22nd Street Spanish restaurant Esperpento will take a months-long break from its usual programming of paella and tapas: It’s currently closed as the building it occupies undergoes a seismic retrofit to make it earthquake safe, the latest in a group of recent closures associated with the city mandated seismic safety upgrades.
Carlos Muela, whose family runs the restaurant, encourages fans to visit Esperpento’s sister business, Picaro, on 16th Street during the closure. Longtime Esperpento customers will also see some familiar faces there: Some Esperpento staff have made the move to Picaro temporarily.
Esperpento plans to return whenever the work is finished, a move that’s not always possible for businesses. A retrofit usually takes a year, according to a Department of Building Inspection representative, and restaurants confronted with a closure of that length might decide to close completely. Russian Hill’s Stones Throw, for instance decided to close and pursue other projects rather than wait out the construction. On Guerrero, Hoffman’s Grill and Rotisserie opted to throw in the towel entirely ahead of a retrofit.
Others, like recently-shuttered Namu Gaji in the Mission, are able to lean on secondary locations (in their case, Namu Stonepot) and pop-ups to wait out the construction. Bi-Rite Creamery, located in the same building as Namu Gaji, is also closed for the seismic retrofit. To meet demand in the interim, the hugely popular ice cream shop has launched an ice cream truck stationed outside the brick-and-mortar spot.
“It’s a huge pain,” says Namu Gaji chef-partner Dennis Lee. When the work is over, his restaurant will have to rebuild its space — and its momentum.
The timing of the latest wave of retrofits is hardly coincidental. It’s crunch time for seismic retrofits of this variety, which are required by a 2013 ordinance, the Mandatory Soft Story Retrofit Program.
The program applies to all pre-1978 wood-framed buildings of three or more stories (or two stories over a basement), about 7,000 across the city. Tier 4 buildings — the last group, which includes buildings containing ground floor commercial uses — need to have their work completed by September 2020.
“They usually come in in bunches when it’s close to the due date,” an employee in the Department of Building Inspection office says. “People wait until the last minute.”
Since the early ‘90s, Esperpento has weathered everything in the Mission but a literal earthquake. Former SF Chronicle critic Michael Bauer called it the most important restaurant to open in 1992, and with big pitchers of sangria and a lively atmosphere, it’s remained a vital part of the neighborhood at 3295 22nd Street.
“Some of our staff have been working with us for over 25 years. It would be a heartbreak if we weren’t able to get them any work,” says Muela.
Fortunately, he has options: Muela also runs the food truck gathering spots SoMa StrEat Food and SPARK Social, where Esperpento staff will find temporary work. “It’s such a relief that we’re able to accommodate them.”