Parties Help Neighborhood Restaurants Rebound

in / by

Nick Osborne and his fiancé, Monique, were workmates in the restaurant his family owns, Mission Rock Resort Oyster Bar & Grill, so naturally that’s where they tied the knot in 2017. They hosted 250 friends and relatives at their wedding ceremony and reception at the bayside establishment, among a dozen or so couples who’ve celebrated their nuptials there over the years. 

Osborne, Mission Rock Resort’s general manager, started receiving inquiries for private parties of up to 70 people, as well as larger-scale restaurant buyouts, a month before the State of California lifted COVID-19 restrictions on June 15. San Francisco was well on its way to one of the highest vaccination rates in the nation by then; as of early July, 82 percent of the City’s population over the age of 12 had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine; 74 percent were fully vaccinated. 

After an abysmal year of lost revenues, neighborhood restaurants and event venues that’ve weathered the pandemic say business is brisk, with demand especially strong for private parties. Union Square, Downtown and the Moscone Center area are lagging, yet a pent-up desire to make up for lost time is spurring a hospitality revival in the neighborhoods, said Laurie Thomas, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA). 

“People are playing catchup. Everything’s been on hold. A lot of people are moving forward and doing events. People are wanting to go back,” Thomas said. “We’re lucky in San Francisco to have such a high rate of vaccinations.” 

John Caine, who owns ATwater Tavern, echoed those words, as did Margherita Sagan, co-owner with Sheryl Rogat ofPiccino.

“We’re getting a lot of inquiries. People are very much trying to catch up with celebrations of all sorts,” Sagan said. “Many office groups that were regulars in the past are coming back” for their first get-together after the lockdown. Piccino hosted a wedding soon after June’s reopening.

“We have event coordinator Christina Rubin, and her inbox has exploded,” Caine said. “She’s fielding mostly personal events. People who got married during the shutdown are finally having their receptions. We have a 60th birthday this Saturday for 60 people, with special order tequila. Graduations came through in June pretty strong.” Corporate offsites are “trickling back in, mostly aiming to book in December.” Situated near enough to Oracle Park that the grandstand can be seen from its upper deck, at 295 Terry Francois Boulevard, ATwater has also benefitted from the San Francisco Giants’ lead in the standings. “So yeah, people are coming out. They’re back!”

The Delta variant became the dominant strain of COVID infections in California last month. Barring a mutant-related setback that leads to a resurgence in hospitalization if vaccines aren’t entirely effective against Delta or subsequent strains, Thomas sees steady progress toward economic recovery for an industry hard hit by the public health orders. 

“Restaurants in the neighborhoods, especially those with Shared Spaces dining options, are seeing a strong return of business,” Thomas said, referring to the sidewalk seating and curbside parklets that sprung up throughout the City during the pandemic. “Shared Spaces has really livened up the neighborhoods and made it feel more like Europe.” 

“The demand for outdoor seating is here to stay,” Osborne said. “We feel extremely fortunate to have a lot of outdoor space at our restaurant, and to have tons of friends in the neighborhood that kept us alive this entire time.” 

Located at 817 Terry Francois Boulevard, between the foot of 16th Street and intersection of Illinois and Mariposa streets, Mission Rock Resort is comfortably sheltered from the wind. Nestled into the northern tip of Crane Cove, there’s views of industrial cranes and drydocks for oceangoing ship repairs, harkening to the vicinity’s shipbuilding days. “It’s a front row seat of history. I never get tired of it,” Osborne said.

Formerly a bi-level restaurant, Mission Rock Resort now occupies just the upper level. The ground floor became the Rock Café during the pandemic. Customers order at the counter and can sit inside, on a waterfront deck, or in a Shared Space next to an adjacent pedestrian path. Live steel drum music on weekends and weekdays when the weather’s warm sets a leisurely vibe. 

“It’s the kind of sound that makes you feel like you’re on vacation. A very relaxed, fun sound. It’s very appreciated by customers right now,” Osborne said.  

Five hundred guests can be accommodated. By July, two large events had been scheduled for September and December. Crane Cove, a room upstairs used for private events, can accommodate up to 35 seated guests, 50 standing. The upstairs also has an outside deck. In addition to the raw bar that offers Dungeness crab and citrus poached prawn cocktails, seafood specialties like cioppino, fish and chips, and crab mac and cheese are on the menu. Rates for social functions vary based on day of the week, lunch or dinner, whether the event is partially or fully private, and what else is going on in the neighborhood, such as a concert or game at the nearby Chase Center. 

“Everybody’s at full capacity, as long as they can staff at full capacity,” Thomas said of GGRA members she’s spoken to.

Many restaurants scaled down to skeleton crews while health restrictions were in effect. They’re now facing a labor shortage, despite San Francisco’s minimum wage rising to $16.32 an hour last month. Customers can expect to pay more for their banquets due to increases in food and beverage costs, as well as higher labor expenses, Thomas said. 

“Our minimums don’t scare people away. They’re willing to spend money,” Caine said. 

Meat prices are “up 20 percent, so that’s really big, and we have had cause to raise prices. I’ve not had anybody object,” he added. “We have not been able to fully staff because of the dearth of servers, bartenders and cooks.” 

ATwater charges a minimum of “usually around $2,000, to be sure we have sales to support our staff and the menu they’ve chosen. That’s for groups of over 20, if not higher.” Available entrees include lobster ravioli, flank steak and fries, and vegetarian green risotto. Ingredients are locally-sourced.

Piccino occupies the Yellow Building on a sunny cul de sac at 1001 Minnesota Street. 

“We have a huge patio!” Sagan said. “It’s quiet, no cars zooming by. It’s pretty lovely, I have to say.” 

Featuring Italian-inspired California cuisine, the owners’ Healdsburg farm supplies 50 to 75 percent of the produce for the restaurant, depending on the season.

A private event space on the roof opens onto a deck. 

“It’s a very versatile space. It works well dressed up or just casual. Not big, but very beautiful, quaint,” Sagan said. The upstairs room seats 28, and “for a standing cocktail event we can put in up to 40 people easily.” Rates are based on the type of affair. “We make it work for whatever the event is.” 

Verdi Club, at 2424 Mariposa Street, provides onsite ceremony and reception coordination as well as extended event planning and management for those who need help finding floral arrangements and entertainment. The 2,500 square foot ballroom and banquet hall has a 170 square foot stage, a dining capacity of 185 guests, standing capacity of 299. There’s also a 400 square foot lounge with a full bar and menu catering options. Launched as a social club centered around dance and sport by Italian-Americans in 1916, Verdi Club today is a nonprofit with ownership shared by club members. 

General manager Jason Mulvaney described the interior as “totally vintage; workingman’s art deco.” 

Verdi Club has been reserved for birthday parties, weddings, b’nai mitzvahs, wakes, nonprofit fundraisers, quinceaneros, and technology company conferences in the months ahead. 

“Bookings for July through September have been for groups of 60 to 125. Bookings for the winter and spring are for 100 to 200,” Mulvaney reported. 

Rates are from $500 to $1,000 for community events, $2,500 on weeknights to $3,200 on weekends for private parties. Additional fees are charged for cleaning and optional services, like audiovisual and coat check.

Harmonic Brewing hosts private parties at its original Dogpatch location, 1050 26th Street, and its recently opened Thrive City Taproom on the Chase Center esplanade, overlooking the Bay. Full capacity for the Dogpatch location is 200; for Thrive City, it’s 300.

“Casual weddings or pre-wedding welcome parties are most common, and now corporate off-sites are picking up steam,” co-founder Jon Verna said. “Birthday parties, baby showers, and corporate happy hours are also popular again, but in a casual, table reservation format rather than private rental. Full buyouts require a base fee plus a minimum spend.” 

Outdoor options are plentiful in Mission Bay. Stagecoach Greens, a whimsical mini golf course located in Parklab Gardensat 1379 Fourth Street, is directly across from SPARK Social SF, a food truck park. Cabanas, bungalows and fire pits can be rented at these locations.

Mission Bay Parks offers a variety of spots that can be booked for private events, including the Kids’ Park, Mariposa Park, Bay Front Mariposa Park, Mission Bay Commons, Mission Creek Park, and the Pavilion at 290 Channel Street. Rates vary depending on how much public space is being rented, a picnic table versus an entire sports court, and the amount of trash that’ll be generated. A permit needs to be filed, as well as insurance coverage. Crystal Watts, event and property manager for Mission Bay Parks, recommended the Mission Bay Parks website as the starting point to make reservations. 

“We’re inundated right now!” Watts said prior to the statewide reopening.