Following the Big 4
Carolyn Jung - March 17th, 2014
Following on the heels of Tosca Cafe and the Washington Square Bar & Grill, the Big 4 Restaurant in the landmark Huntington Hotel is the latest venerable San Francisco establishment to change hands and undergo its first substantial renovation in decades.
Closed since early January, the landmark Huntington Hotel and its Big 4 Restaurant are expected to reopen May 6 after a $15 million face-lift by Grace International of Singapore, which took ownership in 2011. It will do so, though, with a major change in the restaurant: Gloria Ciccarone-Nehls, one of the first female head chefs in the city who had been the executive chef there for 34 years, will not be returning.
“All things come to an end,” Ciccarone-Nehls says of her decision. “Opportunity has been knocking away, so it may be time to seek out exciting new adventures.”
The restaurant is in the process of hiring a new chef, who will be tasked with creating a menu of reimagined classics. It’s unclear yet whether that might include dishes of antelope, caribou, and boar, which Ciccarone-Nehls made famous during her noteworthy annual Wild Game Week celebrations. The majority of the staff—many of whom have been Huntington Hotel or Big 4 employees for more than 20 years—will, however, be returning upon the reopening.
Over the years, the stately 1924 building has hosted its share of heads of state, royalty, and screen legends such as Cary Grant. Its swank Nob Hill Spa with an indoor infinity pool, complete with soaring floor-to-ceiling windows, has long been a favorite of socialites, as well as supermodel Christy Turlington, whose fashionable friends got pampered there just before attending her wedding to actor/director Ed Burns in 2003.
The Cope family, who owned the Huntington Hotel from the 1920s until its recent purchase, have added their own share of splendor to the ambience and history. Patriarch Newton Cope—the "nabob of Nob Hill"—was once engaged to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' sister, Lee Radziwill, and numbered among his properties the Brocklebank Apartments, made famous in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.
Despite its glamorous clientele, the Big 4 is also very much a neighborhood restaurant for Nob Hill residents. In fact, when it looked as if the hotel might close before last year’s holiday season, residents rallied to convince management to hold off on beginning renovations, says Gwyneth Borden, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association.
After all, despite being a city that adores the new, San Francisco still very much respects its prized institutions that have managed to endure for generations. In the past couple of years, a few notable ones have undergone a radical changing of the guard. That includes the 95 year old bohemian watering hole known as Tosca Cafe, which was taken over last year by New York City’s April Bloomfield and her business partner, Ken Friedman. Not far from there is the famed site of the Washington Square Bar & Grill, the 1973-circa mecca for the city’s prime movers and shakers, which has changed hands several times over the past 14 years. This month, it was be transformed again, this time by chefs Teague Moriarty and Matt McNamara of Sons & Daughters, who reopened it as The Square, which they hope will appeal to both locals and tourists. Because of San Francisco’s compact size—just seven by seven miles—lack of empty storefronts, and burgeoning restaurant community, Borden won’t be surprised if more coveted spots such as these get remade in the years to come.
“Any instance where we can preserve some sort of history but have it evolve into something that speaks to present times is a good thing,” she says. “We are fortunate we have people who want to make these places thrive and bring back their vitality.”
As for the Big 4—named for San Francisco’s “Big Four” 19th century railroad tycoons—Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, and Mark Hopkins—its beloved Old World, clubby look will be retained. Diners still will get to revel in its majestic bar, ornate woodwork, and signature emerald green chairs. New carpets will be added, the parquet floors refinished, and white tablecloths jettisoned for new dark wood tabletops.
“We want people to feel comfortable when they walk in,” says Shelia Turner, vice president of restaurant operations for Puccini Group, the San Francisco consulting firm overseeing the renovation and operations of the hotel. “We want them to see everyone around them having a good time, laughing, enjoying cocktails and food with attentive service, and wanting to come back.”