“I’ve never seen anything like this,” San Francisco restaurateur Mitchell Rosenthal says. “I’ve been in the restaurant business for 45 years, I’m about to turn 60, and suddenly no one knows what’s going to survive.” It’s a candid statement from a chef behind some of downtown San Francisco’s most popular restaurants, always-packed spots including Salt House, Anchor & Hope, and Town Hall. Out of those three spots, only Town Hall is expected to reopen anytime soon, while another remains on an increasingly-fragile bubble and a third is gone for good.
“Salt House is gone,” Rosenthal tells Eater SF, which is surprising and unsurprising news. Surprising because, since it was opened in 2007 by Rosenthal, his brother Steven, and third partner Doug Washington, the restaurant was known as a place to see and be seen for SoMa power players and local/visiting celebs like Joe Montana, Natalie Portman, and Gus Van Sant. At its peak, the restaurant in such high demand that its gatekeepers routinely had to wave off bribes for a table. Unsurprising because SoMa (now a ghost town), power players (now playing from home), and visiting celebs (see above). It was feast until a week before the pandemic hit, and then it was unmitigated famine.
As soon as the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order went into effect, Salt House shut its doors, Rosenthal says, but they’d already gotten a hint of what was to come. Downtown companies started their staff home in early March, and Salt House’s lunch crowds disappeared. There wasn’t a good reason to do takeout or delivery, Rosenthal says, as there’s “no one living down there” to serve takeout to. Delivery was out too, as those apps “have a radius” that doesn’t extend far enough outside the downtown area to make staying open worthwhile, he says.
As the shelter in place dragged on, Rosenthal and his partners attempted to negotiate with their landlord to knock down their rent. Unable to reach an agreement, he says they had no option but to close.
Another property of theirs, airy SoMa seafood spot Anchor & Hope, was confirmed as closed by a broker for the property, but Rosenthal says that’s not exactly true. “Our landlord is letting us stay, for now,” he says, though the business remains closed. “But if he gets another tenant...” The rest of the sentence is likely understood.
So, everything that remains of Anchor & Hope, which also closed at the beginning of the pandemic, remains — as does the hope that they might reopen in the space when indoor dining resumes in SF. So, say that all works out, with the landlord and the pandemic and whatever else 2020 has in store. What then?
“Well, we want to turn it into a beer hall,” Rosenthal says, which is actually a bang-up idea given the restaurant’s high-ceilinged, warehouse space. You can practically see his idea come to life when you look at the real estate listing for the building, which remains online and is available for conversion to office use, its marketing flier says. What’s more viable in the shadow of the Transbay Transit Center, these days: office space or a place to drink beer? Oddly enough, it seems more likely that folks would travel to SoMa for beer than business these days.
Tablehopper also noted last month that Jersey, Rosenthal’s restaurant group’s Italian comfort food spot on Second Street, had temporarily closed its doors. Rosenthal confirms this, saying that it’ll reopen in the fall. But what he really wants to talk about is Town Hall.
Heralded as “one of the most important restaurants south of Market” when it opened in 2004, “causal but gourmet” Town Hall quickly became one of the most sought-after reservations in the area (your correspondent, an executive assistant in SoMa at the time, can attest to this), with a Southern-leaning menu of burgers, ribs, and seafood. It, too, went dark at the beginning of the pandemic, but it’ll reopen on Wednesday September 9, with a new menu and — for the first time in years — brunch, Rosenthal says.
When it reopens, expect that Southern lean to be a full-body shove, as Rosenthal says Town Hall’s new menu will “be a full-on tribute to K-Paul’s,” an iconic, 40-year-old New Orleans Cajun spot founded by late chef Paul Prudhomme that closed in July. K-Paul’s, and Prudhomme, have long been in Town Hall’s DNA, but now Rosenthal wants to make that connection explicit, with a section of the menu dedicated to K-Paul’s signature dishes.
That food, which Rosenthal characterizes as “true American comfort food,” is “perfect for now,” he says, warm and sturdy and well-traveling, like deeply caramelized jambalaya and fried chicken. Also perfect for now is Town Hall’s patio and adjacent plaza, which together allow enough well-distanced tables to make reopening a break-even proposition. “I don’t know how a restaurant can exist on just takeout,” Rosenthal says, “or even a 50 percent capacity, so I guess we’ll see.”
Rosenthal’s hopeful that Town Hall’s fans will drive down for dinner or weekend brunch, saying “hey, at least there’s plenty of parking down there now!” Despite everything, his attitude is still positive, his excitement about Town Hall’s direction and reopening quite palpable. “After 45 years of doing this, it’s been really hard not to be engaged with our community every day,” Rosenthal says. “I want to see new faces, I want to see our regulars, I want it all.”