead, but with all these new businesses I’m excited to just walk around. I personally don’t expect super high quality places in malls, but I’ll be surprised and happy if I encounter them. I really enjoyed just walking around the food court area in like Times Square or Langham Place in HK and just seeing so many open store fronts and businesses (yeah I doubt we’d get a subway into Stonestown but… there’s delusional hope I guess). I’m walking around market street and some parts of Chinatown and its a little depressing seeing just empty storefronts. So if having these corporate chains that show a little bit of pizzazz brings people around, I’m happy to see that.

Good point, but how would you have them stand out especially in a mall setting? Say why would I care to check out Torta Gorda’s food if my first impression is that of a Mexican restaurant vs. any other Mexican restaurants? Why would I go to the mall for that place? And lastly, regarding to Stonestown itself, its in a particularly high asian population area next to SFSU why wouldn’t these big asian conglomerates try to win people over there?

Edit: After reading @sck response, I think there is a general gist of agreement there.

I hate to say it, but for the majority of people eating food we tend to rarely go outside our comfort area and even then most people are satisfied with good enough. They value spending money on other items than culinary delights.

… maybe one has better terroir? Ha but entirely understandable about that.

Are we talking about this place?

Probably lol. Shows you my googling skills…

I, too, am happy to see malls manage to stave off failure via offering food, even if that food is middling chain stuff. (Although I think it’s an open question whether maybe it would be a better use of the land to just…not have big traditional malls with lots of parking in highly urbanized areas anymore. But that’s a discussion for another day.) My problem is with the tastes of the customers, who don’t gravitate to novelty, but to hype. That leads to scenarios beyond all reason where a place explodes, with hour-long lines, for 6-12 months, then starts to fade. While the phenomenon is hard to measure, I think it’s likely that the boom-and-bust nature of these trendy chain explosions is likely sucking consumer oxygen away from mom-and-pops to some degree, and thus making it harder for these places to survive in their niches outside the mall. The bigger outlets in food media are only accelerating this corporatization of the scene via ridiculous editorial choices (although, to her credit, Soleil Ho at least treated her Shake Shack assignment as the clear joke it was).

Another factor is land use policy. A lot of the reason there are so many empty storefronts in Chinatown and the Market Street corridor is not that these areas are economically depressed, but rather that our planning policies are so poor that landowners find it an attractive option to sit on the spaces they own, waiting for rents to skyrocket even more than take a risk now on a multi-year lease to a business tenant. And that doesn’t even get into the city’s anti-development stance that makes it hard to build the new housing that would supercharge these neighborhoods’ customer base.

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Actually, I think the hype draw might benefit the mom and pop stores that are in the malls now that I think about it. Imagine this, you go to one of these hyped spots and discover that the line is over 2 hours long. You meander around the mall looking for other options and lo and behold there’s this new restaurant there that you have not seen before. You might not even have known about it, but now that you’re already at the mall you are tempted to try it. Dunno, my simulation is as good as any but I think having a concentration of new restaurants in one area helps bring people in.

Ah yes that’s too true. Isn’t there some sort of tax write off incentive as well to keep things empty?

I wouldn’t be surprised if bleed-over from long lines is helping the very small number of mom-and-pops that are in the mall itself - that might be how a random Uyghur stand has managed to last 3-plus years despite virtually no publicity outside of this board. (I used Silk Road not as an example of “this one specific business in the mall is getting hurt by Japanese pancakes and that’s bad, because this business is wonderful” but rather to illustrate how absurdly false the idea is, both made explicit and implicit in Bitker’s piece, that what diners chasing trends are really motivated by is what is “new” when what they are really motivated by is what is trendy and Instagrammable. )

My larger concern is that everyone outside the mall is getting royally shafted when all diners want to do is go to the mall and stand in line for an hour for the latest corporate chain.

You make a good point, but I also think that’s a really San Franciscan thing to do (stand in lines).

Hrm, well the only question I have with that is what should be done? The bay area has more than enough people to support the businesses.

I don’t know, and maybe it is a losing battle, but “not having the primary drivers of the food discourse slobbering all over themselves to give chains gigantic amounts of free advertising that they obviously don’t even need” seems like it could be a decent starting point.

Er… if you’ll excuse a potential delusion of grandeur, I may have been a gatekeeper about Silk Road (slowly steps away…). In 2016, I tipped Anna Roth, then at the Chronicle, about the place and she’d agreed it was on her beat. However, I suggested she wait until they start making lagman before visiting, which they told me they were gonna do but never did, and Roth later left the Chronicle.

The place is unexpected in that mostly fast food food court, so I wondered if Janelle Bitker simply didn’t notice them.

That may well be; only one of the places mentioned in the piece (the Taiwanese street food place) is on the second floor, and it is mentioned only in passing in a way that suggests Bitker’s information on it might have come from a source at the mall’s management. It is more than possible that Bitker didn’t even go to the second-floor food court at all since the piece is so focused on the places on the ground floor.

But again, my point is less “why didn’t Janelle Bitker mention this one not-trendy place” in a piece that clearly was framed around profiling trendy chains and more “this framing things around trendy chains in a puff piece that doesn’t consider any critical questions about its subject is shallow bullshit.”

Jonathan Kauffman’s following article (which brings up Stonestown) hits some of issues this topic brought up:

And we talked about that in detail too.

Since Bitker did write plenty about mom and pops at her time at EBX, I wonder if its the transition to a mainstream newspaper that prompts her transition to writing more about mainstream places, catering to an audience with mainstream taste?

And lately I haven’t really found many food writings to read. Usually I just skim 10 food media sites in a few minutes. Luke Tsai isn’t writing. It seems like Jonathan Kauffman isn’t writing much. Six Fifty hasn’t published their good food writings in a couple of months. Mercury food is bad. Peter Lawrence Kane is still writing. Katherine Hamilton usually has something interesting. We’ll see about Soleil Ho.

“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold