SAN FRANCISCO — Mitchell Rosenthal, the executive chef and co-owner at acclaimed Town Hall Restaurant in San Francisco, seemed beyond happy to unbutton his shirt to reveal another underneath; this one stained. He explained he just finished making jambalaya and training his staff on the specifics of the way it should be done at the Southern food restaurant, which has called the historic Marine Electric Building at Fremont and Howard streets home for 17 years.
He was happy because it means Town Hall Restaurant is back open now, after six months of lockdown. He’s equally enthusiastic to talk about future menu items like the “eggplant Bayou Teche,” which is breaded and stuffed with crab and shrimp or more, and discuss the intricate art of caramelization and blackening.
“It’s almost like meditation for me,” he said, during a conversation on Sept. 16.
Town Hall is open for outdoor dining, but Rosenthal and his partners, Steven Rosenthal (his brother) and Björn Kock (also the general manager), need more help from the government at the federal, state and city level. The three received federal grant money through the second round of the now-$669-billion Paycheck Protection Program, part of the $2.2-trillion CARES Act, but if it runs out they’ll be in trouble once again. They’re also looking for more instruction about reopening indoor service—something that according to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s color-coded reopening plan should now be permitted in San Francisco County, but which Mayor London Breed has delayed until at least the end of September.
According to a July survey by the National Restaurant Association, the COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered 100,000 restaurants since March. That’s one out of every six nationwide. Just like the music industry, the food and hospitality industry especially hard-hit and has been lobbying government for additional help.
According to a more-recent survey in late August, 40 percent of restaurant operators believe it’s unlikely their business will be afloat six months from now without additional relief packages from the government.
“Our PPP money runs through December, but once that runs out, I don’t know,” Rosenthal said. “You’re seeing a lot of restaurant closures now because if you were in the first [round], your PPP money has run out. And everyone I’ve spoken to, even with PPP money, most of them are just breaking even.
“I do think for restaurants, there’s going to be the need to do another round of PPP funding. And another round, and another round,” he said. “This industry needs stimulus, bad, probably more than just PPP money, with all the restrictions.”
Town Hall Restaurant closed a week before the official stay-at-home orders were enacted out of necessity. The restaurant is surrounded by steel and glass towers that house tech giants like Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest, which sent their employees home.
“We went from doing 150 lunches to 12,” Rosenthal said. “It just died out here; it was done. This is a pretty scary neighborhood be in right now because they’re [the large employers in the neighborhood] saying they’re not coming back through August, September of next year. … That would be the best-case scenario.”
At first, he presumed the closures would last three months; maybe four. At this point, he’s not willing to make any guesses or assumptions.
The co-owner said he would have preferred to stay closed until it was completely safe for people to be close again, but he wanted to give his employees the opportunity to work and the neighborhood a reason to be happy.
“We’re hoping that we’re providing a service for the neighborhood,” he said. “There’s not much open down here. It’s pretty barren.”
From the moment the owners decided to open for outdoor dining, following the city’s permission, it took three weeks to get the doors open. Rosenthal credits Kock for designing and building the 850-square-foot seating arrangements on the restaurant’s existing patio, as well as two more islands of tables in the plaza beside the building. The area is heated and well-lit, and can currently accommodate 50 diners, according to restrictions.
Before the lockdown, Town Hall restaurant had about 60 employees. Now, there’s about five at a time in the front of the house and the same amount in the kitchen. All of the employees interested in working have been offered some hours.
“We can try to give everyone as much work as they want,” he said.
The menu now is a tribute to New Orleans Chef Paul Prudhomme, whom Rosenthal credits as a significant mentor in his own career. Prudhomme’s acclaimed restaurant K-Paul’s succumbed to the pandemic after 40 years in business.
K-Paul’s had directly influenced Town Hall, Rosenthal said. Before the pandemic, he said he was planning on remodeling the space and returning as a Southern bistro rather than its current combination of Southern and Californian cuisine. That’s still the plan for the future, but not in the short term.
However, as business picks up, he hopes to expand the menu with dishes like K-Paul’s slow-roasted duck.
“You take duck fat and bake it in what’s called the holy trinity—peppers, onions and celery—and then rosemary and spice mixture. You mix this with the duck fat and shove it in the duck and roast it for four-and-a-half, five hours at 207 degrees. You’re basically confiting it from the inside,” Rosenthal said. “And then you serve it with dirty rice. That dish is unbelievable. You’ve never had anything like this. You take it out and you split it. You remove all the bones and basically the entire duck is confit with this crispy, spicy skin.”
The owners don’t expect business to return quickly. Opening day came on Sept. 9—the day the entire Bay Area was bathed in orange light, and then in heavy smoke.
“It was like a punch in the gut,” he said. “We’ve been biting at the bit to open this, and then, I woke up that morning, and I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
The first non-smoky day was Sept. 16. Rosenthal said he’s been concentrating on giving his cooks tune-ups on some of the Cajun cooking and has enjoyed seeing his employees again. He and his brother own two other restaurants—The Salt House and Anchor & Hope, but both are still shuttered.
The turnout hasn’t been anything to brag about so far, but he said the diners they have had have been excited and grateful for the opportunity to dine out.
Kock said that at first, he focused on giving diners as much space as they wanted, at the expense of a personal touch and hospitality.
“Very quickly I found out that that was not at all what they wanted,” Kock said. “They want to have a base level of comfort and sanitation, but beyond that—the reason why they’re here is because they’re yearning to be taken care of. They’re yearning for a human interaction in an environment they feel safe in and feel a bit of normalcy again.”
Rosenthal is happy to be back in the kitchen and said he feels fortunate that Town Hall is in a location that includes spacious off-street seating without cars zooming by tables. He’s optimistic that news of the reopening will spread, and people who live in the nearby condos will begin to return. He’s begun serving brunch, something he’s never seriously considered before, as well as takeout and delivery service to nearby residents.
“I think that our food travels well—fried chicken, ribs, some of the other stuff—so hopefully that will be a draw,” he said.
On the day that Gov. Gavin Newsom released the rules by which counties could reopen restaurants, allowing Napa and San Francisco counties to do so, Napa County announced it was looking to take action and was ready to reopen by the next business day. But San Francisco didn’t acknowledge the announcement until a week later, and it wasn’t until Sept. 18 that Mayor London Breed announced the city’s restaurants will finally be allowed to open at 25-percent capacity once the city moves from the “red” to “orange” tier on the state’s reopening plan. The soonest that can happen is next week—but it’s not a certainty.
The state’s “Blueprint for a Safer Economy” puts each county into one of four tiers based on its new cases per 100,000 residents and positive rate among tests administered. While the state imposes restrictions based on these tiers, counties can further restrict businesses at their discretion.
Rosenthal said that Breed has been in a difficult position for months.
“She’s making decisions in something none of us have ever seen,” he said.
He acknowledged that he doesn’t have the answers either. But both he and Kock said the government can and has to do more for the restaurant industry.
“We need a lot of help. … We don’t have huge bank accounts,” Rosenthal said. “The percentage that you can make even in good times is minimal.”
Kock said one of the biggest failings of the government has come in pitting business owners and landlords against each other. When rent freezes were instituted, there should have been protections for landlords, many of whom aren’t the large corporations they’re sometimes made out to be, he added. And the federal government has been dragging its feet while mired in partisanship.
“The whole intention of the CARES Act, which I actually read, the PPP specifically … and the extension of the PPP in July kept changing,” Kock said. “It’s still not perfect, and it’s still not enough.”