Walk down any commercial sidewalk in the Mission District, and you’ll see workers erecting wood dividers or chest-high barriers where restaurants are marking off their territory for outside dining. 

In hours, corners, sidewalks and parking spaces can be transformed. On Tuesday morning workers hammered together boards in front of 20 Spot, a wine and food restaurant on 20th Street. By evening, waiters were serving customers outdoors. On Wednesday morning, plywood marked a soon-to-be dining area in front of Hawker Fare on Valencia. By evening, a few diners were at the tables. 

In front of 20 Spot Tuesday morning. Photo by Lydia Chávez

The neighborhood almost feels Parisian, but the now-plein air restaurants say beware — the seats will not replace their pre-COVID revenue levels.

“I think every restaurant is like, ‘this isn’t going to be enough.’ No one is going to write a business plan to succeed in this environment,” said Nat Cutler, one of the owners of Monk’s Kettle, which has tables — and even heating for San Francisco’s frigid evenings — along Albion Street. 

Outdoor seating would need to be consistently fully booked for him to stay afloat, Cutler said, and outdoor dining’s early popularity has already begun to wane. The cooler weather and last week’s spike in new COVID-19 cases did not help.

“We’ve seen it ebb and flow. It flowed initially with the excitement, then it ebbed as people got kind of jittery with all of the reporting that’s come out in the last week,” said Cutler.

Although outdoor dining has been allowed since mid-June, some restaurants are still in the process of reopening their tables. 

Once 20 Spot, for example, got city approval, staff constructed barriers in the parking spaces in front of the restaurant, as well as an adjacent Alcoholics Anonymous center, and began offering dining service there Tuesday. 

The small restaurant, once a punk record shop, was able to get city permits to use these spaces by applying for the Shared Spaces Program, a city effort in which restaurants can temporarily use sidewalk and parking spaces near their establishments to bolster their seating count to better match their previous indoor capacities.

Although 20 Spot has 12 fewer seats now than before COVID-19, it has found outdoor dining helpful.

“It’s been really positive so far, a lot more [business] than from takeout before,” said Bodhi Freedom, a co-owner of 20 Spot.

One of 20 Spot’s co-owners, Peter Googin,  said the process to get use of the parking spaces was “very straightforward.” Simply check the box on the Shared Spaces online application that says you want to use a parking space, submit your $1 million general liability commercial insurance policy and release the city from any liability, and wait for the city to give you the all-clear.

Although business has been good so far, Freedom is uncertain about the immediate future.

“It’s very day-to-day. I won’t be surprised if the city shuts down outdoor dining. We’re just trying to get some money in the bank so we can be here next year,” said Freedom.

Others said business remains slow. 

Etcetera, a wine bar on Valencia Street, has a total of 26 seats across tables of varying size, as well as in front of the still-closed businesses Schauplatz Clothing and Yasmin.

Etcetera’s owner, Alexandra Gerteis, said that it’s good to be open again, but since opening on June 12. “Business has been up and down.”

The novelty of outdoor dining has worn off.  “It’s not as exciting as it was like two weeks ago,” said Gerteis.

Etcetera, which does not have permanent outdoor seating, is relying on the city’s Shared Spaces Program. The program stipulates that owners must notify the city two business days in advance of placing seats and follow the program’s rules, which include leaving at least six feet of sidewalk space to comply with the ADA. 

To supplement its current sidewalk seating, Gerteis is attempting to secure the parking spaces in front of Etcetera.

Monk’s Kettle is also way below capacity and Cutler would like to appropriate parking spaces on Albion Street. In doing so, however, he’s concerned that sitting close to traffic could detract from the atmosphere that diners expect from his restaurant.

“We don’t want to sacrifice the experience for our customers. … Any customer that dines with us should feel nothing different except we’re all wearing masks,” said Cutler.

Monk’s Kettle is lucky — Ben Bleiman, the owner of Tonic Nightlife Group, notes that restaurants and bars that already had permanent outdoor seating, either on the sidewalk and/or their own patio, had a significant advantage — especially since having these areas allowed restaurants to serve alcohol without a “temporary catering authorization.”

“The only thing that’s going to decide whether you win or lose right now is if you have space for tables, and if you have a patio; that may be the lifeline you need,” said Bleiman.

Its large outdoor patio space may be just that for Zeitgeist, which re-opened June 11 for takeaway and its garden space June 12 for outdoor dining.

Zeitgeist can seat 135 people across 18 tables in its outdoor patio, with 11 staff to keep it all running smoothly. The bar has placed plastic screens between each table to protect diners, along with one-way traffic lanes throughout the area. 

With the reduced capacity, Zeitgeist enforces a maximum one-hour stay for all parties. Lara Burmeister greets guests outside, checks IDs, and tells customers the rules of the house: 1) you must order food to be served alcohol, 2) a server will come only once to take your whole order, 3) and you must leave after one hour.

“We have a reputation for managing a crowd,” said Burmeister.

Still, she said, “We don’t have the line down the street that we had the first week. As much as that first weekend was exciting, it also felt very difficult to make sure everyone was staying safe.”

And adds Cutler, there’s the psychological aspect of any dining experience in the time of the pandemic. 

“Where are people at?” he said.  “Are they going to get scared by the recent data or are they going to say ‘that doesn’t affect me, I know how to handle my own safety precautions?’ What’s their accepted level of risk?” 

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