If you were out in San Francisco this past weekend, you probably saw exactly what I saw: San Francisco is coming alive once again. The streets were thronged here in North Beach on Friday and Saturday, and although masks were thankfully de rigeur, otherwise it felt almost like a regular weekend in the neighborhood.

San Francisco has officially moved into orange tier, more than welcome news. But despite the undeniably positive signs, there is clearly still a long way to go. We’ve lost a dizzying number of restaurants and bars to the pandemic, and among those operators that remain, many express a growing sense of frustration. I spoke to my friend Rich Azzolino, owner/operator of North Beach institution Sotto Mare, about it earlier this week–and this is what he had to say.

You can catch Richie and Laura Azzolino at Sotto Mare nearly every night of the week. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Joe Bonadio: Since the last time we spoke the biggest change is the return of indoor dining. How has it been so far?

Rich Azzolino: It’s a start, but it’s nowhere near the end. Indoor dining at 50% is a little niche, but it needs to get up to 75 and 100% in a rapid pace in order for our businesses to survive. Not just the restaurant owners, but the purveyors that supply the restaurant, and the people  who grow our vegetables, and that fish our waters, who aren’t making an income. 

Businesses are closing because they can’t pay their rent. They can’t pay their employees. They can’t pay for fuel on their boat, for their insurance, because the business isn’t there. To get up to 100% will help every business that we depend on to get back into motion, all the way down the line.

In San Francisco, we still don’t have conventions, we don’t have business travelers. We don’t have people reporting to their offices, for the most part. We don’t have tourists, or the cruise ships that a restaurant like mine derives business from. When are they going to come back?

But the weather has been good, and we are getting busier and busier. It’s good to see things starting to move again.

Another perfect evening in Washington Square Park, just a stone’s throw from Sotto Mare. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: What do you think the city should be doing at this point?

RA: The city should be doing everything it can to get conventions back in. To get cruise ships in here, and the tourists and business travelers back. 

From the mayor on down, we’ve got to make sure the city is up and running, and let go of some of the apron strings so we can operate. It’s not up to them to put more laws on us after we’re all vaccinated. We didn’t have problems before, we certainly won’t have problems after.

Thank God for the PPP loans–otherwise we wouldn’t be here, because we couldn’t afford it. The federal government has allowed this to happen. We need more help–not just the restaurants and our employees. Every business that has employees needs this help. The wholesalers, the growers, the fishermen, everyone.

JB: On the other hand, there are some good things happening out there.

RA: Yes. Our percentages are going down every day, and vaccinations are going up. 

seafood market at Sotto Mare

A slab of salmon from Sotto Mare’s seafood market, grilled to perfection in my cast-iron skillet. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: And the state changed its guidelines to make sure that restaurant and food workers are in the first group vaccinated.

RA: I think that’s great, and I think every employee in every restaurant should be vaccinated, and they should have a full record of that. We need to follow the protocols, and do everything we can to keep our employees safe.

One thing I would say, they should look at the times to make it easier for food workers and first responders to get their shots. People over 65 are generally not on a schedule, and can go any time of the day. So maybe from 10:00pm to 5:00am it could be available for restaurant workers, because they are off work?

People want the vaccine, and they’re qualified for it–so let’s do what we can to make it happen.


Sotto Mare
552 Green Street
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 398-3181