This San Francisco brewhouse features décor with hand-made flair that underscores its home-brewed roots. Images by Patricia Chang Photography
What do chefs do in their spare time? For Michael Bilger and Evin Gelleri, who operated a restaurant in San Francisco’s financial district together, the answer was home-brewing beer. It was while enjoying some of the craft beer they brewed during their off hours that they came up with the idea of creating a “New American Public House,” which they envisioned as a place where friends and family could come together to share seasonal small plates plus craft beers and craft cocktails.
The result was Sessions at the Presidio, a craft-inspired brewhouse environment featuring locally grown and raised food. The name “Sessions” comes from the British term “session beers,” which refers to WWI in England, when munitions workers had long breaks between double shifts. Those breaks were often taken at the local pub where the workers enjoyed multiple pints of ale along with lunch and conversation. In order for the workers to still be alert and capable of working ably after the “session” break, the ale was lower in alcohol content, but still very flavorful. It is that spirit that Bilger and Gelleri wanted to capture in their new restaurant.
The cuisine at Sessions is focused on seasonal small plates intended for sharing. The co-owners’ partnership with Skywalker Ranch in nearby Marin County enables them to offer locally grown fruit, vegetables, and herbs. In addition, the fresh meats and seafood served are naturally raised and sustainably harvested. And, of course, there is the beer. Sessions offers approximately 100 varieties of craft beers, including 24 draft offerings as well as, on occasion, Bilger and Gelleri’s own brew.
To complement the culinary offering, the co-owners hired Lundberg Design in San Francisco, a firm known for fabricating unique hand-crafted elements to complement the spaces they design. Located in the historic Presidio section of the city – where most of the buildings are barracks preserved from the early 1900s – Sessions sits within the recently constructed Letterman Building, which conforms to the strict historic guidelines for the exterior, but allows for more modern interpretations inside. Several restaurants had previously occupied this sprawling space, with build-outs that focused inward. With Sessions’ focus on the beer-drinking tradition of conviviality and beer gardens, the architecture was envisioned differently.
According to the project team at Lundberg Design, the goal was to open up the restaurant to the surrounding landscape as well as to unify the 5,500 square feet of disjointed rooms that made up the space. Interior walls and low ceilings were removed, resulting in an airy environment with free-flowing zones that offer a variety of dining/drinking experiences at the bar, dining room, within the private event space, or outside on the heated beer garden patio. The space that the Lundberg team designed encourages the idea of community and provides a comfortable environment for group gatherings.
The U-shaped bar is visually connected to the kitchen and functions as the heart of the space. Communal seating options – in the form of booths and banquettes – provide intimacy in the open plan, while allowing for transparency between various zones plus a connection to the exterior landscape.
To visually counter-balance the area’s foggy weather, Lundberg Design brightened the interior with Northern California soft yellow Sugar Pine wood, high ceilings, large windows, and Douglas fir end-grain flooring. One of the major design goals was to feel “airy, open, and connected to the landscape,” says Lundberg Design architect Dina Dobkin.
The Lundberg Design Shop fabricated custom elements such as the blackened steel beer tap and liquor display cabinet, the blued steel reception desk, the steel and upcycled acrylic (reclaimed playground flooring underlayment) entry wall, and steel and glass private dining partition. The shop also worked with local craftspeople including Petaluma, Calif.-based metalworker Mio Metals on the zinc table and bar surfaces, local millworker Arnold and Egan on the banquet and booths, and Eclipse Design on custom steel work.
Illumination is provided by the sculptural Wireflow free-form pendants, from Vibia of Spain, which were laid out on the ceiling to form a Minimalist geometric pattern. “The Vibia fixtures were an elegant accent without being overbearing or obstructing views,” Dobkin explains. “The minimal design and thin profiles of the fixtures play off the linear patterning throughout the space created by the horizontal pine cladding along some of the walls and ceilings.”
The Wireflow pendants were specifically chosen for areas where the original concrete ceiling was exposed. The wire design draws attention to the material and is in line with the very clean, but moderately Industrial, aesthetic. The black lines of the Wireflow and the Match fixture installed in the reception area complement the blackened steel accents and details throughout the brewhouse.
The overall ambiance is a perfect pairing to