AL’s Place in SF’s Mission District closes after seven years

AL’s Place, one of San Francisco’s most beloved Michelin-starred restaurants and once named the country’s best new restaurant by Bon Appetit, is closing its doors for good.

The last day of the vegetable-focused restaurant at 1499 Valencia St. at 26th Street in the Mission District is Aug. 28, owner Aaron London confirmed.

It’s not that AL’s Place is in trouble – in fact, it’s still crowded every night and profitable, London said. The lease isn’t over either.

Instead, London, after running the popular restaurant for seven years and working in the industry since he was a teenager, said he was ready to focus on something else outside of the kitchen: his young family. The hectic pace of restaurant life has alienated him from his partner and one-year-old daughter, and he hopes to change that.

“When I built AL’s house…nothing mattered except the restaurant,” he said. “It’s a slowly building thing that got me thinking more and more late at night: Is this exactly what I want to do right now? Honestly, do I want my life be different?

This sentiment, combined with potential employment opportunities that would be more conducive to a work-life balance, such as writing a cookbook or a restaurant consultant, prompted her eventual decision to close AL’s Place.

AL’s Place Little Lettuces with Herbed Avocado and Quince Crumble, served in 2015, are still on the menu today.

John Storey / Special for The Chronicle 2015

It’s a major closure for the Bay Area dining scene. London, who previously cooked at the pioneering vegetarian restaurant Ubuntu in Napa Valley, opened AL’s Place in 2015 with an almost manic focus on vegetables. Even dishes like fries have been taken to an extreme (they are brined for over a week, much like kimchi, then fried). Seasonal produce has long been sourced from Blue Dane Garden, a Grass Valley (Nevada) farm that grows exclusively for the restaurant, and has become the centerpiece of signature dishes like lettuces with herbed avocado and a crispy crumble, meant to be eaten with your hands. Meat and fish are only served as an accompaniment.

The rewards came quickly. Six months after opening, Bon Appetit named AL’s Place New Restaurant of the Year, calling the flavors of London “revealing”. The restaurant earned a rave review from former Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer, a Michelin star, and a spot on Chronicle critic Sun Ho’s list of San Fancisco’s Best Restaurants. In 2019, London grew with the most casual AL’s Deli in the Mission District, which closed in less than a year due to the pandemic.

Chef-owner Aaron London makes a stone fruit curry with lime cod at AL's Place in 2015.

Chef-owner Aaron London makes a stone fruit curry with lime cod at AL’s Place in 2015.

Russell Yip/The Chronicle 2015

For a long time the busy restaurant was more than enough for London. The Sonoma native, who started working in restaurants at age 14, used to sacrifice his physical and mental health at work.

“Nothing really mattered except working as hard as you could to try to achieve something,” he said, until he met his partner and they had a daughter. Thoughts of moving on have also been compounded by the rising cost of running a small business in San Francisco, as well as the pandemic.

“If I was fine just getting burned, that’s one thing. But now there are other people in my life who need me not to be burned, who need me to be there,” London said. “Ultimately, I made the decision to rethink my professional life around the family rather than the family life around the professional.”

The brine-marinated fries are a hit at AL's Place in San Francisco.

The brine-marinated fries are a hit at AL’s Place in San Francisco.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

London acknowledged that AL’s Place “is a busy place to work” (Bon Appetit reported that it required every cook to drink water from a CamelBak thermos to avoid spills) and changed its style management as you age. But he hopes the time cooks have spent in the rigorous kitchen will mean they will now be snapped up by quality restaurants desperate for employees amid a labor shortage.

London is not leaving the industry for good. He had wanted to write a cookbook for a long time but didn’t have the time. He is also considering dining opportunities in other cities and regions around the world, but said nothing is set. He didn’t rule out opening another restaurant in San Francisco down the line.

AL’s Place is a “special and unique little place. It’s time and there’s something more important,” London said, “but that doesn’t make it any less sad.”

Elena Kadvany (her) is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @ekadvany

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