By Elena Kadvany
Indoor dining has returned to San Mateo County, but restaurant owners are split on reopeningUploaded: Jun 18, 2020
Within hours of Wednesday's announcement that indoor dining could resume in San Mateo County, Bistro Vida was serving diners inside the Menlo Park French restaurant for the first time in three months.
Owner Ali Elsafy said about 20 people dined inside on Wednesday night, some of whom explicitly asked to eat indoors. He said it was awkward at first, as waiters and customers navigated social distancing requirements, but he was eager to reopen the Parisian bistro-style dining room. For him, takeout and eating outside just isn't the same experience.
"The whole ambiance of the restaurant is inside," Elsafy said. "Our bread and butter is the inside."
Customers dine outside at Bistro Vida in downtown Menlo Park on June 9. Photo by Magali Gauthier.
San Mateo County issued a new health order on Wednesday that gave the green light for many businesses to reopen under certain restrictions, including dine-in restaurants, hair salons and gyms. The announcement came less than two weeks after the county allowed outdoor dining to resume.
"We are moving away from opening businesses according to certain categories and instead focusing on behaviors and practices," San Mateo County Health Officer Scott Morrow said in a press release. "As we ease restrictions, the power to control the spread of the virus lies with individuals and communities. Collective behavior will determine our destiny. If enough people, businesses, or organizations in the community do not follow the protective recommendations, the virus may spread with abandon."
The ease in dining restrictions was met with a mix of excitement and apprehension by San Mateo County restaurant owners. Some were eager to reopen after months of temporary closures, including the Dutch Goose in Menlo Park, which announced excitedly on social media that it is "throwing open our doors" for indoor dining on Thursday.
Manuel Martinez, chef-owner of La Viga and LV Mar in Redwood City, said he plans to
gradually reopen both restaurants' dining rooms, starting first with tables by windows.
"This is what we've been waiting for (for a) long time!" he wrote in an email.
Other owners, however, said they are in no rush to start serving customers indoors. Many are still getting their arms around outdoor dining.
"Absolutely not," said Jesse Cool, owner of the Flea St. Cafe in Menlo Park, when asked if she's ready to open the longtime restaurant's dining room. "We don't quite trust that this is over."
Flea St. is taking a hyper-conservative approach to outdoor dining. There are no plates, silverware, paper menus or traditional wait service. Instead, when diners sit down outside they get a bag with placemats, napkins, glass mason jars for water and compostable plates. Servers bring out the food (which has already been paid for online) and put it on stands next to tables. Customers then put it on their tables themselves. The water jars are sanitized outside before going into the kitchen to be washed.
Customers eat outside at Flea St. Cafe on a recent evening, using compostable plates. A tray maintains some separation between the waiter and diners. Photo courtesy Jesse Cool.
When customers go inside to use the restroom, they must wear a mask and a staff member will also check their temperature. Cool said her primary concern is keeping her staff safe and healthy.
Flea St., which before the pandemic had never offered takeout in its 40-year history, now relies on a thriving to-go business. Cool urged diners to continue to order takeout from restaurants even as dining restrictions loosen. With four socially distanced tables outside, Flea St. can only offer one seating in a single night.
"I would say to everybody: Enjoy dining out if you're comfortable but all the restaurants need the to-go business to ensure survival," Cool said. "It is what's keeping us alive. It's not the table service."
Camper in downtown Menlo Park is among the San Mateo County restaurants treading more cautiously on indoor dining. Photo by Magali Gauthier.
Greg Kuzia-Carmel, chef-partner at Camper in Menlo Park, also said they're taking their time to figure out indoor dining, including rehiring and training staff. They only recently opened Camper's outdoor patio on Santa Cruz Avenue. They're logging employees' temperatures, installing new physical barriers and deep cleaning the restaurant every night.
"We are going to take it slow," Kuzia-Carmel said of indoor dining. "We subscribe to the notion of just because you can do something doesn't mean you should."
Bacchus Management Group is "slowly and carefully opening" its San Mateo County restaurants for indoor dining over the next two weeks: The Village Pub and The Village Bakery in Woodside on June 26 and Selby's in Redwood City on July 7. They will have QR code menus as well as disposable menus or ones that are laminated and sanitized between every use. Employees will wear masks at all times, among other health precautions.
"We're not racing to reopen, as we are taking all the necessary steps to ensure the safety of our staff and guests," said Karey Walker, Bacchus' director of public relations. "Diners can expect to see our restaurants reimagined."
Wursthall's popular beer-garden style dining room in downtown San Mateo, which pre-pandemic was usually full of people sitting at communal tables, also won't be reopening any time soon.
"We don't see it being a major revenue stream for now and we don't want to offer it until we are sure we can do it safely," chef-partner Kenji Lopez-Alt wrote in an email. "We are instead focusing on other efforts such as outdoor dining, retail, and takeout."
During the shutdown, Wursthall started and then stopped offering takeout. The German restaurant is setting up large tables and benches outside in the style of an open-air beer garden and expects to reopen for outdoor dining by this weekend, Lopez-Alt said.
At Bistro Vida, Elsafy has instructed his masked wait staff to spend as little time as possible interacting with diners at the indoor tables, which are spaced 6 feet apart. There are no more hugs or handshakes when regulars come in.
"There's no more chatting," he said. "It's kind of short and dry."
Elsafy is doing his best to retain Bistro Vida's ambiance and hospitality while adhering to ever-shifting public health requirements. He's seen local restaurants install plain plexiglass sneeze guards between tables, which to him feels like "you're having dinner at Wells Fargo bank."
He's instead talking to a company in New York about creating custom plexiglass dividers etched with images of the Eiffel Tower and Sacré-Cœur and attached to wooden stands stained to match the restaurant's decor.
"I'm glad that we got to open," Elsafy said. "It's been a tough time for everybody. Hats off for everybody in this business for trying to hold on. It's our livelihood."
San Mateo County's new health order does not include specific guidance for restaurants. All businesses are required to continue to adhere to face coverings and social distancing requirements and put together written health and safety plans. Masks are still required in public locally (and as of Thursday, mandated by the state).
Businesses, including restaurants, must limit the number of people who come inside to ensure that they can stay 6 feet away from each other at all times. People who go inside businesses must wear masks unless "as necessarily required by the businesses operation (e.g., while eating)," the health order reads. Employees must wear face coverings, including when they're working in any space where food is prepared or packaged for sale or distribution.
Businesses must provide hand sanitizer, regularly disinfect surface and offer contactless payment systems -- and if not feasible, disinfect pens and styluses after each use.
"For our restaurants and other small businesses crippled by the economic impacts of this pandemic, this is the best news imaginable," San Mateo County Supervisor David Canepa said of the new health order. "It will be a balancing act between preserving public health and kickstarting our local economy. There are risks with every step we take and it will take all of us to take personal responsibility to stop the spread of the virus."