Hayes Street Grill first started serving fresh fish to the performing arts crowd in 1979, just across the street from the Symphony, and a block from the Opera House. The classic seafood joint was supposed to celebrate its 42nd anniversary this year with its annual St Patrick’s Day party, starring late Dungeness crab and early asparagus, pulling those prized ingredients from local fishermen and farms, flashing them over the wood-fire grill, and running them out to the white table clothes. Instead, this week marks a full calendar year since its windows went dark following the city-wide lockdown on March 17, 2020.
But Hayes Street Grill isn’t gone forever: it is coming back. As are a number of other deep hibernating restaurants, that have been on ice for many months. Some are finally considering reopening for the spring, while the fate of others is still unknown.
Patty Unterman, founder and co-owner of Hayes Street Grill, says she was tempted to reopen at various points throughout the pandemic, especially when outdoor dining was an option on its sunny, south-facing sidewalk. But “we’re waiting,” she says. Her partner, Dick Sander, is a scientist by training, and he insisted they play it safe. In hindsight, Unterman is relieved, both due to the steep costs of shutting down and reopening, and for the safety of her staff, many of whom have been with them for decades. Hayes Street Grill has what she describes as the “incredible luxury” of owning the building to allow them to make that call, though “we’ve been broken into twice,” she says.
Unterman doesn’t plan to open until fall 2021, when their staff and guests are vaccinated, and the neighborhood lifts the curtains for the performing arts season. In the mean time, “Our windows and doors have been boarded with a wonderful mural,” she says.
Frances in the Castro and Octavia near Pac Heights have also remained closed throughout the pandemic — in part because chef Melissa Perello got stuck in LA at the outset, having just opened her third restaurant, M. Georgina, there in fall 2019. She says that if she had been in SF, she would have tried takeout and outdoor dining, but after watching what other restaurants went through in the past year, with all of the restrictions and costs of building parklets, “I do feel fortunate we did not have to experience that,” she says.
She says it would not have been possible without a good relationship with both landlords. “We were able to negotiate a hibernation, and Frances is in super hibernation. We turned the power off,” Perello says. “It’s bare bones. We pinched every penny that we could, and kept it in savings.” She’s now back in SF, and planning to reopen Octavia first, hopefully in May, with Frances to potentially follow a month or two later. After an empty year, each is going to require a heavy lift. “They’re very quiet. They’re kind of dirty. They need sprucing up and some love,” Perello says. “We’re rebuilding from scratch. The employees were laid off in March, so we’re hiring all new staff. A handful of key players are coming back. But for the most part, we’re building from scratch.”
Some restaurant groups have kept one restaurant closed at the heart of the group, but have shifted service out to other locations. Kin Khao, the tiny Thai restaurant within the Parc 55 Hotel, has been closed for the duration. But sister restaurant Nari in Japantown is open for takeout, and Kin Khao Dogpatch even opened as a more casual outpost, with a very flexible one-year lease. Mourad, the glittering Moroccan restaurant, has done a little takeout downtown, but sister restaurant Aziza has done more consistent takeout in the Avenues. Both are temporarily closed at the moment, but Mourad Lahlou promises that they’ll reopen shortly, starting with Aziza in a couple of weeks, and followed by Mourad later in the spring.
Other restaurants remain closed and ominously quiet, with landlords that might not be quite so generous, and chefs that have already departed the city. Slanted Door made headlines this week, because the groundbreaking Vietnamese-American restaurant started clearing all of the furniture out its spacious dining room in the Ferry Building. Chef Charles Phan denied closure rumors, telling the SF Chronicle that he’s renovating, but declined to answer questions for Eater SF. Cala, the beachy Mexican seafood spot in Hayes Valley, is also silent. Chef Gabriela Camara already left SF, moving back to Mexico City in 2019. She has not responded to inquiries, leaving the future of that restaurant in doubt. In the meantime, it appears the kitchen is on loan to Refettorio SF, a community org from world-famed chef Massimo Bottura.
The Sentinel, the legendary sandwich shop, remains dark downtown. No word from Outerlands out at Ocean Beach, which hasn’t even attempted takeout soup and sourdough. But in the meantime, the good news is that both seniors and restaurant workers are having some luck in getting their vaccines. Patty Unterman says that Nate Norris from Zuni Cafe helped her longtime staff track down appointments.
“We’ve been through so many of these really cataclysmic things,” the industry veteran says. “The earthquake in 1989. The AIDS crisis, where my partner died. I never thought I would get over that. It was so heartbreaking. There was the recession. There was one thing after another, and I always think, well, we’re just going to put one foot in front of the other, and we’re just going to reopen, because that’s what we do. When you’re running a restaurant, you just do that.”