July 21, 2024


The Food community

For 15 years, Marcia Gagliardi has been one of the SF restaurant scene’s biggest champions

10 min read

When the newsletter Tablehopper burst on the scene in 2006, there weren’t as many gathering places online for food lovers as there are now; Yelp was just two years old, email newsletters weren’t quite A Thing yet (Substack, who?) and sites like EaterSF weren’t part of the food scene like it is now. Not to mention social media was just moving past its MySpace stage into the Facebook era and there were no “influencers” to speak of, save for the group of Yelp “Elites” who were roaming the city for just a year at that point.

The time was ripe for an insidery column to document the food and cocktail scene in San Francisco and Marcia Gagliardi was up for the task. Working for an ad agency had given her the skillset necessary to get things off the ground, and after being laid off when the dot-com bubble burst in the late 1990s — “I call that Marcia Liberation Day,” she said jokingly — Gagliardi began that insidery food newsletter that she had always dreamed of.

“By being freelance for the first time, I just knew that I wanted to write about the food world and I didn’t see anyone was creating something that exactly spoke to me and the way that I explore the city,” Gagliardi told SFGATE. “And that’s everything from tiny neighborhood joints to food trucks to bars, and this was pre-Eater, so nobody was really writing about bar openings — and that was when our cocktail scene was really taking off.”

For the food obsessed in San Francisco, Gagliardi’s column served as your best friend who magically knew the newest places and told you where it was worth going to for all your meals in the city. For those who subscribed to Tablehopper in the early days, it had a very ear-to-the-ground feel to it, or, as the kids say, “if you know you know.” Her writing style earned her a dedicated following of readers who attend her events (when those were a thing) and frequently send her tips about upcoming restaurants. There was also seemingly no price barriers to entry, thankfully, as Gagliardi regularly championed hole-in-the-wall businesses alongside the pricier options proliferating the city — and she did it all in her signature, personable voice via email.

“Tablehopper is for people who care about the city, who are curious and open-minded and looking for unique food adventures … what’s interesting is food and dining is, I joke that it’s like our contact sport here,” Gagliardi said. “And so if somebody would like a curated point of view, that’s what Tablehopper really serves, is to inform. I like to write about the people and places that interest me … I really try to cover this city and industry that I love, with care. And I certainly am a fan of the underdog and the small little businesses that don’t have publicists. If people want to read about the big splashy [restaurant] openings, yes, I will mention those, but Tablehopper’s much more about a range and spectrum of dining.”

Nopa chef and co-owner Laurence Jossel became a friend of Gagliardi’s over the years and his own restaurant is set to celebrate its own 15-year anniversary alongside Tablehopper’s, as both businesses “grew up in the neighborhood together,” Jossel said. In Nopa’s first year as a restaurant, Jossel said Gagaliardi has the honor of writing “probably the worst review we’ve had” but that even in writing that stinging review (which included reference to a dry chicken breast, Jossel recalls very clearly), she recognized the potential in Jossel’s restaurant while he appreciated her candid honesty.

“Every once in awhile, it’s not a bad thing to pick up [a review] like that to bring you back to what you really are, which is a cook trying to feed people the best you can, and realizing that it’s never going to be perfect and then you can always be better — and I really respected her for that,” Jossel said.

Marcia Gagliardi, right, poses with Nopa chef and co-owner Laurence Jossel over a plate of the restaurant's fried chicken. Gagliardi is celebrating 15 years of writing her food e-column, Tablehopper.

Marcia Gagliardi, right, poses with Nopa chef and co-owner Laurence Jossel over a plate of the restaurant’s fried chicken. Gagliardi is celebrating 15 years of writing her food e-column, Tablehopper.

Mariah Tiffany/Special to SFGATE

He noted Gagliardi’s love for the underdog restaurants, and how she’s been “in the corner” of all sorts of restaurants and food entrepreneurs over the years. Despite there being “millions” of food and wine blogs over the years and fierce food writing competition, Jossel called Gagliardi an O.G.

“Marcia is very on-the-ground, so I always felt she’s sort of a punk about it, compared to coming through the front door,” Jossel said. “She’s got insiders, she’s got this team of people who cruise past places and notice things and say things to her. I think that’s the biggest difference is this, there’s no corporate headquarters in her apartment, she doesn’t have to kowtow to anybody, there’s no editor except for herself [and] I think she’s actually more free to say what she wants to say.”

With Tablehopper, Gagliardi has managed to create a one-woman empire — Jossel also called Gagliardi the “Queen of Hustle” — branching into offshoots of the popular column, including a book about San Francisco, TV and radio gigs, fundraisers, and a new(er) newsletter focusing on cannabis called MyMilligram. In 2020 she added on a new venture, the podcast “On the Fly by Tablehopper,” which documented the local restaurant scene as the city went into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, 2020 managed to serve as a reawakening of Gagliardi’s love for restaurants, which she admitted had been waning in more recent years.

“I will be totally frank that, before the pandemic, the way the dining scene was going in the city was much less appealing to me — it was so expensive, it was so elitist, it was also very precious and the Instagram-ification of our food scene and the kind of the trophy dining was really beginning to bother me,” Gagliardi said. “I did not enjoy writing about these restaurants as much as I did in the past, because you [need] so many investors to have a successful business in San Francisco the way it was a couple of years ago. And I missed a lot of the scrappy, creative, freewheeling, unique culinary concepts that people would do, and so honestly I was having less joy about the food scene.”

Deciding to focus more intensely on MyMilligram, while slowing down the content on Tablehopper to every other week, it took the pandemic to really reinvigorate Gagliardi’s passion for dining again. “With the pandemic, I suddenly realized within two days of watching this impending shutdown, the [first] stay-at-home order, I was like, ‘Wow, this is going to be catastrophic and devastating for this industry’ and I quickly flipped 100% of my effort into Tablehopper because these are people who I’ve known for 15 years or more. These are chefs who told me their concept for the restaurant before they even had a lease. And I’ve seen the successes and the growth and so many dreams of so many people who fought so hard to get to where they are, and these are people I really care about. And so honestly my investment back in the Tablehopper really just came back 150% last March, and it’s been full-throttle since.”

Gagliardi threw herself into writing as the city’s restaurants tried to adjust to shifting their business model to takeout-only — a task that was taking place amidst the frightening backdrop of a disease we were at the time still learning about. In conducting interviews with chefs for Tablehopper, Gagliardi wanted to take those stories beyond the lines in her newsletter.

“The stories that I was hearing were so intense and heartbreaking, and also simultaneously uplifting because of the level of resilience that I was witnessing,” she said. “The care people were taking to take care of their undocumented employees, how they were feeding their teams, all of those things that really are all about the heart of hospitality. And so I realized that me writing an article about that, an interview with someone, was not going to fully capture the immensity of the situation. And I felt like this needs to be documented and people need to hear these stories; they need to hear these chefs’ voices, they need to hear these business challenges.”

Alongside a reader of Tablehopper who reached out to her in the early days of the pandemic, the two figured out the software and equipment to help run a podcast, hitting the ground running with a first episode that debuted on April 13, 2020, just a little under a month after San Francisco’s first shelter-in-place began. Farmerbrown and Isla Vida chef and owner Jay Foster was one of the guests on the podcast, resulting in an intimate conversation about his ups and downs as a Black restaurant owner in San Francisco. Foster wanted to share his experience with people in the industry and felt that Gagliardi’s podcast was the best way to do it, thanks to the friendship they’ve cultivated over the years, with Foster calling her a “kindred spirit.”

“I feel like our city is so much better for people like her, and I know that our industry is so much better for people like her,” Foster said. “And I’m glad that she’s had the ability to be able to do what she does and I would do everything that I could to find a way to support her, in the sense that I would always try to do whatever I could to empower her to keep on keeping on … I think that all of us in the industry, I hope that we can find a way to show our love and repay her.”

Over the years, Gagliardi has managed to make a living off writing Tablehopper, thanks to some carefully selected advertisers and sponsorships, along with paid writing gigs and TV appearances. She was frank, however, that 2020 managed to dry up some of her previous revenue streams, such as events, that she had previously relied on for income. One of the ways she is looking to get around that this year is an upcoming launch of a Tablehopper membership program in the spring, which she plans to come with “special perks” alongside “insider information and access.”

Another plan in the works is an online gala and what she calls “a different kind of award show” as a fundraiser for a redesign of the Tablehopper website and newsletter, with better mobile functionality and bells and whistles, since by her estimation it’s time for an upgrade. Yet another project she’s currently working on is a gift bag celebrating 15 years as Tablehopper, featuring a variety of food products and treats from places like La Cocina and Chez Panisse, that will support the local food industry.

In the meantime though, Gagliardi will continue to do what she does best, writing about the restaurant scene she has been embedded in for 15 years. When asked about the future of dining in San Francisco following the pandemic, she has hope that there will be positive changes to the industry to come out of the devastation of the past year. Along with the expected increase in restaurant vacancies, Gagliadi predicted the rise of pop-ups once again sharing spaces with restaurants, and continuing innovations in restaurants creating food products, such as condiments, for customers. One hopeful thing she has also noticed is more of a work-life balance among her chef friends, which she hopes will continue once things return to normal. Another thing she wants for the restaurant industry is more protections for employees, as well as an inclusive tipping model.

“Just seeing how our undocumented workforce has been completely abandoned by our system in this pandemic, we need to build in more worker protections,” Gagliardi said. “It’s insane to have indoor dining without our workforce vaccinated. We have to stop treating our workforce like they’re expendable. So I really hope that we have learned that through this pandemic, that we need to protect, support and honor, and equally pay our workforce — they are the backbone of this industry.”

Gagliardi is appreciative of her time writing for Tablehopper and in looking back with SFGATE, she noted that she is constantly reminded of how much she loves the food community. The other half of her appreciation she saves for her readers.

“The 15-year retrospective moment for me is realizing what an incredible community I have with my Tablehopper crew — and I love this audience,” Gagliardi said. “I mean, some of them come to all my events, which is amazing; they like my posts, they support my fundraisers, it’s a profound feeling. It’s a relationship that as a writer I didn’t know I was going to have. … I appreciate that people hold me to a certain standard now and I know I never want to let them down, so I take that relationship very seriously.

“So if I’m going to be writing [about a restaurant], it’s like, yeah, I want this to be good. And I want people to be excited by it.”

Follow Marcia Gagliardi on Tablehopper as she continues her coverage of the San Francisco restaurant scene at www.tablehopper.com and sign up for her weekly newsletter there. Follow her on social media as @tablehopper on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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