Patio Cafe hearing set for July
by Matthew S. Bajko
As he seeks permits to reopen the long-closed Patio Cafe in the Castro, owner Les Natali is seeking an operator to run the restaurant.
The city's planning commission is expected to vote on his conditional use permit application at its July 18 meeting. Once the permits are approved, the restaurant would be ready to open as all construction work was completed last year.
Natali told the Bay Area Reporter this week that he is in talks with two interested parties to run the Patio Cafe – they would be required to keep the name – but would not disclose their identities. He expects to have an operator lined up by the July hearing and would announce who the person is once the permit has been approved.
"I am optimistic," Natali said of seeing the Patio reopen this summer.
The unresolved zoning issues for the eatery, located at 531 Castro Street, have hampered discussions with potential restaurateurs, Natali told Castro merchants during their monthly meeting June 6.
"I am looking for an operator. But it has been difficult to make a deal with an operator when I don't know when we will get the permit," said Natali, who also owns 18th Street gay bars Badlands and Toad Hall. "I am trying the best I can to get the Patio Cafe open as soon as possible."
The Merchants of Upper Market and Castro voted overwhelmingly to support Natali's permit request. MUMC President Terry Asten Bennett, whose family owns Cliff's Variety, called its reopening "extremely significant" for the gayborhood.
"It will help to revitalize the 500 block of Castro with increased footsteps up and down the block," she told the B.A.R. via a Facebook message. "It is a historic business that will bring locals and tourists alike to the Castro. This will be a real win for the entire neighborhood."
As the B.A.R. noted in a March story, Natali had planned to reopen the Patio, which closed in 2002, in May 2012. But a routine health department inquiry related to his request for an occupancy permit led to a determination that his planning permits were not in order.
When Natali secured a permit to install a retractable roof over the outdoor dining area in 1992, the city stipulated a seating capacity of 160 people and required him to seek a new permit if he expanded.
He also had to merge the two adjoining properties into one legal entity, provide additional fire exits, install a new fire sprinkler system, and increase the number of restrooms. The Patio remained open while the work was completed.
By 1999 the restaurant was closed for periods of time due to various construction reasons, and served its last customer sometime in 2002. An early bathroom upgrade was later deemed noncompliant and had to be re-done to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.
In 2005 Natali received permits to remove a retail space fronting Castro Street, upgrade the bathrooms to be wheelchair accessible, and expand the Patio's bar area. At the same time he combined two storefronts in the adjacent building into one retail space and ripped out what had been rainbow-colored steps as they were not ADA compliant.
A dispute with his contractor led to months of legal wrangling and further delays. After he hired a new construction firm, problems with the electrical service upgrades further pushed back the timeline to complete the work.
"It was a major job; it was very time-consuming; and it was very expensive," Natali said last week.
In the meantime Natali was hit with allegations of discriminatory business practices at Badlands. He refuted the charges and reached a mediated settlement with his accusers in 2006.
But the issue led to a complaint being filed against his permits for the Patio, which further delayed the remodel project. Eventually the city's former zoning administrator ruled in his favor, and work on the space commenced.
Starting in 2008, Natali began searching for a person or group to run the restaurant. Last May, with work on the space completed, he and fellow bar owner Larry Metzger of the Mix began planning the Patio's re-opening ceremonies.
That's when the latest planning snafu hit and the planning department concluded that Natali needed to re-apply for permits due to the size of the restaurant increasing between 633 and 733 square feet – the amount is in dispute – and occupancy going from 160 people to 171.
In March, Scott Sanchez, the city's zoning administrator, acknowledged to the B.A.R. that the planning department should not have granted Natali's 2005 permit request, and instead, should have sought more information about the scope of the project.
With the mistake now discovered, added Sanchez, Natali needed to follow planning procedures before the doors to the Patio could re-open.
After initially fighting the city and getting nowhere, Natali relented and applied for the conditional use permit.
"Nobody has wanted and nobody wants the Patio Cafe open sooner than I do," said Natali. "I am trying the best I can to get the Patio Cafe open as soon as possible."
Last weekend he did celebrate seeing a retailer move into the remodeled storefront at 541 Castro Street. Natali has offered the space rent-free through the Labor Day weekend to Under One Roof for a summer pop-up store.
Called UOR Bizarre Bazaar, it opened Friday, June 7. It marks the return of the nonprofit, which raises money for AIDS agencies through merchandise sales, to the Castro after closing its former location in January.
Since April Under One Roof has operated a store in the Crocker Galleria in downtown San Francisco due to the shopping center offering it a generous deal on a month-to-month lease.
Natali also owns a retail space on 18th Street next door to Toad Hall that had been a dry cleaner. He was looking for a hot dog shop to open there, but during the MUMC meeting last week, Natali said doing so would require installing food preparation equipment that proved to be too "complicated."
"Yes, the space is still available," said Natali in response to a question about the vacant storefront.