Berber, a North African restaurant and theater, opens in Russian Hill

To truly understand the Berber restaurant and supper club, says co-founder Tony Garnicki, it takes sitting at a table in the dining room as the lights dim, forks and spoons are set down next to empty plates that held tajine and couscous, and an aerialist in the middle of the room performs Cirque du Soleil-inspired acrobatics.

Berber is a North African restaurant and supper club opening Saturday, Dec. 15 in San Francisco’s Russian Hill neighborhood. The business’ name is a term, once considered derogatory, that references the Amazigh people (which translates to free men) of North Africa. The 4,000-square-venue is located at 1516 Broadway.

The concept, in many ways, represents the first of its kind to exist in the city.

“San Francisco is an international city. The diners here want to have adventures and new experiences,” said Garnicki. “There’s multiple areas, including a bar area for people who want to have a cocktail and order something a la carte. The back dining room will be where the entertainment will happen for the full experience.”

The restaurant is a joint venture between Garnicki and Borhen Hummami (Marrakech Restaurant, Café Chanta).

Garnicki said Berber, for some, will be an educational space. The performers — aerialists, belly dancers, singers, DJs, and various musicians — have North African backgrounds, meaning each night, people will be exposed to various aspects of North African culture. The dining room will have artwork sourced from the same region, including a door that’s more than 100 years old, imported from Morocco.

Outside of the shows, Berber is an upscale restaurant. The $85 fixed-price menu will have five-courses, the contents of which will have been influenced by flavors common in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, and the Western Sahara. (Beverages, tax and gratuity are not included.) Though reservations are available throughout the evening, there is one 7:30 show per night.

Garnicki initially hired a chef from Tunisia to run the Berber kitchen. But the chef was unable to come to the U.S. in the wake of President Donald Trump’s travel ban earlier this year. Now, Nick Balla, formerly of Duna and Bar Tartine, is at the helm in the kitchen. The San Francisco chef was putting the final touches on the Berber menu as of Friday afternoon.

Berber as an idea came to the Paris-born Garnicki after traveling to Tunisia. It was there he experienced communal dining and the showmanship that can be associated with it, he said. It was something he wanted to recreate in the Bay Area. And maybe beyond.

“I could see Berber in many different cities across the country bringing this same experience. Places like Miami, New York, Los Angeles — Berber could one day be there too.”

San Francisco is no stranger to dinner theater venues. Places like Teatro ZinZanni at Pierre 29 and Doc’s Lab in North Beach have come and gone, leaving followings in their wakes. Still, the business model remains one of the more risky types to open in the Bay Area as staff shortages remain the norm, and rent increases and runaway operating costs only seem to only get worse

“There are definitely certain financial obligations that can make a business like this difficulty,” said Garnicki. “From a restaurant operation standpoint, you have existing elements. You have food and the bar. You’re dealing with servers and staff. Now, here you’re adding entertainers which is a whole different category.”

Berber: 1516 Broadway, near Polk; Reservations available via

Justin Phillips is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @JustMrPhillips