Pat Kuleto

Food Arts Staff - June 1998

Food Arts presents the June 1998 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Pat Kuleto, whose masterful juggling of great food and exciting design has turned eating out into full-scale entertainment. Kuleto has designed more than 160 restaurants and has “200,000 more in my mind.” Today, he’s also well known as a restaurateur and co-owns three of San Francisco’s highly touted restaurants—Boulevard, Farallon, and Jardinière.

Boulevard, his bistro-style restaurant in downtown San Francisco, was recently voted the city’s most popular by Zagat Survey reviewers. Farallon, the seafood restaurant he opened last fall near Union Square, is already the city’s highest-grossing restaurant, raking in about $1 million a month from diners enchanted with the translucent glass columns and the light fixtures resembling giant floating squid. Jardinière is all sexy glamour, giving culture-lovers a place to stretch out an evening at the nearby opera, symphony, and ballet, and don’t forget a few other Kuleto-designed classes, San Francisco’s Fog City Diner and Postrio, Atlanta’s Buckhead Diner, and Chicago’s Papagus, still packing them in after all these years.

“My goal is to play to people’s subliminal feelings and to create romantic fantasies they themselves with that they had envisioned,” Kuleto says. “But there has to be a balance between cutting-edge design and comfort. The key element is never to forget that we are just people having dinner.”

Kuleto views light, sound, and smell as important design elements, with light being the most important. “With the right light and stuff from the garbage dump, you can create something fabulous,” he says. In the world of restaurant design, Kuleto was one of the first to create dramatic handmade fixtures that both illuminate and send out currents of style and warmth. He works closely with artists and craftsmen, creating about 80 percent of each design himself but allowing them to add finishing touches.

Sound plays a close second in a successful mix. “A bunch of people having a good time makes a certain celebratory noise, wherever you are in the world,” Kuleto says. “The challenge is to take that sound, and do everything you can to keep the high pitches and tinny sounds down. Bass sounds are fine.” Fabrics are the quickest and easiest trick for absorbing sound. At Farallon, Kuleto used sound-absorbing fabric on a number of the walls, and it worked perfectly. Diners feel as if they’re walking into a good dinner party.

Kuleto’s work is more art than science, with intuition and experience replacing formal training. He left home at 18, moving from Southern California to Lake Tahoe, where he worked as a carpenter and general contractor and discovered he had a knack for design. His first major project was 20 Refectory steakhouses. After several years of real estate development, he went back into restaurant design, beginning in 1984 with Fog City Diner. Though he has no official association with San Francisco’s Kimpton Group, he designed three restaurants at the behest of Bill Kimpton—Postrio, Splendido, and Kuleto’s (which bears his name even though he has no ownership interest).

Kuleto lives with his wife Shannon and their two-year-old son Daniel on a three-story houseboat in Sausalito and an 800-acre ranch, much of it planted with wine grapes, high above the Napa Valley. In addition to his restaurant activities, he presses his own olive oil and is about to start marketing his own Sangiovese wine.

Although he considers San Francisco ideal ground zero for restaurants, thanks to its splendid raw materials and food-conscious customers, he has designed eateries all over the world. When he goes to a new city, Kuleto rents a limousine and visits some 30 to 50 spots, popping out of the car to dart in, grab a menu, and check out the design and the clientele. By the end of the tour, he has a firm grasp on the city’s “cumulative palate.”

Kuleto the artisan is also known in the industry as a skilled and generous restaurateur, making his chefs full partners. Nancy Oakes is a part-owner of Boulevard, Traci Des Jardins has a stake in Jardinière, and Mark Franz has a piece of the action at Farallon. “By giving equity to the chefs, we develop the concept together,” he explains. “I want them as long-term partners with a commitment to the restaurant. The chefs think it’s great, but I’ve had some restaurateurs say to me, ‘You’re ruining it for all of us.’”

Kuleto’s office routinely declines offers from chains and hotels. He is only interested in doing individual restaurants with strong personalities and has no interest in seeing his ideas stamped out identically from Tacoma to Trenton. “There’s a computer program for everything these days,” he says. “But I think people are sick and tired of eating the same cheeseburger in 58 cities.”