Every three or four days at Geneva Avenue’s Dark Horse Inn, a new set of dishes is introduced, ranging from golden handmade pastas dotted with green seasonal vegetables to sweet and spicy Korean-style chicken wings to Early Girl tomato salads topped with buratta and basil oil.
For those who are already acquainted with the gastropub’s regular menu, checking social media for the day’s specials can become a bit of an obsession.
The Dark Horse Inn “brings a sense of foodie-ness to the neighborhood that we didn’t have before,” said Charlie Kaupp, who drops by at least once a week with his wife Mandy. He said he had texted the owner just earlier in the day to see what was being added to the menu.
“Not to say there aren’t other places to eat around here,” he adds. The Excelsior and Outer Mission neighborhoods are far from a culinary wasteland—taquerias, Filipino eateries, old-school Italian restaurants and plenty of fresh produce stores are all within walking distance. But craft beers on tap and hearty American fare are hard to come by.
At an affordable price, the Dark Horse Inn fills a niche for those craving hamburgers, comfort food, or contemporary twists on barfood classics.
Andrea Ferrucci and Sean Ingram opened the business in 2011, remodeling a former pizzeria with the intention of creating an inviting, family-friendly atmosphere where customers could relax, catch a game on TV, enjoy elevated-takes on pub grub and even down the types of beers that include notes of coriander, white pepper or grass.
“We keep an eye out for new breweries,” Ferrucci said of their revolving nine beers on tap (usually priced from $5 to $7), in addition to countless bottles and a selection of wines.
Sunday night dinners include a free amuse-bouche (a little appetizer), while the last Thursdays of the month feature an array of eight small plates and two desserts, priced low enough to share. It’s probably the only place in the ‘hood one can enjoy a $7 wild mushroom brioche bread pudding and a similarly priced local sour beer.
“The food is rotating and fresh,” Mandy Kaupp said. “They value their customers and their food.”
Though few dishes top $16, the emphasis on freshness, quality and from-scratch cooking is apparent. Ingram switched from Niman Ranch to organic, grass-fed product from Del Monte Meat Company after Niman was bought out and the quality dropped. The pastrami on the very-popular Kimchi Ruben is smoked in-house. The kitchen receives a daily bread delivery, and almost all sauces are homemade.
Ingram has been working on and off in restaurants since he was 16, while Ferrucci brings a background in small business administration. Both are self-taught: Ingram never went to culinary school, and the pair keeps on top of the city’s food trends by visiting restaurants on their one day off, scouring food blogs and recipe books and checking out farmer’s markets.
“I have notebooks full of notes,” Ingram said of the menu planning process. “We’ve got to appeal to what’s happening in the neighborhood.”
Appealing to the neighborhood’s diverse working and middle class demographic and high concentration of families is a delicate balancing act for a restaurant.
“It’s a constant struggle,” Ferrucci said. “The rent may be cheaper than at other restaurants, but all the other costs are the same.”
The couple is active in their work to improve the corridor, and started the Excelsior Outer Mission Merchants association to connect and work with other local small business owners.
Regulars, many of whom walk to the Dark Horse Inn from their homes once or twice a week, make up a lot of the clientele. Some arrive weekly for Sunday night dinners. (Recently, Hangar steak with Bearnaise sauce, arugula salad and roasted Fingerling potatoes with a carmelized onion tart amuse bouche.) Servers are often former customers who came for the food first.
Ingram loves the bold, complex flavors in Asian cuisines, but unlike many chefs who combine East and West in a dish, that doesn’t mean making them more bland or mild.
“They definitely do spicy. For the Kimchi Ruben, you need some beer to wash it down,” said Michael Debolt, who has lived in the neighborhood for about a year, and decided to stop in after noticing changes to the pub’s façade. He praised the beer selection and said he’s now working his way through the menu. “When you live a block away, it’s easy to come back,” he said.
Yet online reviews suggest that not all customers live within walking distance. The Dark Horse Inn is, in fact, be one of the area’s few destination restaurants.
As Ferrucci and Ingram continue to improve and refine the menu—as well as keep those specials coming—the unique gastropub could easily become a Crocker-Amazon landmark.
The Dark Horse Inn is located at 942 Geneva Avenue.