With COVID-19 cases spiking, San Francisco put its previously scheduled July 13 reopening of bars and indoor dining on hold indefinitely this week, while in Napa and Monterey, restaurant dining rooms — which had already reopened — were ordered to shut down once again.
For SF restaurateurs like Azalina Eusope, chef-owner of the Malaysian restaurants Azalina’s and Mahila, the news was a tough blow. She tells Eater SF that she’d been counting on being able to open both of her restaurants for indoor dining on July 13, mainly as a way to build up her revenue stream — takeout alone hasn’t been enough to prevent her from having to dip into her personal savings just to keep the restaurants afloat, Eusope says. She also has a third location — a new Azalina’s outpost — in the Tenderloin that’s ready to open, but will have to be put on hold.
Eusope admits she still has real reservations about the safety of dine-in service. She says she opened Mahila for outdoor dining for about a week but shut it down, in part because of diners’ inconsistency in keeping on their masks: “I would go home and just had this anxiety that I can’t explain.” Now, with no new reopening date set yet, Eusope will have to continue serving takeout only — though, as she notes, that’s not a model that’s working for her restaurants.
George Chen, chef-owner of the multi-venue China Live complex in Chinatown, was also set to open the dining room of his first-floor Market Restaurant, where he’d be able to seat 100 diners — a big boost from the 20 or so he’s able to seat outdoors. For Chen, the frustrating thing is that he’d already started rehiring and training his staff weeks ago. “You can’t really lay off everybody again; it’s just not cool to do. So now you’re carrying extra labor,” Chen said. And at Eight Tables, Chen’s upstairs fine dining restaurant, takeout and outdoor seating aren’t really options.
In order to survive, Chen says, China Live is expanding its emphasis on branded packaged food products and redoubling its takeout efforts: In a couple of weeks, he says, he’ll launch “China Live Signatures,” a new delivery-only arm of the business run out of 10 or 12 ghost kitchens in the region, allowing the restaurant to deliver some of its best-known dishes to customers in the East Bay and as far as San Jose.
Heena Patel, chef-owner of Besharam, the Gujarati-inspired Indian restaurant in Dogpatch, has been doing takeout since the start of the shelter in place, and recently put about 30 seats outside — but at her restaurant, the demand for outdoor dining just hasn’t been there. She, too, had been pinning her hopes on the launch of indoor dining next week, as a way to feed more guests and increase her revenue.
Ultimately, Patel says, any return to normalcy won’t be about what the mayor or governor say about the pandemic, or what opening date they wind up settling on. “It’s about how we feel,” Patel says. “And right now there is fear.”
Meanwhile, it will be three weeks or more before restaurants in Napa and Monterey counties can reopen their dining rooms, spurring some to move their seating entirely outdoors. Such was the case for the Restaurant at Meadowood, Christopher Kostow’s three-Michelin-starred tasting menu destination in St. Helena. It just reopened last week, with seating both indoors and on its outdoor terrace. “It was going, quite frankly, very well,” Kostow tells Eater SF, Now, to stay open — and with roughly the same seating capacity — the restaurant will create a new seating area on the lawn in front of the restaurant.
The good news, Kostow says, is that most diners seem to feel safer staying outdoors right now anyway, though he admits that the weather up in St. Helena can be a challenge during the summer, with temperatures rising as high as 100 degrees.
What the chef didn’t really consider doing is shutting the restaurant back down at this stage of the game. “For us, having already opened and having brought all these people back, it seemed wholly unethical to shut it down again,” Kostow says.
Similarly, La Toque, the French fine dining institution in downtown Napa, had been doing indoor service exclusively since it reopened on June 5. Now, the restaurant will move all of that seating to its outdoor terrace, chef Ken Frank says, noting that the upshot will be a slight reduction in capacity, from 50 seats to about 40 — “but we’ll muddle through with 40-ish seats,” he says.
Both Kostow and Frank stressed that they’re among the fortunate handful of restaurants in Napa that have enough outdoor space to remain open for dine-in service. And Frank says it’s important to keep in mind is that the types of adjustments that restaurants are making — the face masks and all of the other safety protocols — are likely to be the new reality for the long haul, probably for the next year or two at least, he thinks. But at least in the case of La Toque, Frank is cautiously optimistic.
“All around the world you have very good restaurants shoved into places that couldn’t conceivably be a restaurant, and they still work,” he says. “Restaurateurs have a long, long tradition of making stuff work. And we will.”