Eater SF had already sent out our 2020 year in review survey — a set of questions for the Bay Area’s food industry’s movers and shakers — when the news came down that outdoor dining, which the region had enjoyed for several months, would be closed down as COVID-19 case rates skyrocketed. That made one of the questions we’d asked, “What restaurant offered your favorite outdoor dining setup or experience?” an immediate relic.
Now, with outdoor dining back open everywhere across the Bay, this feels like a good time to revisit those 2020 picks. Keep in mind that, due to the winter cold and rain, many restaurants are reopening outdoor dining slowly. Before you head out for a sit-down meal, check the restaurant’s Instagram or give them a call to ensure they’re seating customers — just because they were in late 2020 doesn’t mean they’ve reopened quite yet.
Please do not take this article as an all-encompassing endorsement of sit-down dining, as there are still safety concerns. Studies indicate that COVID-19 infection rates are lower for outside activities, but the level of risk involved with outdoor dining is contingent on restaurants and their patrons following strict social distancing, face covering, and other safety guidelines.
The dining setup at Lower Polk Plaza, which is overseen by vermouth bar El Lopo, was a little bit magical. The closed-down stretch of Austin Alley served a slew of area restaurants, including the Grubstake, Batter Bakery, and Kasa. But it’s El Lopo’s Daniel Azarkman who was running the show, dropping real, glass glasses of water at every table, regardless of whose food you were eating, and keeping an eye on every patron to ensure they had everything they needed. The cafe-style seating was well-spaced and, best of all, was set to fact the same direction, so patrons had plenty of time to mask up as their server approached. At night, with heat dishes lit and the light dancing on the alley walls, it was so inviting that it was almost possible to forget that we were eating outside because we had to, not because we chose to. — Eater SF editor Eve Batey
My meal at the Morris was simply delightful. They communicated everything upfront in a way that made it feel like they had everyone’s safety (especially their staff’s!) at front of mind. It was also nicely spaced out without feeling awkward. The food and wine were, of course, superb, too. I almost felt like a real human at a restaurant again. — SF Chronicle senior features editor (food, travel and magazines) Serena Dai
I really like Good to Eat Dumplings in Jack London, their set up is perfect for pandemic times, since you order the beer and food separately before, and then pick it up when it’s ready. Old Pattern Brewing has some great beers and my favorite dumpling is the chicken and basil. — Chef, activist, and author Preeti Mistry
It’s hard to beat Central Kitchen — that gorgeous courtyard space was worth planning around in the Before Times. And I really love the lawn chairs circled around an outdoor TV showing sports (sports!) at Flanahan’s. — San Francisco food writer Lauren Sloss
Gran Electrica turned planter boxes into picnic beds! Also the Yurt Village at Charter Oak is simply adorable. — Napa food writer Jess Lander
Here’s where I have to confess that, nine months into this pandemic, I have not really done outdoor dining yet! It’s been a steady stream of takeout, delivery, and home cooking in the Tsai household. But I was so grateful to the sweet proprietor of Pistahan, a little Filipino comfort food spot in San Leandro, who pulled a single table outside just so that my girls could have a place to sit and pick at their halo-halo while we waited for our takeout order. — Eater SF food editor Luke Tsai
The Morris is the only “nice” restaurant where I leapt at the opportunity to dine outdoors, and everyone there was super professional and the duck was damn delicious. — SFist editor Jay Barmann
I loved Prubechu’s outdoor dining experience. It felt very safe because they did temperature reads, contact tracing forms, and read us the rules upon entry. They took over the parking space next door and provided a nice ambiance with plants, tents, outdoor heaters and enough space to properly social distance. The way they thanked us for supporting them was also so genuine. — San Francisco restauranteur Rica Sunga-Kwan, the owner of Portola District ice cream shop Churn Urban Creamery