This past Friday, San Francisco opened up for outdoor sit-down dining for the first time since its March 16 shelter-in-place order, and hundreds of restaurants around the city rushed to begin service in time for the weekend — some welcoming guests onto expansive patios while others seated customers on the sidewalk or in the parking spaces on the street.
As the city chugs toward a full reopening, a number of chefs and restaurant owners say they’ve decided to take things a little bit slower, citing safety concerns for staff and customers. Many say they’ll open for outdoor dining eventually, but they’ve pushed those launches back — in some cases, for an indefinite period of time.
For instance, at Reem’s, the Arab restaurant-bakery in the Mission that opened just days before the coronavirus shutdown, eponymous chef Reem Assil initially planned to launch dine-in service on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. Outdoor dining had always been a part of her long-term plan for the restaurant, after all. But Assil tells Eater SF that after she discussed the plan with her staff, the consensus was that offering table service — or even just having guests use the restaurant’s tableware — still didn’t feel like a safe, responsible option.
As Assil puts it, “We’re a ‘pod’ now, our team, so how do we keep each other safe?”
Instead of going all-in on outdoor dining, Assil decided to put a couple of sidewalk tables out to allow a small number of customers to eat their takeout, but only if they’d like. Otherwise, the restaurant is staying the course with its takeout program: Customers still order outside, at the window the restaurant has set up, and if they want to stay to eat, they have to bring the food, still served in to-go containers, over to the table themselves — “like a Gott’s Roadside type setup,” Assil says.
Still, Assil says, just seeing a handful of customers sit and enjoy their mana’eesh flatbreads outside felt nice. “Community is the part that we’re missing at Reem’s,” she says. For now, however, the restaurant doesn’t have any immediate plans to bring back dine-in service — even when indoor seating is allowed.
Also in the Mission, Prubechu, San Francisco’s only Guamanian restaurant opened for one night of outdoor service this past Friday, as kind of “popup” in the parking lot adjacent to the restaurant. Co-owners Shawn Camacho and Shawn Naputi also say they plan to take things slow, only offering once-a-week service on Fridays to iron out their safety protocols before an officially reopening on Saturday, June 27. At Prubechu, those protocols include taking the temperature of every guest before they enter the space, having everyone fill out a health declaration sheet, and passing out Prubechu-branded paper bags where customers can store stray personal belongings.
Naputi admits he’s already started to see situations where the restaurant’s staff has to act as “referees” for customers who aren’t abiding by social distancing protocols. Part of the problem, he says, is that the patio’s “island vibe” is almost too comfortable. “After you have a few glasses of wine, people start to forget,” he says.
Foreign Cinema, home to one of San Francisco’s most iconic outdoor patios — with its tent-topped open-air courtyard and its string lights — is also choosing to take its reopening a little bit slower. It’s a decision that’s consistent with the restaurant’s overall approach to the coronavirus crisis, chef and co-owner Gayle Pirie says, noting that the restaurant only started offering takeout about three weeks ago. It won’t reopen its patio for outdoor service until Wednesday, June 24, in part, Pirie says, because she wants to wait and see what customer behavior is like at other restaurants that have reopened.
When customers return to Foreign Cinema next week, they’ll find that a lot will be the same — a film will still be projected out into the courtyard, for instance, though the long summer days mean that won’t happen until after 9 p.m. But Pirie says there will be a lot of noticeable safety-related changes as well: silverware and linens that aren’t brought to the table (by a masked server, of course) until guests are seated, menus viewed on phones, a dedicated employee to clean each table when guests leave. It’s a 220-seat restaurant that, for now, will only have 70 outdoor seats.
As for the potential of a future COVID-19 surge, as the city continues to open up, Pirie says, “You can only do what you can do. You’re the master of your own domain — you’re running a little city.”
One thing is clear: Even as some restaurants roll out their outdoor dining plans more slowly, the circumstances are going to lead to some real creativity and innovation. Case in point: Sometime this week, Um.ma, Los Angeles-based chef Chris Oh’s Korean restaurant in the Inner Sunset, will begin offering tabletop grilling in its outdoor patio — something Oh hasn’t seen even in Los Angeles or Korea.
“Every time I’ve had Korean barbecue, it’s been indoors,” he says. “I’ve never had someone straight up grill Korean barbecue al fresco.”
Given that all of this is unprecedented, Oh concedes that he’s basically writing the rulebook as he goes, but the main safety-related change from how tabletop grilling is typically done at Korean restaurants is that there won’t be an option to have the staff be the ones grilling the meats at the table. Instead, Um.ma will essentially provide the raw meats — both marinated and unmarinated — and let guests handle the rest.
The good thing about having the grills at each table, Oh says, is that they’ll help alleviate one of the major drawbacks to outdoor dining in San Francisco, especially on the West side: They’ll keep people warm as the fog rolls in.
“Between that and the soju, you’ll be just fine,” Oh says.