Photographs by Julia Spiess and Nathan Ziebell.
Predictability and permanence is overrated. At least according to Matt Semmelhack, the San Francisco-based restauranteur and owner of the recently opened TBD restaurant in the city’s Mid-Market area. Semmelhack’s second restaurant, TBD is an amalgam of his experience both as a foodie and a design enthusiast. His life as the former began as an undergraduate at Princeton University, where he studied anthropology and developed an intense interest in food ways in the United States. His life in design began shortly after, when he temporarily set aside his food-persuits to work in real estate and consulting in Manhattan. “Design, building and construction are major passions of mine,” he notes, “Working in real estate was an excellent crash course in the layout and design of spaces and how people interact within them.” His work with food studies and design imbued Semmelhack with a passion for artisanal, expertly crafted food and aesthetics, something that is reflected in the unique ethos of TBD.
The name TBD, shorthand for “To Be Determined,” often connotes something that is unfinished or incomplete. The guiding principle of Semmelhack’s restaurant, though, is to remove the negative connotations such ideas have— TBD is more about a journey, an exploration of foods and culture that is, like most things in life, ever-changing and ever-evolving. The restaurant’s menu, developed alongside executive chef Mark Liberman, is in a constant state of flux, changing with the seasons and the availability of certain ingredients. The showcase of both the restaurant’s design and culinary philosophy is the space’s central hearth, within which most of the dishes are fired, roasted, and smoked. “We designed TBD to push the limits of cooking with fire,” Semmelhack says. Playing off of this hearth are a number of nature-derived and campsite-inspired decor elements—things that speak to Semmelhack’s desire for a space that is simultaneously welcoming, casual, and upscale.
Check out all of the photos of this beautiful, dynamic space plus our short interview with TBD’s Matt Semmelhack after the jump! —Max
D*S: Atmosphere is so important when creating a restaurant space. What sort of space were you looking to create with TBD? How do you think the space’s design interacts with and informs the other sensory and culinary elements of the restaurant?
MS: I really wanted to create a warm, welcoming, yet exciting and dynamic environment with TBD. There’s little in my mind that is more warm and exciting than a campfire and as a result, the 10′ wide hearth is at the center of the restaurant. All of the cooking is done over the open fire, so it’s a beautiful combination of many sensory experiences that remind our guests of the outdoors, camping, summer camp, etc. While we reference the outdoors with much of the decor, we also need it to be urban and hip for our savvy foodie clientele— the music is loud and exciting and there are several different seating styles and areas throughout the restaurant by design (main dining, mezzanine, bar, semi-private space) to encourage guests to have a different experience when they return (hopefully often!).
Did you draw inspiration from any sources in particular when designing the TBD space?
The outdoors and camping primarily, plus an unusual and very special experience I had going deer hunting with a friend. He took me to his private hunting camp in northern California, where men have been gathering for more than 50 years to trek around the wilderness hunting but mainly for the sake of brotherhood and sharing stories (always over good food and drink) around a campfire. TBD has some elements that are modeled after this gun club and our private room is actually named after it (“The Garcia Room”). The materials we used I think are timeless but also on trend for today: steel, rough wood, crisp white, and brass. TBD is meant to feel as though you’ve walked into a party in someone’s private upscale hunting lodge—someone who has an affinity for amazing food! There is a good amount of juxtaposition between clean and modern vs. rough and raw: brass vs. cold steel; rough unfinished douglas fir vs. white bead board… I found this to be true at the gun club both in terms of materials (the cold steel of a rifle vs. the ruggedness of a redwood grove) but also in the nature of the hunters, who could be making crude jokes one moment and discussing politics the next. I think the food at TBD follows that same juxtaposition at times: rustic/primal meets refined.
Handicraft seems to be an important element of the TBD aesthetic and ethos—your logo is a hand-drawn axe and your menu fluctuates by season and availability. Was this organic sensibility carried through to the interior and visual language of the space, as well? Did you employ any local craftspeople, designers, or materials in the space’s construction?
Absolutely—I created the logo from a gift that was given to me by my parents in law: a classic American hatchet. We adopted this as a symbol for the restaurant as it represents honest hard work, and is actually used in the restaurant to create kindling for the cooking fire. I designed everything in the space and collected a good deal of vintage pieces over the last year to offset the clean modern lines and rectilinear architecture. We used only local craftspeople, primarily metal workers (steel and brass), an excellent carpenter, and created several pieces working with Arborica, a firm in Marshall, CA that works with large scale raw wood pieces like our massive 1600 lb host stand and some other small pieces. All of the materials are from 100 miles or less of San Francisco.