On Monday morning, Jennifer Metz, co-owner of Phatsy Kline's Parlor Lounge and the Inn at 2nd & C, said she was feeling good about going with the flow and making the best of things despite shelter-in-place restrictions. The hotel had already been open for weeks with guests at half capacity and plans were underway to reopen the bar with an expanded menu. Metz was excited about moving beyond charcuterie boards and small plates, having renovated the kitchen to turn out full meals and tapas to be served in the rearranged dining room. She was happily calling a chef to tell him he was hired when he told her the governor had just shut down indoor dine-in service and all bars.
"Emotional roller coaster, that's for sure," said Metz, echoing a sentiment and turn of phrase that came up again and again in conversations with restaurant and bar staff and owners after Gov. Gavin Newsom's announcement that, due to the climbing rate of COVID-19 infections in California, aspects of the reopening, including bars and dine-in service, would be rolled back. For some restaurants it means a return to takeout only or closing entirely, while others can continue outdoor service. But most are hanging on and bracing for the next drop.
Phatsy Kline's was on schedule to reopen in two weeks and, with outdoor seating on the patio, it's not out of the realm of possibility. But re-launching with a new menu during a pandemic is a daunting prospect and Metz and her partners must now weigh their options. Disappointed as she was, Metz said, "At the same time, you kind of don't want to open. If I thought everything would be better if we shut down for a month, that would be great. ... If I knew we were all going to be good children and do what we're supposed to." But she said she can't bank on that and has to consider the long-term survival of the business, too.
At Oberon Grill, owner Nick Kohl, with whom the Journal has spoken at each step of shelter in place, was disappointed but not surprised by the rollback after watching the rising number of positive tests and deaths in California. Rather than return to a to-go menu, he'll likely "close and hunker down," feeding his family with some of his inventory and donating the rest. "And just self care, man," he said.
Takeout, he said, simply doesn't bring in enough money to pay staff, nor would a couple of cafe tables, even if the sloped sidewalk and metal grates would allow them. While he's grateful to be financially able to wait and see what happens in the coming weeks, he knows difficult choices lay ahead. If and when restaurants are allowed to resume serving customers indoors, there's no guarantee they'll show up. Beyond that, there are deferred utility bills and mortgage payments to consider.
Across the street, Five Eleven is wrestling with the same dilemma. Along with selling takeout boxes of its popular buttermilk fried chicken and cocktails in canning jars, Five Eleven had started seating patrons last week. And for a few nights, the kitchen turned out the artfully plated oysters, filet mignon and carpaccio that are its signature. Then came Monday's announcement and the question of whether the restaurant would revert to boxed dinners and/or try setting up tables out front. So far, nobody knows. In a message to the Journal, chef Josh Wiley said, "I clearly understand why this is happening but I'm terribly frustrated and I really feel for the industry as a whole."
Before reopening Jack's Seafood's dining room, owner Jack Wu was feeling fairly crushed by his overhead. "Every day I just say I cannot handle everything," he said back in May. Then takeout was bringing in $200 to $300 a day, which didn't cover the costs of a pair of kitchen staff making between $16 and $18 per hour, a server making minimum wage plus tips, and ingredients for its crab sandwiches and fish and chips. Meanwhile, the rent for the restaurant was more than $3,000 a month with a 50 percent increase on the way. He was able to access PPP funds but wasn't sure how he'd manage when they ran out.
Manager Laura Hull said this week that the addition of dine-in service had made a huge difference. "It's been crazy — we've been slammed." And shutting down indoor dining may not slow the restaurant down much, as it has 10 patio tables and Wu is talking with the city about extending seating onto Madaket Plaza. In fact, said Hull, Jack's is ready to hire more servers.
If this had happened in winter, one wonders if outdoor seating could keep the dockside eatery afloat. For now, though, Jack's will take advantage as long as the sun shines. Even when flush with business, it seems Humboldt restaurants have no choice but to wait, hope and keep a weather eye.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal and prefers she/her. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.