September 25, 2022

AmericanHummus

Food & Travel Enthusiast

Bay Area restaurant All Spice, a Michelin winner, to be bulldozed

Sachin Chopra sits in a makeshift dining tent in the parking lot of his once Michelin-starred restaurant, All Spice.

It’s Friday. It’s drizzling. And he’s about to burst into tears.

Chopra and his co-owner/wife Shoshana Wolff just signed a new two-year lease on the charming, 116-year-old Victorian that houses All Spice. And both of them know this is likely the last lease they’ll ever sign for this building. A real estate developer bought the San Mateo land that All Spice sits on (along with five parcels next to it) for $7.1 million in 2018, and in 2019 announced plans to demolish every existing structure in favor of a slew of market-rate condos, townhomes and 82 underground parking spaces.

Since then, All Spice’s owners have been strung along on very short leases as the pandemic has helped keep the project at bay, but Chopra and Wolff both know there’s a day in the not-too-distant future when they’ll watch a bulldozer tear through what has been a figurative home to the couple for more than a decade.

Chopra, a 47-year-old self-proclaimed optimist, tells me it won’t be a big deal.

“I’ll internalize it,” he says, before a pause that lasts an eternity. “… You cannot really do anything — you can’t. Only in the event that you won the Powerball or something and write a check, or you get an angel investor that helps you buy the property — all those things are in realms of fantasy, though.

“You just deal with it. You really have to walk forward.”

“Sachin is very good at having these kinds of things not affect his day-to-day life,” Wolff assures me, while looking at Chopra as if she knows what’s about to happen next.

“No sulking really required,” he says. “I’ve been through that …” 

And then he starts to cry.

Owner and chef Sachin Chopra works on shaping some sourdough bread in the kitchen of All Spice restaurant in San Mateo, Calif., on Jan. 11, 2022.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Sachin Chopra may be the unluckiest man in the unluckiest industry.


Born and raised in India, he immigrated to the United States in the 1990s, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York in 1998 and went straight into one of only a small handful of restaurants ever awarded four stars by the New York Times: Daniel.

He worked the line, then quickly turned that into sous and executive chef roles elsewhere, eventually culminating in the opening of his own Manhattan restaurant, Tapasserie, in July of 2001.

Two months before 9/11.

After the Twin Towers fell in the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil in American history, streets were blocked off all around Chopra’s new restaurant on 27th between 3rd and Lexington as the nearby 69th Regiment Armory became a counseling center for the victims and families.

Chopra lost his savings, his restaurant and his credit score.

“2002 was a year of heavy personal financial losses. I had to use a lot of credit cards, the economy was not really back,” he says. “… I couldn’t really see the sun in any way, couldn’t see anything becoming better, and then I got the opportunity to come here.”

He moved to the Bay Area a year later and bounced around various chef posts at high-end Indian restaurants, including at Amber India in Santana Row. That’s where he met Shoshana Wolff. She was working as a server at Amber India while finishing up her pre-requisites for a grad school program at UC Davis in viticulture and enology.

“Wine science,” she thankfully explains with a smile.

The pair got married in 2005 and five years later, started looking for their own restaurant space.

“My New Year’s resolution several years ago was to never have to write a resume again,” Wolff says. And thus far, she still hasn’t.

The foyer of the restaurant opens into one of the interior dining rooms at All Spice restaurant in San Mateo, Calif. on Jan. 11, 2022. The restaurant is located in a historic 1906 Victorian home.
The foyer of the restaurant opens into one of the interior dining rooms at All Spice restaurant in San Mateo, Calif. on Jan. 11, 2022. The restaurant is located in a historic 1906 Victorian home.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

A decorative item sits on a ledge at All Spice restaurant in San Mateo, Calif. on Jan. 11, 2022. The restaurant is located in a historic 1906 Victorian home.
A decorative item sits on a ledge at All Spice restaurant in San Mateo, Calif. on Jan. 11, 2022. The restaurant is located in a historic 1906 Victorian home.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

A green apple and kohlrabi salad with sumac yogurt, pistachios, and water cress is one of the dishes at All Spice restaurant in San Mateo, Calif. on Jan. 11, 2022.
A green apple and kohlrabi salad with sumac yogurt, pistachios, and water cress is one of the dishes at All Spice restaurant in San Mateo, Calif. on Jan. 11, 2022.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

One of the interior dining rooms at All Spice restaurant in San Mateo, Calif. on Jan. 11, 2022. The restaurant is located in a historic 1906 Victorian home.
One of the interior dining rooms at All Spice restaurant in San Mateo, Calif. on Jan. 11, 2022. The restaurant is located in a historic 1906 Victorian home.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE


Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Delivery trucks roar between the satellite dining room we’re sitting in and All Spice’s historic home.

“We actually found it listed on Craigslist,” Wolff, 45, says of the building.

The 1906 Victorian that sits at 1602 South El Camino Real is actually tucked down an alley west of El Camino and located in the middle of a large circular parking lot — a maroon-accented island in a sea of asphalt. The first time you dine there, you absolutely will get lost trying to find it, and when you finally find it, you absolutely will be awestruck by it.

How did this get here?

Turns out, the building was originally the gatehouse for what was once the Borel Estate — a 300-acre, tree-studded country property on the Peninsula owned by a man named Antoine Borel. Borel served as Switzerland’s vice-consul in San Francisco in the mid-1800s, was the director of the Bank of California, bought the California Street Railway and lived in a 23-room, vine-covered residence on the San Mateo property when he wasn’t at his mansion in San Francisco. The gatehouse is one of the few remaining vestiges of the estate after the land was subdivided in the 1950s, and now sits a block away from aptly named Borel Avenue.

“We found it at the beginning of our search and kind of discounted it to begin with — it’s such an off-the-beaten-path spot. There’s no walk-in traffic possible. Really, it’s a destination,” Wolff says. “But we ultimately decided to come back to this one, and I’m really glad that we did.” 

The pair spent three months investing sweat equity (painting, doing repairs, furnishing), before landing on the transformative, delightfully colorful space inside, which manages to squeeze an entire restaurant into what’s very clearly the first floor of a very old home.

They opened in 2010 with three people in the kitchen and two in the front of house, with Wolff spending her days working as a chemist and nights moonlighting at All Spice.

The restaurant was an almost immediate success — a glowing review in the San Francisco Chronicle provided a lift in visibility in 2011, and things really started to pick up after a story from Esquire that called Chopra a “new chef to watch.” And then in 2012 came a needle-moving feature from KQED’s “Check, Please! Bay Area.” 

From there, All Spice became a rare-ish mid-Peninsula award magnet. It held a Michelin star starting in 2013 for three straight years thanks to Chopra’s Indian-inspired French Californian cuisine (which is still one of the best meals on the entire Peninsula) and Wolff’s flawless front-of-house operation.

And then came 2015.

The outdoor patio at All Spice restaurant in San Mateo, Calif., on Jan. 11, 2022. The restaurant created the area to have outdoor seating in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The outdoor patio at All Spice restaurant in San Mateo, Calif., on Jan. 11, 2022. The restaurant created the area to have outdoor seating in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Chopra and Wolff opened Game in San Francisco’s Union Square in January 2015.

The wild meat-centric concept was deemed “not worth a review” at all by San Francisco Chronicle critic Michael Bauer, and just two months after opening, the pair scrapped the entire concept (the menu, the interior and the name) and reopened in March as All Spice San Francisco.

“Perhaps it was the ghost of Masa’s lingering in the dining room, or simply that a game-meat-driven restaurant was not scratching any itches for San Francisco diners; either way, Chopra told Inside Scoop that ‘We decided it would be best for the restaurant and our sanity to try to do what we know the best,’” Eater’s Ellen Fort wrote of the closure.

In spite of the abrupt shift (and, more impressively, Bauer), All Spice San Francisco still managed to earn its own Michelin Star in just six months’ time. And then, just like that, the restaurant closed in 2016 after a little more than a year in business.

“We projected our numbers based on a hit restaurant. But we didn’t think about what it would mean to try and keep the restaurant afloat in a time where we were not a hit. That’s just not how we think,” Wolff says.

The pair lost their savings, their restaurant and their Michelin star at both locations.

Left to right, owners Shoshana Wolff and Sachin Chopra stand outside All Spice restaurant in San Mateo, Calif., on Jan. 11, 2022. The restaurant is in a historic 1906 Victorian home.

Left to right, owners Shoshana Wolff and Sachin Chopra stand outside All Spice restaurant in San Mateo, Calif., on Jan. 11, 2022. The restaurant is in a historic 1906 Victorian home.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Six years later, they’ve finally paid off debt accrued from their San Francisco misadventure (they paid it down in full a few months ago).

“But now we have accrued new debts,” Wolff says.

Enter: the pandemic (because no story about the unluckiest man in the unluckiest industry would be complete without a global health emergency). 

With the future razing of their restaurant looming, Chopra and Wolff’s 2020 made them question everything.

They let their entire staff go. Twice. They had to ask relatives for money during the first months of the pandemic to pay their own personal rent. And they employed Wolff’s parents (for free) to help run a to-go operation that made their son-in-law doubt even the worth of his Michelin star.

“What is there to show for it?” he asks. “We were making $100 to $200 a day, I’m like, what does that mean?”

Still, they persisted.

“We were hopeful in the sense that, you know, we figured if we just kept at it, as long as we physically could, that this was not forever,” Wolff says. “And, you know, we would do everything we could to get through it.”

They applied for every loan and grant you’ve ever heard of: Paycheck Protection Program loans, Restaurant Revitalization Fund grants, COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loans.

And even after being granted multiple, “there’s some long-term kind of damage to the business unfortunately,” says Wolff.

And then, just when things were looking up at the end of 2021, when dining rooms were starting to refill and debts were finally being paid down, the omicron variant emerged.

“For a little while, it felt like we had done better than we’d ever done into the beginning of December,” Wolff says. “But then the cancellations started to roll in.”

Both know that even when the pandemic is finally in the rearview mirror, there’s still the looming development on the horizon heading toward their windshield at 100 mph.

“It’s a little bit heartbreaking, and it’s been heartbreaking over a very long period. It’s been kind of an emotional roller coaster, it’s happening, it’s not happening, it’s in six months, it’s in two years,” Wolff says. 

She says longtime patrons have adorably taken things into their own hands. They’ve tried to find the couple a new location, they’ve tried to fight the development and, well, “there was also a suggestion we could move the entire house, but the estimate is close to a $500,000 to $600,000 project to move it,” Chopra says.

“It feels unrealistic,” Wolff says with a smile.

What feels more realistic is their actual backup plan, which came into view two years ago. Knowing All Spice had an end date in San Mateo, the pair started to pursue a stop-gap restaurant that could keep them afloat while they tried to find a new home for All Spice (which is still their tentative plan) — but also hopefully serve as an eventual retirement option, if not a way to finally buy their own house. Even in their mid- to late 40s, they’re still renters.

That stop-gap now has a name, concept and brand new interior: Pilot Light, a casual breakfast and lunch spot at the Half Moon Bay Airport that’s poised to finally open this year after two years of construction (they updated a 1940s building with no floor drain or hand sink).

And, as they’re quick to point out, they’ve learned their lesson. In the new lease, there’s a clause that if the terminal is ever demolished in order to build a new more modern one (which it sounds like there are eventual plans for), Chopra and Wolff will have first right of refusal on a new location in the new building.

Because Wolff isn’t even sure she’ll be able to cope with losing her first restaurant, let alone a second.

“I really try not to think about the end,” she says. “Even before the end of service, even before the bulldozing, even before the moment when we have to turn off the lights and not welcome people in these doors anymore. It’s just, it’s too painful to let myself think too deeply about it.”

Fresh flowers sit on a table at All Spice restaurant in San Mateo, Calif., on Jan. 11, 2022. The restaurant is in a historic 1906 Victorian home.

Fresh flowers sit on a table at All Spice restaurant in San Mateo, Calif., on Jan. 11, 2022. The restaurant is in a historic 1906 Victorian home.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE