Outdoor dining spaces serve new flavor and art to SF neighborhoods
By Jack Quach
San Francisco proudly showcases many breathtaking displays of art and architecture: the murals of the Mission sprout diverse colors and life; the Palace of Fine Arts boasts its grand columns and dome ;and the ornate “Painted Ladies” Victorian homes stand elegantly before the cityscape. And, of course, the world-famous Golden Gate Bridge spreads its open arms into the Bay.
Recent additions to the architectural landscape – built during the challenges of a globally redefining pandemic – are new, vital structures that represent the spirit of local communities that are ready to revive and reinvigorate.
Outdoor seating lines the sidewalks throughout the City. Some are adorned with string lights, others with individual stalls for diners to safely enjoy their meals, and still others with intricate paintings across the wood making up the structure.
Restrictions put in place at the onset of COVID-19 to help slow the spread of the virus resulted in small businesses left with few options as to how they would serve their patrons. In the following months, outdoor dining shone as a solution for restaurants to once again spark to life. Streets begin to regain their trademark bustle, and these crucial new structures paved the way for the restaurants and community to live on.
Esperanza Mahan, who has owned El Toreador restaurant in the West Portal neighborhood for 41 years, said he worried about the impact of the restrictions business.
“At the beginning of COVID, I was terrified that I was going to have to close my restaurant,” Mahan said.
A signature sight in the neighborhood, the Mexican eatery continuously featured an energetic atmosphere inside its doors before the global health emergency began. However, Mahan was initially forced to close for an entire month. She couldn’t afford to remain open, even for to-go orders. For months, she remained fearful for the future of her restaurant while the iconic symbols of Mexican heritage that decorated the interior lay hidden in the darkness of the COVID-19 shutdown.
But, as San Francisco introduced the outdoor dining spaces, Mahan found a source of hope . She had a structure constructed in front of El Toreador.
“It kept us going, and we were able to pay our bills,” she said.
Now, vibrant decorations adorn the outdoor eating space, with Mexican designs and flags that wave in the West Portal breeze. El Toreador’s music has made a return, bringing the atmosphere to life once again.
“We definitely would love to keep it,” Mahan said of the outdoor dining scene.
After more than a year of uncertainty, restaurant owners see the light of the future, as community members help support the small businesses in their local areas.
Michael McCarthy is a local resident and a patron of El Toreador.
“The goal is for all of us to keep these businesses going,” McCarthy said. “We’ve all seen so many places shut down … [with] empty storefront after empty storefront,”
The modern Chinese-American restaurant, Mamahuhu, located in the Inner Richmond District, opened doors to customers in January 2020. Shortly after, lockdowns meant that they had to adjust their course.
“We had to reconstruct the whole business plan,” manager Michael Bernardo said.
The owners of Mamahuhu struggled to make its name known in their neighborhood during this period. Now, the calming green outdoor seats out front that splash the restaurant’s name.
“It really helped to spread word of Mamahuhu and what we’re trying to provide to the community,” said Richmond local, Christine Kim, as she enjoyed the afternoon sun by eating her meal in the Mamahuhu outdoor space. She said she feels is a “great thing” and that “everyone, if they can and feel comfortable, should absolutely” support local business owners through finding a seat outdoors.
These benefits didn’t arise by themselves, however; restaurant owners had to put their complete dedication to create a solution addressing the trials of the COVID period. As a result, the unique structures bring a new dimension to enjoying San Francisco restaurants – one which many in San Francisco want to stay, even after gathering indoors becomes fully safe again.
Tia Margarita, a family-owned establishment for three generations in the Richmond at the corner of Clement Street and 19th Avenue, fought hard to maintain their business at the beginning of COVID-19. The owner, Henry Guzman, shared how “the trees [lining the sidewalk] served as tables” to allow for six feet of distancing between patrons. Once the restaurant had built shaded seating areas in front of the restaurant, Tia Margarita began to see more and more people exploring their food. The daily maintenance always requires hard work, as Guzman added that at closing time, he and every employee must make sure to carry in the tables and chairs that seat approximately 200 people. This perseverance has resulted in great benefits for the vintage restaurant, as the restaurant has received “75% more business” since setting up the dining area, Guzman said.
Fellow Clement Street restaurant, Lokma, which serves Turkish-Mediterranean cuisine, can relate both to the increased interest of customers and the hard work needed to maintain an exciting and safe dining experience. The owners and managers spent two weeks constructing the seating outside their restaurants, as they sourced materials and built each piece – from the wood paneling to the rooftop – by hand together.
Lokma owner Emre Kabeyel, once he received the permit, “drove around the City to see what other restaurants were doing” and to gain ideas for the best presentation to his community and patrons. As he sees customers eagerly sit outside even as Lokma has partially opened indoors, Kabeyel looks forward to keeping the space outside available, if he can.
“Most people still want to sit outside,” Kabayel said.
For so many small business owners and locals, such as Esperanza Mahan, the vivid color, vibrant music and treasured food of San Francisco communities come to life again through outdoor dining and each special structure. These little spots built out of necessity have become favorite seats for patrons, who enjoy eating lunch under the sun and dining underneath the glow of moonlight. Rooting themselves, they have grown into San Francisco landmarks that not only provide distinct splashes of architecture to neighborhoods but also preserve the unique flavors of each community.