Malarkey taking the cautious route to reopening Herb & Wood, Animae

Brian Malarkey at Herb & Sea restaurant in Encinitas.
Restaurateur Brian Malarkey puts on a happy face at Herb & Sea restaurant in Encinitas on the day it reopened for takeout on May 21. Herb & Sea will be the first of his company’s 10 local restaurants to reopen for dine-in service on Friday, June 19.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

James Beard Award-winning chef Nate Appleman will oversee Animae when it relaunches on July 22


If diners eating at newly opened San Diego restaurants spotted a familiar face peeking in the doors and windows over the past few weeks, it may have been Brian Malarkey out on one of his daily reconnaissance missions.

Although the Point Loma chef has been on national TV this spring as a contestant on Bravo’s “Top Chef: All Stars” series, Malarkey is better known locally as one-half of the local restaurant company Puffer Malarkey Collective. Since 2016, Malarkey and his business partner, Chris Puffer, have built a 10-restaurant empire so profitable that “Top Chef” head judge Tom Colicchio recently described Malarkey as the most successful restaurateur in the series’ 14-year history.

Malarkey said he was flattered by Colicchio’s comment, but that success predated the pandemic-related shutdown orders, which took PMC’s sales, originally on track to hit $30 million this year, to nothing overnight.

Rather than hurry to reopen like many other restaurateurs did when dine-in restrictions lifted May 21, Malarkey and Puffer have been biding their time and keeping a close eye on how those that reopened have fared.

“We want to be sure we understand this as much as possible,” Malarkey said this week. “We’re not the kind to rush out and make a few bucks and face the potential of an uptick (of the virus). Our finances are so lean, we’ve only got one shot at doing this right. You want to make sure you maximize your opportunity.”

At 5 p.m. Friday, PMC will reopen Herb & Sea, the seafood-forward restaurant it unveiled last fall in Encinitas. Its flagship restaurant, Herb & Wood in Little Italy, will reopen July 8. And its luxurious crown jewel downtown, Animae, returns July 22. None of the company’s other seven restaurants has reopening dates.

When Animae reopens, it will have a new executive chef at the helm, Nate Appleman, a James Beard Award-winning chef who recently moved back to San Diego. He started Monday as Puffer Malarkey’s chef of development for future concepts. Appleman replaces Animae’s founding chef, Joe Magnanelli.

Winner of the James Beard Foundation’s 2009 Rising Star Chef award and named one of Food & Wine Magazine’s 2009 Best New Chefs, Appleman can take Animae to the next level, Malarkey said.

Nate Appleman has been hired as Puffer Malarkey Collective's new chef of development for future concepts.
Nate Appleman has been hired as Puffer Malarkey Collective’s new chef of development for future concepts.
(Courtesy of James Tran and Olivia Beall)

“I want to re-create this menu with Nate. He comes with a lot of Southeast Asian and worldly influences and San Diego will finally have its first James Beard Award-winning chef,” Malarkey said. “I love Joe and wish him nothing but the best, but to work with Nate to relaunch Animae was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.”

Appleman’s job will be to change the public’s perception of Animae as a special occasion restaurant into a more fun and approachable spot with a less-intimidating menu. That kind of repositioning is necessary in a market where Malarkey said fine-dining restaurants may be challenged to deliver the food and service that former customers expect under new social-distancing guidelines.

Malarkey said his daily surveillance trips have yielded mixed results. While some restaurants that cater to customers in their 20s and 30s are packed, some others like his own that serve a slightly older clientele have half-empty dining rooms.

So far, customer demand to dine at PMC locations is high. Malarkey said reservations for this weekend at Herb & Sea are almost sold out for Friday and Saturday, and there are already 100 reservations for opening night at Animae on July 22. One thing important to Malarkey and Puffer is creating an environment that is inviting for diners as they return.

“People want to go back to what they remember, when the restaurant was fun, lively and packed. You hear people saying that now when they go out, it feels sterile, and it’s not as much fun,” he said.

Sara Harris, executive chef of Herb & Sea restaurant in Encinitas
Sara Harris, executive chef of Herb & Sea restaurant in Encinitas, chops parsley as she prepared for the reopen for takeout on May 21. The restaurant will open for dine-in service on June 19.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

One thing that helps PMC is the large size of its venues. Rather than having to remove tables and create a barren atmosphere, Malarkey said their buildings are large enough to allow simply moving tables apart to achieve social distancing. They also plan to top unused tables with potted plants and flowers to simulate a feeling of fullness and festivity.

Herb & Wood, the company’s largest property, has 16,000 square feet of space, including its street-facing Herb & Eatery cafe and its private events room. For now, Herb & Wood will take over the cafe space, allowing it to seat more than 200 socially distanced diners, or more than two-thirds of H&W’s previous capacity. At 9,000 square feet, Animae was already known for its widely distanced tables. Only its much-in-demand banquettes didn’t meet the 6-foot rule, so decorative privacy dividers will be added between the booths.

While diners will come back, the loss of convention and private groups has been a big blow. Before March, party bookings made up 35 percent to 40 percent of sales at Herb & Wood. Large gatherings are now banned, but one bright spot has been a surge in bookings for “micro” nuptial dinners for couples who are replacing their canceled weddings with family dinners.

With lower anticipated revenues, the three restaurants will initially open just five nights a week, and the menus will be 25 percent smaller to reduce the risk of food waste on the dates they’re closed. They’ll be bringing back just 60 percent of their staffs, to start, and their jobs will be different because social-distancing guideline require reduced interaction with customers.

“We ran really heavy staffs. As an organization we over-served, but now we’re going to under-serve people, and they’ll love it,” Malarkey said, adding that servers will become multi-taskers, using their extra time to bus tables or serve more parties.

The other seven restaurants in the company’s portfolio will remain shuttered for now. Nima Cafe and Herb & Eatery will reopen at some point later on. But the other five — Farmer & the Seahorse, Green Acre Campus Pointe, Green Acre Nautilus, Wood Yu and Herb & Ranch — are in office parks, which now sit empty as employees work from home.

Despite the losses PMC has suffered, the always-exuberant Malarkey can’t contain his enthusiasm.

“I’m an eternal optimist,” he said. “My dream is we’ll get back to seven days a week very soon. There’s no rainbows and unicorns yet. But I want to get back eventually to when there are no masks and no social distancing.”