On Tuesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced guidelines for the state’s restaurants to reopen their dining rooms. The 12-page document paints a picture of the future of sit-down dining that many Bay Area restaurateurs had already been anticipating: servers in face masks, tables spaced at least six feet apart, and rigorous cleaning protocols.
While the guidelines are fairly wide in scope, covering everything from disinfecting protocols to the proper use of face masks, a number of Bay Area restaurant owners felt they still didn’t offer very many concrete details on exactly what would be expected of them.
Kim Alter, the chef-owner of Nightbird — a small, tasting menu spot in Hayes Valley, described the guidelines as “pretty vague.” “A lot of us would love a little bit more direction from the government,” she tells Eater SF, explaining that specific regulations would make it easier to implement policies than if individual restaurants just have to make those calls on their own.
Ryan Cole, a partner with the Hi Neighbor restaurant group, which includes three San Francisco restaurants (Trestle, Corridor, and the Vault), told Eater SF that it seemed to him that 90 percent of guidelines, dealing with things like hand-washing and clearing dirty linens, were just “common practice.” He was surprised, for instance, that while the plan included provisions for six-foot distances between diners, it didn’t set a specific dining room capacity reduction — the 25 or 50 percent that many restaurant owners had been expecting.
“I don’t care what the plan is,” Cole says. “I just want you to give me a plan and give me two week’s notice.”
Even if the current guidelines are more vague than she would like, Alter says that her main takeaway is clear: She doesn’t see any way that she’ll be opening Nightbird to dine-in customers anytime soon: “I don’t see how there’s going to be a high demand. I don’t see people wanting to sit in a small space.”
Indeed, for many chefs and restaurant owners, the governor’s remarks simply reaffirmed plans that they already had in place. Weeks ago, Nite Yun had already decided that when she reopens Nyum Bai, her popular Cambodian restaurant in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, it would be as a takeout-oriented fast-casual establishment — the assumption being that dine-in customers likely won’t return in large numbers anytime soon. After reading Governor Newsom’s remarks, she simply said that she’s “still sticking with the plan,” working with designers to reconfigure the the covered garage space on the restaurant’s patio to fit with the new style of service.
Tommy Cleary, the chef and co-owner of the upscale yakitori tasting menu restaurant Hina Yakitori, says the guidelines confirmed what he’s suspected for the past month now — that it simply won’t make sense to reopen Hina’s dining room in the near future. The entirety of the restaurant’s seating consists of a single 12-seat counter, so spacing people six feet apart would mean a maximum of maybe six diners at a time. “That doesn’t make sense for our situation,” Cleary said in a text message to Eater SF.
Beyond that, face masks and other physical distancing requirements simply won’t allow for the kind of dining experience that Cleary wants to provide. “I just don’t feel comfortable charging people $150 and having to dress like a surgeon and act like we are in a horror flick,” alluding to the face mask requirement. For the time being, Hina will continue serving yakitori bento boxes for takeout, which Cleary says is a business model that’s sustainable for his restaurant, though he suspects that many other restaurants that can’t easily make a similar pivot simply won’t survive.
“Fine dining and $300 tasting menus are probably done,” he says. “The line cook will be king.”
Local bars face an even more daunting path to reopening. Notably, the new guidelines explicitly state that bars that don’t offer dine-in food service must remain closed during this phase of the reopening. For bar industry veterans like Will Herrera, the general manager of 200-year-old downtown San Francisco watering hole the Old Ship Saloon, the overall takeaway is simple: The service that the Old Ship has provided for 200 years — with people from all walks of life “bellying up to this bar, commiserating, and enjoying each other’s company” — still isn’t allowed.
Places like the Old Ship exist in a kind of awkward middle ground, Herrera says: “We’re not quite a restaurant; we’re not just a bar.” The place has never exactly been known for its cuisine, but already, it’s started offering breakfast, sandwiches, and cocktails for takeout — and it expects to open its space to customers in some capacity whenever restaurants in San Francisco are allowed to do so. “Given hard rules, we’ll apply them,” Herrera says. “Given soft rules, we’ll do everything that we can to ensure the safety of our customers and our staff.”
For other restaurant owners, the newly announced guidelines for reopening are a clear call for creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. Fernay McPherson, who owns Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement, says her fried chicken restaurant’s physical space will prove especially challenging for any socially distanced form of dining in: It’s a kiosk at the Emeryville Public Market’s food court, where almost all of the seating consists of communal tables. The level of uncertainty has prompted McPherson to think about whether creative collaborations might be the only way to move forward — for instance, whether there’s a way to partner with a bar that doesn’t normally serve food in order to help that bar reopen. “I think partnerships are going to be big right now,” McPherson says. “Collective working is going to be big right now, for folks to survive.”
Like many other restaurateurs, Nigel Jones, chef and co-owner of Oakland’s Kingston 11, has kept the lights on at his Jamaican restaurant by shifting to takeout and delivery — a focus he expects will continue to be necessary even when dining rooms begin to reopen. He says he’s already been thinking about remodeling the normally bustling restaurant’s dining room, devoting more of the space to conducting takeout business. The chef has another forthcoming restaurant, Calabash, that’s still in the construction stage, and he says the long-term impacts of the pandemic are informing the design choices he’s making now. The business was always meant to be a market restaurant with a significant takeout component, and Jones plans to lean even more heavily into that aspect now — making sure that the physical space has wide enough lanes for customers to easily move in and out of the restaurant.
“I’m not banking too much on the dine-in posture in the short term,” Jones says. For better or worse, he says, this is what the future of the restaurant industry is going to look like, and restaurateurs who are still just trying to bring things back to how they were before are making a mistake.
“There will be some shake up in this industry,” Jones says. “The traditional gatekeepers may not be the ones who are viable in the long term.”