When China Live opened in 2017, it was a big deal in San Francisco. Totaling 30,000 square feet and four stories, it was a $20 million investment three years in the making. Diners feasted on crispy bottomed dumplings in its wide open kitchen, stocked up on fermented black bean sauce in its spacious retail shop, ascended to a second-story bar for mai tais, and rode all the way up to its hushed fine dining. Owner and oversized personality George Chen says he believes that it’s the biggest restaurant in San Francisco.
“We’re a mega place,” Chen tells Eater SF. “There were a lot of skeptics, and there still are, who can’t believe we pulled it off, that kind of investment in that location. It was highly ambitious.”
Today, he estimates two-thirds of the Chinatown building stands empty. Of the more than 200 employees it takes to run the place, he laid off 182 in March, and slowly hired a few back, so currently, 40 people are rattling around the giant building. Given the lockdown, Chen is leaning into ghost delivery, moving the retail shop online (starring gift sets), and launching a luxe holiday menu from “crown jewel” Eight Tables. But he says that his losses now run into seven figures, and he and his wife will take home nothing this year. It’s like, “We’re the mom and pop of 25,000 square feet,” says Chen. “We’re probably the biggest mom and pop in the whole country.”
When One65 opened in 2019, it was like swinging open the doors to an entire department store or food hall filled with French revelations. Tall and narrow, it’s 20,000 square feet stacked up six floors, near the trolley car turnaround in Union Square. Shoppers could stroll into the patisserie to an array of glossy cakes and colorful macarons, ride up the elevator to a dedicated chocolate room, feast on steak frites in the casual bistro, order an inventive cocktail served in a tree branch at the bar, or settle into the fine dining room, where the cheese and mignardises carts silently roll. Chef Claude Le Tohic is an award-winning chef coming from Robouchon in Vegas, so he’s used to high-stakes operations.
The patisserie and retail shop on the ground floor is still open at reduced capacity, capturing what little foot traffic passes by. Pre-pandemic, the building needed more than a hundred employees to run, but again, most were laid off, a few were rehired, and now only 15 people are manning the gigantic ship. Le Tohic is focusing on chocolate, charcuterie, and holiday meals, including gift boxes, a luxury dinner for two, and buche de Noel, which should be stunning. “We are lucky to have the diversity, at least,” says Le Tohic. “We can serve charcuterie, bread, whatever, or get ahead on chocolate for Christmas. There’s always something to do.”
Both Chen and Le Tohic describe pros and the cons to being the biggest. They literally have more space to spread out, with production kitchens (plural) where those few remaining employees can safely work. If indoor dining was on the table, they could space out tables, and they might not even need to, the way their dining rooms are already generously arranged.
Maybe most important, they’ve got deep pockets: China Live has big investors, and One65 is part of Alexander’s Group, the luxury group best known for its steakhouses. But neither China Live nor One65 owns their buildings, and they still have to pay rent. Le Tohic declined to comment on its relationship with hit landlord, but Chen shared that he’s currently in “heavy negotiations,” trying to pay an adjusted percentage based on revenue. “What are they going to do, rent China Live to someone else?” he says. “Be reasonable. The world has changed. No one would rent it. It was a moon shot for me to get it, anyways.”
Elsewhere across the city, other big restaurants are also emptying out (again). Sister restaurants Waterbar and Epic Steak are a combined 24,000 square feet, and while they have about a third of their tables outdoors on the brisk Embarcadero, managing partner Pete Sittnick says they need 50 percent of their staff to maintain such a big space. Sittnick says that even when they were open for outdoor dining, they were losing $100,000 per month per restaurant. Waterbar is closed for the holidays, sending employees home with fish and poinsettias.
The Grotto at Fisherman’s Wharf, established in 1935, is reportedly 20,000 square feet, and it too is temporarily closed. What about Mastro’s, that huge new steakhouse that opened last December, with 14,000 square feet and three stories of tourist surf and turf? They’re taking a stab at filet mignon for takeout and delivery. 25 Lusk, at 9,800 square feet, did have that rooftop advantage for outdoor dining, but in lockdown it’s dropping to a few holiday meals for curbside pickup.
For those big restaurants, “Getting through the winter will be really challenging … ” says Sittnick. And while he says he understands the need for the lockdown, “It’s frustrating. It impacts so many lives. In the restaurant business, the ability to get two weeks vacation around holidays is unheard of, we should be jumping up and down. But given the uncertainty, it puts a different light on it.”