Ready or not: The city of San Francisco and the state of California are fully reopening today, June 15, now that more than 80 percent of eligible residents have gotten their first vaccine shot. It’s a significant milestone, after 14 months of rolling lockdowns and restrictions that kept chefs and restaurateurs in a state of constant confusion. As confirmed last week, restaurants are now allowed to open at full capacity, and vaccinated diners are no longer required to wear masks. But restaurants are still struggling after a rough year, and they say that even if the city is ready for a full reopening, they may be more slow and cautious to return to a new normal.
“It’s very bittersweet for me … ” says Mourad Lahlou of Mourad and Aziza. “It’s really just symbolic…. It’s like a war, when peace is declared, and people go out on streets and celebrate. But there’s a lot of fixing up to do. So [today] might be the day where people go out on the streets and honk and kiss …. But in reality, everything is still destroyed. In our industry, there’s a lot of rubble. And it’s going to take a lot of work.”
Not All Restaurants Are Ready for Full Capacity
Several restaurants told Eater SF they are not ready to reopen at full capacity. First and foremost, restaurants are still struggling with staffing, so even if they’re allowed to put more seats in the dining room, they don’t have the staff to serve them, and they’re in the process of training new staff. Lahlou says he’s holding steady at 50 percent capacity at both Mourad and Aziza, and won’t be adding a single seat to either dining room today (although he will slide in a few stools at the bar). Chef Heena Patel of Besharam says she’s only adding 10 more seats today, just above 75 percent capacity. And Shawn Camacho of Prubechu says they’re not going to change a thing — they’re not even ready for indoor dining, and he’s still trying to staff up to cover that big parking lot patio.
Many People Still Need or Want to Wear Masks
While fully vaccinated diners are now allowed to take off their masks, that hardly means San Franciscans are going to rip off their masks and walk into a restaurant swinging them above their heads. First of all, unvaccinated diners are still required to wear masks, and are presumed to be on the honor system. Second, some vaccinated diners may still feel more comfortable wearing masks, and as our mayor said, “just let them be.” Third, restaurants can still make their own rules, and require all diners to wear masks indoors, as Prubechu plans to do, for example, if you need to walk through the dining room or use the restroom. And at least for now, restaurant workers are still required to wear masks in the workplace, at least until this Thursday, June 17, when hopefully Cal/OSHA will vote to update the rules.
Camacho says they would rather wait, rather than have to tell people to put masks back on later. “If somebody is deciding whether or not to dine at Prubechu, strictly based on whether they have to wear a mask or not, perhaps they’re not really there for the right reason … to experience the vibe or try the food,” Camacho says. “If they want to pull their mask off and have a party, whatever it might be. But people who know Prubechu know that we’ve done it right the whole time … and we’re going to do everything at our own pace.”
The Days and Hours Will Gradually Get Longer
For the same staffing reasons, many restaurants still have limited schedules and shorter menus. Mourad, Aziza, Besharam, and Prubechu are all currently open five days a week, as opposed to their pre-pandemic six or seven days a week, and they’re closing the kitchen at 10, 9, even 8 p.m. on certain days.
Chefs Can’t Wait to Refresh Their Summer Menus
Menus, which were streamlined for takeout and delivery during the pandemic, are also evolving and expanding to match that opening excitement. Lahlou says he’s dumping the delivery apps, and can’t stop brainstorming. “Yesterday, I literally spent a couple of hours writing down new ideas … and we’ll gradually incorporate those into the menus, as we get staffed,” Mourad says. Patel also retired takeout, and is excited to announce a chef’s table option, so a few lucky guests can gather around the open kitchen for her Gujarati veggie comforts. “I’m excited about the new menu … ” Patel says. “I went to my roots, pulling out my mom and grandma’s cooking.” And Camacho says they’re bringing back the Chamarro party, their “fiesta table” tasting menu. It’s plated a little differently — on one big platter instead of so many small plates — but regardless, their regulars are stoked.
But even if reopening day is a slightly anticlimactic moment, all three restaurateurs said that even through the pain of reopening there is excitement and relief. “People are more relaxed,” Patel says. “We can see them smiling. They are hugging each other. And they’re hungry for hospitality, the whole experience. That’s what I can feel around the tables, and what I’m seeing in my dining room.”
Camacho agrees that the reopening energy is coming in hot this summer. “The city is vibing again. We feel it. Wednesdays are slammed, and Saturdays are even better.” He says that with the patio facing Mission, “We get a direct sense of what the street looks like on an hourly basis, and we can really feel it. In the last two months, it’s started to ramp up … you see people stumbling around after the bar at 11 p.m., and that was nonexistent two months ago.”
So diners, take note: Don’t demand an empty table or seat at a restaurant, it might be empty for a reason. Do continue to carry a mask with you, and be prepared to put it on, if a restaurant has its own rules. And if you’re ready to start vibing, here are a few restaurant recommendations, for where you might want to start: