Valentine’s Day is typically a lucrative day for restaurants. For diners, there’s a last-minute panic to snag a reservation, choosing between expensive prix fixe menus and wine pairings. On the hospitality side, SF restaurants say they get an influx of new customers, many willing to pay the price for a special occasion. Though the city is slowly and cautiously reopening its outdoor patrons, it’s still a heart wrench to lose indoor wining and dining on this particular holiday — especially when the forecast looks like rain.
Some restaurants are reopening just in time for this holiday weekend. Foreign Cinema, that bohemian enclave in the Mission, is a cinematic destination for Valentine’s Day, serving seafood towers to guests under the twinkling lights. “It’s a huge day,” says chef and co-owner Gayle Pirie. “And historically speaking, it’s been an incredible day … We’re sold out every year. It’s the linens, the candles, the stars, the lights — it’s special.”
Foreign Cinema has been hibernating since December 6, when the city went into its second full lockdown. Even though the city allowed outdoor dining again on January 28, the restaurant waited longer. Pirie says reopening a restaurant isn’t as simple as flipping a switch after sending staff home and unplugging fridges. They’ve spent the past two weeks cleaning and prepping the restaurant, just to hit this holiday.
Restaurants that rely on indoor experiences are going to face the biggest challenges. Chapeau is a neighborhood bistro of the Inner Richmond, which has been charming regulars with prix fixe filet mignon and escargot for nearly 25 years. For Valentine’s Day, chef Philippe Gardelle usually spaces out the tables, fills the room with flowers and balloons, and puts out an over-the-top four-course menu.
He says they usually do 120 covers, but this year, he’s hoping for 80 covers “at best” in the restaurant’s outdoor parklet, and maybe an additional 20 takeout boxes for two. Those are priced down for diminishing returns: The indoor menu is usually $120, the outdoor menu is now $100, and the takeout boxes are $75 per person. “People are eating outside, so it’s less comfortable,” says Gardelle, clearly missing his cozy dining room.
Outdoor dining limits restaurants to a fraction of their usual tables. Even Foreign Cinema, with its back patio, is using maybe a fifth of its huge combined space. Chapeau is lucky to have a parklet in the avenues where the streets are wide and quiet, but it’s down to less than half of its usual tables.
Niku and Omakase, the Japanese-American luxury wagyu and sushi spots in the Design District, have a particularly dramatic reduction. Owner Kash Feng says Niku is only putting five or six very coveted tables out front, which means that maybe 20 people will get to sit down for wagyu this Valentine’s Day. “I’ve been getting a lot of texts,” says Feng. And of course, some restaurants can’t offer outdoor dining whatsoever. Without the full experience of its namesake omakase counter, Omakase is going to straight takeout only.
Timing is another limitation. Laurie Thomas, the executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA), points out that a two-hour time limit for diners is in effect, and the city’s curfew is still in place at 10 p.m., which means the latest restaurants can seat diners in parklets would be 8 p.m. Niku says its usual wagyu tasting menu took about three and a half hours, and Chapeau says its prix fixe was two and a half hours, so for those kinds of multicourse menus, there’s no more lingering over a bottle of wine, and meals are getting cut short at the end of the night.
Chapeau is doing an early seating in the afternoon to try to compensate. Foreign Cinema has abandoned its five-course menu altogether. “With curfew and time restrictions and public safety, we’re just doing a beautiful a la carte menu,” says Pirie. “It’s a Sunday night. There’s a curfew. We’re not going to stress.”
And if fewer tables and tighter timing weren’t enough, the prospect of rain is freaking everyone out. Even if parklets are covered, they are required to be open at the sides, leaving thin-skinned Californians susceptible to the elements. “We’ll see how it goes, but we’re dreading the rain,” says Thomas, who is worrying over canceled reservations at her restaurant Terzo. And even Foreign Cinema, protected between buildings at the center of a city block, won’t withstand real rain. “We have some covering, but if it rains [this weekend], we’re screwed,” says Pirie. She describes an hour-by-hour guessing game that will ensue. “Is it sprinkles? Is it the Pineapple Express? If it sprinkles from five to eight, and it pours at 10, we’ll be all right.”
In terms of wine sales, Valentine’s is also an important night for restaurants. Sommelier Chris Gaither previously worked at the French Laundry, Spruce, and Gary Danko, fine dining destinations that roll out even more courses, caviar, and bubbles for the holiday. He says that Valentine’s is a high-volume night with solidly good wine sales, with couples maybe more likely to splurge on the pairings or a slightly nicer bottle. “But there are other nights that would have been better,” he says, given how many first-time customers might be sitting down, with a little less comfort chatting through the wine list. “There were other days with higher wine sales, and those are just at random.”
Now, as the co-owner of Ungrafted wine bar and bottle shop in the Dogpatch, Gaither has seen firsthand how the pandemic has upended wine sales. Last year, he says Ungrafted was balancing its sales at approximately 80 percent dining and 20 percent retail. This Valentine’s Day, those numbers have completely flipped. Even with charcuterie and steak frites for outdoor dining, they’re expecting 70 to 80 percent of their holiday sales to come from the shop. Ungrafted sold out of Champagne on New Year’s Eve, and he notes that both Spruce and Gary Danko have opened up their cellars and are attempting to sell a few bottles.
But even if wine shops, butcher shops, chocolate shops, and neighborhood bakeries are potentially seeing a slight uptick this year, the reality is that Ungrafted, like many other food businesses, is struggling to plan and coordinate staffing. It cut back to four employees, two in the front and two in the back. “There are more people leaving this industry now than ever before, and we need good people to work in this industry,” says Gaither. “And I can say this as a Black man — this industry is adversely affecting BIPOC people, and it’s driving a lot of people that would be amazing in this industry away.”
So for diners who have their hearts set on just one small piece of normalcy, to sit down to a nice dinner with a nice glass of wine this Valentine’s Day, unfortunately, this is still not a normal time for restaurants. Outdoor dining reservations are going to get snapped up. Takeout specials will sell out fast. Restaurants are just reawakening from a long, cold winter, and facing so many limitations, and operating with a skeleton crew. “We are doing our best; please just be patient,” says Thomas from the GGRA.
Gardelle says that going into his 25th year of business, Chapeau has endured downturns before, following the 9/11 attacks and the 2008 stock-market crash, but “losing all of the holidays has been terrible. … We know how to survive. But it’s been very, very difficult. The second [surge] was terrible. It was very, very bad.” Still, the French chef still has a touch of the hopeless romantic in him. “It is what it is. If we all comply, in a year, it will be just a souvenir — just a memory.”