Last March, Greg Dunmore and fellow Nojo staff gathered in Golden Gate Park to barbecue, play lawn games and toast to their first year of business—a feat which Dunmore personally celebrated with a very special tweet.
“On our first day we got a Yelp review saying we wouldn’t be open a year,” he recalls. But 365 days and many packed tables later, he happily sent the message back into the world wide web, with a technological “I told you so.”
Based on locally sourced ingredients as well as traditional izakaya and yakitori, the Nojo menu proved too daring for some. But in the end, it was Nojo’s heart (and cartilage and neck) that gained the loyalty of others. “We had to feel out what people were into,” Dunmore says. “But then I realized that the customers were really into more adventurous food. Now that is something we are known for.”
Pork jowl and Spam rice balls stayed on the menu, gaining a steady following of both industry peers and ordinary eaters alike. Which Dunmore says, in turn, allowed him to stay away from the tuna tartar and remain true to the local focus of Nojo: a mission that comes with difficulties (foraging) and rewards (a cult following for monkeyface eel) and, above all else, constant inspiration.
As for what’s to come, Dunmore’s still confident in that first menu (Yelpers take note). But he also looks forward to more changes and discoveries. “It’s like anything in life. When you’re 21 you think you know everything, and then you turn 25 and you realize you didn’t know anything at 21.” And as Nojo enters its sophomore year, he says there’s only more room to grow.
The miso-glazed trout is a customer favorite, remaining a strong seller since day one. As for its less trendy counterpart, it’s the nikujaga, a Japanese-style pot roast. “People just didn’t go for it,” Dunmore says, “but the people who bought it loved it.”
To keep ingredients local yet authentic, Dunmore aims to visit Japan at least once a year for inspiration and new ingredients, like the myoga ginger root, which he then passes on to Bay Area farmers to grow for him. “Eventually I’d like to even make our own miso and soy sauce,” Dunmore says, “and really make everything here.”
Using overabundant, invasive species that actually taste good seems like a culinary and environmental no-brainer. But Dunmore says that both chefs and foragers run up against many challenges, like securing fishing licenses and customer interest, that makes serving monkeyface eel, horseneck clam and rock crabs more difficult. Committed to the cause, however, Dunmore happily uses his menu to influence awareness and excitement over these less-familiar ingredients.
This year Nojo began branching out beyond its typical service with appearances at the San Francisco Street Food Festival and Outside Lands, as well as a hosted dinner with Almanac Beer. Dunmore says Nojo will also bring back its multi-course kaiseki feast for New Year’s Eve.
“Keep up the quality. Learn from our mistakes. And above all, work towards being financially sustainable as well.”