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    Venturing Out, Socially Distanced

    By David Landis–

    The Gay Gourmet–

    It’s now been more than 6 months since the pandemic and shelter-in-place began. And yes, The Gay Gourmet, known for his nightly culinary adventures pre-COVID, is climbing the walls. But like many of you devoted readers, I’m careful. I wear my mask. I wash my hands. I stay six feet away. I don’t want to engage in activities that put me or my husband at risk of COVID. So, for the most part, we’ve been staying home and not eating out.

    That said, as my mother used to say, “use your head.” According to CDC guidelines, “The more an individual interacts with others, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread. The risk of COVID-19 spread increases in a restaurant or bar setting as follows:

    • Lowest Risk: Food service limited to drive-through, delivery, takeout, and curb-side pick-up.
    • More Risk: On-site dining limited to outdoor seating. Seating capacity reduced to allow tables to be spaced at least 6 feet apart.
    • Highest Risk: On-site dining with both indoor and outdoor seating. Seating capacity not reduced and tables not spaced at least 6 feet apart.

    As of this writing, indoor dining is still not allowed in San Francisco, which I think is a good thing. But there’s talk of allowing limited restaurant capacity (25%) and for restaurants to open September 29. So, stay tuned on that front.

    Takeout has minimal risk, according to the CDC. But what about outdoor dining with spacing at least 6 feet apart?

    It’s all in the details.

    So, the Gay Gourmet ventured out to a few outdoor places—some where social distancing and mask wearing was not enforced. But I’d rather focus on the restaurants that I think are doing the best job with hygiene, sanitization, and protocols. There’s something for everyone here: one in downtown San Francisco, one a short day trip up to Yountville, and one a weekend jaunt to Big Sur.

    The Vault Garden, San Francisco

    https://www.thevault555.com/

    Let’s start with a new-ish restaurant, The Vault Garden, right in San Francisco’s Financial District on the plaza of the landmark Bank of America building. First, why hasn’t anyone thought of outdoor dining in this magnificent plaza before? (Oh, right, because of the fog and the wind!) I have to say, from start to finish, the Vault Garden does everything right, which makes even the most careful diner feel at ease.

    When you arrive, these days you can usually find parking on the street (can you imagine? Downtown?), or else parking is discounted to a mere $5 in the BofA building parking garage (evenings or weekend brunch). Run by Hi Neighbor Hospitality (owners of Trestle and Corridor) and with chef Robin Song at the helm, the restaurant and experience there are first rate. I was especially impressed that right on their website The Vault says, “If you’re not eating or drinking, wear a mask. When the waitstaff comes to your table, put on your mask. Respect others’ 6-foot bubble. We have stopped pouring water and wine tableside, we leave the heavy lifting to you. We will only change silverware, share plates and napkins upon request. And we know it can get a bit chilly, there are single-use blankets and pocket warmers available. If you don’t want to touch a menu, scan the QR code.”

    I especially also liked that if you need to use the restroom, it is required that you wear a mask. And that tables are more than 6 feet apart. Plenty of space to social distance, even if you talk to your neighbors (which we did!).

    After reading these protocols, I felt more assured that this restaurant takes our health seriously.

    Ok, so what about the food? And service? The Vault Garden should be at the top of your restaurant list these days. My husband and I shared everything: a bottle of Triennes’ rosé wine from Provence (well, two bottles, it was a beautiful, sunny day); to start, we ordered their sturgeon caviar dish with latkes that would make my Jewish friends proud. But we asked for a substitution (all caviar, no trout roe), which was accommodated without blinking; then, we moved to a simple, but divine, Caesar salad with crispy croutons and a tangy dressing; and fresh salmon with a Panzanella salad. Being picky about my fish, I was impressed that it was cooked medium rare and tasted as if was just caught that day. The Panzanella salad adds a little more oomph to the dish. The tomatoes were ripe and tasty, which I hate to say is more unusual than common these days. For dessert, even though we’ve gained the proverbial COVID 19 pounds (well, not quite!), we caved and ordered the blueberry beignets that melt in your mouth (how can one resist those?). The service was expert and professional, but do keep in mind that the kitchen is about a block away. So be kind to your waiter and give them your order all at once. On top of it all, I should add that The Vault Garden is super dog-friendly. Gaston and Alphonse loved being treated like the luxury lap dogs they are.

    RH Yountville

    https://rh.com/content/category.jsp?context=Restaurant_YV

    A great new addition to the gourmet dining scene in Yountville is a new RH (Restoration Hardware) complex—outdoor dining, a furniture showroom, and a wine tasting room to boot. When you’re really tired of sitting all alone in your room (and the fog), head up to beautiful Yountville in the Napa Valley. It’s an easy 1.5 hour drive each way and you’ll feel like you’re a world away.

    I have to admit, dear readers, that this was absolutely my very first outing (besides the dog park and the beach) since March 13. To say I was nervous is an understatement. Once we arrived, and I saw the protocols and the set-up, my mind was put at ease.

    The restaurant is all outdoor (for now) and has two areas for seating: one in front (where we didn’t dine, which looks to be a bit more lounge-y) and the back where each table is separated more than 6 feet apart by what looks to be hundred-year-old olive trees. The design is simply gorgeous and looks like something out of—well—a Restoration Hardware catalogue; either that, or Architectural Digest.

    RH Yountville

    When we sat down (again, with the dogs—can you tell, we rarely go anywhere without them these days?), I noticed hand sanitizer on the table itself, a welcome touch. Masks are required to go to and from your table and when waitstaff come by. Rest rooms are in another part of the complex, but masks are also required there. RH does temperature checks of all staff every day, adheres to CDC guidelines, and asks that guests socially distance as well. So, I relaxed.

    Being the picky Gay Gourmet that I am, I had questions about the wine list and “business leader” Tyson Carpenter couldn’t have been more accommodating. He found Sean and me a dry California white wine, Arnot Roberts Chardonnay from the Santa Cruz mountains, with little to no oak made in the European style. After the first sip, our cares and troubles were far away. It felt like we were instantly transported to Italy. I should start by saying that the portions at RH are generous and eminently share-able. For our first course, we ordered one of the more interesting salads I’ve had in a long time: an arugula salad with prawns, avocado, raisins, fennel, sunflower seeds, Parmesan cheese, and the lightest but most delicious lemon vinaigrette. Simply scrumptious. For our next course, we moved onto another fresh salmon, cooked with honey, brown butter, and lemon: very light, tasty and perfect for a summer afternoon. As a side dish, we had the most delectable and creamy potato puree—no lumps here! And for dessert, we ordered the homemade chocolate chip cookies to go. Again, the staff couldn’t have been more attentive without crowding us, which gave us time to enjoy our Napa Valley excursion.

    Nepenthe Restaurant, Big Sur

    https://www.nepenthe.com/

    Big Sur is a bit far from San Francisco for a day trip, but it’s well worth it—especially if you spend a night or two in nearby Carmel. The view is the star at this Big Sur mainstay. And that’s the main reason I stayed away all these years. I just assumed Nepenthe’s focus was the gorgeous 500-foot mountain vistas cascading down to the sea.

    Guess what? The food’s as good as the view.

    Wildfires have impacted Big Sur, so be sure to check the weather report before you head to this rugged stretch of California’s central coast. Nepenthe even has its own weather cam, which is convenient to ascertain whether or not the view is hidden by fog (or smoke). That said, I don’t know why I stayed away so long. There simply is no place as beautiful as this in the world—not Cinque Terra, not Hawaii, not Rio. It’s completely magical.

    Buyer beware: Nepenthe doesn’t take reservations, so I recommend arriving early (we arrived before they opened at 11:30 am for lunch). And, unfortunately, they don’t permit dogs, even outdoors. But their protocols immediately made me feel comfortable. As you wait in line, the six-foot bubbles are clearly marked on the pavement leading up to the hostess stand. You give them your name, they hand you one of those “buzzers” that has been wiped down just for you. You then can sit “bleacher style” admiring the view while you wait for a table—and again, 6-foot separations are clearly marked, with masks required everywhere. We waited barely 5 minutes and then were escorted to one of the outdoor “countertops” perched above the mountain and the ocean.

    Outdoor seating is well distanced, which is comforting—even at the countertop. Designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, the building is a throwback to mid-60s architecture, which I love. Surrounding the building is a huge and spacious outdoor terrace (the only place where they’re currently serving) with those stunning mountain and ocean vistas. Nepenthe aptly means “no sorrow.” Sean and I were celebrating our 31st anniversary, so we were clearly feeling no sorrow. Our waitress added to the festive mood and couldn’t have been more engaging and fun. Surprisingly, the wine list is quite impressive, with many choices—certainly skewed to California, but offering a sizeable European selection as well. So, we splurged and bought a fancy bottle of Bandol rosé (again, from Provence), crisp and light for a delectable lunch. We each had to order the famous Ambrosia burger with cheese, cooked to a perfect medium rare. It’s their proprietary burger. The sauce consists of mayonnaise, chili salsa, and tomato sauce, served on a French roll (mine with tarragon-infused kidney bean salad, Sean’s with homemade coleslaw). We gave in and also ordered a side of French fries (extra crispy, of course). A determined woodpecker kept trying to steal the fries, but he did not succeed! By the end of lunch, we were too full to try dessert, but the four-layer fudge cake gets excellent diner reviews. All in all, Nepenthe is a must.

    So, there you have it. The truth is, even during this pandemic, you don’t have to stay cooped up behind your four walls. There are restaurants that care about your health AND provide a superior outdoor dining experience as well. Just choose those destinations wisely and make sure you ask the right questions before you go.

    David Landis, aka “The Gay Gourmet,” is a foodie, a freelance writer, and a PR executive. Follow him on Instagram @GayGourmetSF, on Twitter @david_landis, email him at: david@landispr.com or visit him online at: www.gaygourmetsf.com

    Published on September 24, 2020