San Franciscans are big on dining out – lunching out, breakfasting out, drinking out, all things gustatory and convivial. So COVID has not been fun. But bars and restaurants have discovered a happy workaround, and the city seems equally happy to assist.
In virtually every corner of San Francisco, outdoor tables have sprung up. They hug the storefronts on the sidewalk, they cluster on hillsides with propped-up legs to keep dishes from sliding to the pavement. They spill into the street where parking spots vanish in their wake, and if anybody’s complaining I haven’t heard about it.
Officially, they are “Parklets,” at least the ones with sidewalls that create more or less permanent booths. Several I’ve seen have not received Parklet status, so they are set up every afternoon and taken down at closing time – a new job for wait staff that may drive them nuts, but at least it means there are customers to wait on.
Actually, there seem to be a LOT of customers. My strictly anecdotal assessment of outdoor dining in a dozen different neighborhoods is that about half – mostly those in fairly upscale areas – are crazy-busy at mealtimes and happy hours. Along the sketchier streets vacancies are commonplace and it’s not unknown to see a dozing non-customer taking advantage of a comfy place to sit.
Even though San Francisco weather does lend itself to al fresco dining for much of the year, we do get those occasional yicky days. Many parklet spots are wind-protected and ready for cold (giant heaters between tables) or rain (Please. It’s been so dangerously dry for so long in California that most citizens would welcome soggy hamburgers.) Paris, which is more than a few dining outdoor generations ahead of us, seems to take it own changes of weather in stride.
Newcomers to streetside dining sometimes have to learn the tricks of it all the hard way. For instance, one may spot a shady, well-secluded table on a busy thoroughfare and happily settle in, only to have the large truck that had been quietly parked at the curb pull away without so much as a polite nod – leaving you exposed to the thrum of traffic and acutely aware of why everybody else had chosen the more crowded together tables around the corner. It’s also useful to consider, when making reservations, which side of Fillmore Street, say, gets the blazing sun between 11 and 4; there’s only so much protection against California sunshine.
San Franciscans are still taking COVID protection seriously. Masks stay on until everyone’s served, tables are reasonably distanced and most parklets have dividers between customers that actually enhance the feeling of intimate dining.
Is this the New Normal? Who knows. Every day it gets a little harder to remember what the Old Normal felt like. But the New might eventually work its permanent way into the hearts and streets of San Francisco.
This essay also appears on Medium.com