February 1, 2009
The Moss Room
Located in the basement of the California Academy of Sciences, in San Francisco, Olle Lundberg’s Moss Room is a free-flowing tribute to the spirit of its region.
No other part of the country could produce a restaurant like the Moss Room. Here, in Renzo Piano’s California Academy of Sciences, in the middle of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, in what should be the unremarkable basement of one of the country’s largest natural-history museums, the great outdoors have been ushered in. Squid-shaped swag lamps radiate over wood tables and tawny leather chairs. Cork redolent of bark cloaks a wall behind the bar. Descending into the restaurant from the Academy’s main floor, you feel as though you’ve landed in some sylvan redoubt, the sort of place California is always naming for John Muir. There are swanky eateries at other museums around the country—the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Chicago (Puck’s); New York’s Museum of Modern Art (the Modern); and the Los Angeles Getty (the Restaurant), to name a few—but the Moss Room is different. It’s warmer and less institutional, which might have something to do with the 28-foot-tall wall of dried moss hanging like a Rousseau painting over a narrow pond.
“The thing for me,” says Olle Lundberg, the 54-year-old architect who designed the restaurant, “is the tactile quality.” Lundberg is folded into a banquette, making quick work of a plate of cod. “You can touch things,” he continues. “There’s a sense that stuff’s real. There’s no artifice. No veneer. And that directly translates to the food. It’s simple and real and honestly presented. You have to love the natural ingredients, or this is the wrong restaurant for you.”
Lundberg has won renown for designing restaurants in a city that treats its food the way Boston treats its Kennedys. In the age of Alice Waters, northern California cuisine fetishizes the local, and at the Moss Room you can see it not just on the menu but in the decor. Many of the materials are from California. Much of the furniture was crafted in-house. The concept came from a loose partnership of some dyed-in-the-wool San Franciscans, helmed by Lundberg, groping through the fog of trial and error. Anywhere else, this would have been considered risky business. Here, in a city that is a cradle of DIY fabrication and still a home for experimenters of all stripes, it’s business as usual. Improbably, Lundberg’s Moss Room, stuffed in the basement of a nationally recognized museum designed by an internationally acclaimed architect, is suffused with the spirit of its region.
To understand the restaurant, it helps to know a few things about the architect. For starters, Lundberg has a ponytail. Now, it’s not often you find a ponytail on an architect. This is, after all, a field that regards horn-rims as a bold fashion statement. But in San Francisco a ponytail is as common as underwear, and Lundberg, who headed west after graduating from architecture school at the University of Virginia in 1979, is nothing if not a San Franciscan. This particular ponytail is a lank blond thing with swaths of gray, and it dangles from his head like an ornament. He lives in the city, on a decommissioned auto ferry overlooking the Bay Bridge, with his wife and their two dogs. The latter accompany him every day to work, which is an old car-repair joint he converted into a 15-person architecture firm, a workshop, and a scrap yard. Lundberg tends to describe things as “kinda cool,” though not always. The Wurster windows in his office? “Kinda cool.” Those honey-filled acrylic panels backlighting one of his restaurants? “Kinda cool.” The wine rack he built for a client? “Pretty cool.”
It’s an unusually frigid Monday afternoon in the city. Lundberg tools up Mission Street in his Scion and pulls over across the street from a decidedly un–San Francisco high-rise condo. On the sidewalk, construction workers unload from a forklift a crescent-shaped wood plank that’s about as long as a beached sperm whale. “Our slab!” Lundberg exclaims, marching across the intersection. It’s a beautiful piece of salvaged cypress, rough cut with a polyurethane finish, and it’s to be the bar top of a new noodle shop and bar that Lundberg designed for the condo’s ground floor. “It’s so cool,” Lundberg says, gazing proudly. The operator is Charles Phan, a cherub-cheeked chef whose anchor restaurant, the Slanted Door, is considered to make some of the best high-end Vietnamese food in the country. In a city that loves its chefs, Phan is a big deal. On this day, however, he’s outside barking orders and grunting along with workers twice his size. “Put it right there!” he calls, adjusting the slab on a set of rollers. And suddenly, there’s Lundberg, crouched with his palms out. “So,” he says, “are we carrying this thing?”
Lundberg had never designed a restaurant before he met Phan. The chef (who studied architecture at the University of California, Berkeley) heard about Lundberg through the design grapevine, liked his hands-on style, and hired him to fashion an ambitious new restaurant on San Francisco’s waterfront. The Slanted Door was a smash, its aesthetic—salvaged wood, raw steel, and stacked plate glass—a pitch-perfect echo of Phan’s unfussy fare. The pair have since become, in Lundberg’s estimation, the Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito of San Francisco cuisine, with Lundberg designing all of Phan’s subsequent eateries.
The planets aligned in 2007, when the Academy solicited bids for operators of a café that would feed an expected 5,000 patrons a day. The museum initially planned for a traditional cafeteria (think shrink-wrapped cookies and suspicious lunch meat) but changed course late in the game, in part to better reflect the city’s character. “San Francisco is a foodie place,” Bill Wilson, an Academy board member, says. “People love restaurants here. We thought we had a special building, and it seemed like we could do better.” Wolfgang Puck tossed his hat in the ring. So did Traci Des Jardins, an Iron Chef America alum, working with Bon Appétit, a local restaurant-management company. Phan assembled his own team, including the chef Loretta Keller, who runs a restaurant in the trendy South of Market district; Keller’s architect, Cathy Simon, the founding principal of the women-owned firm SMWM (and the mother of Metropolis’s photo editor, Sarah Palmer); and Lundberg. It was a motley crew, but it was also the only one to propose dividing the space into two parts: a high-traffic café on the Academy’s first floor and a posh restaurant underground. Many of the board members frequented both Phan’s and Keller’s restaurants. They were sold.
The two spaces are a study in contrasts. Situated next to the Academy’s grand piazza, the café is designed as a literal extension of the building. The white tiles, the concrete flooring, the orange Eames chairs: all bow to Piano’s vision. “I admire the building, so I thought that was appropriate,” Lundberg explains. “But then, downstairs, that’s when we said, ‘OK, we get to do the restaurant we want.’”
His muse was Keller. A gun-toting, mushroom-foraging, fish-catching sprite—a sort of Alice Waters in wading boots—Keller spends her weeks scouring for local ingredients, and her weekends on an off-the-grid property in a woodsy corner of Sonoma County. “She’s just this tomboy,” Lundberg says, “so it was kind of an interpretation of who she was and the kind of environment that would make her happy.” The evidence is in the materials. The tables are end-cut Douglas-fir flooring, finished in the Lundberg Design shop with hot-rolled steel. One exception is a round, natural-edged table sawed off a redwood stump that Lundberg happened on while hiking in Sonoma. Granite scraps from a quarry in Fresno form the restaurant’s signage, and the swag lamps, Simon’s primary contribution, were hand-blown by an artisan in nearby Richmond whom Lundberg affectionately calls “Guido the Glassblower.”
The restaurant’s signature gesture is the moss wall, which in fact combines moss, ferns, succulents, and grasses, largely grown in California and tacked onto the wall in panels. The idea, Lundberg says, came from moss-covered lava cliffs in Iceland, where he purchased his ship years ago. “Seemed like it could work at the Moss Room,” he says. Except it didn’t, at least not entirely. Anyone who has visited the restaurant recently will notice that the greenery has turned an unsightly brown. Faulty planting material shocked the mosses into dormancy, and the mixture will have to be replaced. “We’re always trying to do something new,” Lundberg says. “And we recognize within that there are going to be failures.” Besides, the moss wall was a chance to try something “kinda cool.”
Back at dinner, Lundberg is plowing through some grilled Monterey squid. An appetizer after the entrée? “The cod, that was like diet portions,” Lundberg says with a mock sneer. (“Olle,” Keller points out, “is very good with a knife and fork.”) She has joined us, and the rest of the evening becomes a meandering string of food, wine, and shaggy-dog stories. “You always fear trying to make a reference to something that is so important to you,” Keller says. “With anyone else I would have felt very nervous, but I love—I love—the restaurant. Olle was really brilliant at taking something in nature and bringing elements in here in a very personal way.” Two shots of Fernet materialize on the table—it’s a liqueur that some might say tastes like the inside of a paint can, but it has nevertheless found a following among San Francisco foodies and hipsters alike—followed swiftly by a glass of 25-year-old sherry. Lundberg finally rises wearily from the banquette, then lumbers past the moss wall and up the stairs and out into the night. It’s dark, and the trees block out the lights of the city, but if you look closely enough, you can still make out a ponytail bobbing along on the San Francisco breeze.