San Francisco’s Leo’s Oyster Bar serves exuberant tropical design with a side of fresh oysters and craft cocktails.
Stepping inside Leo’s Oyster Bar is comparable to stepping into a piece of glitzy Old Florida. A striking teal wall adorned with greenery faces the door and immediately grabs the attention, but bold leaf-print wallpaper—which looks just as real as its potted counterparts—stretches from wood paneling to lofty ceiling and steals the spotlight. All of this is within the first few steps inside the seafood and oyster joint: The rest of Leo’s design throwbacks recall the tropical glamour of Palm Beach in its glory days.
Inside a nondescript brick front in San Francisco’s Financial District (FiDi for those with a passion for acronyms), Leo’s black-framed glass doors open onto a slice of the 1950s Golden Era, complete with a long pink onyx bar and black and white checkered floors, all lit by vintage scallop-shaped wall sconces. Wood and bronze accents abound, as do tiki paraphernalia and the occasional bronze pineapple.
“We loved the idea of a raw bar and seafood focus, but wanted to turn the idea of where you typically see this kind of food served (i.e. big restaurants or fish shack–type places) on its head,” says owner and managing partner Anna Weinberg. “Thus the idea for Leo’s Oyster Bar, a raw bar and seafood hotspot in a clubby cocktail lounge environment, was born.”
Beyond the main dining room, the Hideaway, a tucked-away, hush-hush lounge, has a bold botanical wallpaper to match that of the foyer, metallic leather banquettes, and rattan seating that looks like it came straight from a balcony overlooking the sea. The whole venue creates an atmosphere that calls for a leisurely meal of a bracing drink and a fine selection of finger-foods. Luckily, Leo’s serves both.
Opened early in 2016 by Big Night Restaurant Group restaurateurs Weinberg and James Nicholas and chef Jennifer Puccio, Leo’s Oyster Bar offers glamour from a bygone era. Its slightly eclectic, flashy, completely coastal décor by designers Ken Fulk and Jon de la Cruz makes it a must-see (Bon Appétit named it the Best Designed Restaurant of 2016), and a raw bar and menu by James Beard–semifinalist Puccio make it a must-taste, too.
With everything from caviar bites with Crème fraïche to a heaped lobster roll to house-made tater tots (and, of course, a raw bar), Leo’s menu offers a blend of elevated fare and hearty seafood dishes that more than holds its own against the décor. Its drink offerings, which include an expansive collection of sparkling wines and champagnes and a cocktail list with 50s-inspired appellations like Betty’s Buzz and Dandy Boy, only accentuates the atmosphere of glamorous nostalgia.
“I’ve always loved the Beverly Hills/Palm Beach aesthetic, and it felt fresh and exciting to employ with a seafood and raw bar restaurant,” says Weinberg.
As Big Night Restaurant Group’s fourth San Francisco restaurant (it also owns and operates Marlowe, Park Tavern, The Cavalier, and backroom bar Marianne’s), Leo’s—named for Weinberg and Nicholas’s son—marks a departure from the classic, more subtle aesthetics of the other properties.
“I felt like I’d earned enough of a reputation in the Bay Area to depart from playing it safe,” says Weinberg. “Design is my passion; I never want to repeat something we have already done.”
And with Leo’s, where Weinberg and co. have crafted a setting that pairs perfectly with a tall glass of bubbly and a tray of oysters, there certainly isn’t any evidence of repetition: Everything is as refreshing as the champagne.
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All images by Douglas Friedman