AL’s Place in SF’s Mission District is closing after seven years

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

The vegetable-focused restaurant’s final day 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 struggling — in fact, it’s still packed nightly and is profitable, London said. The lease is not up, either.

Instead, London, after running the popular restaurant for seven years and working in the industry since he was a teenager, said he’s ready to give himself to something else outside of the kitchen: his young family. The all-consuming pace of restaurant life has kept him away from his partner and 1-year-old daughter, and he’s hoping to change that.

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

This feeling, combined with potential job opportunities that would be more conducive to a work-life balance, like writing a cookbook or restaurant consulting, prompted his final decision to shut down AL’s Place.

The baby lettuces with herbed avocado and quince crumble at AL’s Place, served in 2015, remain on the menu today.

John Storey/Special to The Chronicle 2015

It’s a major closure for the Bay Area dining scene. London, who previously cooked at Napa Valley’s pioneering vegetarian restaurant Ubuntu, opened AL’s Place in 2015 with an almost-manic focus on vegetables. Even dishes like french fries were taken to an extreme level (they’re brined for more than a week, much like kimchi, and then fried). Seasonal produce has long come from Blue Dane Garden, a farm in Grass Valley (Nevada County) growing exclusively for the restaurant, and became the centerpiece of signature dishes like lettuces with herbed avocado and a crunchy crumble, meant to be eaten with your hands. Meat and fish are served only as sides.

The accolades came quickly. Six months after opening, Bon Appetit named AL’s Place the new restaurant of the year, calling London’s flavors “revelatory.” The restaurant won a glowing review from former Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer, a Michelin star and a spot on Chronicle critic Soleil Ho’s list of the best restaurants in San Francisco. In 2019, London expanded with the more casual AL’s Deli in the Mission District, which closed in less than a year due to the pandemic.

AL's Place opened to much acclaim in the Mission District in 2015.

AL’s Place opened to much acclaim in the Mission District in 2015.

John Storey/Special to 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 14 years old, was accustomed to sacrificing his physical and mental health for work.

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

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

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

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

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

London acknowledged that AL’s Place “is an intense place to work” (Bon Appetit reported that he required every cook to drink water out of a CamelBak thermos to prevent spills) and that he changed his management style as he grew older. But he hopes the time cooks have spent in the rigorous kitchen will mean they’ll now get snapped up by quality restaurants desperate for employees in the midst of a labor shortage.

London isn’t leaving the industry for good. He’s long wanted to write a cookbook but didn’t have the time. He’s also considering restaurant opportunities in other cities and parts of 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, unique little place. It is time and there is something else more important,” London said, “but that doesn’t make it any less sad.”

Elena Kadvany (she/her) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: elena.kadvany@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @ekadvany

Leave a Comment