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August 11, 2020

Let’s Take This Outside: Curbside Service Comes Into Its Own

by Joe Bonadio

These are odd times indeed, and as much as it seems like things have been inching along since the slowdown, there are lots of changes afoot. One of the biggest affecting San Francisco business right now is the rapid transition of restaurants to outdoor service. Since indoor dining was prohibited, outdoor spaces have proliferated across the city—and there’s no end in sight.

As one of San Francisco’s more food-oriented locales, North Beach actually stands to benefit from this change in the long run. With our sunny sidewalks, photo-ready views and European architecture, the neighborhood is uniquely beautiful, and very conducive to all things al fresco. In North Beach, outside is definitely our good side.

Tony’s Pizza Napoletana has joined a growing number of restaurants in the neighborhood in the construction of parklets or ‘shared spaces,’ permanent or semi-permanent seating areas, built over repurposed parking spaces directly in front of ground-floor retail. A host of other restaurants (and bars, in a couple of cases) have taken advantage of lower-cost solutions like astro-turf in order to broaden their footprint.

The shared space begins to take shape at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Tony was an early adopter of parklets, being the second restaurant (right behind Caffè Greco) to build one, just months after they became available.

“We’ve had our first parklet for years, and it has always served its purpose, and helped out Slice House,” Tony says. “Now, having more shared spaces just makes the neighborhood that much stronger.

“It’s always helped our business out tremendously,” Tony tells me. “And originally, we couldn’t serve on the parklet. It was always fast casual and self- service—sit down and eat your slice or your sandwich. And now we’re allowed to serve our customers in that space.

“Everybody is scrambling right now to build their shared space, hoping it won’t just last until the end of the year, but for much longer,” he explains. “To make up for lost income, and for the seating that we all lost during this whole pandemic.”

Early lunch customers enjoy the completed shared space at Tony’s on Monday afternoon. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

The new shared space at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana was completed in July, and spans the entire North Side of the restaurant, some 44 feet. “We’re almost done with the one at Capo’s now,” says Tony. “And we’re hoping to do Giovanni’s next.”

Rich Azzolino is the owner of the popular Sotto Mare just around the corner, which opened in 2007. Like many North Beach restaurateurs, Azzolino had already claimed the parking spaces in front of his place for table seating, officially referred to as a ‘business extension.’ And now he has taken the plunge, and built a parklet in the space.

“I think it’s great what people are doing,” Azzolino says, pausing to greet a couple passing on the sidewalk. “I hope the city of San Francisco realizes the necessity of these spaces, even once in-house dining comes back. Having a higher capacity means more gross revenue—and that means more taxes for the city.”

Sotto Mare has also taken steps to build its own shared space, seen here just before completion. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Nils Marthinsen’s Belle Cora, which sits directly across the street from Sotto Mare, might just be the neighborhood’s biggest winner since the lockdown began. His restaurant and wine bar, for years a North Beach staple, has actually picked up speed since the lockdown began. Marthinsen’s excited about the change, and what it means for the neighborhood.

“I think it’s an opportunity for North Beach to become as…..coveted a destination as it once was,” he says. “The neighborhood used to be such a destination for live music, and that has really declined.

“So the way we’ve all come together, to create this outdoor dining neighborhood, and this new atmosphere—it feels like we’re finally turning in the right direction.”

Marthinsen is quick to acknowledge his good fortune: “Having the outdoor allowance gave me a lot more space to seat people, and do it at an appropriate distance.” Belle Cora has also revamped its menu and instituted a robust takeout program—and it’s been working. “I’m in a unique position: my business is up,” he says.

We Wear Masks for You

The Slice House’s adaptation of the classic WWII poster reminds Tony’s customers to wear their masks. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

The North Beach Business Association (SFNBBA) has been a big player in the neighborhood’s move to outdoor service. Before anyone had heard of Shared Streets, the organization paid to rent 100 traffic barricades, distributing them to roughly 30 member restaurants to cordon parking spaces for outdoor seating.

SFNBBA president Dan Macchiarini is also the owner of Macchiarini Design, a legacy business on Grant Avenue. “We started lobbying for this change from the beginning, weeks before the city adopted the idea. We ran into obstacles, but eventually we got it done,” Macchiarini says.

A key ally in this effort was Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who worked across multiple city agencies to push through the necessary approvals. “I passed legislation to waive all fees,” Supervisor Peskin tells me, “And it’s keeping these places on life support, and adding vitality to our streets.

“North Beach was ahead of the outdoor dining curve. Before the city had its Shared Streets program, North Beach had a vision for Upper Grant Avenue,” Peskin says. “It’s gone from zero to sixty in just a few weeks. Now you’re seeing it starting to happen across the city. Everybody’s doing it.”

It’s hard to estimate the impact the changes have had on business in the neighborhood, after only a few short months. Walking around North Beach last night, diners were out in full force, and the streets felt alive.

Building these structures is expensive, and it’s an investment that owners clearly feel compelled to make. Not surprisingly, many are crossing their fingers in hope that the changes will turn out to be permanent. And of course, when the rain comes that will bring another set of challenges.

But Tony is grateful for the shift, and he keeps looking to the future. “We really can’t thank the city enough for the chance to do this,” he stresses.

“And hopefully, we’ll keep it.”