The intimate eatery is one part restaurant, one part community art project.

By Jessica Cumberbatch Anderson
June 13, 2019
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Marija Vidal

What's better than finding a restaurant with incredible food? Finding one that's also beautiful. Each week our editors spotlight one of the most stunning eateries around the country, showcasing how inspired interior design can enhance the dining experience. Follow along with Dine + Design to see where we go next.

Chef Kim Alter takes pride in never serving the same dish twice. It's a curious approach to running a restaurant, yes, and even more unusual for someone whose personal food choices are as predictable as they come: "I am that person who goes to a steak house and always gets the martini, the steak, and the creamed spinach," says Alter, a 2018 James Beard Award finalist. At San Francisco's Nightbird, however, Alter's first solo venture, change is really the secret sauce. "When I cook, I'm like, 'Let's change it, let's go, what can I do next?'"

Nightbird's amuse-bouche is a staple. The quail egg sitting atop a fried leek nest with brown butter hollandaise "is what everybody starts off with and it's been like that since day one," Alter says. Beyond that, however, her 10-course, $125 tasting menus are designed around what's available locally on any given day and around whichever fun theme she's cooked up in partnership with local creatives. "I'm working with a cellist and a violinist right now," she says. "They're writing a piece on being inspired by me and the farmers' market and I'm going to write a menu based on the piece they write." The goal, she adds, is to use the arts and the people in the San Francisco community to write her menus and to tell a story (or, in this case, a song) through her food.

Marija Vidal

Also integral to the Nightbird narrative: The restaurant's moody décor conceived by interior designer Caroline Lizarraga. When the duo first met, Alter was at a bit of a crossroads trying to convert the space-formerly two separate restaurants-one Mexican and one Italian-that shared the same kitchen. "People would joke that the salsa was basically the marinara sauce," Alter laughs.

With the former space gutted, Alter finally felt like she had the blank slate she needed to build the fresh, sophisticated layers of décor that would serve as the backdrop for her equally layered dishes. "I look at food the same way that I thought of the design," she says. "We're going to start with a good base, good quality… and then grow from that."

But her initial design plan was a bit misguided. "Kim had direction from some other people and was going to do a gray, concrete plaster," Lizarraga says. Her thoughts: The cold and sterile look was simply not going to work. "It's a gem of a restaurant, a very small space, and you need to make it feel a little bit like a jewel box. There are also a lot of squares in the space-no curves-which is why it was important for the walls to have some movement, to soften those squares.

Marija Vidal

Those now-famous painted plaster walls are for Lizarraga what the tasting menu is for Alter: A constant reminder to keep evolving. "We can get into design ruts where people are doing the same thing over and over and over again," she says. "I can't even tell you how many people have called me to do the Nightbird walls." Lizarraga tells them: "We don't want to do the same thing, what we want to do is accommodate the space. The space has a lot of things to say."

In keeping with Nightbirds collaborative, community- and women-centric mission, Alter and Lizarraga called on a collective of local artisans to accessorize the 38-seat, 1,400-square-foot restaurant, including Alter's mother, who handled the window drapery, leather coasters, and napkins; and ceramists Jennifer Issaverdens of Issa Pottery and Mary Mar Keenan of MMclay who fashioned the tableware. A variety of vintage owls decorate the dining room, all of which have been gifted to Alter by loyal regulars.

Back beyond the 12-seat dining room-past the kitchen and the gold-leafed bathroom-the Linden Room quietly beckons guests with its leather walls and Maxfield Parish-inspired ceiling, also designed by Lizarraga. "I hate using the word speakeasy," Alter says, describing it instead as "a private little bar that's a secret in the city."

Creating two distinct spaces meant keeping the kitchen small, Alter explains. But the restaurant's growth potential still looms as large as ever. "I talk about the design and wanting to grow into the space, and it's the same with the food," she says. "If I look back at the first few menus and where we are now, it's 100 percent different. I pretty much have the same team, we're still working in the same environment, we've just grown and evolved because we're getting more comfortable with who we are."

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