15 Apr Ofer Eitan Convey: Masks? Temperature checks? Bay Area chefs discuss the futur…
Gov. Gavin Newsom painted an eerie picture of restaurant dining during a newsconference on Tuesday, leading chefs and restaurateurs to think more critically about the reopening of the industry while the coronavirus keeps people at home.
“You may be having dinner with a waiter wearing gloves, maybe a face mask, dinner where the menu is disposable, where half of the tables in that restaurant no longer appear, where your temperature is checked before you walk into the establishment — these are likely scenarios,” Newsom said, giving no timeline as to when restaurants could expect to reopen their dining rooms.
Some in the industry are skeptical about Newsom’s vision during the news conference, billed as an unveiling of his “road map to recovery” following shelter in place, and whether most restaurants could survive it, especially the suggestion that they allow in half as many diners as usual.
“Since restaurants are already held together with scotch tape, I feel like restrictions like that are going to be insurmountable,” said Martin Salata, the chef at Oakland restaurant Sister, which is currently closed. “If we have to pay full rent at 50% occupancy, it’s a losing battle. There’s no way.”
David Barzelay, the chef-owner of Michelin-starred San Francisco restaurant Lazy Bear, said a world where a restaurant has to take temperature checks at the door is not a world where Lazy Bear can be operate as usual. The restaurant is known for its distinctive, communal style, with strangers seated at the same table and chefs playing dinner party host.
“I don’t see how anybody wants to go have an ‘experience’ kind of meal that’s marred by those sorts of impersonal aspects. It’s the opposite of the kind of hospitality we and I’d imagine most fine dining places want to offer,” he said.
Shelly Lindgren, owner of the A16 restaurants in San Francisco and Oakland, said that reducing her restaurants’ capacities could mean she’d have to adjust her prices. “One of the ways for us to keep our prices moderate, which has always been a priority, is to seat a lot of people,” she said. “The fewer people we can seat, the more we’d need to charge per person.”
Azalina Eusope is excited by the prospect of reopening her Noe Valley Malaysian restaurant, Mahila. She’s confident she could reconfigure the restaurant, and even if she went down from 60 seats to 30 seats, it would be better than her current situation of offering takeout three times a week.
“It doesn’t cover anything. But 30 people a night? If we can get that, that’s better than five people a day for takeout,” she said.
Bob Klein, owner of Oakland’s stalwart Italian restaurant Oliveto, already tried some of Newsom’s proposed measures before the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order went into effect. Namely, he took out tables so they were all 6 feet from one another.
“If that becomes the new normal then they’re all easy to accomplish,” he said of Newsom’s ideas. “But the issues are much more complicated than that. Who will be coming in? What do they want? It’s a fundamentally different world.”
Sarah Rich, co-owner of San Francisco’s Michelin-starred Rich Table in San Francisco, agrees that diners won’t want what was offered before the coronavirus.
“They won’t want to stand shoulder to shoulder at the bar … or sit 3 inches from the person next to them. We’re going to have to rethink the entire format of the dining experience,” she said.
The idea of checking diners’ temperatures is uncomfortable for some chefs like Eusope.
“I’m not a doctor. I don’t know how to diagnose someone. That’s giving a lot of responsibility for businesses like us to deal with,” she said.
Meanwhile, Barzelay and Lindgren both objected to Newsom’s suggestion to have servers wear gloves, which they argued was less safe than proper hand washing.
“There could be cross-contamination if you’re clearing plates at a table,” Lindgren said. Plus, could a server open a bottle of wine with gloves?
“Gov. Newsom is a restaurant owner,” she continued, referring to the group of restaurants and wine shops he owns under the PlumpJack label, currently under a blind trust while he is governor. “But it would be really fantastic if there were more individual restaurant owners at the table having these conversations with politicians.”
While Oliveto’s formal upstairs restaurant never used to offer takeout and delivery, Klein said it would need to continue to do so even when dining rooms could reopen. Ravi Kapur, chef-owner of perennially crowded San Francisco restaurant Liholiho Yacht Club, said he’s not confident reopening, offering takeout for the first time and adding other meal periods like lunch would be financially viable. Similarly, Barzelay fears cutting the normal number of diners at Lazy Bear would be worse than just offering takeout, as the restaurant is doing now.
That said, Barzelay’s team has talked about various scenarios for reopening Lazy Bear, and it’s possible the restaurant could return with individual tables and a four-course menu instead of the usual 15 to appeal to more price-sensitive diners during a recession. But he wonders, especially if servers are wearing masks and the dining room feels quiet, whether the experience Lazy Bear or any restaurant could offer would be enough to draw diners regularly.
“I do think there is a world in which the great places of San Francisco are going to be viable again — maybe not in 2020,” Barzelay said. “It’s just a question of what we have to do to survive between now and then.”
Soleil Ho, Kellie Hwang and Esther Mobley contributed to this report.
Update: This story was changed to…