December 6, 2023

It was two days before RH was to welcome more than 1,000 guests to its new showroom at San Francisco’s Pier 70 for a March opening party, and CEO Gary Friedman was eating French toast in the building’s glass-enclosed Palm Court restaurant.

He was not pleased.

“Overcooked on the outside and squishy on the inside,” said Friedman, who built the luxury home furnishing company formerly known as Restoration Hardware into a global luxury brand.

It would not be the last time Friedman would try the toast, or everything else on the menu. He said he would test all of the items 10 times before opening day.

“You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression,” he added. “Especially in a town like San Francisco.”

That first impression was pushed back a couple months as Friedman tweaked the menu. The showroom finally opened Thursday, more than six years after plans were first announced.

“People ask, ‘When are we going to open, Gary?’ I say, ‘When we are ready,’” Friedman said in March. “We had to commit to a party but I don’t like to commit to an opening, especially with a new restaurant concept, until we have executed the menu over and over.”

Furniture on display at RH San Francisco.

Furniture on display at RH San Francisco.

Laura Morton/Special to The Chronicle

RH has opened deluxe galleries with restaurants in more than a dozen cities, including New York, Chicago, West Palm Beach, Dallas and Yountville in Napa County. The San Francisco restoration of a historic Bethlehem Steel building at Pier 70 is perhaps the most ambitious.

The 80,000-square-foot 1917 classical revival building had been vacant for decades in 2016 and had been looted of some of its architectural ornamentation over the years. Graffiti covered some of the wood-paneled and marble-clad surfaces.

Furniture on display at RH San Francisco.

Furniture on display at RH San Francisco.

Laura Morton/Special to The Chronicle

The project restored the building’s circular entryway with a stairway featuring ornamental metal railings, octagonal bronze and glass pendant chandelier, cast stone walls over pink marble wainscoting, herringbone-patterned woods and coffered plaster ceilings. RH built a spiraling staircase to access levels three and four, with a circular skylight two floors above.

Once the studio of naval architects, the third level is now a 10,000-square-foot exhibition space with what RH says is the world’s largest collection of modern furnishings, lighting, textiles and decor created by one brand. At the top of the staircase is a vestibule with retractable glass walls that open up onto a garden overlooking the city and bay.

Friedman said the project is personal because he spent much of his early life in San Francisco. He lived in a one-bedroom apartment in the rear of a storefront at Balboa and 15th Avenue where his mother made and sold dog coats. His mother struggled with mental illness and they moved frequently — 21 times before Friedman turned 18. He graduated from high school in Sonoma and briefly attended Santa Rosa City College before dropping out and taking a job at a Gap store.

“I didn’t grow up around any luxury,” he said. “My mom and I got evicted out of apartments. We would be living somewhere for two months and she would say, ‘Honey, we are going to be moving tomorrow.’”

Friedman spent years looking for the right San Francisco building. The company worked on a proposal to take over the Palace of Fine Arts, but it turned out the seismic retrofit that the building required would have been prohibitively expensive. They looked at the shed at Pier 28 as well as more typical retail spaces near Union Square.

“We are obsessed with great architecture — we either find it and re-adapt it or we build it,” Friedman said.

The historic Bethlehem Steel building is at the corner of Illinois and 20th Street in San Francisco.

The historic Bethlehem Steel building is at the corner of Illinois and 20th Street in San Francisco.

Laura Morton / Special to The Chronicle

At Pier 70, Friedman was attracted to the Bethlehem Steel building’s “balance and symmetry,” bay views and architectural detail. Yet it was somewhat risky, as Pier 70 is far removed from both the luxury shopping in Union Square and the design district around Showplace Square.

“This is the furthest we have gone off the grid,” he said. “It’s been the longest project we have ever had. One of the most expensive we have had.”

At one point a tech company offered RH “a ton of money” to take over the building. Friedman declined. “We did not come out here to make money on a real estate play. We are trying to create a home for our brand in San Francisco,” he said.

Yet the neighborhood has evolved rapidly since RH first committed to Pier 70. Thousands of housing units have popped up to the south in Dogpatch and to the north in Mission Bay. The Golden State Warriors built the Chase Center, about a 15-minute walk from Pier 70. Crane Cove Park, the waterfront open space RH’s building overlooks, has become a regional destination.

The restoration of the historic building is a major milestone in the larger redevelopment at Pier 70, which will eventually include at least 1,100 housing units and as much as 2 million square feet of commercial space. Brookfield Properties, the master developer at Pier 70, has completed phase one of the infrastructure — streets and sidewalks and utilities — as well as the restoration of Building 12, which will eventually become a “maker’s hall” with boutique retail.

San Francisco Business Times reported last month that the next phases of the project have been paused due to the pandemic and construction costs.

Brookfield Senior Vice President Jack Sylvan said the RH opening “is fantastic for the continued evolution of the whole waterfront from Mission Bay Channel south.”

Friedman is trying to evoke a bit of old-school San Francisco elegance he caught a glimpse of at the Emporium department store when he was a kid.

“We wanted to build a 1930s San Francisco vibe — a beautiful old-world place where, if you want a night out, you come and eat at the Palm Court,” he said.

The idea of putting a restaurant in a furniture store strikes some as odd at first, but works at RH galleries, said Friedman.

“Sometime our customers are in the galleries for days at a time so why not be hospitable? We blur the lines between residential and retail, to create spaces that are more home than store,” he said. “So if you are going to have someone come to your home you are going to be hospitable and offer something to eat and drink.”

In addition to San Francisco, RH has now rehabbed historic buildings in Boston and Chicago, and is working on projects in London, Milan and Paris.

“The only thing that is consistent with these historic buildings is they are going to take three times as long and cost three times as much as you originally think,” he said. “But it’s worth it. To bring great historic architecture back to life is a gift.”

J.K. Dineen is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @sfjkdineen


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