For Chinatown restaurants, hope is in the open air. Community leaders are optimistic that the Chinatown Walkway Weekends program, which debuted this past Saturday and Sunday on Grant Avenue, could bring business, and revenue, back to struggling eateries and shops.
The full closure of three city blocks to give restaurants and stores more space for outdoor service makes Grant San Francisco’s first “shared street,” and perhaps a portent of things to come as the pandemic rages on.
“The main goal of this is to help the restaurants. The restaurants are really hurting,” says Harlan Wong, director of the Chinese New Year Festival and Parade and one of the organizers of Chinatown Walkway Weekends. “We want to make sure the restaurants can get all the real estate they can.”
Grant Avenue merchants know a thing or two about street closures, as the hosts of the largest Chinese New Year parade outside of Asia. While this weekend was a much more modest affair, promenaders did get a chance to see a performance by LionDanceME.
The Chinatown Walkway Weekends — which shut down car traffic on Grant between California and Washington streets every Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m — are expected to run for nine more weeks, until September 20. Wong estimates that five restaurants participated this weekend, setting out tables where ordinarily there would be cars. The owners of Dim Sum Corner told him they sold out of food over the course of one afternoon. However, some restaurants still appear to be skeptical that they can make enough money to reopen outdoors.
Since there aren’t that many restaurants directly on Grant, in the coming weeks Wong is hoping to help nearby restaurants as well by adding to-go seating. “We’re trying to set up some tables and chairs almost like a dining area in a food court,” he says. Future Walkway Weekends could include public art installations and activities for kids put on by Livable City, which manages San Francisco’s Sunday Streets program.
Starting this Thursday, July 23, Valencia Street will become the city’s second shared street. The blocks between 16th and 17th, as well as 18th and 19th will be closed to cars every Thursday through Sunday, from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. More than 50 other business districts in the city have applied to be shared streets, according to The Chronicle.
In a time of so much fear and uncertainty for restaurants, it’s increasingly clear that the new normal will play out on asphalt.