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Pat Kuleto and Nick's Cove

San Francisco’s preeminent restaurateur opens a place in remote Tomales Bay

Pat Kuleto (left) and his longtime business partner, chef Mark Franz

Photo by Tim Porter

(page 1 of 2)

So people think we’re crazy for doing this?” Pat Kuleto asks after conducting a tour of Nick’s Cove, his recently opened $14 million restaurant / cabin complex straddling a lonely stretch of Highway 1 alongside Tomales Bay, north of Marshall.

After pausing to reflect, he answers his own question: “Well, thank God for crazy characters; without them the world would become so sterile.”

Kuleto, who’s been immersed in the competitive Bay Area restaurant scene for over 35 years, then offers an engaging grin along with a slice of his business philosophy: “Nowadays, everything’s a copy of something else,” he says. “There’s so little that’s original.”

Still smiling, he observes that many times it’s the so-called crazy people who wind up making things happen, creating change and leading where others fear to venture. “Someday I may be sitting around wondering why I ever did this ‘crazy’ project,” he says, “but it’s what I’ve been doing all my life, and there’s no reason to change now.”

Indeed. Back in the 1980s, the brash yet unassuming Kuleto opened Fog City Diner in San Francisco at an Embarcadero location known as a “graveyard for restaurants.” Earlier still, he’d launched Kuleto’s in a neighborhood many considered at best questionable for culinary success. Both are still operating, having long ago become San Francisco institutions. Other restaurants Kuleto either opened or has a hand in operating include Farallon, Boulevard and Jardinière in San Francisco and Martini House in St. Helena. And in November, with his longtime business partner, chef Mark Franz, he will open Water Bar and Epic Roasthouse on the Embarcadero south of the Ferry Terminal Building, near the outdoor sculpture named Cupid’s Span.

“I’m more excited about Nick’s Cove than any other place I’ve ever opened—I could live here,” Kuleto declares, kicking back in a cushy leather chair in Big Rock, one of eight handsomely restored bay view cabins dating back to the 1930s. The cabins (they hold a total of 12 units that together can sleep 28 people a night) surround a 50-plus-year-old restaurant that’s been painstakingly rebuilt and refurbished into a chic indoor/outdoor 21st-century establishment that evokes the roadhouse era of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.

But getting to Kuleto’s “I could live here” condition was a long and sometimes lonely battle. Before buying the property, he was assured by a roomful of Marin County’s politicos and powers-that-be that restoring Nick’s Cove and the nearby cottages would be doable, if not exactly universally welcomed. “Eventually, it took eight years and involved over 50 governmental groups, each having to give its independent approval,” Kuleto reflects. “Our problems were, we were too close to the bay and too far from a source of usable water.”

In addition, to no one’s surprise, the project’s West Marin neighbors had some worries about “this big-city restaurant guy building a fancy-schmancy resort.” With patience and perseverance and the aid of his staff, Kuleto, who years ago spent many a summer fishing on Tomales Bay, overcame the obstacles and opposition and began constructing Nick’s Cove in the spring of 2005.

“I spoke at more public meetings than I’ll ever remember,” he says with a hint of exhaustion in his voice. “We responded to every possible concern.”

Some examples of the challenges:
1. Being limited to only 16 toilets, each requiring “an underground concrete septic tank the size of a boxcar,” Kuleto says.

2. The on-site discovery of the California red-legged frog, an endangered species, which required, among numerous protective actions, hiring a red-legged frog monitor full time during construction. (Kuleto estimates the frog cost Nick’s Cove $2 million, and its menu will note as much. “Across from ‘Red-legged Frog,’” he says, “we’ll list the price as $2 million.”)

3. Installing four 10,500-gallon water tanks behind a row of trees.

4. Restoring to working order a cavernous early 1950s restaurant that “had way too many rotten beams and far too few square corners,” the project’s designer recalls.

5. Taking steps to mitigate the impact of locating the restaurant kitchen directly over a rather lethargic stream, to the tune of more than $750,000.

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