Chef Anthony Strong was the first in the city to make a quick pivot with his Mission District restaurant Prairie, forgoing the takeout route and instead turning the space into a high-end general store — selling staples that had become hard to find at grocery stores like toilet paper, canned tomatoes, and flour, as well as wine and meal kits.
But that's all over, and just over four months into the pandemic venture, he says it's not sustainable and must close up. As Tablehopper reports, via an email Strong sent out to fans, Prairie's last day will be Friday, August 14.
"Unfortunately, our restaurant won’t be able to survive the long-term effects of the pandemic," Strong writes. "This sucks and it’s not what we wanted, but we’re proud to have given it everything we had."
He's urging fans of the restaurant to swing back and help them sell out of their remaining provisions — and if you have the means you can donate to a GoFundMe campaign for the staff. (Place orders here, but at the moment they're doing an inventory recount so there isn't much showing.)
Prairie opened in the fall of 2018 and it was Strong's first solo venture after cooking for years at Pizzeria Delfina and then being the opening chef at Locanda — which has also permanently closed due to the pandemic.
"It’s been my dream to have a restaurant of my own in SF since I started cooking here 14 years ago," Strong writes. "We were barely over a year old when COVID hit, but although this feels devastating and unfair, I’ll be forever grateful for having had the opportunity, and for all of the memories and lessons learned along the way."
Across 19th street in what was once a barbecue spot from the Hog & Rocks folks (back when Hog & Rocks was where Prairie is now), Lazy Bear has also done a pandemic pivot and has been serving coffee, pastry, bottled booze, and sandwiches to its neighborhood fans for the last couple of months. The Michelin two-star restaurant known for its communal-style fine dining is going to be facing a similar crisis in about two months, as chef-owner David Barzelay tells the Chronicle this week. He's been able to keep his staff well paid thanks to a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, but that will run out in October.
"If nothing changes before November, it’s going to be really hard to stay open at all," Barzelay tells the paper.
Then there is the question of fine dining itself — are people even going to want these lengthy, multi-course experiences in the foreseeable future? Barzelay tells the Chronicle that he'd already worked out the issue with the communal concept — if and when Lazy Bear reopens as a restaurant, there will be a normal table setup with parties seated separately. But then will Lazy Bear's fans still clamor for the experience if it doesn't feel as special?
Barzelay clarifies for SFist that the restaurant is not in danger of closing permanently — he's keeping his people paid right now, but the takeout operation may not be sustainable past October or so. "Our current operation, with no staff having been laid off or furloughed, is unsustainable without PPP funds subsidizing our labor costs," Barzelay says. "But there are lots of ways we'd try to change our operations before considering closing even temporarily. And we have cash reserves to ride out even an extended closure if that’s what we eventually need to do."
A lot of restaurants across San Francisco and the globe are going to have existential crises in the coming months, even when they are allowed to reopen and return to some semblance of normalcy. The entire experience of dining has lost its relaxation factor now that going out in public is itself a risky and anxious act.
So for the businesses that manage to survive, we have to expect more creative pivots, maybe some of which — like Lazy Bear's concept that grew out of the underground pop-up craze a decade ago — will survive beyond the pandemic and give us new ways of experiencing food.
In the meantime, there are going to be a lot of restaurant obits. And pieces like this one by Gabrielle Hamilton.
Photo courtesy of Prairie