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Five Minutes with Town Hall Chef Vernon Morales

Last week I spent a couple of nights revisiting some old restaurants—I hit A16 on Monday, which is now under the able tutelage of Liza Shaw, and then the following night I went to Town Hall, where I had not been in an embarrasing several years. I have been wanting to return ever since I heard that Vernon Morales had come on board as chef. Morales was the chef at the now shuttered Winterland, where he made waves with cuisine that nodded at his previous training, which includes a five-month stint at El Bulli and time at Restaurant Daniel in New York. Without going into great detail about the the menu of a restaurant that closed in 2008, let's just say that Morales made bacon ice cream well before bacon ice cream swept San Francisco. Following the closure of Winterland, the Nicaragua-born Morales then moved to Dallas, where he was executive chef for Lombardi Family Concepts.

But he's had his eye on returning to San Francisco for quite some time, particularly in order to be closer to his two children, ages 4 and 6. An offer from the Town Hall boys had him packing his bags and relocating. I caught up with the chef, who has behind the stoves at Town Hall since November.

Do you think the Winterland concept was ahead of its time?

Well, I'm not sure it would work now, either, to be honest. The percentage of the population that that type of food attracts is just not represented here. I thought I did job balancing the more innovative stuff with the rest, but I think San Franciscans like things a bit more casual. Although, this city has come a long way in the three years since I left.

How so?

I've just noticed more little places opening where the food is really great. You didn't see that as much before. I love Flour + Water, I love Bar Bambino. That's my neighborhood, so it's nice to see it developing. I think chefs here look to one another for inspiration, and that makes it a great food town.

I think a lot of people were surprised that you ended up at Town Hall. What drew you to that restaurant in particular?

Mitch, Steve and Dough are obsessed with quality and they have pay incredible attention to detail and product. The food is simple but it's delicious.

There are things on the Town Hall menu that can never be taken off—the ham-and-cheese toast, the BBQ shrimp, the fried chicken. In light of that, how do you make it your own?

I like those dishes too! You know the saying, if it's not broken, don't fix it. People love those dishes, so I wouldn't want to take them off the menu just for the sake of doing something new. We're all just getting to know one another, and the team has been hugely supportive of me. I couldn't do another Winterland here, nor would I want to. The food here is good—and I can't touch those dishes because I'd be killed if I tried!

What has been the hardest thing about this position so far?

It is such a busy restaurant. We do 180 covers every night. Every night is like a Friday. It's crazy. But it's all been a process, and an education. I left San Francisco because I had to, but I returned because I wanted to.