San Francisco officials have ordered a SoMa fine dining restaurant to take down the clear plastic tents it put up for outdoor dining, less than two weeks after the enclosures made headlines not just for their groovy Barbarella-armor looks, but as — to many — a symbol of San Francisco’s growing gap between the wealthy and the very, very poor.
The domes appeared in front of Hashiri, a Michelin-starred, kaiseki-style sushi restaurant, the first week of August, celebrated by the restaurant with a Facebook post offering a five-course, two-hour “kaiseki and omakase Edomae sushi dining experience” for each person seated inside the restaurant’s three domes (each of which has room for four diners).
Hundreds of restaurants in San Francisco have opened onto the city’s sidewalks, plazas, and streets to accommodate outdoor, sit-down service, as fears of COVID-19 transmission — which, according to the CDC, is far more likely in the less-ventilated indoors — keep restaurant dining rooms shuttered for now. The outdoor dining boom has launched a battle between venues to gain attention for their new patio and parking place setups, as the pandemic continues to depress restaurant revenues.
Hashiri seemed to briefly win that fight, as news outlets across the country reported on the clear plastic tents, both as a novelty and as a solution to the outdoor dining challenges of wind, temperature changes, and inclement weather. Closer to home, the structures (which, according to Garden Igloo USA, the company that manufactures them, cost about $1,400 each) also gained attention for the seeming disparity between the diners inside the domes and the people outside them.
Speaking with KCBS, Hashiri general manager Kenichiro Matsuura says that the restaurant first tried the standard setup of tables and chairs in the plaza outside the restaurant, but they realized that they “had to seclude our guests away from the ongoing activities of Mint Plaza.” The area is “not the safest neighborhood,” Matsuura told ABC 7, and, speaking to the SF Chronicle, called the spot outside the restaurant “a phenomenal space, it’s just sometimes the crowd is not too favorable.”
It’s a set of statements that raised the brows of Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, a group that advocates for those without secure housing in San Francisco. “It’s often hard to tease out whether the restaurant is responding to legitimate issues or the restaurant is responding to affluent diners who feel guilty about eating expensive meals in the presence of destitute people,” she told the Chron when the tents were first announced.
Last week, SF Chronicle food critic Soleil Ho tackled the tents yet again, calling them “America’s problems in a plastic nutshell” and writing that the tents’ “shape and transparency are both a visual echo and rebuttal to the multicolored rows of dome-shape tents that line the streets of downtown San Francisco” and that they’re “an investment that might not even pay off if, say, the Department of Public Health decides to clamp down on outdoor dining again.”
By the time Ho’s column ran, however, the domes were probably already covered. According to Matsuura, the tents were swiftly booked. With four people seated in each and two seatings a night, the tents paid for themselves almost immediately ($200 each x 4 people x 2 seatings per night = $1,600) — such a success that Matsuura said he was already looking into ordering more.
Here’s hoping Garden Igloo USA accepts returns, as the SF Chronicle reported Monday that the city’s Department of Public Health (DPH) paid Hashiri a visit last week and ordered the restaurant to take the tents down.
Matsuura says he believes that “someone anonymously complained” to the DPH about the domes, and that it was this complaint — not the copious amount of radio, TV, print, and online coverage of the structures — that brought the tents to the DPH’s attention.
It’s likely he’s right, as DPH spokesperson Veronica Vien tells Eater SF that “DPH conducted a complaint investigation at Hashiri Restaurant on 8/13/20,” and that the inspector issued “a cease and desist of the use of the igloos due to the enclosed nature of the igloo structure which may not allow for adequate air flow.”
Vien cites HO Directive No 2020-16b, which requires “free flow of air through an outdoor dining space” as “a service requirement (Exhibit A, Sec 1.7).” It’s worth noting that the health order also clearly states that “Umbrellas, canopies, and other shade structures are only allowed if they do not have sides and allow for the free flow of air through the space.” (You can see the full DPH inspection report below.)
Matsuura appears frustrated by the DPH order, telling the Chron that “There are people who come by and spit, yell, stick their hands in people’s food, discharging fecal matter right by where people are trying to eat...It’s really sad, and it’s really hard for us to operate around that.”
Nonetheless, Hashiri remains open for outdoor dining, with the domes intact but now without their plastic coverings — sort of like eating inside a climbing dome like the kind diners might have played on as kids. Matsuura says the restaurant is now trying to figure out other ways to “enhance safety” for diners, now that the rigorous protection offered by a transparent sheet of PVC is officially verboten.
But according to the DPH’s Vien, Hashiri might still be able to bring the igloos back, albeit in a different form. During the DPH visit, Vien says, “the health inspector discussed possible modifications to the igloos with management,” and if Hashiri makes those changes, the DPH will welcome “a submission of a proposal for DPH review and approval before use.”