Al’s Place, on Valencia near 26th St., has gained a lot of attention in culinary circles with its unique approach to proteins. Vegetarian entrées are the focus of the new American menu with meat and fish sides, ranging from $10 to $17, that can be paired with the entrees.

Aaron London, who previously held the chef position at the now-closed Napa vegetarian restaurant Ubuntu, never cooked in the San Francisco before Al’s Place and this is his first venture as owner. We caught up with the entrepreneur, chef and interior designer before yet another busy service.

How did the idea to open a restaurant come together?

I wanted to open a place I’d like to work at. It’s important to me to be hands-on with every aspect, and a smaller place makes it easier to know what’s going on. I didn’t have big investors, it just all came together. I found a place I liked, reached out to different banks and people and eventually ended up with a couple of small business loans and a couple of investors. It’s very much a grass-roots operation.

What inspired the look and feel?

I did all the design, aiming at a funky, different type of space. I really like the high ceilings, the abundance of windows and the views of Bernal Heights. Plus, there’s extra sidewalk that is perfect for extra outdoor sitting.

That is not very common for San Francisco.

It’s not common in San Francisco, and that’s too bad. I cooked in Montréal for a while, it has a huge patio dining culture, so I found potential for it here.

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Let’s talk about those meet sides for a second.

I’m glad people are catching up. After working at Ubuntu, which was largely about the vegetables, I had the ability to work with meat again and I was trying to figure it out. I’m not a vegetarian, but I don’t like to eat meat every day and in every dish. When I go out to eat, it’s hard to order just a little bit of meat—it often only comes in a big $35 entrée.

So I thought: “How awesome would that be if you could eat vegetarian or pescaterian and the restaurant would add on delicious meat for a smaller price.” As a byproduct, it created a lot more focus within each dish and every dish is fully thought out.

And the waiters suggest pairings?

Yes. We talk it over, just like you would discuss wine pairings.

You’ve been cooking in California for a while. What changed in recent years?

I feel like a lot more people got on board with eating more vegetables. It’s healthier for people and for the environment. And I definitely see chefs take a little bit more risks and serve food they like to eat rather than racking their brain about what people would want”.

What are some of your favorite places in San Francisco?
State Bird Provision and The Progress, Bar Tartine, Rich Table, La Ciccia, and Kin Khao—these are currently my go-to.

Did you anticipate the buzz the restaurant is getting?

I get mixed feeling. Sometimes I think, “You’re a good cook, it’s your passion, it’s going to be awesome.” And sometimes I think, “the location has zero foot traffic, I’ve been out of the kitchen for three years, what am I doing?” There’s always a push and pull.

But so far I’ve been seeing a lot of great reactions, people are happy and laughing in the dining area and that’s what we’re here for.