Food & Wine

Who Said Opening a Restaurant During a Pandemic Was a Bad Idea?

By Carolyn Jung

Brandon Rice is moving ahead with plans for his restaurant, Ernest. (Daniel Brooks)

On a fateful evening in late March, chef John Paul Carmona and his two business partners gathered for dinner after a taxing day of painting walls, hammering banquettes and polishing vintage brass lights for their impending casual French restaurant. Their timing for opening Routier in San Francisco couldn’t have been worse. And they knew it.

Over takeout pasta from a local trattoria — which, like all other restaurants, had already halted indoor dining because of the pandemic — Carmona, Michel Suas, founder of the San Francisco Baking Institute, and Belinda Leong, co-owner and pastry chef of San Francisco’s b. Patisserie, contemplated their next step. “We asked each other if we still wanted to do this,” recalls Carmona. “We all said yes without hesitation. We all wanted to see it through.”

So, on August 14, after a four-month delay, one of the Bay Area’s most anticipated new restaurants opened at the corner of California and Divisadero streets. The menu, which has already refocused on more comforting cuisine to meet the times, offers to-go dishes such as swordfish rillettes, braised lamb shoulder and poached lobster with miso aioli. Carmona works in the kitchen with half the anticipated staff, while also juggling the phones and teaching himself to fine-tune the point-of-sale system because he’s also acting as general manager in this unusual turn of events.

Since March, more than 370 Bay Area restaurants have permanently closed. Even so, new restaurants do continue to open. A Menlo Park outpost of Farmhouse Kitchen is slated to debut this fall, joining its Oakland and San Francisco locations. And chef Pim Techamuanvivit is launching Kin Khao Dogpatch in San Francisco, a fast-casual iteration of her Michelin-starred Thai establishment, any day now. The opening will allow staffers from her original Kin Khao —shuttered during the pandemic — to return to work.

Like Routier, which in French means “roadside restaurant,” the path forward for these businesses is precarious. “People in the restaurant industry understand we’re crazy to be doing this now,” says Carmona. “But you have to be a little crazy in the first place to open a restaurant.”

Jeffrey Stout, chef-owner of Campbell’s Orchard City Kitchen, concurs. Had he somehow predicted the pandemic, he still would have built his Be.Steak.A, which will open in November just steps away in the same Pruneyard complex.

He endured the stoppage of construction on this upscale steakhouse for seven weeks due to a Santa Clara County mandate, as well as a plaster contractor going out of business in the interim and a stucco worker disappearing without explanation, both of whom had already been paid. Stout now faces $75,000 in unplanned construction expenses, not to mention eight months of rent already owed on the space.

Did he ever think about cutting his losses and walking away? “No, because if I were to pull the plug now, [financially] it would be the same as opening it,” Stout says. “The restaurant is spectacular. I really want to see it operating and hitting on all cylinders.”

The interior boasts Venetian plaster walls, banquettes with sleek couches and a custom Hestan kitchen with a 16-foot-long window to afford views of cooks making pasta by hand and searing steaks on a wood-fired grill. The dining room was designed to accommodate 120 seats, but with social distancing requirements, it likely will go down to 72. Fortunately, the 40-seat patio features louvers overhead that can be opened at the touch of a button.

Ernest will serve dishes like this: sushi rice topped with beef tartare and ikura, served alongside toasted nori. (Skyler June)

If shelter-in-place had to happen, Brandon Rice considers it a godsend that it took effect when it did. Any later and he would have already hired a full staff for his forthcoming San Francisco restaurant, Ernest, which he then would have had to lay off. Instead, he temporarily stopped construction on the two-level Mission District eatery with a playful Japanese Maneki-neko lucky cat motif.

As months of uncertainty passed, the former chef de cuisine of San Francisco’s Michelin-starred Rich Table held pop-ups at a Walnut Creek park. Rice also borrowed the kitchen at San Francisco’s Octavia to offer takeout to test out Ernest’s globally influenced Northern California dishes such as char siu spare ribs and yellowtail sashimi with cherry tomato ponzu.

With Ernest nearly completed now, Rice ponders mightily: Should he open for only takeout and patio dining? Or hold off opening at all this year, in hopes that 2021 will bring a more hospitable environment for his first restaurant?

Named for his late grandfather who was a Virginia butcher, Ernest represents the pinnacle of Rice’s career. While he admits that waiting is agonizing, he has no intention of giving up on it. “It’s that anticipation of Christmas morning, then realizing that you have to wait until July to open your presents,” he says. “I hope the general public will feel that coming to a place like this is the prize at the end of this pandemic.”

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