As 2016 comes to a close, a few things are coming into focus about what the year taught the local restaurant industry. Fixed-price menus are on the rise at the same time as variations on fast-casual, counter-service operations both of which are operational choices that benefit restaurateurs' bottom lines more than they benefit diners, though they do have the advantage, sometimes, of making meals more affordable. But the Chronicle's Jonathan Kauffman just penned a piece about the unsettling spate of high-profile, unusually fast closures that happened this year which have signaled to many that the boom times are most certainly over, at least for SF dining.
We've talked several times this year, as each closing was announced, about this marked shift after several years of unbridled enthusiasm in the local food scene. After the Great Recession left a restaurant drought and made investors nervous, 2010 saw an opening of floodgates that heralded a slew of exciting newcomers (Benu, Bar Agricole, Cotogna, Prospect, and Commonwealth, to name a few) and a year that Chronicle critic Michael Bauer has repeatedly said was the best he'd seen in his 30 years on the job, as far as the quality of openings. 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 were all fairly impressive too, bringing the addition of hot spots like State Bird Provisions, Lazy Bear, and Tosca Cafe. Then came 2015, in which Bon Appetit critic Andrew Knowlton declared, arguably a year or two too late, that SF was the best food city in the nation.
Restaurateurs became bullish, especially as the tech boom brought new life and hundreds (if not thousands) of new, high-paid residents to the previously downtrodden middle of Market Street. And then you know what happened. 2016 saw the abrupt closures of four restaurants in the vicinity within a year or less of opening: Cadence, Bon Marché, Volta, and Oro. (Bon Marche made SFist's list of best new restaurants last December, and meanwhile Volta landed on the Chron's Top 100, only to close several months later.)
But Kauffman points out these four "fast-to-fail" projects all had in common that they were run by people who owned other restaurants and knew quickly that things weren't working.
Umberto Gibin and Staffan Terje, the partners who opened Volta and have co-owned the 10-year-old Perbacco downtown, saw their experience as evidence that it may not be possible to open a large-scale bistro-style restaurant in SF anymore and indeed all four of this year's big failures could seat 100 people ore more. Matt Semmelhack, owner of the 200-seat Bon Marché as well as the still open AQ and Fenix, says he's done trying to open full-scale restaurants in the city.
As Kauffman writes, "2016 has upped the pressure on new restaurateurs, who are entering a tight, competitive market that allows for no misjudgments and little time to pivot, or change focus, as the tech industry prides itself on doing."
And maybe a market "correction" has been in the cards all along. For a city of 800,000 people, SF is home to over 7,600 restaurants, meaning we have a restaurant for every 100 people who live here. As Cadence and Maven owner Jay Bordelau told Kauffman, "We [now] have more seats... than we know how to fill at a profitable rate."
You can expect, too, that December may have a few more surprises in store when it comes to closings, as the final weeks of the year are often a time when struggling spots give up the ghost, rather than face the annual January slump.
Meanwhile, look for SFist's Best New Restaurants of 2016 coming in late December.
Related: Another New Downtown Restaurant Bites The Dust: Volta