SF Bay Area
Food and drink that has us seeing gold
El Nuevo Frutilandia’s Instagram account has 527 followers. They post videos about once a month. Their Twitter account isn’t much better: It has 14 followers and mostly links back to Instagram.
In contrast, Media Noche has more than 3,500 followers on Instagram, no Twitter account, and its own dedicated hashtag (#MediaNocheSF) where roughly 500 user-generated posts have been created.
Both restaurants serve Cuban food, but one strives for authenticity while the other spectacle. If San Franciscans relied solely on their taste buds, it’d be clear who the Cuban champion would be, but as diners in the city continue to shop for their dinner on Instagram, virality wins.
Media Noche caters to the millennial with a phone and, ideally, a following. El Nuevo Frutilandia, by comparison, caters to the longtime Mission natives, the Cubans and Puerto Ricans who have grown up on this food. “I don’t want a Puerto Rican to come in here and yell at us,” says Neblett, who along with her husband Frias bought the restaurant about six years ago. “They don’t want you to change their grandmother’s recipe.”
Mission-based Media Noche consciously decided to design their restaurant with an Instagrammer in mind. Last July, The Verge highlighted the rising trend of Instagram-restaurants and highlighted Hannah Collins’ design (of Beretta and Super Duper fame) for Media Noche. “We wanted to be Instagrammable,” Media Noche co-founder Madelyn Markoe told the publication.
“We wanted to create a space that complemented the food and vice versa,” Markoe told me via email. With its smashing, photo-friendly debut, outlets across the city were widespread in their relief that a Cuban spot had finally hit town. Reviews of Media Noche were quick to point out that the fast-casual spot is more Cuban-inspired (“Havana by way of Miami as self-consciously recreated in San Francisco” wrote Eater) than truly authentic, but the crowds didn’t mind. “We wanted to create a familiar yet unique menu that didn’t promise authenticity but was easily distinguishable as Cuban cuisine,” Markoe added.
Just down the street, El Nuevo Frutilandia—a nearly five-decade old institution serving cubanos (plus tostones, mofongo, and ropa vieja)—didn’t skip a beat. No new specials were presented, a PR team wasn’t hired, and the walls weren’t re-painted; owners and former customers Tyrisha Neblett and Rafael Frias simply continued to celebrate authentic Cuban cuisine.
El Nuevo Frutilandia has survived since 1970 thanks to the Sunday after-church crowd, locals, and fast trends like arroz con pollo, which appeared in the 2016 Academy Award winning film “Moonlight” (even spurring a Bon Appetit article dedicated to the scene). They were also featured in a Food Network appearance of “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.”
Though neither Neblett nor her husband Frias has roots in the restaurant business (nor are they of Cuban or Puerto Rican descent), all of the recipes on today’s menu are original. That might be the only thing left of the space originally opened by “Smokey” and his wife 48 years ago.
Smokey was Cuban and crafted everything from scratch; his wife was Puerto Rican. When Smokey passed away, his wife took over and added some Puerto Rican flavor to the menu. Eventually, she passed the restaurant on to a former Salvadoran waitress Ines and her Mexican husband, Rodolfo.
As Mission locals, Neblette and Frias would frequent the eatery, often sharing a bottle of wine and stories with the kitchen staff. When they learned the waitress-turned-owner was ready to retire, they couldn’t bear to see the space change into yet another oyster bar or pizzeria. “We live in the Mission and have seen the gentrification happen in the neighborhood,” says Neblett, who was accounting for small start ups prior to her restaurant life. So they learned to be restaurateurs.
By the time they took over, the menu was all over the place, says Neblett. They whittled it down to the most traditional Cuban and Puerto Rican fare, started using fresh (versus frozen) food, and frequented farmers markets to find seasonal produce.
Neblett not only took over front of house, but started running the restaurant’s social feed. “My tech skills are dwindling!” she says with a laugh. She knows posting on Facebook and Instagram are important, but she also knows building a restaurant is more than just garnering a new follower on Twitter. For El Nuevo Frutilandia, it’s about bonding with customers. Neblett loves educating newbies about new-to-them dishes, often offering a sample or two to make sure they know what they’re ordering
Instagram is adept at selling a beautiful picture, just not always a fantastic dish. But if restaurants are catering to the crowd that simply shoots and scampers, what will become of the establishments who actually serve something delicious, but unphotogenic?
“I feel for these long-term businesses; we don’t want to lose them, their food has real flavor, and it’s just a matter of encouraging more people to hunt down the food that has soul, and isn’t just a pretty picture,” says Marcia Gagliardi, San Francisco restaurant columnist who owns the 12-year-old Tablehopper.
Delivering beautiful cuisine has always been essential to building a successful business, but when we’re talking about Cubanos here, pretty doesn’t always cut it.
“In life, you have to be a discriminating diner and ask yourself if you’re dining for entertainment—to collect places—or do you really love food?” adds Gagliardi. “If you really love food, then you’ll be eating at places that aren’t popular.”
That might be where the city becomes divided: In San Francisco’s ever-dynamic restaurant scene, places like El Nuevo Frutilandia are getting pushed out for subpar, Instagram-filtered alternatives.
If a dish is photogenic but lacking flavor, is it worth the Instagram? The question remains then if “truly authentic” is what locals want anymore.
Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.
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