Two Jersey Guys Walk into a Bar…

Jersey-boy restaurateurs Mitch and Steven Rosenthal bought homes in Mill Valley on the same day nine years ago. Living in Marin gives the brothers a geographical break from their work as owners of a trio of popular San Francisco eateries, which means they’re not tempted to go in on their days off. “Once we drive over the bridge, we’re in another world,” says Mitch.

The types of homes the brothers bought  — and how they bought them — mirror their contradictory natures. Mitch fell in love with and bought the first and only house he saw. Steven looked at more than 20 houses (“I needed to be convinced that houses really cost that much,” he says), but in the end still bought the first one. Mitch’s 1920s Spanish stucco is on a cul-de-sac in a bustling neighborhood (his garage even connects to his neighbor’s). Steven’s 1950s cottage ranch sits alone on a hilly half acre. He’s proud that his driveway is 140 feet long and that his closest neighbor is 350 feet away. “There’s lots of plants and wildlife on the property, but I can’t afford to manicure it,” he says, not unhappily. Unlike his restaurants, he likes his land wild.

Anchor & Hope is the newest offering of the Rosenthals’ company, Threefold Restaurants. Tucked away on the first block of Minna Street, it’s within walking distance of their other two, Town Hall (342 Howard) and Salt House (545 Mission), and, for a seafood and shellfish restaurant, appropriately close to the bay. Its long, elegant bar, tall ceilings and plethora of  “sailor” decor make for an intriguing mix of Maine fish shack and Manhattan posh.

Mitch and Steven grew up in Edison, New Jersey, described by Mitch as “Central Jersey. It’s like the armpit.” He studied photography at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan while Steven went to the Culinary Institute of America. Steven has worked in restaurants since he was 14, humbly beginning with Dunkin’ Donuts. Mitch toyed with the idea of becoming a photojournalist until he realized it wasn’t so easy to pay the bills. For him, cooking in restaurants was a means to get through school.

The brothers first worked together at Jack Cooper’s Celebrity Delicatessen in their hometown of Edison. After moving to California in 1989 (with a few detours here and there), they worked their way up to become chefs at Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio. They opened Town Hall in 2003. Salt House came 18 months later. Anchor & Hope makes three restaurants in four and a half years. There was no grand plan, they say, just some serendipity and success born of hard work. “Now we’re finally stepping back to see the big picture and catch our breath,” says Mitch.

On a steamy summer evening at the elegant bar of Anchor & Hope, two decades after their foray into deli subs and gyros, they reflect on their culinary journey. Mitch wears a stained chef’s jacket. His face displays more than a few days of scruff and his arms are sleeved in tattoos. Steven quietly shuffles in a few minutes later in glasses and a button-down shirt, looking tired. Mitch talks. Steven listens—mostly—staring off into space for the first few minutes and occasionally deflecting light jabs from his older brother.

At one point their partner, Doug Washington, walks by and Mitch razzes him about not being included in the interview. “Yeah, it’s for the New York Times,” he says, “but they don’t want to talk to you.” Asked to describe Mitch’s personality, Doug replies, “He’s the opposite of bossy. Mitch is utterly dismissive.” Does Steven agree? He shrugs. “Yeah. Pretty much.”

Steven is the straight man, Mitch the comedian. Everything about them seems at odds. Steven is narrow; Mitch is more round. Steven is contemplative; Mitch is off-the-cuff. Steven is the tight technical genius; Mitch is the looser creative force.

But this yin-yang duality is what makes their restaurants work. Anchor & Hope is at once casual and complicated,  manicured and wild. There’s an underlying OCD-ness to the place, like you’re being feng-shuied proper, but it also has an air of spontaneity and community. The menu also has a few unexpected twists and “Southern comfort” turns (the sea urchin with crab and mashed potatoes soothes a troubled soul).

“When we opened Anchor & Hope people decided that they wanted to give us things,” says Mitch. Two maps from the 1800s hang on one wall—both on loan from a customer. An authentic foghorn is propped by the front door, also a gift (purchased on eBay). Mitch frequently fields requests to give the horn a blow, and he graciously performs for the small crowds that gather on the sidewalk outside.

A taxidermied gar hangs behind the bar (bequeathed to Mitch by his aikido sensei), and a fishbowl that once contained three goldfish aptly named Mitchell, Steven and Doug sits on the counter below. There are now only two fish and Mitch explains solemnly that
the fish named Doug died. The fishbowl is a nod to “another San Francisco restaurant” (Waterbar) that has an impressively large aquarium. “We couldn’t afford that now, but our tank is only going to get bigger,” Mitch says with a wink.