If the headline of this story reads a tad elegiac, it's because the closing of Jardinière, after dinner service this Saturday night, after 21 years as one of the most iconic spots in town, will be a loss for San Francisco.
At a time when the texture of the city seems to be constantly changing threads and other legacy businesses are shuttering (the beloved Beach Blanket Babylon is also soon to take its final bow), some longtime San Franciscans are feeling a bit nostalgic, wondering if future generations here will have any idea what they missed.
Most certainly it's yet another signal of an ending era, as fine dining destinations make way for pop-ups and food trucks with cult followings. There may never be another de facto special occasion destination here quite like Jardinière, but the city will move on as the city always does. For Traci Des Jardins, though—and for every busser, server, host, GM, bartender, line cook, and chef who's ever worked for her—it's an end scene that won't soon be forgotten. But as is usual in the case of a natural death at the end of a long run, the current tenor at the corner of Grove and Franklin streets is more tuned toward celebrating life.
Chef Traci Des Jardins has a well-deserved cocktail at the bar at Jardinière, two weeks before the restaurant was set to close.(Photo by Aubrie Pick)
"I always wanted it to be excellent, and never slip," said the chef over the phone on Tuesday. (It never did, as reviewer Nick Czap found when he revisited the restaurant upon its 20th anniversary.) With just five dinner services to go then, she acknowledged the moment was bittersweet—amid an outpouring of sentiment, she was characteristically resolute: "Jardinière is such a personal, high touch place, it requires a big part of me for it to feel right. I'm in a different phase in my life now, so I feel ready to let it go."
Des Jardins' signature restaurant has, of course, been a primary influencer—alongside Alice Waters' Chez Panisse and Judy Rodgers' Zuni Cafe—in the way we eat and dine here; their philosophies running deep beneath the buzz words they helped create: local, seasonal, sustainable—to say nothing of being damn delicious. But the restaurant famed for its martini-cut double doors, sparkling champagne dome, warm bread salad, and duck liver mousse was best-loved among its regulars for the culture of high care and hospitality that Des Jardins fostered with her incredibly pro and devoted team. For many, it was our Cheers—albeit a pretty fancy Cheers—where they called us by name while serving our Tsar Nicolai caviar beneath Tiffany-style lamps at the bar.
If you know anything about Traci, you already know that the end of Jardinière is by no means the end of Des Jardins. She will continue on in her hard-working role as a day-to-day restaurateur (let's not forget that she still helms a handful of eateries in SF) and as an industry mentor and sage. But Jardinière, as she says, was "the mother ship," and it has beamed us all up in one way or another, leaving a lasting impression as the backdrop of our heady first dates, intoxicating proposals, milestone birthdays, and black-tie gala nights since it opened in 1997. The space has even seen its share of weddings, even my own.
In 2008 I exchanged marriage vows beneath that iconic dome, and descended that gracefully curving staircase to share croquembouche and glasses of Billecart-Salmon (the house favorite Champagne) with family and friends, Traci among them. It would probably make for a neater story had that union been happy and lasting (the setting way outlived the sanctity of the marriage), but I still carry with me that rare sense of specialness imparted by the place and its host. In an interview with 7x7 back in 2014, Traci's pal, MythBusters star Adam Savage, called her "as salt-of-the-earth as it gets." She welcomes everyone around her like family.
In talking to Traci and to some of her team during the restaurant's final days, family is the theme that keeps bubbling up.
"I cried all the way through it," she told me in a text message, on March 25th, of sharing the news with her team, just before Kim Severson shared it with the world via The New York Times. "It was an amazing experience, how much they could all hold me."
Since word got out, the brick walls of the old restaurant have been packed with regulars returning to pay final tribute—my favorite-ever caviar presentation, the one that hasn't changed in 21 years, flying out of the kitchen each night and all night long.
"We aren't staffed to handle this kind of volume, so alums have been coming in to work shifts, both front and back of house, to lend a hand," she said. "It's the way that it feels in terms of a family, how connected our people are and the bonds they've formed here." Many of her closing team has been with her for ages—executive chef Audie Golder joined the line in 2009 as a 23-year-old fresh from culinary school; and chief of staff Amy Reynolds started as a hostess a decade ago. Many of those who did get away didn't go far.
"Robbie Lewis' kids were practically born here," laughs Traci, who first hired Lewis in her pre-Jardinière days at the now-closed but then much-hyped and celebrity-backed FiDi restaurant Rubicon. He quit soon after to take a job at another much-hyped, now-closed restaurant—"She was so pissed at me she was shaking and crying, and I was crying, and she told me I would regret this," Lewis remembers, "and I did. I tucked my tail, went back to Rubicon and was all in—from that moment I decided I would do whatever Traci said. I was like, this is my person. She is my chef."
In the two-plus decades since, Lewis logged about eight years in the kitchen at Jardinière, where he became executive chef in 2002, and then helped open her pair of Presidio restaurants. He's a big, outwardly macho guy and a fierce commander in the kitchen, and yet he immediately goes soft on the topic of his mentor and her mother ship.
"Traci's been thinking about this decision for some time, and she called to tell me about a week before the news broke. But on that day, I got all these calls and social media started going crazy, and it was so much more impactful than I expected. It was really an emotionally tender moment."
He recalled his early days in Traci's kitchen, where though he was just three years her junior, there was no questioning who was the boss. "In terms of having your shit together, she was just way ahead of me. She was this force to be reckoned with, a badass chef, a ball buster, with this amazing tenacity and ability to keep cranking it out." Lewis captures Traci—the Scorpio who can be deadly serious and X-acto sharp, but also nurturing and old-soul wise.
"She has this ability to mentor in a style that's empowering. She allows you to make mistakes. And she was always generous with me in the press, sharing her shine which a lot of chefs would never fucking do," he said. "She has challenged me in so many ways, not just to be a better chef, but to be a better husband and father."
Stories like these are the norm among the Jardinière tribe. Chief of staff Reynolds met both her best friend and husband here as she worked her way through pretty much every front-of-house and service job outside of the kitchen before the chef took a chance and made the server her personal assistant. Over the past several years, they forged an unknown path together. "In the kitchen, it's very clear what your job is. You make food, there are techniques and fundamentals. if you're cutting an onion wrong, Traci can step in and offer another way of doing it. In our world, we kind of figured it out together; her years and expertise were a mentorship for me," said Reynolds, who though she will remain on Traci's team, is also feeling the tug of Jardinière's last days.
"It's a freak wave of emotion," she said. "Some days it's all business and let's just get through steps 1 to 15, and other days it's so emotional. I gave a pep talk to the staff before service the other day and ended up just bawling—I thought, god this is so embarrassing. This is my family and my home."
Chef Audie, as they call him, never could get away from the restaurant though he did try. "Every time I thought about leaving, some new door opened up for me here. [Traci's] given me quite a bit of creative freedom...There was a point when we were going through like 30 pounds of kimchi, and kimchi's not really an ingredient you'd expect to see at Jardinière, but she's always been open to ideas."
When someone actually does leave the restaurant, it's tradition that they tell a story, some memory of it, on their final day. "I've been thinking about what mine would be," said Golder, who says meeting his wife, Michelle (now a baker at B. Patisserie), on the line back in 2012 takes the cake.
It seems clear that all of this—the mentorship, the bonds, the marriages, and babies—are not the product of Jardinière's 21-year tenure but rather the reason for it. Silicon Valley companies can talk all day long about their "culture," but they'll never have anything on this place, where passion started, and was shared, from the top.
But back to that celebration of life. Jardinière may be done—get in for one last toast before the kitchen closes on Saturday, April 27th—but you'll find that same spirit of hospitality on tap, or better—in the form of a margarita—at the various local Mexican- and Spanish-style restaurants (all blessedly more affordable than the French-Californian mother ship) inspired by Traci's Mexican heritage.
She's also cooking up something new, because at the end of day, Traci is Jardinière—which is French for a female gardener—and still just 53, she has plenty tending left to do.
Traci Des Jardins, photographed for 7x7's December 2014 print edition.(Photo by Matt Edge)