February 15, 2022

Our Regulars Rock: An Interview With North Beach’s Kye McDowell

by Joe Bonadio

North Beach is a very small place, and the longer you live here the more you realize just how tight-knit the community really is. It’s also a coveted place to live in this city, so once people get a toehold here they tend to stick around. As a result, for a neighborhood that sits in the dead center of the city, it’s far less transient than you’d expect.

The big upside to this is the number of long-term regulars that our local bars and restaurants have to rely upon. We’ll say it again, we love our regulars—and every once in a while, we like to single one of our faves out for a little special attention. This week it’s local wine rep Kye McDowell, who despite her busy schedule, was nice enough to sit down to talk with me last week. Lightly edited for length, our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: First off, how long have you lived here in North Beach?

Kye McDowell: I’ve been in North Beach since February 9, 2010. And the only reason I can tell you that date is because I moved here on Fat Tuesday—the day of Mardi Gras.

JB: Well, that befits North Beach.

KM: Yeah!

JB: Did you come to San Francisco for work?

KM: I came to the city to change my life. I love New York, I’m a born and raised New Yorker. But I hit a point in time that I wasn’t happy. And working in the wine industry, San Francisco just kind of made sense.

I had been here a few times in the year leading up to the move, and I remember getting off the BART one day in July. It was 75 degrees, a crystal-clear day—not normal for San Francisco. And I just took one look and fell in love: This is where I want to be. It took me six months, but I figured it out.

Kye McDowell with her fiancé Mark Deadder

Kye McDowell with her fiancé Mark Deadder in front of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco’s North Beach. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: Where in New York were you raised?

KM: I was born and raised in Manhattan, and I was living in the West Village at the time. It’s a hard neighborhood to leave.

JB: I know. I spent nearly eight years in the Lower East Side.

KM: A very hard place to leave. I love going back, and my family’s still there. But San Francisco definitely captured my attention. I can’t imagine leaving—we’ll always have a place in North Beach. There’s just too much community, too many good people.

JB: So I know you’re in the wine world, but I don’t know exactly what you do.

KM: At the moment, I run a team of six people for a company called Southern Glazer’s. We’re the largest distributor of wine and spirits in the United States, and with my manager Michael Garcia, I run the fine wine division here in San Francisco.

We call on about 600 accounts, 95 percent of them being restaurants and bars. We focus on estate-owned, family operated, smaller production wineries.

JB: You must spend a lot of time in bars and restaurants.

KM: I live in them!

JB: Being in my line of work, I’ve got to ask. What are some of your favorite places?

KM: Well, there’s so much just here in North Beach. Tony Nik’s is my local bar—it’s my living room. I spend a lot of time at Original Joe’s, I spend a lot of time at Tony’s. I love Sodini’s.

In other places, I have a little spot I go called Fable that I adore. They have a beautiful outside garden, and I just love going there. I love heading out to the Mission for things like La Taqueria. Kokkari is one of my favorite restaurants in the city. I’m having lunch at Water Bar today.

I try to get all over the place. It really depends on what I’m in the mood to eat. I think the best pasta in the city is still Perbacco, if you’re going to eat fresh. I just discovered—and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I just discovered Fior d’Italia, and I’m slightly obsessed with them.

JB: You just discovered the oldest Italian restaurant in the United States?

KM: Exactly! (Laughter)

I told Mark that we need to expand our horizons a little. During my time off, we don’t leave North Beach. At work I do, but when I’m not working, I’m in North Beach. It’s my community. I want to see my friends, I want to see my community.

At the turn of the year I said to Mark, we need to branch out a little more. Maybe spend a little more time at Firenze, maybe go to Ideale a little bit more. Obviously, not leaving North Beach.

And Fior d’Italia: I had been in the bar many times, but had never eaten there. I had no idea they did 15 different fresh pastas every day. Their gnocchi is some of the best I’ve ever had.

JB: Noted.

KM: And I love the bar. I love those big, old-fashioned wooden bars with comfortable bar stools that you can just saddle up to.

JB: Say it’s your birthday. Where are you going for dinner?

KM: If it’s my birthday, and we’re going fancy, I would say Harris’ at the bar. I’m old school.

Full moon over Washington Square Park in North Beach

A full moon rises over Washington Square Park in North Beach, home of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: And what’s your order?

KM: Very simple. I’m a New York Strip girl, with cream spinach and mushrooms, and the potato.

JB: What’s your drink?

KM: I start with a martini. Usually Ketel, dirty with olives. If I’m with Mark we’ll get a nice bottle of wine, usually A. Rafanelli zin, because it’s his favorite.

JB: Dry Creek.

KM: Dry Creek. But I tend to go toward the Italian and French, because that’s my wheelhouse. And I know the somms there, so I’ll just say I want to spend X and they’ll pick something off the list.

That’s what I like to do in any restaurant. If you’re dealing with the somm, that’s their list. They’re the ones who curated it, so why not let them do it?

JB: It’s all about bang for the buck. I always like to have a little discussion with the somm, and give them a price point.

KM: I always give them a price point. Otherwise you’re going to have sticker shock at the end of the night.

But I like discovering new things. I have a fabulous portfolio of wines that I represent, but it’s not everything. And the only way you’re going to know how good your wines are, is to taste them in comparison to their competitive set. You’ve got to taste other people’s stuff to know where you stand, and a great way to do that is to ask the somm.

JB: How have the last two years of Covid restrictions affected your business, and your clients?

KM: It has been so difficult. I take my hat off to anyone who still has a restaurant in this city. Just watching the restaurants having to pivot, and figure out a way to still bring in business. Be it takeout cocktails, or selling bottles of wine that you can take to go.

I was really amazed at the number of people that were able to pivot, and to make it work. And it broke my heart to see so many restaurants close….so many are still closed.

For me as a positive person, I saw it as an opportunity to strengthen my relationships with the people who were open. And to support them.

The conversations changed. My company very smartly changed how they structure our minimums, to make us more accessible to the market. They dropped their case quantities, and dropped their dollar quantities for minimums—because that business wasn’t there.

During the pandemic, my focus was on family-owned and -operated businesses. I know more owners now than I ever did—because that’s who was there. The owners were the ones on the floor. They were the ones working the doors, busing the tables, making the drinks.

And we’re still in this. People haven’t come back to work, and people are still getting sick. I’d say 30 percent of the restaurants in San Francisco are still closed, and I’m not sure they’re going to come back.

So, I feel like it’s more important than ever to be out. Spend that extra ten dollars. Tip your servers well. Be nice to people. Listen to them, listen to what they’re saying to you. And support your neighborhood. Because the neighborhood’s going to support you.

Dago Bagel/Toscano Brothers Bakery

Tony lines them up at Dago Bagel/Toscano Brothers Bakery on Vallejo Street in North Beach. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: That’s a fact. Meanwhile, coming from New York, I understand you couldn’t find a good bagel in San Francisco.

KM: No, I couldn’t! And when Tony opened Dago Bagel, I was skeptical, because I had never had a decent bagel in San Francisco. You always hear that it’s all about the water. Dago Bagel broke that myth for me.

They’re the perfect combination of chewy and dense; he gets it right. I’m slightly addicted to them. I have to admit, I keep a half dozen in my freezer.

JB: Let me ask you, when was the first time you visited Tony’s?

KM: I’ve been going to Tony’s since Day One. I helped write the original list with their first wine director, Marni McKirahan.

Tony has an amazing friendship with my mentor, a man named Joe Milo. Joe has since retired, but he had been in the industry for oh god, thirty years. And like me he believes in supporting locally owned businesses. He helped Tony to write his first list.

So I’ve been going to Tony’s since the very beginning. I was there yesterday—I’m a staple, I’m there at least once a week.

JB: What are your favorite things on the menu?

KM: When they are in season, I’m obsessed with the stuffed squash blossoms. I love them.

JB: I do too.

KM: My favorite pizza to get when I’m with a group of people is the Coal Fired New Yorker. I remember when Tony first rolled it out. I went in with my parents. They are very mellow, very cool people, and we always did pizza for Sunday lunch in New York, so it was a tradition.

I remember walking in, and it was before the New Yorker was on the menu. It was kind of like the secret pie. I looked at my server Jason, who’s still there, and asked him if Tony was in the kitchen.

He told me that he was. So I told him there was a new pie, but it wasn’t on the menu yet. And he said, All of our pizzas on the menu.

And I said no—tell Tony that if it’s possible, we’d like to have the New Yorker. So he walked away. And five minutes later he came back and said: Who are you?

JB: (Laughter)

KM: So we had the New Yorker, and of course it ended up on the list the next week.

JB: That is a good pie. Have you been to Lombardi’s in New York?

KM: Yes.

JB: Lombardi’s was the first place I ate a pizza that really knocked me out. Back in the 90’s, the first time I was in New York. It was the first place I ever had coal fired pizza, I’m pretty sure.

And every time I have the Coal Fired New Yorker, it brings me back to that first pie at Lombardi’s.

KM: It’s that charred crust….

JB: That crust, with those tomatoes and the mozzarella. Sure, with the pepperoni and the sausage and ricotta, they put it over the top. But just the basics of that pie remind me so much of that first Lombardi’s experience.

KM: Another thing about Tony, is that he tests his new pies on the neighborhood. If you’re a regular and there often enough, and he’s in the kitchen, he’ll say I’m trying out this new thing.

Yesterday I had one of his new ones, the El Jefe.

JB: With the carnitas? I had that one last week. What an amazing pie.

KM: So good! I was a little worried with the plantains, I thought it would be too sweet. But it wasn’t, it’s so balanced.

JB: Tony told me that’s one of his favorites right now, and I can see why.

Kye, thanks again for taking the time to talk with me. Let’s get a pizza soon.