On the first days Santa Clara and San Mateo counties allowed restaurants to reopen for outdoor dining over the weekend, Mountain View's Castro Street, Palo Alto's University and California avenues and Menlo Park's Santa Cruz Avenue no longer felt like ghost towns, with many people enjoying their first sit-down restaurant meal in nearly three months.
Santa Clara County allowed outdoor dining to resume on Friday and San Mateo County on Saturday. Many restaurants, fighting to survive only on takeout when shelter-in-place orders were first issued in March, rushed to adapt their businesses to the new guidelines. They set socially distanced tables with bottles of hand sanitizer, implemented temperature checks for employees, required reservations and swapped printed menus for digital ones.
Sharon Lesec and Philip Stephanou were among the diners having lunch on Castro Street on Friday. They ordered fish and chips, a burger and beers from St. Stephen's Green from a menu on their phones.
"It's a mood lifter," Lesec said of dining out after months of takeout and home cooking. "We planned this last week and I have been looking forward to eating at a restaurant. It's nice just to be able to enjoy the outdoors and socialization, in a safe way. I feel very comfortable."
At Town & Country Village in Palo Alto, several restaurants now have additional tables set up in parklets built in the parking spaces outside. Signage reminds customers to stay 6 feet apart and to keep their masks on unless they're eating. At Telefèric Barcelona, a waiter wearing a face shield and black nitrile gloves served tables from a safe distance. The Spanish restaurant is taking employees' temperatures before each shift and has increased sanitation of all front and back-of-house spaces.
"It was wonderful to put food on plates, drinks in real glasses and serve our guests and friends," the owners of La Bodeguita del Medio on California Avenue posted to Instagram on Saturday. "The first big exhale in awhile." (The Cuban restaurant only had three outdoor tables capped with two diners each and reservations required.)
In downtown Palo Alto, the owners of Indian restaurant Rooh worked with the city and their landlord to built a new parklet in just two days. It allowed them to add four additional tables, where diners on Friday night used a QR code to access a digital menu on their phones. (Those who prefer a paper menu can ask for a disposable one.)
"With the new dining regulations, dining is going to look a little different," said a masked Rooh waiter, noting that silverware would only come out when dishes were served instead of sitting on tables.
At Salvaje, a downtown Palo Alto wine bar, owner Kasim Syed texted a photo of the limited menu to customers and asked whether they preferred him to wear gloves. He was sanitizing the bathroom every half hour and cleaning tables and chairs between customers. He posted coronavirus posters from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at each entrance to the wine bar's two outdoor patios.
"It's all going to be a learning experience as we're doing it right now," Syed said.
Over the weekend, some restaurants, including Left Bank Brasserie in Menlo Park, started by allowing customers to eat takeout at outdoor tables before adding full table service. Menlo Park's Flea St. Cafe is reopening this Wednesday in a hybrid model, asking customers to continue to place and pay for their orders online in advance with the option of reserving an outdoor table. Staff will bring them their dinner in a bag, including compostable plates and flatware, which they can unpack themselves and eat outside. Afterwards, the restaurant will compost everything and sanitize the table for the next diners.
"We are starting very conservatively in order to create a safe and respectful minimal touch dining experience," Flea St. owner Jesse Cool said. "We feel protective of our staff and guests."
Other owners are moving more cautiously on outdoor dining, taking the time to set up all the necessary procedures and train staff. Rocco Scordella is aiming to reopen the patio of his Palo Alto restaurant, Vina Enoteca, this week. He's requiring all of his employees to get tested on a weekly basis.
"Once they all receive their results I will feel better on opening again," he said.
Eateries that were lucky to already have outdoor dining areas or parklets were able to open more quickly over the weekend, while others are still waiting for their cities to close main thoroughfares to traffic to give them space to serve diners outside. If city leaders don't act quickly, they worry they'll start losing takeout business to customers who choose to patronize the restaurants that have already reopened for outdoor dining.
In downtown Los Altos, restaurant owners said the city's regulations prevented them from realistically putting any tables on sidewalks over the weekend. The city instructed owners that tables should be 10 or more feet away from one another and also 10 feet from the public right-of-way or sidewalk to allow pedestrians to walk through, according to an email from Economic Development Coordinator Anthony Carnesecca.
"Our only path to survival is for outdoor space," said Vickie Breslin, owner of The Post in Los Altos. "(We) need to figure a plan out as we are dead since everyone else can serve outside or have a patio."
She and other Los Altos business owners are hoping the city temporarily closes Main and State streets to traffic, which the City Council will discuss on Tuesday. Staff are proposing the closures run from about 6 a.m. on Thursdays through about 6 a.m. on Mondays, effective as early as Thursday, June 11.
In downtown Redwood City, Anne Le Ziblatt eagerly started planning to serve diners outside her Main Street restaurant, Nam Vietnamese Brasserie. Her public relations firm sent out an announcement that Nam would reopen for outdoor dining this Tuesday, June 9, — and then Le Ziblatt learned from the city that without an existing outdoor dining permit, she couldn't actually do so. Nam Vietnamese Brasserie will continue as a takeout-only operation for the foreseeable future.
She's also waiting for the City Council to take action on a proposal to temporarily close streets and allow restaurants to use sidewalks, parking spaces and parking lots. A city task force is exploring full and partial rotating closure of streets, including Main Street between Middlefield Road and Broadway Street and parts of Broadway, on Fridays through Sundays.
According to a staff report, the city is targeting a start date of July 11 — too far off for struggling restaurants, Le Ziblatt said.
"It's one of those things where if you're going to take that long ... it's not going to be useful," she said. "People are hanging on by their fingernails waiting for an opportunity. A lot of people are operating just waiting for that moment."
According to a staff report, the city of Palo Alto is currently planning to close California Avenue on Thursday through Sunday evenings, beginning on June 11 and lasting at least through the July 4 weekend. On University Avenue, where several restaurants owners oppose closing the street to traffic, the city is instead proposing testing a limited closure, such as only on Friday or Saturday evenings or one full weekend.
The Menlo Park City Council planned to discuss options for closing Santa Cruz Avenue to vehicle traffic to enable local restaurants to expand outdoor dining opportunities on June 9. The Chamber of Commerce developed an alternative plan and was set to present it to the council, but the matter was postponed to a future meeting.
On Monday, the Palo Alto City Council enthusiastically supported the closure of California Avenue and gave a mixed blessing for doing the same on University Avenue.
The Mountain View City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to temporarily close Castro Street between Evelyn Avenue and Mercy Street to traffic, set to start June 22. City staff recommended a "food court-style layout" where the city would provide tables and chairs for shared use by restaurants along Castro Street as well as participating restaurants on adjacent side streets.
Under the revised health orders from Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, restaurants must space outdoor tables 6 feet apart and limit the number of customers at a single table to no more than six individuals, all of whom must be from the same household. Restaurants can only serve alcohol with food, and bar areas must remain closed. Hand sanitizer or hand-washing stations should be made available in the outdoor dining area.
San Mateo County's health order goes into more detail. It states that customers are required to wear face coverings except when sitting at dining tables. People from different households can use lounge areas and fire pits at the same time as long as they stay 6 feet apart. Restaurants must put their host stands at the entry of the outdoor dining area "so as to prohibit patrons from unnecessarily walking through the outdoor dining area." If a restaurant allows dogs, they must be on a leash and stay at least 6 feet from customers who are not members of the same household. Parents must ensure children 12 years and younger adhere to social distancing guidelines at all times.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.