“It’s a pretty wonderful mix,” says Eric Lilavois, owner of Little Gem in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley. “We had a couple come in last night and I think that they were fresh out of yoga and they asked, ‘Are we underdressed?’ And I said, ‘No, of course not.’”
Little Gem, a counter-service restaurant in origin that opened to countless accolades and a standing feature in Eater’s 38, has decided to open its doors to OpenTable reservations each evening. Opened by two alums of the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, the restaurant certainly has fine dining in its pedigree – but the intent was always to elevate the experience of what it means to dine in a casual environment like the one where a post-yoga salad lives side-by-side a romantic Friday evening for two.
When asked how The French Laundry legacy has informed their new approach, Lilavois points to the core of it all: “The heart of hospitality, where there was such great emphasis on care and detail with everything that we did.” In their new project, where everything from all day café-style dining to now seated dinner for any level of occasion is on offer, “it’s that very same sense of caring, attention to detail, and awareness that we apply in a deeply casual way.”
Whether delicate lettuces with expertly poached chicken or divine salmon tartare are your thing or you’re simply craving a fried egg-topped bibimbap with heirloom brown rice, the restaurant’s gluten, dairy, and refined sugar-free ethos make it the perfect place to indulge in just about any mild to serious craving (regardless of your dietary restrictions.) But it’s so much more than health food on the menu.
“At the core, the concept was born from this idea that we could achieve a couple of essential elements,” says Lilavois. “First and foremost, we wanted to raise the level of experience and expectation of what it meant to dine at a counter service restaurant by virtue of our experience having come from the pinnacle of fine dining (at The French Laundry).”
So, how do you parlay all of the elements that breed success in that realm into the more purely casual way of dining, upholding the high level of focus on ingredients, technique and produce? “Now that we are taking reservations at dinner and offering full service, we’re not at all the counter service restaurant – we’re a modern California eatery.” Modern because the restaurant’s menu and operational approach are constantly evolving to reflect what dining culture demands of Little Gem. Then, also, due to the rigor brought to sourcing, an emphasis on local and organic wherever possible — and flexibility; not everyone wants to sit for a two-hour meal.
“Because of our location, we are supported in great ways by theatre patrons at dinner – symphony, ballet, opera, jazz (especially ballet),” explains Lilavoic. Despite not offering counter service in the evening, a quick and easy way to grab a bite pre-show, service remains expeditious. “We are dynamic – built for speed, but if someone wants to relax and have a meal before the opera, they can do that, too.”
Some might say this seemingly dichotomous blend is distinctly Californian – the state that gave us farm-to-table and American Fusion cuisine, after all. Just as Little Gem has experimented finding its niche in the midst of the hopping restaurant scene in the area, so they have applied this playful outlook to the menu itself, recently adding a “Small Bites” section that ranges from Asian Fried Chicken (wildly popular) to the wonderful avocado salad with naan bread (a recipe inspired by a friend of both Lilavois and Cruz’s who made a Spanish avocado salad they’ve tweaked.) All kinds of global flavors abound, with distinct notes of Asian and Spanish cuisine accenting the now classic California farm-to-table fare.
“If you want your dining experience to be an event, there is no shortage of places to go,” Lilavois describes. “But if you want it to be just all about you, in an easy way, that’s what we’re trying to provide.”
While very few San Francisco dining establishments are strangers to the age of athleisure, Little Gem has the flexibility to meet you where you are, whenever you’re hungry, never compromising quality or experience as a result. Welcome home.
Make a reservation at Little Gem.
Francesca is a freelance writer and editor living in San Francisco, where along with OpenTable, she contributes to Vogue, Architectural Digest, and Mind Body Green, among other outlets. A restaurant junkie and native of New York, four years ago she moved west for love and avocado toast and never looked back.