Alexis Solomou wanted his tables looking sharp as he prepared to open his Italian restaurant, Seven Hills, for outdoor dining in June. He placed little plants on each menu to weigh them down, thinking he’d save time during service. He put out candles, and he unfurled a rug to make the sidewalk feel cozier.
But the charming neighborhood restaurant’s location on a breezy, sloping street in Russian Hill presented some issues: The candles wouldn’t stay lit. Someone tripped over the rug. And despite the plants, the menus fluttered away with the wind. Still, Solomou needs the outdoor tables for the restaurant to stay open in the long term. He replaced the candles with fairy lights for vibe, and added Velcro to hold up the plants.
“We’re working with it,” he said. “It’s a godsend for us to have the option available.”
Weeks after the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order, San Francisco restaurant owners began lobbying city officials hard to allow restaurants to open their patios and create makeshift ones on sidewalks and parking spots. They argued these allowances could save the restaurant industry.
Now, the city’s restaurants have been serving diners outside for about a month — and owners are generally grateful. But the results are mixed, with some restaurants not seeing new customers despite efforts. And San Francisco’s often chilly, windy weather doesn’t inspire alfresco dining.
“I was hoping when we did outdoor seating we’d see an uptick in overall revenue, but the majority of the people who were getting to-go are now sitting there,” said Paul Einbund, owner of the Morris, a wine bar in the Mission District. “There’s no additional business.”
Mexican restaurant Cadillac Bar & Grill has multiple outdoor seating areas, yet few customers are coming because the Mid-Market theaters and office buildings nearby are empty, according to owner Michael Rodriguez. Usually, his staff waits around for two parties to show up.
“I always thought being one of the only restaurants in the neighborhood, I could build the business up by default, but it’s been slow,” he said, adding that business is at less than 10% of its usual levels. “It worries me.”
Reservations were in demand at upscale Italian sister restaurants Perbacco and Barbacco’s seven tables in the Financial District. The small number of tables was never going to be enough to justify staffing the restaurants, but owner Umberto Gibin thought it could help prepare them for indoor dining. When Mayor London Breed announced that the planned July 13 start date would be postponed indefinitely, Gibin decided to temporarily close the restaurants instead.
Yet at popular Potrero Hill brunch spot Plow, the weekend scene almost looks the same as before the pandemic, with people patiently waiting an hour for ricotta pancakes.
Owner Joel Bleskacek feels lucky for a number of things: Plow’s devoted following, its residential neighborhood, its unusually spacious sidewalks. He was able to double the restaurant’s previous amount of outdoor seating. That’s led to almost pre-pandemic level sales on the weekends, though weekdays are still far below normal.
“We’re very fortunate we have almost 10 feet of sidewalk,” he said. “I think people mentally like that there aren’t pedestrians walking through the tables.”
While Megan Cornelius is relieved her Cole Valley French restaurant, Zazie, has a heated garden patio that locals love, the pandemic has forced her to cut the capacity in half. She added some tables on the sidewalk, but many choose to wait for the garden seats instead.
“On cold, misty days or nights, it’s hard to convince people to sit out on the sidewalk,” she said. “We have warm blankets for them, but sometimes that’s not enough.”
Outdoor dining is helping to keep Zazie’s doors open, but the restaurant still loses money some days. After Breed postponed the start of indoor dining, Cornelius began contemplating ways to expand her outdoor footprint. She’s currently applying for a parklet permit.
But erecting a parklet with an elevated platform and high sides to block wind can be expensive. China Live owner George Chen spent about $15,000 on his new wooden parklet, which doubled the Chinatown restaurant’s outdoor seating capacity.
“I want people to feel like this was built for the long term, not a temporary thing just because we need to survive,” he said. “It seems like people are enjoying it. You’re not at a Parisian cafe looking at beautiful buildings, but this will have to do.”
Though Chen isn’t sure there will be enough diners to justify the expense, he feels like it’s something he has to try — especially if he wants to keep the staff he brought back on payroll in anticipation of indoor dining.
Over at Seven Hills, Solomou is debating adding a similar parklet. But he’s worried he’d waste thousands of dollars on something inherently temporary that might not even draw more diners. Last Monday’s overcast lunch service was horrendous, he said, but when the sun came out Tuesday, it was bustling.
With better weather likely ahead for a few months — and a track record of Seven Hills diners spending more on alcohol while dining instead of ordering takeout — the math might work out. Plus, numbers aside, Solomou has found an emotional benefit from outdoor dining: feeding off the energy from serving diners once again.
“I’ve been reborn again because I’m doing service. I’m opening wine,” he said with a laugh. “I forgot how to open wine.”- San Francisco Chronicle (07.20.20)