It’s time to pour one out and raise a glass on behalf of bars. San Francisco has the distinction of being the first county in the Bay Area to move into the yellow tier, and local restrictions are lifting today, May 6. In addition to diners removing masks outdoors, the biggest news was for bars, which are now allowed to reopen for indoor drinking at 25 percent capacity — whether or not they serve food.
It’s an interesting moment for SF bars, which have been put in a separate category with tighter restrictions than even restaurants. SF restaurants were able to open for indoor dining on March 3, a long two months ago, and that felt like a big moment. By comparison, the return of indoor drinking lost a little shine — bars have been scrappy, and many already scrambled to find food partners, in order to claw their way into the same category as restaurants. Eater SF caught up with a few local bar owners, to ask what this yellow tier news meant to them.
Greg Lindgren owns several dark and atmospheric bourbon bars, namely 15 Romolo in North Beach, Rye in the Tendernob, and the Cordial in SoMa. “We’re glad to be moving to the yellow tier, for sure,” Lindgren confirmed. “We’re stoked to have the opportunity to open, and hopefully people will feel safe now that they’re getting vaccines, and hopefully people will want to drink inside bars again.” His first bar, 15 Romolo, opened 20 years ago; tucked away on a steep alley in North Beach, it’s really meant to be a revelatory experience. “With 15 Romolo, you want to get people inside, that’s the surprise,” he describes. “You stumble in, and it’s like, ‘Where am I? What is this place?’”
15 Romolo tried doing a few takeout bottles during the pandemic, and decided it wasn’t worth it. Rye has been the most active of Lindgren’s bars, running an online bottle shop, and offering outdoor and indoor dining, thanks to food partner Bandit, the tiny, neighboring burger spot. (That partnership has resulted in what has got to be one of the most underrated pairings in the city: a basil gimlet from Rye with a wagyu-bacon burger from Bandit.) The Cordial, which benefited greatly from the bustle of downtown workers, is still boarded up with a padlock on the door. Lindgren says that his events business is really what’s supporting the team, and they’re doing weddings and events from San Rafael to Atherton. But given the yellow tier news, he plans to reopen 15 Romolo in the next couple of weeks, followed by the Cordial in the next month.
Martin Cate owns Smuggler’s Cove, the piratical rum hideaway in Hayes Valley, as well as Whitechapel, the gin joint that looks like the inside of a Victorian train station in Civic Center. He says the yellow tier “is largely positive news for us. It’s important that they have finally waived the food requirement. That’s the biggest factor.” As fans already know and love, both Smuggler’s and Whitechapel are completely immersive indoor experiences, which are all about the wild decor. “We like having a windowless experience,” Cate describes. “It’s about a journey to somewhere else, taking you out of the noise and hustle of the city. That’s our goal.”
Smuggler’s closed temporarily for a long time, before finally serving some takeout cocktails and pebbled ice, with a food partner to pack pints of stew, which might seem like an odd choice, but it was easy to heat and eat. Whitechapel attempted outdoor dining last summer, surfacing with a beer garden, but Cate says it cost too much to rent the parking lot, and after a few months the bar went back underground. Now, he’s excited to have the option to reopen, but given that both spaces have been closed for more than a year, it’s not going to happen right away. Whitechapel actually does have a kitchen, so it could have been open the past couple of months, but they are revamping the menu. And Smuggler’s could reopen now, but the bar is so snug that it’s usual occupancy is 49 people, which means that 25 percent is only 12 people, and not worth it. Plus, the pond that’s an integral component of the tropical tiki decor is leaking, and they’re deep in repairs. Both Smuggler’s and Whitechapel aim to reopen on June 15, along with the state of California.
Karri Kiyuna is the “head bird” of Wildhawk in the Mission, and the beverage director for the PlumpJack Group, which includes Balboa Cafe and White Rabbit in the Marina. Wildhawk isn’t just known for excellent vermouth cocktails, it’s also the ultimate living room–style bar, filled with fabulous velvet sofas and over-the-top floral wallpaper. The team has been waiting for this moment for indoor drinking to return. “We’re very excited about it. We’re ready for it,” Kiyuna says. “We rearranged the furniture, and brought in some high-top tables, because we can’t seat people at the bar yet. So we’re bringing you bar height, just a little farther away.”
Wildhawk has been going strong with takeout cocktails and outdoor dining. At the corner of 19th and Lexington, they have a reasonable location for outdoor drinking, and built out two parklets, one on each street. They don’t have a full kitchen, but they also found a great food partner, with Media Noche sending ropa vieja and empanadas across the street. But Kiyuna says they are excited to finally be able to go back to their own style, and serve up vermouth cocktails and salty snacks to the comforts of the couches. “This whole year, it’s been a whole lot of no’s,” she says. “No, you can’t sit inside. No, you can’t sit outside unless you get food. It’s lightening up a bit …. It’s more saying yes to people. It feels really good.”
Across the city, from dive bars to tiki bars, the return of indoor drinking is good news. Cate points out that even if bars have been making it work with food partners, they’ll be relieved and grateful to retake control, and focus on what they do best. Of course, there are still frustrations. In addition to the capacity limit, he also points out that sports bars still can’t use pool tables or broadcast games, for instance. “The overall feeling is we’re in a home stretch,” he describes. “The light on the horizon is pretty bright. But the pandemic isn’t going to have the satisfying closure of a V-E Day. We’re in a war, but there isn’t going to be a signed surrender. COVID’s not going to sign the peace treaty. There’s just this kind of gradual return to normalcy, without a big, ‘it’s over, send up the fireworks,’ kind of moment. It doesn’t have that satisfying closure for this hellish year. You’ve been through the war, and it fizzles back to life.”