"We're happily passing the crown to the boys," said Jamis MacNiven, who opened Buck's in 1990 with his wife Margaret. "They have a good view of the future."
Dylan MacNiven said his parents had been debating this future since closing in March when the coronavirus shelter in place took effect. They had many family meetings to discuss how to best reopen Buck's — whose dining room, decorated floor to ceiling with artwork and funky collectibles, is the heart of the restaurant but cannot legally accommodate customers right now — amidst constantly changing public health mandates.
"They've been running Buck's for almost 30 years and there was probably retirement on the horizon anyway," Dylan said of his parents. "When we were offered to do an outdoor dining area in the front ... it seemed like a really good opportunity to at least provide something for the town."
Over the years, Buck's became a one-of-a-kind community institution that drew generations of children and families as well as Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, heads of state and famous actors. Jamis MacNiven was known for writing the cheeky menu descriptions and a quarterly travel column that sounded fabricated but was true, more often than not.
In late May, before Buck's had reopened, MacNiven said he was thinking about turning the restaurant over to his sons Dylan, Tyler and Rowan with "an eye toward the 21st century."
"Much of Buck's is about the past," he wrote in an email, "but we see that an update at some point is necessary."
The sons, who grew up working at Buck's, operate four restaurants in San Francisco. Tyler also co-founded Sun Basket, a popular meal delivery service.
Tyler said they want to modernize Buck's while still "preserving the integrity of the specialness of Buck's."
"We watched babies on their second, third day of life come in and watched some of our regulars on the second or third last day of life. That's been the true magic of Buck's. It's a place where life can be experienced," he said. "My brothers and I are pretty keen on keeping that aspect of it alive."
Dylan said they're not trying to recreate the "old Buck's" outside and that the pandemic required a new style of service and pared-down menu. Buck's now serves smashburgers, with options for plant-based Impossible Meats and vegan cheese, fish tacos, two salads, milkshakes and beer and wine. They plan to add more items soon, including breakfast. August Schuchman, the executive chef for the sons' San Francisco restaurants, is overseeing the menu revamp.
Diners can eat in the parking-lot-turned-patio created with wooden tables and chairs, plants and some of the interior decor, including the Statue of Liberty that pre-pandemic greeted customers inside the front door holding not a torch but a dripping ice cream sundae (she's now wearing a mask).
Since reopening, they've been able to bring back about 12 of Buck's 45 staff members.
Dylan said they hope the outdoor patio will sustain the restaurant through the summer and fall while they wait for indoor dining to be allowed again. Long term, they're thinking about "how to move Buck's into the next phase of its life," he said, which will require a balance between updating the longtime community favorite and maintaining its unique feel.
"We're from a different generation. There's a lot of experience and things that we would bring back, as far as our style of service and culinarily," Dylan said. "Buck's has such a unique look — it's not like we're looking to just paint the walls white and remove all the art."
In fact, they plan to continue their father's tradition of collecting unconventional art to decorate the dining room, Tyler said — as well as having their young children work at the restaurant.
He summed it up succinctly: "Buck's will never die."
Buck's, located at 3062 Woodside Road, is open daily from noon to 8 p.m. and until 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
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