When the new coronavirus (COVID-19) hit the Bay Area, citizens were told again and again the people over the age of 65 are at particular risk of infection, and should remain isolated and at home until the threat of the virus has passed. That concern meant that San Francisco’s older generation of chefs and restaurateurs — many who have been in the business for twenty, thirty, even fifty years — had a difficult decision to make, a balance between the health of their business and the risks to their own well-being. Some still suited up and headed to the kitchen to prepare takeout orders, while others opted to remain home. Pour out a cold martini, and pull up a comfortable chair. Let’s revisit a few old friends.
House of Prime Rib, the steakhouse institution, is a venerable 71 years old, and owner Josef Betz is 80. The restaurant has been temporarily closed since shelter in place began, as House of Prime Rib was never destined to do takeout and delivery, given the style of service that makes it such a magical experience, with big cuts rolling through the dining room on carts. Mr. Betz says that it will reopen for indoor dining as soon as the city allows (July 13 is the current reopening date), and he has every intention of being there.
According to Mr. Betz, he’ll be donning a mask and gloves, he’s installed new air filters, and he’ll be checking both coats and temperatures at the door. Does his family approve? “My two sons are wonderful,” the consummate host says, artfully dodging the question. “But I can’t sit at home.” He says the restaurant persevered through the mad cow disease scare and the interminable construction on Van Ness, so how bad could it get? “It could always be worse,” Betz twinkles.
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Grandmother Josephine Di Grande, 73 years young, is the matriarch of Gold Mirror, the Italian-American classic that’s been saucing the Parkside for 51 years. Gold Mirror is fortunate to own their building, which makes weathering the pandemic a bit easier, and “we rolled with the punches,” says Domencio Di Grande, Josephine’s eldest son. “We didn’t close for a single day.”
Instead, the brothers set up a stand outside Gold Mirror’s door and started selling cannelloni from the sidewalk. Grandfather Giuseppe Di Grande retired a decade ago, handing the keys to the kitchen over to his sons. And Josephine, who before the pandemic would regularly swing through the dining room to greet regulars, calls the restaurant every day, and is cooking up a storm in her home kitchen. First she made chicken. Then it was bread, pizza, and Italian cookies. As soon as tomato season gets juicy, she says she’ll be ordering by the case, and putting red sauce up for the whole family. “She thinks she still lives in Italy,” younger brother Roberto Di Grande sighs. “She has to have fresh food every day, and a lot of it.”
Chaiwatt and Marnee Siriyarn are the husband-and-wife team behind Marnee Thai, known for authentic Bangkok cuisine and spicy service for 34 years. Their restaurants (they have one at 2225 Irving Street and a second at 1243 9th Avenue) were already offered takeout and delivery through a few different apps prior to the pandemic, and they say they had no choice but to stay open after shelter in place began.
The landlords for both locations refused to give them any breaks on rent, they say, and it took two stressful months for their PPP loans to come through. Chai, who is 65, is still in the kitchen getting slammed with takeout tickets, then stays up until midnight to make all of the sauces. (Marnee, who has arthritis and asthma, has remained home, and is “restless,” they say.) Kasidit, their son, worries for his parents, and that’s not all that’s on his mind, as he has newborn twins at home.
“My father built the restaurant with a chef’s point of view, with 62 items on the menu, and he doesn’t want to streamline it,” Kas says. “My mom is a face and palm reader, and she could recommend dishes to the point it was uncomfortable, for you, for your date, but that’s what made it so fun. You don’t get that experience with takeout, and I worry that our best dishes get lost in translation.”
At Chef Chu’s, Silicon Valley’s 50-year-old Chinese-American restaurant, there are now three generations of Larry Chus, starting with Larry Chu senior, who’s 76 years old. When the crisis broke, Larry Chu junior doubled down on service, sending snappy staffers curbside to hand takeout to a long line of Teslas every Friday night. (Larry Chu III, 8 years old and out of Chinese school, personally handmade signs to direct the drivers.)
Then Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s people emailed, offering them $100,000. Chef Chu’s was one of those lucky eight restaurants that are personal favorites of the tech billionaire and his wife, and that check helped them hire most of their kitchen staff back and to prepare meals for frontline workers. The main challenge now is keeping Larry Chu senior away. “He’s the epitome of no days off,” his son says. “We had to compromise. You can come before the customers, before all that mayhem. So he’s been coming in every morning and inspecting to make sure none of his recipes have been changed.”
All of these restaurants said their regulars have been calling, wanting to support the business, but also wondering about the family. “Our older customers always remember my mom, and ask after her health,” says Kas. But for chef-owners who have built their business from the ground up, and are really a fixture in the kitchen or dining room, staying home seems antithetical to their entire work ethic. Above all, “We’re missing the connection with customers,” the Di Grande family says. “We’re looking forward to having a full dining room once again, and getting that atmosphere and liveliness back.” Or in other words: They miss feeding you.