When acclaimed chef Corey Lee started furnishing his new San Francisco restaurant, San Ho Won, he had his eye on a chair that was cropping up at the Bay Area’s hottest restaurants.
If you’ve dined recently at popular San Francisco spots like Flour + Water, Nari, Ernest or Handroll Project, you’ve sat in the chair. You may have been one of the diners who got up and turned the chair over to find out where you could buy one. Some chefs like the chair so much they’ve bought it for their own homes. Restaurant Stacking Chairs
But Lee was reluctant to join the pack, worried the chair could become a tired sign of a homogenous restaurant design trend, like exposed brick walls or the now-decried, once “industrial chic” Edison light bulb.
Then he sat in the chair, and everything changed. He bought 46 chairs and stools for San Ho Won, which opened in the fall to long lines and just won its first Michelin star.
“There are a lot of trend-driven things here,” Lee said. “I do think the quality of the chair, the workmanship transcends all of that.”
Fyrn, a furniture company located two blocks away from San Ho Won, is responsible for what’s become the chair of choice at buzzy restaurants.
More than 30 Bay Area restaurants and wineries have selected this sleek wood chair — an overlooked but essential piece of the dining experience — for both its form and function. The minimalist design looks at once old-school and modern. It’s modular, meaning its parts can easily be replaced, a boon for restaurant owners used to shelling out for new chairs in as little as two years. (Lee’s three-Michelin-star Benu has gone through four sets of chairs since opening.)
Most importantly, it’s comfortable.
“You can tell it’s something that’s going to last,” Lee said. “You feel it as soon as you sit in one.”
Fyrn didn’t set out to build a chair for restaurants. Co-founder Ros Broughton, a fourth-generation furniture maker in San Francisco, had a dream of creating a lightweight, modular wooden chair that would be both beautiful and functional. The complexities of furniture manufacturing and hardware make this challenging; the result is usually a cheaply made, uncomfortable chair with a flat back and seat attached to a metal frame. Much ink has been spilled over the agony of a bad restaurant chair. They can be rigid, cold, designed for limited body types, even “low-level torture devices.”
After nearly three years, Broughton finally had a prototype and wanted to put it to the test in the most brutal environment he could think of for a chair: a restaurant. He brought over 100 chairs to his friend’s business, Shakewell, a popular Spanish spot in Oakland.
Word started to spread of the beautiful chair that stood up to the wear and tear of seating hundreds of people in a day. Architects and designers told their restaurant clients about it. Chefs noticed the chair in photographs for splashy media features on competitors’ openings. They had to have the chair, too.
Now, Broughton and co-founder Dave Charne supply more than 100 restaurants across the country, though the majority of Fyrn’s business comes from residential clients. The company’s website prominently boasts its connection to chefs of restaurants that have won Michelin stars such as Benu’s Corey Lee and Geoffrey Lee of sushi hotspots Handroll Project and Ju-Ni.
Flour + Water opened in San Francisco in 2009 with wood chairs that diners frequently complained were uncomfortable — so much so that the acclaimed Italian restaurant kept thin pillows on hand to minimize their discomfort, chef and co-owner Thomas McNaughton said.
Since replacing Flour + Water’s seating with Fyrn chairs five years ago, there hasn’t been a single complaint.
When McNaughton and co-owner Ryan Pollnow recently remodeled Flour + Water, the only thing they wanted to keep was the Fyrn chair. But they swapped it out for a new brown leather and black walnut combination; the chairs are customizable, with a range of woods and finishes to match different aesthetics. Penny Roma, their more casual pasta-centric spinoff, has an all-black version; a new Flour + Water pizzeria opening in North Beach later this year will have 85 light oak Fyrn chairs.
In a very subtle way, the chair “reinforces the concept,” said Lee. It adds to the vibe.
Fyrn chairs aren’t inexpensive. The chair starts at $675 retail and goes up as it’s customized, though restaurants get a volume discount. This is at the higher end for restaurant furniture, though there’s a huge range. San Francisco Thai restaurant Kin Khao, for example, mixes two chair styles; one now costs around $375 retail and the other $985. Popular Oakland coffee shop Ain’t Normal Cafe has a few backless Fyrn stools inside but kept cheap Ikea chairs on an outdoor patio.
“Restaurant chairs, the good ones, are definitely expensive. You can’t just buy any chairs,” said Pim Techamuanvivit of Kin Khao and Nari in San Francisco. She tapped Fyrn for Nari’s upstairs bar seating when it opened in 2019.
But chefs say the investment is worth it, given how poorly made chairs can, frankly, seem disposable. Over the years, McNaughton has seen chairs damaged by people knocking them over, or construction workers standing on them. Customers wearing bedazzled jeans “wreak havoc” on chairs. But when a seat or a leg breaks on a Fyrn chair, they can quickly replace it at a lower cost than buying an entire new chair.
Techamuanvivit gave chairs “serious consideration” when she opened Nari, her acclaimed Thai restaurant in San Francisco. She didn’t go with Fyrn chairs for the dining room. One, because they’re “everywhere,” she said, and she wanted to differentiate Nari’s design, but also because they don’t stack (a common chef complaint that Fyrn hopes to one day address). She put the company’s taller counter stools and low backless stools at the bar, where many people linger over full meals when they can’t get a table downstairs.
“It’s really hard to find bar seats that are comfortable to sit in for long periods,” she said. “The (Fyrn) barstools are super comfortable and just gorgeous.”
Comfort is, after all, a crucial aspect of hospitality.
“Everyone goes out to a restaurant to feel taken care of,” McNaughton said.
Why not by a chair?
Reach Elena Kadvany: email@example.com
Contemporary Credenzas Elena Kadvany joined The San Francisco Chronicle as a food reporter in 2021. Previously, she was a staff writer at the Palo Alto Weekly and its sister publications, where she covered restaurants and education and also founded the Peninsula Foodist restaurant column and newsletter.