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Pandemic Prompts SoMa Fine Dining/Art Spot Palette to Put Its Gigantic Plans on Hold

Palette’s two-story gallery and restaurant will remain dark for the foreseeable future

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Palette’s “polished and fun” to-go offerings include roasted chicken and carrot cake.

For years, chef Peter J. Hemsley (a Le Cordon Bleu Academy grad with stints at Quince and L’Arpege) has planned to open a gigantic, two-story restaurant in a building he bought in San Francisco’s SoMa District. But with ongoing construction delays and a post-pandemic restaurant landscape that’s hazy at best, the plan’s on hold, “maybe for years,” he tells Eater SF.

The vast SoMa space was set to open in the spring of 2018 as an 8,500-square-foot art and restaurant complex designed by CCS Architecture (the interiors of 25 Lusk, Nomica, and Perbacco are all their work). As the renovation dragged on, the restaurant slash gallery — called Palette, it’s unrelated to the similarly named teahouse in Ghiradelli Squareopened a temporary location a little more than a year ago at 816 Folsom Street.

The plan was to open the “real” location by December of 2019, Hemsley says, a “window we missed.” Further construction issues made an opening that spring impossible, and ongoing problems with the city’s overhaul of nearby Van Ness Avenue made a summer opening seem like a bad idea. In the middle of all this, the coronavirus crisis hit, an event with far-reaching consequences that made a packed grand opening of a glitzy fine-dining venue seem like a pipe dream.

Meanwhile, the meter was ticking on Palette’s temporary spot, as the address has been slated as the site of an 18-story hotel since 2017. That meter came to a stop when the pandemic hit — bad news for international hospitality company CitizenM, but good news for Palette, as plans to demolish its nearly 100-year-old building have been tabled. CitizenM is “obviously not going to be building a hotel anytime soon,” Hemsley says, and he was “able to renegotiate our lease at a very favorable rate.”

Hemsley doesn’t know when work will resume on Palette’s intended space, as “the rules of the game have really changed a lot” with the pandemic, including “what the total effect will be on the psychology of people entering in public spaces.”

When asked if Palette dodged a bullet by missing its winter opening date, Hemsley demurred, but admitted that given “how ugly it’s probably going to look [for restaurants] for the next couple years,” it’s likely Palette would have lost more money if he had opened in the new space as originally planned. Now, it makes more financial space to keep Palette’s big SoMa space dark, as to open that spot now would mean “a lot of risk and bigger losses,” Hemsley says.

The Bay Area’s shelter in place might be lifted as soon as May 3, but it’s unclear what that really means — while California Governor Gavin Newsom has made passing mention of possible scenarios like restaurants where servers take diners’ temperatures, workers wear masks and gloves, and dining room capacity is cut in half.

None of these scenarios are “official,” so restaurateurs like Hemsley are left to speculate. By his estimation, the proposals that are currently being floated like “masks, taking temperatures, all that are a non-starter for me” and are “impossible to really administer without really weirding our clientele out.”

What that means is that Hemsley is instead focusing on a weekly, rotating takeout or delivery menu that includes Palette signature dishes like its smoked beet tartare alongside “comfort food” type items like duck confit tacos or roasted chicken. For folks whose trash runneth over with unrecyclable carryout containers, note that the meals will come in “a beautiful, custom Palette gift box,” as pictured below, appropriate for “recycling or upcycling,” its press materials say.

Palette’s still focused on presentation, even during a pandemic

Hemsley says that he believes that a “polished and fun and really nice” takeout experience that diners can enjoy in their homes will be the way to “live through and navigate through” whatever comes next, from new state and local regulations for restaurants, to the behavior changes society will undergo until there’s a COVID-19 vaccine (something that’s not expected for well over a year).

Meanwhile, as the SF Chronicle first reported, Palette’s current location will now get “pretty significant interior renovation,” Hemsley says. “We’re going to let go of the idea that this is a temporary space,” Hemsley says, as he’s eager to get rid of some visual aspects of the spot he was never in love with. Instead, expect a “polished and serious look” that better aligns with his vision, he says. The revamp should be done by late July, which Hemsley says gives him “enough of a window” of time to see where the industry stands.