Dining Design Diary: Nombe


The seriousness of the San Francisco food scene is expressed by restaurants seemingly one-upping each other on every aspect of the dining experience: We use local produce…We grow our veggies on our roof! Our bar was custom made in Italy…Our plates were hand-thrown in Korea to custom fit each item on the menu! We have art from a local painter on the walls…We have an artist creating art behind you as you eat!

So on the occasion that I come across exceptional food in an humble environment, it can be, well…refreshing. Don’t get me wrong—I love an exquisitely designed restaurant. But digging into a great meal in a place that looks like it should be serving watery eggs and sausage patties is akin to discovering that the semi-nerdy bookworm you met at a coffee shop and agreed to go on a date with is actually the frontman in an awesome band. Score!

Such was the experience the first time I went to Nombe in San Francisco’s Mission District, an Izakaya restaurant that took over a Mexican joint near Mission and 21st streets.  The awkward spot looked like two disjointed spaces joined together, one a kitschy 1950s diner, and the other a hacienda-style Mexican restaurant—and neither of them jived  with the stellar Japanese food coming out of the kitchen. An Asian-style folding screen was used to cover a jukebox in the corner, and the neon beer signs reflecting off the the light-colored walls were hardly Zen-like. But the food was delicious, and not like anything I had experienced before at any of the city’s other Japanese restaurants. Maybe its casual, deceiving design would mean I could actually get a table on a Saturday night. Score!

So when I found out that they had closed down for two weeks after the new year to remodel, I was curious. Would my charming neighborhood spot have morphed into a sleek, shiny dining “destination”? I arrived expecting an “Extreme Home Makeover” moment. But as I walked through the front door, the retro black-and-white-checked floor of the ’50s diner greeted me like an old friend, and the same wabi sabi lighting installation—a incongruous mix of rice paper lanterns, ceiling fans and glass pendants filled with colored strips—hung from the high ceilings. But the space had definitely changed for the better. The glaring white walls were painted a smokey gray, and the booths had been reupholstered to match.

In the second half of the space, the gray was more enveloping, and pretty wood partial walls had replaced the awkwardly placed folding screens. And the jukebox was nowhere to be seen. The restaurant’s impressive sake selection was displayed on a high back wall, and a colorful Japanese textile was strung from the ceiling. New corrugated metal lighting fixtures on the walls cast a moody red light.

It was by no means high design, but it was a refreshing upgrade for a beloved restaurant. It was clear, as it was on my earlier visits, that the passion and the expertise of team behind Nombe was still firmly planted right where it should be: in the kitchen.

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