Two years ago, when the Valencia corridor saw a spate of new restaurant openings several in spaces that had not previously been home to restaurants retail merchants in the neighborhood started crying foul about a loss of balance in the neighborhood and a glut of too many food establishments. After a couple of notable closures, it looks like they may have been partly right, but there are a lot of other factors involved, not the least of which is giving people a reason to come back.
Only time will tell how this all shakes out, and nothing is going to keep Valencia and the Mission in general from remaining San Francisco's favorite food 'hood. But exactly how many restaurants the corridor can support, and of what kind, remains a question that the eating public will help decide in the coming years. And the announcement that one of those splashy 2012 restaurants, Abbot's Cellar, is closing this month has helped fuel the debate once again.
Case in point: The Business Times headline this week, "The Valencia Effect: Are there too many restaurants on the Mission's hottest street?" That piece focuses on Abbot's Cellar closing, and quotes partner Nat Cutler, who says that over-saturation of restaurants is only one part of the economic puzzle for Mission restaurateurs. "There are the restaurants that just kill it, and people flock to the place every night," Cutler says. "But those are [not] a dime a dozen... With healthcare increases coming in (and minimum wage jumping 14 percent this year and 7 percent each year after), the only way to pay for that is to increase prices and get more people in the door."
Many in the restaurant industry have complained about the cost of doing business here now that the minimum wage is set to rise and given that it will obligate owners to pay servers this wage on top of their tipped income, which is something that Seattle restaurant servers debated when that city enacted their own hike, admitting they depended on tips and not their wages, for their income.
But the success or failure of a restaurant is rarely ever based on any one thing. It happens at the intersection of food trends, chef talent, quality of service, value, location, niche-filling, atmosphere, and buzz. I'll say right now that Abbot's Cellar lacked at least one of those things, which was value, and even though it benefited from plenty of critical praise and buzz in its first year, it may have lacked the sort of repeat draw and alchemic magic that sustains a big, pricy restaurant of that size over many years.
Let's discuss the case of July 2014 closure of Amber Dhara, which also barely lasted two years, and which was the largest restaurant to open on the corridor possibly ever, with 275 seats upstairs and down. That place was certainly less a victim of restaurant saturation as it was just a poor business decision the Amber India team thought they could float downtown prices for Indian food in the Mission, and they couldn't, much less trying to fill such a massive, cavernous space. By the time they corrected the price problem, it was too late, and no one likes eating in a huge, empty room. I fully expect Hawker Fare to do much better when they take over the space this spring.
It may be the case, though, as Cutler suggests, that the food has to get expensive when all these other factors, including high rent and wages, come into play. But is it necessarily the case that no one can open a value-proposition restaurant anymore I'm thinking of places like Chow that fill the weeknight, neighborhood dining need and where you rarely have to fight to get seated where food is satisfying and well prepared but may not land in Bon Appetit?
I'd argue that Valencia could sustain as many if not more restaurants as it has now if the mix were right. Since this isn't a mall, though, with a consultant facilitating the diversity in the food court array, it remains a matter of risk for restaurateurs entering the fray and hoping to be the next Delfina or Foreign Cinema. But would it be so impossible, or un-buzzworthy, just to aspire to being the next Chow? It feels like it's been fifteen years or more since someone has opened something so reasonably priced, un-ambitious, and easy to like. Is it necessarily the case that unless you want poor service, or just a burrito, you have to spend $60 per person on dinner in the Mission from here on out? I hope not.