After only offering takeout for the bulk of the coronavirus crisis, three weeks ago Azalina Eusope decided to welcome guests back into the dining room at Mahila, her small Malaysian restaurant in Noe Valley. She seated diners at just a handful of tables indoors, plus a few more out on the patio — all in all, it was a success. For the first time since the start of the pandemic, the chef says, “we were actually generating a little bit of revenue.”
Now, Eusope says she’s back to square one. City officials announced yesterday that indoor dining would be shut down throughout San Francisco for an indefinite period of time starting at 11:59 p.m. on Friday, November 13 — a response to the 250 percent spike in COVID-19 cases that the city has experienced since October 2. Coming a little over a month after indoor dining at 25 percent capacity had started up again in San Francisco, it’s a decision that sent shockwaves through the city’s restaurant community, even as chefs and restaurant owners acknowledged the urgency of containing the coronavirus pandemic.
Indeed, one of the biggest fears chefs and restaurant owners had at the beginning of San Francisco’s indoor dining reopening was precisely this scenario: that cases would spike, the city would shut things down, and they’d once again have to lay off all the employees that they’d just rehired.
When reached by phone a few hours after the announcement, Eusope said, “I’m shaking right now even talking to you. I’m surprised; I’m upset. Things cannot be taken so lightly when businesses are already grappling to survive.”
For now, Mahila will go back to offering takeout and outdoor dining, but Eusope fears it won’t be enough to sustain her business: “I’m glad we’re still able to do takeout, and it’s been successful, but it’s not successful enough to sleep well at night.”
Eusope wasn’t the only chef who felt blindsided by the city’s announcement. China Live’s George Chen called the decision “brutal” and “dispiriting” and said that between the loss of indoor service and cold weather putting a damper on outdoor dining, he expected his sprawling Chinatown complex to see a 50 to 60 percent drop in business overnight.
In particular, China Live’s upstairs fine dining restaurant, Eight Tables, belongs to a category of restaurant that is disproportionately impacted by the shutdown: The tasting menu spot had stayed closed entirely until last week, and only reopened because indoor service was allowed. Now, Chen says, he’ll have to shut the restaurant down again until indoor dining returns. “We were just getting back on our feet,” he says.
Benu, Corey Lee’s three-Michelin-starred fine dining restaurant, is in the same boat: It had just begun accepting reservations for in-person dining; now it, too, will have to put its reopening on hold. In an email, Lee criticized the city’s “all or nothing approach” to allowing restaurants to open. “I think the city failed us by not doing a better job monitoring the various businesses that have been allowed to reopen,” Lee writes. “The fact is some restaurants are operating even more safely than what’s required by the local guidelines, and they should be allowed to operate in some capacity. Others are following them very loosely and should be penalized or closed down.”
Meanwhile, Josef Betz, the 80-year-old co-owner of House of Prime Rib, didn’t mince words. “I think it’s an overkill,” Betz said, characterizing the city’s decision as one made by people who “never had the payroll to do.”
Like Benu and Eight Tables, House of Prime Rib only reopened after San Francisco began allowing indoor service. Still, the 71-year-old restaurant doesn’t plan to shut back down entirely. Instead, for the time being, it will operate as a takeout-only business, selling individual orders of prime rib as well as half and full rib roasts — an aspect of the business that the restaurant never pursued in pre-pandemic times, but that has done surprisingly well, Betz said: “Let me put it this way: It will not pay the bills. But it will keep some staff employed.”
For restaurants that have been banking on the availability of indoor dine-in service for the winter months, the shutdown could scarcely come at a worse time. As temperatures dip and the rainy season looms, outdoor dining is beginning to look like less of an attractive option for diners.
Pim Techamuanvivit had only just reopened the stylish, expansive dining room at her Japantown Thai restaurant, Nari, two weeks ago. But even though the majority of the restaurant’s seating is located outdoors, Techamuanvivit says the loss of the indoor space is a big problem now that winter is approaching.
The problem with outdoor dining during the winter months, she says, is that it’s too unpredictable to plan around. And running a restaurant is all about being able to plan. What do you do if it rains? Send your staff home? What happens, then, to the ingredients you’ve already prepped?
Though she’s yet to make any final decision, Techamuanvivit says the upshot of the shutdown might be that she has to close Nari for dine-in service altogether, going back the takeout- and delivery-only model from earlier in the pandemic. “Right now we’re just in survival mode,” Techamuanvivit says. “How many jobs can I save? How many employees can I keep paying? It’s not even about making money.
“I am at the moment out of ideas,” she says. ”But I’m not giving up completely.”
For some restaurateurs who kept their dining rooms closed, the news of the closure, and the COVID-19 spike that prompted it, was a form of vindication for their more cautious approach — a sign, in their view, that perhaps the city shouldn’t have allowed indoor dining to resume to begin with. “Our metrics of when to open up has always been what keeps our workers and communities safe,” says Reem Assil, whose Mission District Arab bakery-restaurant Reem’s only recently began allowing limited outdoor seating, with no table service. “Nothing ever indicated to me that indoor dining wouldn’t backfire.”
Likewise, Hina Yakitori chef and co-owner Tommy Cleary says that with no viable vaccine in place, it seemed obvious to him that the shutdown was going to happen sooner or later. The restaurant will continue to operate as a takeout- and delivery-only yakitori bento box service called Torima by Hina Yakitori for the immediate future. “We will not have dine-in until it’s absolutely 100 percent okay to do so,” Cleary says.
For Stuart Brioza, who along with his partner Nicole Krasinski co-owns three restaurants — the Progress, State Bird Provisions, and Anchovy Bar — an eventual citywide closure of indoor dining wasn’t a surprise, though it happened sooner than he’d expected. “And quite frankly, if that’s what it takes to get ahead of [the virus], then we’re all in,” he says.
All of his restaurants will be affected by the dining room shutdown, perhaps none more so than newcomer Anchovy Bar, a seafood spot that opened a month ago with a mix of indoor and outdoor seating and that, notably, offers no takeout whatsoever. In the short term, Brioza says, the restaurant will simply drop the three tables it had indoors, doubling down on the six tables it has outdoor and extending operating hours from five to seven days a week to make up the difference in sales. The goal, he says, is to just preserve as many jobs as possible.
All that said, Brioza acknowledges that he’s putting a lot of hope in the continued viability outdoor dining — and that a run of cold, rainy weather could very well spike those plans. Still, he says he feels an obligation to push forward for the sake of his employees.
“Hopeless optimism has been my mantra,” Brioza says. “We’ve got to hold tight and stay positive. Otherwise, what am I going to do? I can’t work from home. And neither can my staff.”
For other chefs, like Mahila’s Eusope, the up-and-down ordeal of the past several months has left them questioning how much longer they even want to stay in the restaurant business. “I feel guilty as a person; I feel like a failure as a business,” Eusope says, describing how she finally had to lay off some employees in September, after paying them out of her personal savings for much of the pandemic.
“This should not be this much of a struggle and heartache,” Eusope says. “It shouldn’t give you this amount of stress.”