Elsa Trexler has been counting the days until she could return to her favorite restaurant, Juanita & Maude in Albany. To the Berkeley resident’s delight, that day is approaching. On Friday, Alameda County restaurants will open for outdoor dining.
While she enjoys the comfort food on Juanita & Maude’s to-go menu, Trexler is looking forward to the more sophisticated dishes that don’t lend themselves to takeout, such as tuna tartare and salmon niçoise — both of which will be offered on Friday’s menu.
Contra Costa County was the first in the East Bay to give the go-ahead for al fresco dining, as of June 5. Last week, Alameda County authorized outdoor service starting June 19. Today, the city of Berkeley — which has its own health department — released its guidelines to allow restaurants to serve sit-down meals at outdoor tables and lounge areas.
Contra Costa’s formal guidelines for restaurants include posting signs requiring masks for entry and prohibiting customers with COVID-19 symptoms from entering; frequent disinfecting of high-touch surfaces and seating customers six feet apart. Restaurateurs are going all out to comply, and they say customers don’t balk at the rules.
“We take the temperatures of our employees before they come in, sanitize every table, our restaurants are full of signage,” said Xavi Padrosa, owner of Telefèric Barcelona, which offers outdoor seating at its Walnut Creek location.
“Our servers tell diners if they go to the restroom, they have to put a mask on. Everyone has been cooperative and understanding,” Padrosa said.
Not surprisingly, patrons are flocking to the restaurant, which focuses on Basque dishes such as tapas and pintxos, after months of sheltering at home. Padrosa said he and his team are overjoyed to welcome them back, though at present it’s hard to accommodate them all.
The restaurant’s outdoor area seats fewer people than its indoor space, and tables must be spaced six feet apart. This means Telefèric, which formerly served 300-400 people per night, can only handle 40-50 at present. Patrons sometimes wait as long as an hour and a half to be seated — apparently for some, a small price to pay in exchange for dining at a restaurant after months of being cooped up at home. The customers wait in their cars and staffers call them when a table is freed up.
The president of Gott’s Roadside hailed the re-opening of the company’s Walnut Creek establishment with relief.
“The announcement that outdoor seating is allowed is a huge step forward. It allows guests back on the premises and that’s what restaurants are all about – being that place of community,” said Clay Walker, president of the Napa-based burger restaurant, which has establishments in various Bay Area cities.
“There’s so much pent-up demand to get out of the house now that the shelter-in-place rules are being relaxed,” Walker said. “The demand far exceeds our outdoor seat count.”
The restaurant has a wraparound patio, but it’s narrow, Walker said. He estimated that the restaurant has lost 50% of its usable seating, both because of the outdoor restriction and because patrons must be seated six feet apart.
Contra Costa County will allow indoor dining in two weeks, which should help the county’s restaurants to regain lost usable seating. Diners will still need to be spaced six feet apart, however, so there will still be limited capacity.
There’s not one of the approximately 90,000 restaurants in California that hasn’t been affected by COVID-19, but Sajj Mediterranean in San Ramon opened in November 2019, only about four months before the shelter-in-place order was issued.
The branch is one of several Sajj Mediterraneans across California, which features fresh, organic, locally sourced and handmade food including falafel and shawarma. But before many San Ramon food enthusiasts had a chance to discover it, COVID-19 hit.
Sajj Mediterranean’s chief executive, Zaid Ayoub, is used to meeting challenges, having started the company and taken it to an 80% growth rate between 2015 and 2017.
“A piece of our business that is suffering now is corporate catering because people are working from home,” Ayoub said. “We shifted to delivery and takeout,” and that business is humming, the CEO said.
Before COVID-19, customers had to walk into the restaurant to pick up takeout orders. Now, they can grab the food in compostable containers on shelves near the door.
If customers choose to dine at the restaurant currently, there’s a patio in front of the restaurant with greenery and flowers, and every table is six feet apart.
“Business is coming back. We’re optimistic,” Ayoub said.
In Alameda County, Chris Pastena, who co-owns Oakland’s Tribune Tavern with his wife Jana, is over the moon about reopening for outside dining Friday.
“We’ll have sidewalk dining outside under the awnings, and we’ll open the parking lot right next door for outdoor seating,” Pastena said.
The restaurant is on 13th Street in the heart of downtown Oakland. In a fortuitous circumstance, the opening coincides with the city’s remaking of 13th Street, which now is a one-lane slow street embellished with planter boxes.
Pastena is hoping to show movies projected on the side of the next-door building to outdoor diners on warm Oakland nights, though that’s still in the works.
The restaurant closed March 16 and it’s been tough since then, Pastena acknowledged. Now he’s looking forward to welcoming diners in an establishment carefully redone with safety in mind.
“The (Alameda County) Health Department has been great,” Pastena said. The restaurateur had lengthy consultations with the agency and created internal best practices based on the consultations. The health department also did a walkthrough and an audit and Pastena completed an over-the-phone questionnaire.
The best practices include mandating that staffers and diners must wear face masks. Signage prohibits anyone who is symptomatic from entering the restaurant. Tables are six feet apart and there’s hand sanitizer next to the entrance.
Staffers must undergo testing for COVID-19 and stay home if they test positive; as staffers report to work, their temperatures are taken. Additionally, staffers must maintain six feet of distance from patrons.
A Stanford doctor had some reassuring words about safety and outdoor dining.
“Being outside dramatically mitigates the risk of infection,” said Dr. Dean Winslow, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care in Palo Alto. There have been very few documented outbreaks related to outdoor activities, Winslow said.
In fact, “We have had a couple of our neighbors over and eaten in the backyard. It’s breezy, and we’re able to sit six feet apart,” the doctor said.
The risk of acquiring infection is a product of the concentration of virus multiplied by the number of minutes a person is exposed to it, Winslow explained. Staying outside allows the small airborne droplets that carry the virus to disperse, and staying six feet away further diminishes the exposure.
Another way to minimize possible exposure: “Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after you walk in. You’ve probably touched the doorknob,” the doctor said. After eating, repeat.
While eating only with people with whom you have self-quarantined makes the risk much less, “there is nothing in life that isn’t totally free of risk, so I wouldn’t make a definite pronouncement about what people should do,” Winslow said.
While some venues are requiring temperature checks for patrons at the door, the doctor said he was “a little skeptical” of temperature checks, since, he said, often asymptomatic people do not have a fever. “And if you are symptomatic, you shouldn’t be out at all.”
For restaurant staffers, exposure may be significantly greater than that of individual diners, Winslow said.
“Those folks really are on the front lines,” the doctor said. “The people working in the supermarkets and bodegas and food service workers are equally on the front lines” as medical professionals, he said.
“The waiter and hostess and busser are greeting several groups of people,” increasing their risk of infection.
While he serves as a physician at a medical institution consistently ranked in the Top 10 nationally, the doctor said he is looking forward to eating out again, just like the rest of us.
He said he plans to go out with his wife to an outdoor dining establishment sometime soon, probably in the next month – putting his money where his mouth is, as it were.
Juanita & Maude, 825 San Pablo Ave. (between Solano and Washington), Albany; Telefèric Barcelona, 1500 Mount Diablo Blvd., Walnut Creek; Gott’s Roadside, 1275 Main St. (at Botelho Drive), Walnut Creek; Sajj Mediterranean, 164 Sunset Dr. (near Bishop Drive), San Ramon; Tribune Tavern, 401 13th St. (at Franklin St.), Oakland