The owner and managing partner of Big Night Restaurant Group thrives on pulling off the unthinkable. “I still get such a kick out of it when somebody gets engaged in one of our restaurants,” says Weinberg, whose seven San Francisco establishments include Marlowe, The Cavalier, Park Tavern, Petit Marlowe, Marianne’s, Leo’s Oyster Bar, and newcomer Cow Marlowe. “The whole thing for me is about popping up the impossible”—someone’s going to propose and they need peonies and a DJ by tonight—“and pulling it off, and my restaurants are my stage to do it in.”
Growing up in picturesque Waiheke Island, New Zealand (a place she describes as “if the Caribbean and Sonoma had a love child”), Weinberg initially set her sights on becoming a model and actress. She landed roles in soap operas and even appeared in an episode of Young Hercules with Ryan Gosling in 1998.
“I was kind of a bad actress, and I wasn’t that committed,” recalls Weinberg. “Every time you get killed off a show, you end up waiting tables, and I loved the culture. I remember going to the coolest restaurants with my mom and seeing all these fabulous people wearing black, and just feeling like I wanted to be a part of that world.”
Weinberg moved to New York City when she was 19 and began working in restaurants, landing at Lucky Strike. From there, she got a big break in the culinary arena after meeting chef Melissa O’Donnell (of Salt), and the two opened the restaurant Stella when she was 23. Thirteen years ago, Weinberg met business partner James Nicholas and moved to San Francisco, where she got the lay of the land at Town Hall restaurant.
“I walked around San Francisco and thought, ‘I just need to work in the busiest restaurant and try and take the temperature of the place,’” she explains. “The food in the city was spectacular, but nothing felt like you’d arrived in an environment that you wanted to be in, so I felt I could create that.”
After opening Marlowe (in partnership with James Nicholas and Chef Jennifer Puccio) in 2010, Weinberg teamed up with interior designer Ken Fulk to outfit the interiors of The Cavalier and each restaurant to follow. “I’m really proud of the spaces,” says Weinberg, who reveals that every restaurant has a different statement wallpaper with significance for her.
Of the environments, she says, “It’s about how people feel when they walk in, and I always say to my hosts, ‘What I want is for no one to look down and swipe right on their phones. So, imagine you walk into a party, and you have one of two reactions: “What’s next?” or “We’ve arrived at the best party in town!” Your job is to make sure they don’t swipe right.’”
As for Weinberg, who hopes to launch her own lifestyle brand, she’s right where she wants to be. “It was my goal to become a part of the San Francisco story,” Weinberg says. “It’s not about winning an award for the perfectly crafted whatever; it’s always been about becoming a part of people’s lives.”