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Nearly 4,000 SF restaurants survived the pandemic

Guests hang out at El Rio, located at 3158 Mission St., on Saturday, April 3, 2021, in San Francisco, Calif. | Yalonda M. James/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

As the pandemic dust settles and Restaurant Week hits, San Francisco’s food servers continue to hustle. 

In a city that once ruled the nation in restaurants per capita, SF saw a total of 546 closures and 268 openings during 2021, resulting in 3,974 active dine-in establishments citywide, according to SF business permit data from the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. That adds up to two closed restaurants for every one that opened.

A scan of the list of restaurants closed during 2021 includes a variety of victims, including cafes in office buildings whose clientele never returned to the office, chain eateries, fine-dining establishments like Union Square’s Farallon, and longtime local favorites like Dottie’s True Blue and Universal Cafe

Surprisingly, the city’s population of restaurants was in even greater decline before the pandemic hit: Rising operating costs and scarce labor meant that by 2019, there were three closures for every one restaurant opening. And even back to 2015, finales outnumbered debuts by a margin of 2.6 to 1.

San Francisco is not alone. Covid took a significant toll on the industry nationwide. As of May 2021, the National Restaurant Association said that approximately 90,000 or 14% of U.S. restaurants closed because of the pandemic. Although the figure is higher than the 50,000 eateries that typically close each year, the industry group had originally predicted that Covid could close one-third of American eateries.

“The jury is still out on the true cost of 2021,” says Laurie Thomas, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA). “It’s going to depend on how many people come back to the city and how many days a week restaurants can continue to operate with high prices.”

Myriad Gastropub is one of the restaurants that closed permanently in San Francisco. | Photo by Santiago Mejia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Indeed, the costs of both running a restaurant and eating at one continue to rise. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show SF Bay Area consumers pay 16% more when eating away from home than they did in 2019.

Labor continues to be a challenge for restaurant operators: Job postings in the city’s “Accommodation and Food Services” sector have nearly doubled in the past year, a sign that many restaurants are understaffed. 

GGRA’s Thomas also points out that because the data comes from business permits, there is a room for error in the numbers: Some restaurants may only be temporarily closed, but holding onto the permit as they wait for a more advantageous time to resume full operation; others may have permanently closed and have yet to let their business permit expire.

Many restaurants are holding out in hope that the Senate will vote next week to pass the $42 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a bill that passed the House of Representatives passed today. The measure would deliver pandemic-relief funds to a variety of exceptionally hard hit businesses, including restaurants, bars, gyms and theaters.

The good news? New eateries are already opening their doors in 2022. Click here to read The Standard’s list of new restaurant openings over the past few months.

Joseph Gillespie is a freelance writer for the SF Standard. Click here to contact The Standard's research team about this story.