Indoor dining reopened on March 3, marking a good long time since eaters have seen the interiors of some of these restaurants. SF restaurants got a little more notice this round, but not much, with a tentative announcement one week in advance, and official confirmation two days ahead. Still, this isn’t their first rodeo — restaurants already rearranged their dining rooms in the fall, for that brief window that indoor dining was allowed. And now, shaking off a long winter’s hibernation, they’re cleaning, decorating, and welcoming back guests.
At the time of writing, San Francisco is in the red tier, and restaurants are only allowed to seat 25 percent capacity, presenting design challenges. Some restaurants are pulling out tables, leaving a generous amount of space between seats. Others, worried about an empty room, are leaving the tables where they are, and adding decorations instead, piling on the fresh flowers and teddy bears. And a few are going above and beyond, adding curtains and partitions, so diners might be able to breathe a little easier.
Whatever the creative solution, for diners who feel comfortable eating inside, the next time they make a reservation at a favorite restaurant, it’s sure to look slightly different. Here’s how five restaurants in San Francisco have managed to reimagine and rearrange the dining room.
At House of Prime Rib at the top of Van Ness, it’s not like you can move the red leather booths, which are permanently installed in the steakhouse institution. Instead, owner Joe Betz has roped off every other table, and redecorated with magnums of wine and pillar candles. “We are going to take off where we left off,” says Mr. Betz, always with a sparkle. “I don’t like the idea of empty space, so that’s the reason. Instead of people, we have decorations, and it looks full, even if it’s not.” Longtime fans, rest assured: He has received both doses of the vaccine, and the restaurant is already booked solid for months.
At China Live in Chinatown, the big multi-level emporium is mixing it up. On the ground level, instead of the retail shop on one side, and the dining room on the other, it’s all mashed up now, with retail stands interspersed with restaurant seating.
“It keeps the tables more than six feet apart, so you feel like you’re in your own cocoon,” says owner George Chen. Diners might be seated next to a display of chili crisp, topped off with a cute panda teddy bear. Cold Drinks bar is also open upstairs, with a few spaced-out seats at the bar. And Eight Tables by George has reopened for fine dining, no movers necessary — those tables were always luxuriously spaced.
At the Matterhorn, that over-the-top fondue restaurant, most of the tables are built-in knotty pine, so they weren’t going anywhere. But from the ski gondola to the cuckoo clocks, the decor has always been part of the appeal, and similarly, the team has been busy decorating every other table, with extra fondue pots and stands, freshly cut flowers, and stuffed Bernese mountain dogs. “Like last time, we plan to decorate the tables that aren’t being used, so it’ll still feel cozy and welcoming to our guests,” co-owner Natalie Horwath said over email.
Orphan Andy’s in the Castro got some attention early in the pandemic for redecorating the diner with clear plastic shower curtains, a true design innovation. Just like in the fall, they’re alternating booths, making some minor adjustments to the acrylic panels and plastic curtains, and of course, refreshing the seasonal decorations. Co-owner Bill Pung has been putting up the Easter bunnies this past week.
“My partner thinks I’m nuts,” he says. “He always says, it’s not retail. But it’s my thing.” For the first time in the diner’s 45 years, they’re not open 24 hours at the moment, currently putting the fryer to bed at 6 p.m. But Pung hopes the kids will start coming out and staying up late soon.
Gozu, the dramatic wagyu steak experience in SoMa, had to figure out how to reinvent the counter, and really, their whole service style. Much like an omakase restaurant, Gozu usually seats diners around a big horseshoe, with the grill firing in the center, and the chef setting down small plates directly in front of guests. Now, they’re exclusively seating one party per side, so no one gets crowded at the counter, and they actually had to set up a pass, so food flows slightly differently. There’s also a new table up at the front, in what was the lounge area. And the private dining room can seat one large party, which these days, really only means six people.