Maybe all it took was a happy little tree.
San Francisco’s Shared Spaces program has given the city’s bars and restaurants hope that they can survive the economic fallout from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But unlike the many places that have expanded their footprint into the street, Casements — the Mission not-that-kind-of-Irish Irish bar that debuted at the start of the year — doubled its outdoor seating by taking over part of the parking lot in back to create a rear patio. And it’s basically a set piece from Bonnaroo, the music festival typically held every summer in Tennessee. Among the comfy seating and standing room for 44 people, there’s a graffitied image of TV painter Bob Ross looking rather beatific, if also a little arboreal.
Like its indefatigable namesake, the Irish nationalist, humanitarian, and poet Roger Casement, the bar and its trio of nightlife-pro ownership — Gillian Fitzgerald (Virgil’s Sea Room, Finn Town), Chris Hastings (Lookout, Wes Burger ’N’ More), and Sean O’Donovan (Driftwood, Mission Bowling Club) — had already faced down the economic woes brought on by the ongoing pandemic by pivoting to outdoor seating, a takeout menu, and cocktails-to-go.
“It was always something we thought we would do,” Hastings says of the patio. “We just thought it would be something we would do in two years, when we were a little more settled. COVID opened the door to ask.”
Casements has a six-month lease from California Parking, which extends past the Shared Spaces current expiration date of Dec. 31. If the city extends the program, the bar will likely renew its agreement, Hastings says.
They unpaved a parking lot and put up a paradise, if you will, but as with any corona-workaround, everything comes with conditions. You can’t just breeze on through and plop yourself down for some Irish stew and a Frozen Rosé; Casements’ staff will seat you, and they will monitor you to make sure you aren’t getting up to say hi to friends in a different party and — above all else — that your mask is on when you get up to use the restroom. Fitzgerald concedes that the situation is effectively “the opposite of the reason why we got into this, which is to create a space where people can mingle and talk.” But most people only need one gentle reminder.
“There’s been a lot of finger-wagging that happens,” O’Donovan says. “I’ve started a three-strike rule. They get the first nice warning, the second is a proper ‘Hey, I’ve told you once.’ I haven’t had to get to the third strike yet.”
“I’ve turned into an Irish mammy,” Fitzgerald adds. “My mom was like, ‘Do you want me to send a wooden spoon over?’ ”
As with anything, your enjoyment will depend on your comfort level being in public around anyone or anything, but the space strikes the right blend of social distancing and social engagement, without obnoxious plastic domes or vehicular exhaust and ambient street noise. It’s V.I.P., not V.V.I.P.
Shared Spaces has been critiqued for its ambiguous terminology — the set-ups are not parklets, the Chronicle’s architectural critic John King insisted — and for insufficiently prioritizing public health. But if we are to keep everyone safe while preserving the places we love, this seems like a sensible balance.
Compared to nearby Valencia Street’s weekend closures — or the Onion’s spoof about L.A. opening the Highway 101 median to outdoor dining — Hastings notes the comparatively low-key vibe.
“It’s a big difference not to have people walk by you on the sidewalk,” he says. “It’s a different feeling.”
On the other side of things, Fitzgerald frets about the staff’s wellbeing, too.
“We want to make sure they feel safe, but also their roles have changed,” she says. People who’ve been barbacks were edging toward being bartenders are now servers and hosts and we’re all trying to be fair to everyone and make sure everyone feels safe — and is safe.”
Open from 4-10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and 2-10 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, Casements has also slightly updated its menu. The fish and chips and their housemade tartar and curry sauces have gone from periodic special to menu regular, and there’s some beer-battered mushrooms that are highly appealing. But Fitzgerald is most excited about the Belfast Coffee, a drink she adapted from Bar 1661, which won Best Cocktail Bar in Ireland in 2019.
“They sat me down with friends and I tasted through 18 poitíns,” she says, referring to the barley-derived Irish spirit that’s pronounced like “puh-CHEEN” and has become newly popular while the island’s whiskey revivalists wait for their peatier products to age. “Now I want to take poitín to America and push it forward to the West Coast. This is a cocktail they do, but we decided to ice it. We use cold-brew Andytown — which is a place in Belfast — with cream, poitín, and nutmeg.”
The other notable cocktail update is that the Samhain Old Fashioned now comes with proper Glendalough whiskey, which Fitzgerlad admits “it probably should have from the beginning.”
A reference to the pagan holiday Samhain — “SAH-win” — is arguably even harder to pronounce correctly. How many people have said it right?
“One so far,” Fitzgerald says.
2351 Mission St.