The Olive Garden, that perennial butt of Onion jokes, closed its lone San Francisco location last week, in the Stonestown Mall. Perhaps second only to Applebee’s in terms of approachability, the chain had built its reputation on an unrivaled ability to gratify, and the realization that we now live in an Olive Desert should indicate that something is very wrong with the state of restaurants.
News of hospitaliano’s demise arrived as Californians already reckoned with the grotesque inequality in the distribution of Paycheck Protection Program loans and other aid to restaurants. Top-tier places, with hundreds of employees and political connections, tend to hoover up all the state assistance while mom-and-pop joints quietly languish.
Indeed, for all the ways that 2020 has been brutal, the wreckage of the Bay Area’s dining scene ranks among the most visible. Even before COVID-19, closures were rampant — Brown Sugar Kitchen, La Folie, MarketBar, Katz’s Bagels, Ayala, Barcino, Gold Dust Lounge and Amnesia all called it quits pre-corona — all but ever-shifting public-health guidelines, the baffling failure to enact rent relief, and the fact that nobody has any money to spend anymore have wrought devastation across all categories for nine months.
The first direct casualty of the pandemic may well have been Locanda, Annie and Craig Stoll’s Roman osteria on Valencia Street. Elsewhere in the Mission, Anthony Strong saw what was coming and quickly retooled Prairie from an inventive Italian restaurant into a sort of dry-goods purveyor called Prairie General Store — but even that wasn’t enough, and it closed for good over the summer. Similarly, French bistro Nico pivoted to “Gap Year at Nico” under the tutelage of The Morris’ Paul Einbund, but that, too, is gone.
City landmarks and neighborhood dives
Then venerable institutions started vanishing left and right. After 42 years in the Richmond, Ton Kiang’s kitchen no longer puts out har gow and other Hakka-style dim sum treats. The 150-year-old Cliff House — which has burned down twice before — closed after a protracted battle with the National Park Service. Longtime owners Dan and Mary Hountalas had been limping along on short-term contract extensions after the NPS refused to renew a long-term lease in 2018, and now the building will sit vacant at taxpayer expense. Nearby, the 46-year-old Seal Rock Inn wound down and the family who owns 83-year-old Louis’ waved adieu to the vinyl booths within and the Sutro Baths below, plainly explaining that waiting out the pandemic was unfeasible. Although it had been on hiatus for a year, Alfred’s Steakhouse closed for good after nine decades in business.
One of the biggest blows had to be It’s Tops Coffee Shop, the quirky 1950s diner on Market Street with “awesome hot cakes” that looked as though the Central Freeway was specifically constructed to spare it. (This sign geek will remember the sideways “M” functioning as an “E” in “AWESOME” until my last breath. The burgers, too.)
While the French Laundry soldiers on thanks to multi-million PPP loans, many high-end restaurants called it quits, including the pioneering Indian restaurant August 1 Five, the S.F. branch of international dim sum chain Hakkasan, Jenn Pelka’s wonderful champagne bar Riddler, and the almost comically gaudy Union Square seafood spot Farallon. Union Square has also been a focal point for retail’s woes, and holiday shoppers won’t be going to the Rotunda at Neiman Marcus this year or walking up Sutter to The Saratoga.
Upscale lounge Wish Bar is gone, but the loss of neighborhood dives is arguably harder felt, among them Lower Nob Hill’s The Summer Place and the Mission’s Thieves Tavern and Blind Cat. (The third in their trio, Dirty Thieves, closed last year.) And then there’s Lucky 13, which had been simultaneously thriving while hanging by a thread for the better part of a decade. After 26 years of beer and free popcorn, the luck ran out in early December.
Some of these places were dark dens of iniquity, while others were home to outstanding juke boxes and pool leagues, but few dives are as historic as The Stud, founded in 1966 and lately run by an 18-member collective of LGBTQ nightlife pros who made the bittersweet decision to close in the spring. They were always going to have to vacate for another address, but the fact that the landlords painted over the Stud’s commissioned murals during Pride Month was an extra elbow in the teeth. Badlands, a generic Castro gay bar with a locally controversial owner, closed in July after a 45-year run. If you ever left Badlands for a slice at Nizario’s, that location is gone, too.
Not quite a victim of the pandemic, the storied bar Lefty O’Doul’s filed for bankruptcy in the wake of owner Nick Bovis’ involvement in an ever-widening political scandal. House Rules on Polk Street and the massive Southern Pacific Brewing in the Mission are both gone, and the Pac-Man machines at Coin-Op Game Room have since been unplugged.
The hovering spectre of COVID
A number of culturally unique gems are now gone. Berkeley’s Cafe Ohlone, the only establishment dedicated to the cuisine of the region’s indigenous inhabitants, pivoted to become a takeout business, while the East German restaurant Walzwerk served its last sauerbraten in June, and Kavitha Raghavan’s magnificently brunchy wine bar Indian Paradox on Divisadero Street hung it up, too. Nick’s on Mission, a vegan Filipino spot that was a star of the SOMA Pilipinas Cultural District, shut down after less than a year. Mozzeria, a 16th Street pizzeria that was S.F.’s first deaf-owned restaurant, also closed.
The middle tier, already an at-risk group once spendy tasting menus and fast-casual started to dominate, hollowed out further. Franchino and Pesce e Riso in North Beach, Straw and Dobbs Ferry in Hayes Valley, and Serpentine in Dogpatch all closed — with Serpentine owner Tommy Halvorson crisply observing that the restaurant model itself is doomed. Likewise, the pisco-heavy Destino and the margarita-forward Velvet Cantina are now gone.
Cafes and fast-casual suffered, too, with the cinematic Orson’s Belly rolling the credits in the Richmond, Mauerpark closing in the Castro, and The Creamery, an office-for-the-officeless tech set, closed in South Beach. Beloved deli Love ’n’ Haight is gone, as are the pancakes at Stacks on Patricia’s Green and the barbecue at CatHeads in SoMa. Even French bakeries with strong Instagram followings were not immune, as Vive La Tarte closed its doors. 4505 Burgers & BBQ sadly withdrew from Oakland, where the more depressing closure overall may have been Starline Social Club, one of the best venues anywhere.
Hovering over all this dejection, of course, was not just the economic effect of the virus but the virus itself. We may never know how many kitchen workers contracted COVID in close quarters, or how many front-of-house staff picked it up from a patron whose mask was lowered as they ate. Some places closed for unrelated medical reasons: Picnic on Third wrapped things up in August after chef-owner Natalia Bushyager’s health issues made staying open impossible.
Among restaurateurs whose own names were as well known as their restaurants’, Chris Cosentino shuttered Cockscomb, and Tim and Erin Archuleta called it quits with ICHI Sushi. Brandon Kirksey shuttered Great Gold on 24th Street. Mitchell Rosenthal shut down two-thirds of his empire (Anchor & Hope and Salt House) leaving only Town Hall, while restaurateur Thad Vogler closed all three of his cocktail-heavy spots (Trou Normand, Obispo and Nommo).
Among neighborhood places with strong followings, the Little Chihuahua closed its Valencia Street location, Nopalito waved bye-bye to the Inner Sunset, and Popson’s vacated its Mid-Market home to take up residence inside Mission bar Teeth. Upscale Indian restaurant DOSA closed its Valencia Street location last year, and the Fillmore location followed in September. Rusty’s Southern isn’t serving fried chicken in the TL, Pica Pica’s Venezuelan arepas are no more, and you can’t even get a phallic birthday gift at the Cake Gallery in SoMa.
Hope for revival
There were a few bits of happy news, though. Danish beer temple Mikkeller Bar is coming back. Vinyl Wine Bar left Divisadero for the former Stanza Coffee on Haight. Tommy’s Joynt, rumored to be doomed, is still kicking. Toy Boat Dessert Cafe in the Richmond ran aground after 38 years, but Jane the Bakery announced it would take over the space. Noon All Day, the Dogpatch’s answer to Mixt, may be gone, but Pim Techamuanvivit reimagined it as a companion to her Michelin-starred Thai restaurant Kin Khao. Internal shuffles took place, too: The once-constantly-expanding Back of the House restaurant group closed its Divisadero tapas joint Barvale with plans to make it a second Beretta, the late-night spot that put it on the map way back in 2009, the nadir of the last crisis.
Overall, rents are in flux, investors are spooked, and dining habits have almost certainly changed for good. But all over town, there are spaces available and oven hoods to be snapped up by indefatigable veterans and new generations of entrepreneurs. This coming winter may be an extinction-level event — but the hunger is everywhere, on all sides.