Nowadays I often think of the old story of Rip Van Winkle who lived in upstate New York. One day he went for a walk and fell asleep in a mountain cave not far from his home. When he woke up 20 years later, the whole world had changed.
Time goes by faster these days, but San Francisco and the Bay Area are awakening from the long-lost year of the COVID lockdown.
It’s the glorious month of May and the Bay Area is at its best. The days are longer and the weather warmer. The hills turn brown like every year in late spring. We recently had lunch with friends on the deck at Sam’s in Tiburon, a spring ritual. San Francisco glittered across the blue bay, as beautiful as ever.
Everything looked the same. And yet it wasn’t. It was towards the end of some pandemic restrictions and we had to stand in a long line to get in on a weekday as well. They looked for masks, splashed every disinfectant on their hands, and took special care to tell people apart. Something like that goes away, but nothing will ever be like it was before.
In San Francisco, restaurant owner Don Dial says of his hometown, “It’s a new city.” He should know; His family has been in the San Francisco restaurant business for 80 years. Now he’s the man behind Rocco’s Cafe, an Italian restaurant on Folsom Street. He calls it a little bit of North Beach in South Beach. His place survived the closure, but hardly. He is both optimistic and cautious. People’s habits, he says, have changed – and maybe forever.
You don’t need a tour guide to see for yourself. With the city’s workforce working from home, the downtown and financial districts are empty. At the same time, many neighborhoods seem to be thriving – Valencia Street, Sunset, Marina and North Beach.
But the neighborhood boom is an illusion. One last spring night. I was in North Beach for pizza and beer. We were in a parklet on the sidewalk, with bright lights, good company, and baseball on TV. I even took a taxi to take me to Bernal Heights. It drove south on Stockton Street, and crossing Broadway to Chinatown was like crossing West Berlin to the east during the Cold War. The streets of Chinatown were empty, gray, and deserted. Driving downtown was worse. This part of the city is spooky at night. It hurts. It’s nothing like it was.
A few days later I had an appointment on Market Street and Van Ness Avenue. I took BART to Civic Center Station to get there. I wasn’t interested in driving a Muni bus.
The Civic Center Station is like a kind of city boundary. Nervous. I went up the market to Van Ness, saw a drug deal on the way, noticed a woman talking to herself, a man spreading dead on the sidewalk. I’m a city boy, careful. I didn’t like the look of Van Ness and Market either, so I quickly went to Another World one block away on Franklin Street.
I ducked into a little place called RT Rotisserie in Oak and Franklin. The place looked inviting and since my appointment was delayed I thought I would stop for lunch. Business was good. Many of the customers seemed to know each other. Nobody paid cash. There were many takeout orders. I was sitting inside on a long bench. The meal was delicious. For me at least it was a discovery. “You walk two blocks,” said Don Dial, “and you are in another town.”
The city is opening, but not fast enough for Dial. I had written about his restaurant in the winter when the city was tightly closed. At the time, he was dissatisfied with the changing rules and the way the city was dealing with the pandemic. “You’re just killing the little guy,” he said then. He still feels the same way.
Times were good at the beginning of last year. “I had the best February ever,” he said. “I made $ 180,000 this month.” Things were looking good and by March, Rocco had 250 pounds of corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day. But that day everything was tightly closed. “My Italian family ate corned beef for months,” said Dial.
Rocco has opened and closed and reopened in February 2021. Things are slow, like awakening from a long sleep. “It just opens up a little,” he said. “Now I’m making $ 25,000 a month,” he said. He says he lost hundreds of thousands of dollars to the pandemic.
I imagine hundreds of restaurants could say the same thing. Dial believes the city is full of young people who have been together for months. “There were no night clubs, nothing, no dancing. Nothing to celebrate. When you’re young, under 30, you want to go out and dance, ”he said.
He obviously hopes that they will stop by for a festive meal on their way to these clubs in the south of the market.
“San Francisco has always been the Paris of the United States,” he says. He said he did an investigation and San Francisco came back to life after the great flu epidemic of 1918. “When the hotels open, the tourists come back, the parades start and the opera, bars and clubs, and more people can go to the ballpark. It will be the roaring 20s of the 21st century. “
Lots of people are waiting for it. Otherwise all that remains is a dream of a long sleep. We will see.
Carl Nolte’s column runs on Sundays. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Carlnoltesf