Welcome to Stella. Your dining room for the evening is actually a 1989 VW camper van. The scene is set with astroturf and folding chairs, a retractable awning will fend against Karl, and kerosene lanterns will keep you cozy.
Your maître d', waiter, sommelier, and busboy are all the same guy. They are also, in fact, the chef. San Francisco foodies will recognize Anthony Strong who not much more than a year ago was crafting delectable pastas at his celebrated restaurant, Prairie. Post-pandemic, he's slinging camp food out of his van in a parking lot. He's fine with that—and so are the foodies who are paying $190 a pop for the campy Covid-era experience.
Many of you will recall Strong's willful attempt to survive when restaurant dining rooms were shuttered due to shelter in place last year. By March 15th, 2020, he had already turned Prairie into a general store, stocked with cook-at-home meal kits, pantry items, and even coveted rolls of toilet paper. He held on as long as he could, which ended up being only a handful of months. Strong closed Prairie's doors in August 2020.
Four months later, though, he was cooking again, only this time from a modified camper van he affectionately named Stella. It's a creative pivot in a time of crisis, yes, but the four-wheeled restaurant spinoff is actually the realization of a dreamy idea that was born ages ago while Strong was on a road trip, in a rental car, in Idaho.
"I kept seeing RVs for sale and I was like, goddamn, RVs are so cheap," Strong remembers. He imagined buying one and building a private dining room in it. He would park it in front of his Valencia Street restaurant and walk the food outside for private dinners. "Who would have thought that would have come in handy after all?" he laughs, looking back.
After a drink and apps in the folding chairs out front, dinner is served inside the van at a table made by chef Anthony Strong himself.(Photography by Sarah Chorey)
To pull off the van dining experience, Strong has put his sweat and tears into Stella. He gutted the interior and fashioned the new wood table and bench seating himself. In the van's rear, he built a makeshift kitchen with counter space, coolers, and the necessary kitchen tools. There were many YouTube videos involved.
When it comes to the food, dinner in a camper van can only be camping-inspired, and anyone who remembers Prairie already knows that open-fire cooking is this chef's specialty. Just before the pandemic hit, Strong had closed his restaurant for a redesign; when he reopened at the end of February 2020, an all-new menu centered around grilling and a no-frills private dining space called the Campfire Room was set to offer prix-fixe meals of smoky proteins cooked on three kinds of grills. But of course, that didn't last long.
The menu at Stella builds upon the Campfire Room theme and highlights Strong's mastery of cooking over open heat. When that freshly grilled swordfish (served with an Amalfi Coast–inspired pesto) or charred lobster tail (with a creamy dipping fondue) comes off a little pop-up charcoal grill parked outside the van, the chef's level of skill seems all the more impressive.
Nine to 12 dishes are coursed out in four rounds, and the menu, while incorporating fresh and seasonal ingredients, is always a collaboration with Stella's guests.
"I change the menu every night depending on what's around...and depending on people's dietary preferences," says Strong, whose pre-dinner intake form allows diners to set their nutrition preferences and choose elements of their experience (like, say, if they want to throw in a ribeye), and wine pairings (which are served in "legit stemware"). Strong handles the pairings himself; expect them to be equally as interesting and thoughtful as the meal that hits your plate. No BYOB allowed.
Dinners are limited to parties of four people max, and every evening begins with appetizers and a welcome cocktail at the folding chairs out front. Two dinner seatings are offered on select weeknights and weekends, and reservations, already booked through June, are going fast.
Stella is currently parked with regularity at Spark Social in Mission Bay, but a new partnership with the Ferry Building will allow Stella to roll up bayside as well. Prefer the roving restaurant to come to you? So long as you have a level 20-by-20-foot space to park and are located within 20 miles of San Francisco, Strong can set up Stella wherever you please.
"It's kind of a trip. I love it," Strong beams. "It's definitely the most fun I've ever had cooking and serving."
(Photography by Sarah Chorey)
On our visit, artichoke soup was served in mugs, camp-style. Strong buries the artichokes under the slowly cooling coals of the grill at the end of the night, blackening and scooping out their hearts before blending them with charred jalapeños, rice, and olive oil.
// Stella offers two evening seatings at 5:15pm and 7:30pm by reservation only. Expect a non-refundable booking of $120 on weeknights and $150 on weekends. The "Glamping Menu" starts at $110 per guest; beverage pairings range from $50-$78. You'll find extra details on Stella's FAQ page;superstellavan.com.