A lot of us have a thing for rooftops. Teetering on the edge of a city, blanketed in the indigo blue of evening time, it’s a perfect place to make a memory, make a move, and watch the world go by from ten+ stories up.
In cities like Los Angeles or New York, rooftop bars are a dime a dozen, well-incorporated into the ebb and flow of our nighttime routine of summer. In San Francisco, that relationship is more tenuous. We simply don’t know whether summer is going to act like summer and allow us to sip a sixteen-dollar cocktail from a bird’s eye view, or if the fog will be too thick and the wind too fearsome, leaving us better off down at street level. Perhaps it’s that illusiveness, that can we or can’t we back and forth that makes San Francisco Proper Hotel such an abiding favorite for city folk and visitors alike.
If I know anyone visiting San Francisco for just a night or two, I send them to Charmaine’s. Just the same way I send anyone jetting off to Madrid to Circulo de las Bellas Artes. It’s nearly as fundamental as the Prado – it makes you see the city differently. San Francisco Proper Hotel is a wonderful vertical sandwich of culinary and cultural experience. On the bottom floor is Villon, the aesthetically pleasing, deeply satisfying hotel restaurant made possible by Chef Mikey Adams and his team; on the top floor is Charmaine’s – with it gemstone blues and golds of the city all lit up around you. It’s the perfect San Francisco night. And you’ll only need to hop in an elevator to get from dinner to the celebrated after-party.
I wanted to know a little bit more about the process of curating a place as unique and fresh, elevated yet approachable as Villon and Charmaine’s. Chef Mikey answered a few questions, highlighting the way he brought the skill and style he learned training in Europe, and made it very San Francisco.
Tell us about your background in food and San Francisco. How did you come to Villon and how has the experience been to date?
I trained in Europe in the most amazing restaurants and have always acknowledged San Francisco as one of the best food cities in the world, with very high standards, comparable to London, New York, and Barcelona. For every chef that trains in fine dining environment, San Francisco is a city you aspire to work in.
My goal was always to be a chef working in San Francisco because I am from California, love the ingredients, the diverse cuisine, and what the city has to offer for an aspiring chef. I remember when I first moved back to California from Scotland in 2009, a friend from Santa Cruz asked me to come to San Francisco and took me to Twin Peaks. Looking at the city I realized how bad I wanted to work here, this is where I had to be, I was drawn to it. I made sure my professional progression put me in San Francisco.
I started in Santa Cruz, then worked for Chef Douglas Keane in Healdsburg where I learned so much about California fine dining, Michelin star level cooking, the expectations, and what is required from a chef to maintain these standards. Learning from Douglas Keane was the best opportunity.
Then I met my wife and I had the opportunity to move to San Francisco and work for Chef Douglas Keane’s friend Chef Mark Dommen at One Market.
When I had my daughter, we left San Francisco but fortunately were able to move back when the opportunity to work with Proper presented itself. The original chef called me and told me that he needed my help. Previously, I had worked for him for 3 years as his Executive Sous Chef and he needed me to organize the hotel’s culinary program. I was initially here for a 3-week taskforce, but after a week I decided I didn’t want to leave and thankfully the hotel wanted me to stay. I started as an Executive Sous Chef for a few months and then I took over as Executive Chef with the original chef’s blessing.
My experience to date is intense as I’ve learned so much in my first hotel position.
I love an intense, busy environment that provides challenges and situations where I can be extraordinary. I feel privileged to be in a high-level position here. Even if it is difficult, the reward and what I have learned have outweighed the difficulty. I still feel like I just started, and I always want to get better and better!
What was your process approaching the menu for Villon? What did you want to convey through the food? What kind of demographic are you hoping to reach, and what story are you hoping to tell with the selection of offerings?
I wanted to create a menu that is familiar to everyone, viewing the menu as a handshake. It’s very similar to meeting someone or finding common ground. I want to be hospitable, take care of our guests and invite them into our home. I wouldn’t present them with something that would make them uncomfortable or present them with something that is so unfamiliar. The menu should be something that helps them feel comfortable and inspired all at the same time. I always hope that the guests feel taken care of from the moment they see the menu. When I approach the menu, I look to create dishes that are recognizable and that you’ve seen your whole life. With California being incredibly diverse, I’m inspired by classic dishes from every culture. I like to take that as my foundation and build on that, creating the best version I can.
San Francisco culinary culture is some of the best in the world. Who do you gain inspiration from locally? What do you love about being a part of this food community?
Locally, I get inspiration from the wonderful farms that are so close to us. We get the best potatoes from little organic farms and the most fantastic lettuces from the Peninsula, around the Watsonville area. I believe we get the best of the best in terms of produce. All the farmers markets are amazing, and we are lucky to have the farmers market next to the hotel at the Civic Center every Wednesday and Sunday. Just walking through the farmers market is so inspiring, my head starts spinning with ideas because high quality ingredients are so accessible.
I also get inspired from local chefs and restaurants. One of my main inspirations is Lord Stanley where the food is exceptional, and chef driven. Chefs Rupert and Carrie Blease are so talented, and I love going there for the whole experience. I also get inspiration from Rich Table. We are surrounded by an unbelievable food scene, restaurants like Benu, Quince, Californios to name a few. My wife’s favorite is State Bird Provisions. Stuart Brioza and his wife Nicole Krasinski are both amazing people and make a remarkable team. Both their restaurants, State Bird Provisions and The Progress are excellent. All these restaurants really set a standard.
It is so valuable to get to know the variety of chefs in the city. They are very talented and just to have my name next to them is humbling. At the Ferry Building farmers market on Saturday, all chefs are there and you can tell how excited they are about the ingredients. It’s cool to think in their heads they are putting together these marvelous dishes and they are going back to their restaurants to work their magic!
San Francisco Proper Hotel is a dynamic, interesting, completely different hotel scene, from the aesthetic to the restaurant to the rooftop at Charmaine’s. How would you describe it from the inside, and what do you credit with the massive draw of the entire operation?
There’s so much that goes into this project. It’s new, a startup, and such an ambitious project to open this boutique hotel. In the culinary department alone, I’m overseeing Villon’s service for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, along with tea service and overnight room service, in addition to La Bande, and Charmaine’s. All of these outlets require attention to detail, and I have a very high standard for everything. I want it to be the best. It’s amazing to work in a place where that standard is recognized, acknowledged, and encouraged. I really respect that, and I wouldn’t want to work at any place that doesn’t encourage that drive, passion, and focus in every detail. It’s hard for some people to work somewhere ambitious because there’s always something new in the works and goal to build something better. I love this quality and that’s what I love the most about it here. There’s never a moment where we’re not trying to be better, push ourselves to forge ahead and write our own story. The attention to detail and quality is so amazing. People recognize that we are always improving. When I go out to a table and they tell me the food is incredible, that makes it all worth it because it’s for the guest. Our ultimate goal is to make the guest happy and to give them an unforgettable, extraordinary experience and that is why they come to Proper.
// San Francisco Proper Hotel is located at 1100 Market Street Hotel with entrance at 45 McAllister St. Villon is located on the first floor. Charmaine’s is located on the rooftop; Photography by Manolo Yllera.