Signs of life: From Union Square style to Portola soul

‘The return of this icon is thrilling’

By Catherine Bigelow

Examiner staff writer

A glorious, blue-sky San Francisco day greeted our City’s official June 15 reopening from COVID lockdowns and required safety measures.

However the civic response in two divergent neighborhoods — tony Union Square and the lively, blue-collar Portola District enclave — might surprise Mayor London Breed and her dogged health officials. A majority of locals and tourists remain wary about flinging their face masks into oblivion.

But there was no hesitancy among the Swell set-that-loves-to-lunch who scored coveted Rotunda reservations at Neiman Marcus to dine beneath its landmark Beaux Arts stained-glass dome which crowns this restaurant overlooking Union Square Park.

Joel Goodrich, a leading Realtor of luxe properties, was so thrilled by the Rotunda’s reopening he booked three consecutive lunches this week.

“The return of this icon is thrilling,” enthused Goodrich. “The glass dome is a treasured remnant of the storied City of Paris, which was replaced in 1983 by Neiman Marcus. It also signals a return of our fashion scene: everyone goes to the Rotunda to see and be seen. And, shop!”

The Rotunda seats 230. But currently the restaurant is operating with a self-imposed cap at seventy-five percent occupancy with spaced tables staffed by masked servers.

“We’re solidly booked for the next few weeks,” says Neiman Marcus vice president-general manager Mark Sullivan, with a laugh. “I began my post here in February. Every day since, everyone asks, ‘When is the Rotunda reopening’?”

During lockdown, as longtime Rotunda staff were furloughed, the restaurant received a makeover — new carpets, fresh paint, reupholstered banquettes. New Rotunda General Manager Garsha Shabankhani presided over a menu revamp which includes classics like the Lobster Roll, plus culinary nods to diners seeking vegan or gluten-free options.

However the Rotunda’s signature piping-hot Popovers, 110,000 of which are annually devoured, remain, mercifully unreimagined, on the menu.

Shabankhani is grateful for loyal customers, and feels blessed that 90 percent of laid-off Rotunda staff were rehired: “To be part of an establishment where everyone desires to be a customer or an employee is a great feeling.”

Outside Neiman’s, I savored the action on the busy corner of Geary and Stockton streets as shoppers, luggage-toting tourists, bikers and MUNI buses dodged pedestrians, and lights.

But that view remains marred by scaffolding and orange construction barriers still blighting the edge of Union Square Park. The City had a year-and-a-half of COVID empty streets to complete the project. But whatever work is being enacted on the underground Union Square Parking Garage — managed by the SFMTA — it continues unabated, in all its traffic-congested glory.

Atop Union Square, a joyful tangle of ten masked teens were shooting selfies.

These polite young men, 2021 graduates of Canyon High School in Anaheim, CA, were in town for a graduation trip. Uncertain of San Francisco’s new guidelines, they preferred to remain safely masked outdoors.

“San Francisco is pretty fun. But our friend Kevin’s car got broken into at Golden Gate Park,” shared Kyle Huynh. “On my last visit, I didn’t experience the new realities here. It’s still a pretty city. But I hear, lately, the city’s in a rapid decline.”

Yet that crime reality couldn’t deter this group from their next stop: Pier 39. With a wave farewell, this reporter advised them to take a bus.

But the recent arrival of McCall’s Catering, manning new Union Square outposts, signals a civilized resurgence: gourmet grab-and-go fare, and outdoor tables, are available at Union Square Cafe on Powell Street. On Stockton Street, Alma’s is a swanky indoor-outdoor seated restaurant. And hold onto your hats: Each establishment is fully ABC-licensed to sell spirits and cocktails. That’s a historic first in this city-owned park.

Meanwhile, across town…

Hopping in my car I zipped down 101 to the Silver Avenue exit where I alighted on San Bruno Avenue, the main drag of the sunny Portola District. Settled by Italian and Maltese immigrants, adept at growing backyard produce and flowers amid the City’s previously open fields, this district is historically dubbed our “Garden District.”

But same as Union Square, every masked denizen cut a wide, socially distanced berth atop the sidewalks.

The COVID lockdown was particularly harsh to this neighborhood of immigrants and blue-collar workers, many of whom own their colorfully painted homes on the suburban-like streets.

San Bruno Avenue rocks with ethnic cuisines: ramen joints, Banh mi sandwiches shops, taquerias, classic diners. But recent newcomers, including the hipster FDR Brewery, didn’t survive lockdown.

On the final block of Burrows Street, a dead end off San Bruno, I spied an open gate leading into a lush, narrow plant-filled corridor. Seeing folks chatting on garden chairs in the shade, I figured it was a cool coffee shop.

Turns out I’d stumbled upon the not-necessarily open-to-the-public plant propagation workshop manned by the Portola Neighborhood Association and Portola Garden Club, mighty forces led by Association chairman Maggie Weis, co-director Angie Matt and Alex Hopps, all devoted Portola champions who lend theirs skills as landscapers, architects and civic leaders to this beloved, oft overlooked, ‘hood.

The association not only developed the Burrows Pocket Park but also reignited the marquee of the long-dark, yet non-functional, historic Avenue Theater. They encouraged the owner to offer reasonable rent to new merchants such as Churn Urban Creamery. They’re doggedly working with the City to transform trash-filled sites into more gardens, enjoyed by all neighbors.

Later this month a new garden, the Burrows Extension, debuts alongside its new Hey, Neighbor cafe.

“COVID was really hard on local businesses. But this neighborhood is very engaged and the association’s mission includes supporting our merchants,” explains Weiss. “Neighbors also volunteered their time to work in our propagation workshop. This new Burrows extension is, ironically, the garden that COVID grew.”

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