Amidst the constant restaurant openings and closings in San Francisco, we’re lucky to have so many places still going strong after their first decade. Even more incredible are the stories of servers who have been there since the beginning or have spent their professional careers moving up the ladder of the city's hospitality industry. From a witty duo in Sausalito to a venerable maître d’ at a Saratoga legend, here are some OG servers that you should know — plus tips on the best way to experience the restaurants where they work.
Karl Knox and Tony Diiori at Poggio
Having spent 32 years together, these two bartenders at Sausalito’s beloved Italian institution are the Abbott and Costello of SF's front-of-house world. They’re known as much for their menu knowledge and cocktail skills as for their playful banter, whether diners are staring into a laptop or a few drinks on a Friday night. Tony grew up in Italy, while Karl learned the trade through, of all places, a TGI Friday's bartending program. They came together at Larry Mindel's restaurant, Prego, in San Francisco in 1983. They're still working for Mindel, just at his Sausalito restaurant now, and still taking care of diners together.
Secret to success: "Working behind the bar is a show, and when Tony and I work together at the bar, the show doesn’t get any better," Knox says. "It is one of the few jobs that I have ever had where I do not feel the passage of time."
Insider tip: Diiori's nickname is "Tony Negroni." On cue, make sure to try his Tony Negroni variation at the bar. What’s his secret? He adds Barolo Chinato as the sweet vermouth element and serves the drink with an orange segment.
777 Bridgeway, Sausalito; 415-332-7771
Manuel Urbano at Plumed Horse
Saratoga’s Cali-French legend has been synonymous with fine dining in the South Bay for 65 years. Urbano hasn’t been around quite that long, but he’s seen a lot of changes, including in diners’ tastes (old-school French until this century) and in ownership, since he started as a busser in the mid 80s. Now he’s maître d’ and a jack-of-all-trades, helping his colleagues in whatever role necessary. Fun note: His brother Esteban was a maître d’ of Manresa, and the two had a playful sibling and Silicon Valley upscale restaurant rivalry.
Secret to success: "My favorite dishes are the ones that evoke feelings of comfort, joy and intrigue for people. That is different for every person. My job is to make sure when they are in my dining room, they run the gamut of these emotions."
Insider tip: Urbano recommends trying the signature black Parmesan soufflé with an uni–Dungeness crab fondue to experience that range of emotions he hopes diners feel.
14555 Big Basin Way, Saratoga; 408-867-4711
Marcela Martinez at One Market
Martinez has been with the Embarcadero Californian restaurant across from the Ferry Building for 24 years, and how she got there is as inspiring as her long service. She left her native El Salvador for the U.S. in the 80s during that country’s civil war. She arrived here as a young wife and mother of three children looking to make a new life for her family. Now she is the longest tenured server at One Market, that rare San Francisco restaurant in a prime tourist spot that serves city visitors, businessmen and longtime residents.
Secret to success: For Marcela, what drives her is what she's most proud of — her three children and eight grandchildren.
Insider tip: It wouldn't be a proper visit to One Market without the housemade charcuterie and one of the city's most accomplished desserts (the butterscotch pudding is a favorite).
1 Market St.; 415-777-5577
Bryan Philon at Michael Mina
Twenty-four years ago, when a talented young chef named Michael Mina was making a name for himself at the FiDi restaurant, Aqua, Philon was there, too, as a young general manager. Since then, the Mina Group has expanded to concepts nationwide, and when Mina left Aqua to create his eponymous restaurant at the Westin St. Francis, Philon joined him, shifting to service and floor presence, eventually assuming the role of captain for sister establishment RN74. Most recently, Mina brought Philon back to the flagship restaurant (in the former Aqua space) as a captain.
Secret to success: "My philosophy through the years is always going an extra mile to let our guests feel at home. Hospitality is the key. Consistency is the secret ingredient."
Insider tip: Mina's famous tuna tartare has been a classic since the Aqua days and is still on the menu at his flagship restaurant. It's truly one of San Francisco's staple dishes.
252 California St.; 415-397-9222
Renzo Roca at Piqueos
Roca studied journalism at college in Peru and came to the U.S. to learn English. It didn't take long for him to fall in love with San Francisco where he took classes and worked at a corner sandwich shop. In 2005, Roca joined Carlos Altamirano's first restaurant, Mochica, as a busser and became a server after six months. Later he was promoted to management at Mochica and since 2014 has been serving guests as general manager in Bernal Heights for one of Altamirano's newer restaurants.
Secret to success: "I give the best of me. I'm enthusiastic, friendly and love to answer customer's questions. Each customer and every table is different, so I work hard to make sure they have a great experience."
Insider tip: Ordering at least one of the ceviches is essential.
830 Cortland Ave.; 415-282-8812
H. Joseph Ehrmann at Elixir
As the 11th proprietor of a venerable Mission saloon dating back to 1858, Ehrmann has helped launch San Francisco's craft-cocktail culture in some old-world digs. Ehrmann got into the industry as a chef in 1986, and his first bartending job was at Disney World in 1989. He worked at 28 different bars and restaurants prior to taking over Elixir in 2003, held a Silicon Valley high-tech job in 2000, started a soup company and helped open the Fishbowl restaurant on Divisadero. After six months at the Fishbowl, he took a leap and bought Elixir. Today, he's a busy man, running the bar, a cocktail consulting wing, a cocktail event company and being the father of a 4-year-old.
Secret to success: "Service is at the core of what a great bar is, especially a great neighborhood bar. We aim to be there for our neighbors 365 days per year and for whatever they need us to be: celebrations, gatherings, alone time or meeting new people. Great service, more than the product (drinks), ambiance, pricing, etc. will always win a customer over and bring them back, and that is how we build business and have stayed in business for so long."
Insider tip: Elixir has one of the country's strongest whiskey collections (450 bottles and counting). So, definitely try the spirit on its own or a cocktail.
3200 16th St.; 415-552-1633
Armando Rodriguez at Perbacco
The FiDi’s upscale Italian stalwart may look like it's been around forever, but it’s only a decade old — just ask Rodriguez who has been a server since day one. Call him a professional restaurant opener; Perbacco is just one of many headliner restaurants he’s helped to open. Avid 1990s diners may remember him from Mecca (1996), Cobalt Tavern (2000) and Foreign Cinema (1999), which is still open. Like the restaurant's signature agnolotti dal plin by chef Staffan Terje, Rodriguez is a Perbacco fixture.
Secret to success: “When you approach the table, be in the moment. Don’t look around. Give your undivided attention. Listen carefully to what the guests are saying; then tailor the experience accordingly.”
Insider tip: Of course Armando encourages you to try Perbacco’s much-celebrated pastas. But this is the rare San Francisco Italian restaurant offering pastas in half portions AND has equally thoughtful secondi preparations. Take advantage of the first so you can save room for the latter.
230 California St.; 415-955-0663
Daniel Knight at Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar
Knight was a 21-year-old server’s assistant on the very first day of service for Willi's Wine Bar, the debut restaurant in 2002 for Mark and Terri Stark in Santa Rosa. The Starks now have six restaurants across Sonoma County, and Knight is still with them as a bartender in downtown Healdsburg where he's served too many oysters to count.
Secret to success: Knight says the support and respect he receives from the organization and his fellow staff help him excel at his job.
Insider tip: Seafood is obviously the must-order at Willi's, and Knight is partial to the lobster roll jazzed up with fennel and garlic butter.
403 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg; 707-433-9191