Find your own table and fill your own glass at San Francisco eatery

At Greek restaurant Souvla, there are no servers to wait on diners.
At Greek restaurant Souvla, there are no servers to wait on diners.PHOTO: NYTIMES

SAN FRANCISCO • You do not have to sing for your supper, but you have to scout your own table as well as fetch and fill your own water glass.

This is what diners encounter in Souvla, a Greek restaurant in San Francisco that serves spit-fired meat in a photogenic sandwich or on a photogenic salad, either available with a glass of Greek wine.

The small menu is appealing and the place is charming, but, if you want another glass of wine, you go back to the counter.

Runners will still bring your order to the table, but there are no servers to wait on you.

The same is happening at other popular restaurants in the city that have opened in the last two years: RT Rotisserie, which is roasting cauliflower a few blocks away; Barzotto, a bistro serving hand-rolled pasta; and Media Noche, a Cuban sandwich spot with eye-catching custom tilework.

Inside these restaurants, it is evident that the forces making San Francisco one of the most expensive cities in America are altering the economics of everything.

Rents have gone up. Labour costs have soared. And restaurant workers, many of them priced out by the expense of housing, are scarce.

Restaurateurs who can no longer find or afford servers are figuring out how to do without them. And so in this city of staggering wealth, you can eat like a gourmand, with real stemware and ceramic plates. But you will have to get your own silverware.

Such hybrid restaurants are spreading to other high-cost cities and they fit what analysts said is growing demand for more flexible dining options.

San Francisco's tech riches have fed demand for restaurants - and some wealthy tech workers have decided they would also like to be partners in an eatery.

But as these highly paid workers have also driven demand for scarce housing, the city has struggled to keep lower-wage workers afloat.

On July 1, the minimum wage in San Francisco will hit US$15 (S$20.40) an hour, following incremental raises from US$10.74 in 2014. The city also requires employers with at least 20 workers to pay healthcare costs beyond the mandates of the Affordable Care Act, in addition to paid sick leave and parental leave.

Despite these benefits, many workers said they cannot afford to stay in the industry.

"If we were to pay what we need to pay people to make a living in San Francisco, a US$10 hamburger would be a US$20 hamburger and it wouldn't make sense anymore," said Mr Anjan Mitra, who owns two high-end Indian restaurants in the city, both named Dosa. "Something has to give."

If customers will not buy US$20 burgers or US$25 dosas, and the staff in the kitchen cannot be cut, then service goes on the chopping block. "And that is what we did - we got rid of our servers," he added.

In December, he opened a counter-service version of Dosa in Oakland. It serves cardamom-and fenugreek-spiced cocktails.

But there is also a self-service water station and diners can help clear their own tables.

This new recipe of running an eatery sits well with Mr Charles Bililies, who worked in fine-dining restaurants for years before he opened Souvla in 2014.

By then, restaurateurs were already fretting about the city's employer mandates and housing costs.

"We can sit around here and we can complain and whine and moan," Mr Bililies said. "We can be very negative about this. Or we can sort of turn this on its head and see an opportunity."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2018, with the headline 'Find your own table and fill your own glass at San Francisco eatery'. Print Edition | Subscribe