She's Got Game
Carol M. Newman - May 2008
Four legendary railroad barons may have their names on the door, but one woman has laid down tracks of her own.
Trip to the top of Nob Hill and pay tribute to the brains, brawn, and bank accounts behind the Central Pacific Railroad. The mansions of Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, and Mark Hopkins no longer crown the San Francisco summit; they were reduced to ash in the 1906 earthquake. But the men who moved California from backwater to boomtown with one final whack of a golden spike live on. Just duck inside Big 4 Restaurant on California and Taylor and see for yourself.
Allow your eyes a moment to adjust. It's dark in here, any slice of light diffused by coiled ram horn sconces and masculine mahogany paneling. Railroad antiquities are best seen by the gleam of the polished brass bar.
"I shan't eat here if Gloria isn't in." Chef Gloria Ciccarone-Nehls of The Huntington Hotel & Nob Hill Spa's Big 4 Restaurant imitates former frequent guest Cary Grant, who buffed the British racing green banquettes when in town. Unable to resist his charms, Ciccarone-Nehls would ride her bicycle over and cook for him on her day off. Grant passed away in 1986 at age 82. Do the math—"Chef Gloria," as she is called, has blended into the woodwork here for 28 years.
Surprise. Inside this den denoting class, status, and power begot by big men is a woman commandeering the kitchen. Ciccarone-Nehls is one of San Francisco's first women chefs, her star obscured by more familiar leading ladies like Alice Waters, Nancy Oakes, Joyce Goldstein, Judy Rodgers, and Annie Somerville.
Working in a male world is nothing new for Ciccarone-Nehls. At just 12, she ran the pantry at her father's seafood restaurant in Bethel, Connecticut, playing card games with him between breaks in service. She graduated to the line at age 16, first proving she could gut and scale, then kill live lobsters as her three older brothers egged her on. Go Fish grew up to Gin Rummy and Setback. Card games developed into hunting trips. Meat fabrication hooked her at The Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, New York. In 1978, Ciccarone-Nehls traveled to San Francisco on a three month–long road trip with a gal pal. She remembers being told, "You'll never get a job in the city." But the self-described tomboy was not intimidated: "I've never been very frail."
Ciccarone-Nehls wasn't the first woman in a power position at the Huntington. In 1950, owner Eugene Fritz handed over the hotel's reigns to his daughter Dorothy, shocking a testosterone-fueled industry.
Dorothy's marriage to Newton Cope, a Sacramento real estate developer and restaurateur, sealed the family's commitment. Today, the Huntington remains one of only two independently operated, family run hotels in San Francisco.
Cope's vision for the restaurant was "clubby," describes his son John, now Huntington Hotel president. "My father and the late interior designer, Anthony Hail, wanted guests to feel like they were in a men's club when they entered the Big 4." The original design concept was a no-frills place to balance out the hotel's fancy French restaurant, L'Etoile. The plan was derailed in favor of a chic aristocratic aesthetic, largely influenced by Hail's grasp of the drama of grand scale living. And then there was Newton Cope's fascination with early California memorabilia to square with. John Cope recalls family trips to Virginia City with his father and siblings; they dug in the dirt for old glass bottles. His father amassed more than just colored glass. Millions of dollars in artwork and artifacts fill the hotel and restaurant. A commanding Currier and Ives lithograph of two steam trains hangs above the espresso machine behind the bar.
At Big 4, deer and antelope play on the menu. Where seldom is heard in Colorado's high desert is the Delyaks farmed yak. Ciccarone-Nehls serves the sweet meat aristocratically cloaked as tenderloin Rossini. She finds her home on the range with dishes such as coffee-spiced and cocoa-rubbed caribou. Creatively peddling her exotics, wild boar slow cooks as carnitas; Wyoming buffalo shredded and braised like short ribs fills potpies. You'd think these cruder up-and-up cuts might joust with such sophisticated stylings. They don't. When Big 4's Wild Game Week rolls up in November, tales of spotting baby pheasant on Nob Hill spread faster than three dot gossip in the Nob Hill Gazette. Pheasant stuffs pine nut brioche crust, though there's really nothing at all stuffy about it. "The Copes have given me full reign in the kitchen," Ciccarone-Nehls says.
Ten year veteran waiter Ron Henggeler serves Ciccarone-Nehls' wild game specials and top-shelf spirits to the regulars who "come in when the maid has the night off."
Henggeler is not your average waiter wannabe actor. He admits to "using the restaurant as a vehicle and a stage," applying his voracious appetite for San Francisco history to inquisitive guests. More impressive than Henggeler's 3,500 books on early California history and his collection of gold rush and 1906 earthquake rubble are his own graphic art posters, which he designs and draws in collaboration with Ciccarone-Nehls. Their Thomas Nast sensibility serves them well in promoting special menus and dining events.
Lately, the vintage glamour has been drawning in a new breed of well-heeled fat cats. Groups of reunited sorority sisters swap Scotch for Cosmos after taking the waters in the Huntington spa. Young financial wizards dig the Henry Mancini refrains that pinch hit when the piano player breaks. Anecdotes of Henry Kissinger singing to Senator Dianne Feinstein in the dining room or Karl Malden fixing a broken basement broiler are fading, replaced by tittle-tattle of who's on the arm of the city's most eligible bachelor, Mayor Gavin Newsome. The players have changed, but there's history still to be made at Big 4. Chef Gloria will see to that.