Those not in the know might have assumed Lori’s Diner was another casualty of Downtown San Francisco’s bleak economic outlook after the restaurant closed its doors in 2017. But the diner didn’t shut down due to conditions on the streets, crime or a drop in foot traffic—it was simply moving to a better location.
The 1950s-style diner’s new spot on the corner of Powell and Sutter streets is steps from large hotels and the Union Square shopping district.
Manager Felipe Padilla told The Standard earlier this month that the diner is busy at the new location, but hardly at the level it used to be—regulars still outnumber guests from nearby hotels and unsheltered people often loiter around the entrance.
"I don't see too many tourists yet,” Padilla said.
Nearly half of Union Square’s stores that were open in 2019 have shuttered, according to an analysis of data by The Standard. But in the afterglow of Pride month celebrations and events that brought thousands of people to the city in search of food, fun and a sense of community, Downtown businesses on Monday were taking stock of their prospects for the second half of this year.
Despite the negative headlines and legitimate economic challenges facing San Francisco, a sense of cautious optimism seemed to exude from the city’s diners, cafes and business boosters.
“Any business coming into the city right now is a positive, because overall we’re seeing a slower year this year than last year,” said Laurie Thomas, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association.
Thomas, who was canvassing the area Monday for post-Pride month reviews, said she was heartened to receive positive feedback from Mission and Castro district eateries. Chilly weekend temperatures, she added, were partly to blame for scores that would have been higher otherwise. “We have to have the sun come back," Thomas said. "This super cold weather really hurts restaurants.”
At the Union Square Alliance, chief executive Marisa Rodriguez said she was anticipating a very busy tourism season, relying in part on what she said were increased visitor numbers at the Powell Street cable-car turnaround and for double-decker Red Bus lines.
“Diners represent nostalgia for many tourists, who often return with memories of prior visits,” Rodriguez said. She pointed to the square’s continuing strengths in luxury retail and theater, its proximity to museums, its current “bloom” campaign featuring oversize floral displays and other visible spots throughout summer.
Rodriguez acknowledged a brief downward tick in visitors in April, but she said the city is seeing a rebound.
“We’re still trying to get back to those pre-pandemic numbers,” Rodriguez said. “We are starting to see a pickup despite negative press.”
In recent months, police and security guards have continued to be highly visible even after a larger deployment during the Christmas shopping season. A new security effort is underway as Union Square houses the police department’s new Mobile Command Center, which is specifically meant to deter flash mob-style thefts.
Behind closed doors, tenants around Union Square continue to grumble about shoplifting, homelessness and dealing with people in the throes of mental health crises. And while many of the larger merchants can weather the ups and downs of a muted economic recovery, smaller businesses are feeling the squeeze.
At Sears Fine Food, manager Tashi Tsomo was helping a steady stream of drop-in customers in between reminiscing on what things were like when she joined the classic diner’s staff in 2003 and how things have changed, especially in recent years.
“We’re not back where we were,” Tsomo said. “[We’re] not back to before the pandemic in terms of total foot traffic."
Although the location has seen many famous faces in its 85-year run on Powell Street, including entertainers Jay Leno and Tony Bennett, returning tourists who eat at Sears Fine Food often tell Tsomo the city looks dirtier and different from five or six years ago.
Tsomo said she herself has experienced the change, such as when a woman punched her without provocation near Saks Fifth Avenue and called her an anti-Asian racial slur.
But she and her fellow employees brush that off as part of working Downtown. They carry on in part due to a sense of duty and also in the hopes of improving someone else’s day.
“Take care of guests, that's the No. 1 rule,” Tsomo said. “When people come, they want to see something beautiful, something fun, something inviting.”
On the Monday after the city’s Pride parade, Mike Antonello walked into Lori’s with an appetite for lunch. On a business trip with his wife from Reno, Nevada, Antonello was filling a prescription at a neighborhood drugstore when he started feeling peckish. A day after an excellent meal at Michelin-starred Gary Danko, he wasn’t feeling like fancy fare.
“I’m a corned beef connoisseur,” Antonello said, adding that his favorite versions of the dish often come from local restaurants in his native Chicago. Barely bothering with a menu, he placed his order, asking for a fried egg on top and eagerly digging in when the plate arrived a few minutes later.
“It’s good! I like mine with a little more onion and pepper,” Antonello said. “I’d give it three out of four stars.”
George Kelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org