Game Changer

No stranger to trailblazing, chef Michael Mina melds a fine-dining steakhouse with a relaxed pub atmosphere at his restaurant in Levi’s stadium.
No stranger to trailblazing, chef Michael Mina melds a fine-dining steakhouse with a relaxed pub atmosphere at his restaurant in Levi’s stadium. Nader Khouri

Stadiums are catching up with the chef-driven era of dining, and leading the charge is Chef Michael Mina, whose premium tailgate and high-end restaurant inside Levi’s Stadium is owning the reinvention.

It’s a crisp 57-degree Sunday morning in Santa Clara, California. The late-autumn sun sits shrouded behind clouds. On the corner of Tasman Drive and LaFayette Street is Levi’s Stadium, the 70,000-seat home to the San Francisco 49ers that opened in fall 2014. Somewhere inside the tunnels of the stadium, players are stretching, visualizing game plans, and sliding gloves and protective gear over their bodies while adjusting their fight faces.

On another side of the stadium, one 49ers diehard is sliding on gloves of his own, visualizing a game plan, and adjusting his game face. This man is strolling through a kitchen, checking freezers for inventory; he’s passing the grill-ready fire pits and eyeing the indoor, 13-foot-tall rotisserie wall, where shortly he’ll roast 1,200 pounds of Japanese beef; and he’s thinking ahead to gargantuan pots that hold 400 gallons of water, which in a few hours will host hundreds of boiling lobsters, lowered in by cranes.

Welcome to Michael Mina’s Tailgate.

An Unrivaled Game Plan

Chef Mina himself describes his tailgate scene as a carnival. What the chef has actually created, however, is a dining experience unrivaled by any chef or stadium in the U.S. His 17,000-square-foot restaurant, Bourbon Steak & Pub, is open to diners seven days a week for lunch and dinner—never mind that it boasts a mailing address of Levi’s Stadium, and sports venues are typically closed to the general public outside scheduled of events. The concept sticks to a high-end, white-tablecloth steakhouse with the Bourbon Steak brand, which has five other locations in the country (although the other locations don’t possess mirrors that transform into TVs during football games); and on the other side of the space, Bourbon Pub offers a gastropub environment, complete with an open kitchen, live fantasy-football standings, and betting lines.

On 49ers game days, the real excitement starts: An indoor/outdoor tailgate overtakes the space, which accommodates nearly 1,000 people before kickoff at 1 p.m. Food is prepared in custom-designed kitchen equipment, guest chefs such as Thomas Keller whip up divine dishes, and beef, ox, chicken, and duck swivel enticingly on rotisseries so tall they take up one and a half levels. The premium experience is for members only; they pay $5,000 a year, or about $500 per home game, for the scarlet-and-gold revelry, but cost is hardly prohibitive for fans who want their game-day experience levitated to the realm of chef veneration.

“I’ve been to all sorts of stadiums, since I go to a lot of 49ers road games and I have for a long time,” Chef Mina says. “A lot of stadiums had started to elevate their cuisine, but definitely, there wasn’t anything like this that I saw. Especially considering what we did—there was no roadmap for it.”




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