South: Charles Phan Expands His Empire

Chef Charles Phan had one word when Randall Kline, the founder of SF JAZZ, asked the Slanted Door chef to take over the café South at SF JAZZ's new permanent space on Franklin and Fell.

"I said, 'No,'" Phan said. "A lot of people ask me to do a lot of things, and the first thing I say is, 'No.'"

But Kline, who now has a permanent home for SF JAZZ after 30 years, was undeterred. He wanted the prolific Phan, and in the end, he got him.

Chef Charles Phan, empire-builder.
Angkana Kurutach
Chef Charles Phan, empire-builder.

Standing at one of the bar tables at South the night before its March 5 opening, Phan says he's glad that Kline convinced him. "I kind of fell in love with the whole institution," Phan said about the jazz center, the first stand-alone space for jazz in the country. "This is such a part of San Francisco. I've been here since 1977. I'm more San Franciscan than I am Vietnamese."

At the opening for the SF JAZZ Center in January, Phan joked that for this venue, he couldn't do the same old spring roll. He said they are thinking of changing the menu's focus seasonally at South, but decided to start with a New Orleans-themed menu, which includes cornmeal-crusted fried oysters, chicken gumbo, and alligator sausage, accompanied by New Orleans style drinks with plenty of bourbon such as the Battle of New Orleans, which has bitters and absinthe as well as Buffalo Trace.

Erik Adkins, the bar director for the Slanted Door Group, used two books as inspiration for the drinks: The Ideal Bartender by Tom Bullock and Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix 'Em by Stanley Clisby Arthur.

South will be open daily, eventually for breakfast and lunch as well as dinner. Phan likes Kline's vision of the café as a neighborhood hangout.

"Randall doesn't want this just to be like a nightclub," he said. "I agree it should be for the neighborhood to use. I don't believe in having a restaurant three nights a week. It's hard to run a restaurant like a part time job. It's better you have it open all day and then the food is really fresh."

Phan definitely doesn't believe in working part time. Along with South at SF JAZZ, he has yet another new restaurant with a New Orleans theme, Hard Water, opening March 14 at Pier 3 on the Embarcadero. Adkins will be overseeing the bar menu there as well, and he says they will be serving whiskey that they have been stockpiling for the last 11 years. Phan whips out his phone to show a picture of the small space, which has a horseshoe bar and an oyster bar. Hard Water and South are in addition to Phan's other places, which include Slanted Door, Heaven's Dog, and Wo Hing General Store.

"My wife thought she was marrying a guy with one restaurant," Phan said. "Next week, it'll be eight. That wasn't in the marriage contract."

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