One year ago, Desi Danganan cloistered himself in a room in front of his laptop. No matter that it was also his birthday. For 14 straight hours, he hacked out a restaurant idea to present to i/o Ventures, a tech startup incubator that had just purchased 780 Valencia Street and wanted a café to accompany its office space.
They rejected his idea. Too elaborate, they said.
“When I came into this space, I knew it was special,” said Danganan, then co-owner of the Filipino fusion restaurant and nightclub Poleng Lounge. He saw 780 as a blank canvas, and he wanted it to be his.
He waited for three months, rethought the proposal and watched the Poleng Lounge falter and then fail in January. It was lousy timing. Surely the closure doomed his changes with i/o Ventures.
Nevertheless, he tried again, returning three months later to meet with Ashwin Navin, the i/o Ventures co-founder known for launching BitTorrent. This time he pitched a simpler café with local, curated flavors, and seasonal food and drinks hand-selected by head chef Eddie Lau and bar manager Rosie Mazza.
Danganan emphasized creating a relaxed “third space,” a community hangout outside of home and work.
“The Summit really means two things: the peak, or it means coming together,” Danganan said Tuesday as workers hustled around the space, mixing sauces and stacking dishes. ”That encompasses what i/o Ventures is trying to do here — they’re trying to get entrepreneurs, digital thinkers, like minds to coalesce and make big things happen.”
Navin liked the idea. The space was Danganan’s. He gathered up talent from Poleng, including chef Lau. He revived the name The Summit, based on a recurring hip-hop party — an earlier venture into event planning that he produced between 2002-2005. He got to work.
The Summit’s team was ready, but the building was not. Danganan intended to open July 31, but the date kept getting pushed back by permitting paperwork and building inspection approvals.
“Every week we were set back was at least $10,000 in lost revenue,” Danganan said. Over the course of eight and a half weeks, that meant a loss of $85,000.
“It’s super frustrating. There’s a lot of red tape in San Francisco,” Danganan said. “You have five different departments to work with. Each department has a different inspector, and when they do inspections, each has a different interpretation.”
Lau, who wrote extensively about the site’s construction on his blog, Hot Food Porn, said he would get conflicting directions from different inspectors. For example, one told him that if the paint on the ceiling was “too dark” it might conceal grime, against city codes.
“It’s things like that that kind of drive you up the wall,” Lau said.
A major difficulty The Summit faced was in getting recognized as an entity distinct from i/o Ventures. While only a thin half-wall separates the cafe from the still-unfinished office workplace, the two are entirely different operations. Making this argument, The Summit finally worked with the fire department to attain a temporary occupancy permit that allows the café to launch while development of the i/o Ventures space is still underway.
Currently, the rich smell of freshly cooked sweet corn, soon to accompany fig and aged gouda on brioche in Lau’s croque monsieur, overpowers any lingering scent of sawdust.
Lau is relieved that he can finally focus his full attention on the food. He anticipates logging long hours within the next few weeks. The café will be open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sunday and Monday, and from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
The Summit, he said, will be very different from Poleng. “It’s a lot more zen, it’s a lot calmer, it’s not full service. It’s a different approach to things,” Lau said.
The food reflects that change as well.
“Our take on food is a modern brasserie and less ethnic,” Lau said, but the work ethic and values behind the food are the same.
All of The Summit’s meats will come from humane farms such as Llano Seco, Petaluma Poultry and Pacific Pastures, and all produce is organic and fresh from farms no more than 100 miles away. This also signals a menu subject to change by season.
One notable menu item is the chocolate pork and beans, which Lau concocted in his characteristic DIY-fashion, in his own home kitchen on a cold night. Using Italian butter beans from Iacopi Farms, Lau stirred up some traditional pork and beans, but felt like something was missing.
“It needs to be savory but it needs to have that suggestion of sweetness. So I had chocolate, really dark chocolate, and I shaved it in,” Lau said. “It came together because that chocolate has that sweet and more bitter and sharp flavors that ends up tasting similar to something sort of like a savory barbecue sauce.”
Bar manager Rosie Mazza said she’s invented several house special drinks that will pair with Lau’s food, from seasonal spritzers to house-made chai, and she’s secured some specially blended ginger and root beers. The café will also serve Blue Bottle coffee and Red Blossom tea.
The Summit’s attention to detail extends much further than the food and drink, said Marco Jastillana, the café’s front-of-house manager. Jastillana wanted to maintain a hint of their three-star restaurant grooming, but match the casual and approachable setting of the café. “It’s like Eddie’s food. There is a kind of formality to it, but it isn’t stuffy.”
From hiring decisions to creating an informal employee uniform — simply a wardrobe color of dark charcoal with a turquoise “flair piece,” usually a bandana — Jastillana’s choices were tailored to match the restaurant’s interior.
Come mid-October, Marky Enriquez, the café’s gallery director, said the “peek” wall will display its first rotating exhibit, locals’ collections of album cover art. It will emphasize applied arts like graphic design, textiles and photography.
Though the café space is designed to be many things, from breakfast to dinner, work to lounge, Enriquez acknowledged that once the community of startups and diners move in, the space may transform even more. “Once the doors open, it’s going to take on a life of its own.”