When husband-and-wife chefs David Fisher and Serena Chow Fisher announced via Instagram on June 30 that they were leaving their Michelin-starred restaurant, Marlena, it sent ripples through San Francisco’s foodie universe. One of the city’s most beloved Covid-born successes, which originated as a picnic-basket vendor back when indoor dining was verboten, was leaving a big hole on Bernal Heights’ north slope after a successful three-year run just opposite Precita Park.
One Instagram post can only say so much, however. Marlena’s closure, it turns out, was hardly abrupt. According to the Fishers—and their business associate, Ryan Cole of Hi Neighbor Restaurant Group—the restaurant’s death was one by a thousand cuts.
Having taken over the former Hillside Supper Club space, Marlena occupied a rare sweet spot in the fine dining pantheon, an amiable neighborhood spot that offered a four-course prix fixe for only $75. Serving dinner—and only dinner—seven nights a week, it became known for its approachable elegance through dishes like black cod or pork collar. Regulars got to know the charismatic chefs through their food, and eventually the critics took notice, too.
“That neighborhood really embraced us and supported us,” Chow Fisher recalled. “We had a lot of relationships. We’ve seen the couples have babies. … We knew all the dogs by name.”
The core problem, all three confirmed with The Standard, was that although Marlena was an intensely personal endeavor, named after David’s mother, the Fishers didn’t own it. Bouillon LLC, whose CEO is landlord Steffan Roulland, owned the restaurant—and still does.
That might matter less if the enterprise had been struggling. But in an industry famous for its tight margins, Marlena was profitable.
“I have run a significant amount of restaurants in my career,” Cole said. “This is one of the most financially successful restaurants I've ever touched.”
In spite of the pandemic, Marlena was a smash almost from its inception. Roulland had bought the building and hired Cole in the spring of 2020 to make something happen with the vacant space. Cole, looking to create a casual bistro, found David Fisher through Craigslist while the chef was working at Sorrel in Pacific Heights.
David, who had grown up in and around restaurants, already had the concept for Marlena in mind, down to the menu and even the logo. Serena, who had been a pastry chef at New York's Eleven Madison Park, joined several months later. In November 2021, Esquire named her Pastry Chef of the Year.
By then, trouble was already brewing. Roulland, whom Cole and the Fishers allege was unfamiliar with restaurant operations, was less than above-board when dealing with his increasingly famous tenants. A contract renegotiation, David Fisher said, was skewed in the landlord’s favor.
“In our eyes, it kinda took money out of our pocket,” he said. “If we did the entire math, which we did, we were making significantly less.”
Permit snafus before a planned six-week renovation later put the restaurant in limbo for five months. The duo pivoted to a summer pop-up at the Hotel Zeppelin near Union Square, only to be scolded after the fact that their interim solution didn’t turn a profit.
“To be told, like, ‘Oh, the whole year wasn't successful because of this pop-up that you guys did’ was kind of like a slap in the face,” Serena said. “It's like—well, the only reason we did this was because we were forced into doing this.”
Perhaps most importantly, the Fishers pressed to ensure they would retain the Marlena name if the business relationship were to fail.
Roulland “looked me in the eye and said, ‘You have my word,’” David said. “I accepted, and I guess that was foolish. … It's just a matter of trust. And we just simply did not trust this man.”
In a statement emailed to The Standard, Roulland expressed gratitude to the Fishers and emphasized that the restaurant’s closure is only temporary.
“We are grateful to David and Serena for their invaluable contributions during their tenure at Marlena, which was marked by the challenges of the pandemic, and we wish them continued success,” Roulland said. “Rest assured, this pause will pave the way for the next phase of our cherished French bouillon-style restaurant.”
After the renovation, Cole said, the restaurant “came out booming.” Nonetheless, he was terminated in late April, ostensibly for speaking up on the Fishers’ behalf.
“I thought what was happening was wrong,” he said. “While I was representative of ownership, I still think you have to objectively work to ensure the best business practice for everybody, which is also taking care of your employees.”
The Fishers wanted to walk—and in fact, gave notice on May 18—but Roulland appeared to be holding onto the restaurant’s name as a bargaining chip. After a lot of back-and-forth, they claim he said that if they stayed on until Aug. 1, they could get the name back in 2025.
In early June, the Fishers and Hi Neighbor were revealed to be working on a forthcoming project in Japantown called 7 Adams. The chefs announced their departure from Marlena on June 30. The restaurant’s website states that it will be closed until August, although it’s unclear what form it may take. The Fishers hope to reopen Marlena somewhere, and they have not communicated with Roulland since their joint resignation.
“Serena and I are no longer attached to this,” David said. “Whatever happens after this, we have zero control over that.”
That’s a fairly zen approach to a lack of control, but Cole was more forthright on the risks to the Fishers’ reputation if Roulland were to reopen the restaurant under the name Marlena.
“They are the ones who actually brought the intellectual property to the table,” he said. “If he wants to go open anything in that space, there's no issue. The only issue on our side is when you go and try to operate under the Marlena name. … You're going to damage their careers, essentially.”
Astrid Kane can be reached at email@example.com