Monday was the first time I ate (outside) in a restaurant in three months, with a best friend I haven’t seen in person for that long, and I gotta say, it felt pretty damn good. But my decision to dine out wasn’t a snap one—there are a number of things I’ve been weighing in my mind for the past week, as we were on the brink of last Friday’s opening of outdoor dining in San Francisco. As someone who has been extremely conscientious of following the stay-at-home order, I have barely seen anyone in person the past 90 days (besides my family and two good friends) for more than a quick transaction (usually a food hand-off, goddess bless).
I know many folks have been chomping at the bit to return to restaurants, to sit outside and eat oysters and pizza and tacos and cacio e pepe with all their friends and feel human again. But, um, we are still in the midst of a pandemic, and the rush to socialize with groups worries me immensely about what this will mean in a month for our local case numbers. I’m sticking with a plus-one or two for now, and that’s about it.
Personally, my greatest fear is being an asymptomatic carrier and getting any of my beloveds sick. So, when partner Ryan Cole of the Hi Neighbor Hospitality Group (The Vault, Trestle, Corridor) invited me to a test luncheon at their new outdoor concept, THE VAULT GARDEN, in the 555 California Street Plaza (formerly Bank of America Center), I quickly had to consider: who can I even invite to come with me? Who do I feel safe dining with? It’s a two-way street.
And then there’s the part of me that honestly feels a twinge of sadness with every photo I see of a server wearing a mask, talking to a table of guests with no masks on. Obviously, it’s impossible to eat with a mask on, and it’s outside, and servers keep their distance, but still, there’s something about the disparity of safety and exposure that makes me feel bad inside. Any time a server approached our table, I tried to get my mask on, or would stop talking when they were clearing or setting dishes so they didn’t have to be exposed to any additional droplets (and I tend to laugh a lot, so I’m trying to have more awareness). I bring this up because we should all be extra-conscientious, extra-kind, extra-careful, extra-grateful, and extra-patient right now. I can’t imagine the stress servers are going through, so treat them like family. Ask how they’re doing, how are they feeling? We need to humanize this experience as much as we can. Restaurants are trying to do the best they can in this new normal. And it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: tip well.
I said to Ryan, the only reason I attended The Vault Garden luncheon was because I trusted his careful and detailed nature (they even worked with an outside consultant on safety protocol). I was confident they would have thought through the entire experience as much as possible—and they have. Upon arrival to the plaza, you can use some hand sanitizer when you check in (since you probably had to press a button for your parking ticket and elevator, I’d say use it). As you may already know: you have to be wearing a mask upon arrival and until you are seated at your table (and any time you get up).
Not to be TMI, but I know many of us have concerns about using bathrooms and elevators. My tactic has been to go just before I leave my house and grab my keys, and personally, I’m just trying to hold it until I get home (thanks to years of clubbing and festivals, I can go the distance). And since downtown is super-quiet, I didn’t encounter anyone in the elevator from the garage (limit is two people). The building also asks you to respect a six-step distance rule on the escalator to the plaza level.
The location is truly stunning—it’s so cool to be seated under one of the largest skyscrapers in the city, in a plaza smack-dab in the center of the Financial District. It’s a new perspective to be able to sit and enjoy it. The tables are far apart, some much more than six feet—it’s beyond expansive. The 100-seat/30-table dining area is enclosed with hedges and topiary, and feels like an urban garden. It’s also a breezy part of town, but they have heat lamps and single-use blankets and pocket warmers for you. If you sit long enough, you can play a game with the sun, which will peek through the buildings at certain times.
When you take your seat, there’s a one-time-use paper card that explains what to expect: that if you want water, a carafe will be brought to your table, and it’s up to you to pour for yourself; you’ll have one set of silverware, a share plate, and napkin to use throughout the meal, and they’ll change it out upon request; please put your mask back on when getting up from the table, and respect a six-foot bubble for others. (When your silverware arrives rolled up in a napkin, I would rest your silverware on the share plate, not the table.)
There’s also a QR code on the “what to expect” card, which you can scan and it will bring up the menu on your phone if you don’t want to touch the single-use paper menu. (It’s a good idea to download a QR reader for your phone, we’re going to be seeing a bunch of these. If you have an iPhone, you can just open your camera like you’re taking a photo of the code, and it should trigger a page in Safari that will open the QR link.)
Chef Robin Song has created an approachable, eclectic, and affordable menu that works well with the summer patio dining feel. His famed Parker House rolls are on the menu, and do not miss the XO baked clams, gorgeous Manila clams ($9) spiked with housemade XO and fennel oil; the fried shishito peppers ($9) get taken to the next level with a creamy tonnato sauce. Oysters, yay, you can get six for $21, with yuzu kosho mignonette.
Some of you may remember me telling you about The Incubator Series, the new collection of pop-up concepts operating out of Corridor from Hi Neighbor team members. You’ll see some of their dishes on the menu as well, like ceviche from Ines ($16), and latke tots from Schmaltz you garnish with smoked trout roe and crème fraîche ($19). Song even gives a nod to his own JunJu concept with the chile dipping sauce with the lemon pepper fried calamari ($16).
The garden cocktails are from Kaitlin Ryan of Atta Girl Hospitality, so you can try the Right on Thyme ($11) with sesame if you saw my Instagram post about that one, and I enjoyed starting with the Horta Labyrinth ($11), with Mahon gin, Lo-Fi Gentian, Aperol, cava, and grapefruit. They built a bar outside, so you get your drinks quickly (the food has to undertake a bit of a journey from the downstairs kitchen, and dishes are shielded with cloches en route.) There are 11 wines by the glass, or you can scan the QR code for the full bottle list from Lucas Bierbower.
Since some of these dishes require eating with your hands, I say give you and your dining partner’s paws a little hand sani spritz before you begin since you’ve been touching a few things. I’d also be aware of using serving utensils (instead of your own silverware) when sharing dishes (unless, of course, you have been living together and/or making out).
Summertime is in full swing on the menu, with a stone fruit salad ($17) with peaches, cherries, and smoked ricotta. The sashimi rice salad ($24) comes with cubes of halibut, salmon, and tuna, with tobiko and a side of feisty gochujang you can dollop on for a little kick. Chef Song is known for his double-patty Vault burger ($19), an upgraded, luxe Big Mac with awesome, rich beef, housemade American cheese with Fiscalini cheddar for optimal meltiness, and a spicy secret sauce that is like a Thousand Island with sriracha. The fries are killer. You can also go for their fish tacos, salmon with panzanella, or a New York steak.
The team is working on launching a fun “rosé garden” experience on the weekends, with a DJ and a lounge-y seating area (that is still socially distanced). They’re hoping the unique environment will draw people downtown (instead of the crowded sidewalks all over the city). The validated parking is a big bonus: you can park for $5 all day on the weekend (during the week is $18 max, and $5 after 5pm). Reservations open now; hours are Tue-Sun 12pm-7pm. 555 California St. at Kearny.
Be careful out there, everyone. Respect each other’s space, please wear your mask, wash your mitts, don’t crowd, be nice. Stay healthy and well.
Panorama shot of The Vault Garden. Photo courtesy of Hi Neighbor Hospitality Group.