Planning Commission Seeks to Overhaul Zoning Controls on Restaurants

A lot has changed in the twenty or so years that have passed since the Planning Code’s controls on restaurants in Neighborhood Commercial districts were enacted.  Back then, going out to eat was a less common event, reserved for weekends and special occasions.  Fast forward to today, and many people will tell you they eat at restaurants or eat takeout more days each week than they cook.

Whether this phenomenon is caused by busier work schedules, the fine cooking revolution, or an increase in healthy eating awareness, the restaurant industry has moved to fill this new demand.  “Fast casual” restaurants – a term few would have recognized just five years ago – have recently seen tremendous growth.  This new dining category is associated with healthier, more diverse menus than fast food, payment at a register with no servers, and higher check averages than fast food ($8 to $15 according to some).  Think La Boulange, Boudin Bakery, or your local upscale burrito joint.  According to, total visits to fast casuals in the U.S. grew by 17% in the past three years, compared to a 1% drop in visits for the total restaurant industry.

Contrast the change in the industry with current zoning controls in the City’s Planning Code.  There are 13 different restaurant categories in the Planning Code.  Distinctions are largely based on traditional distinctions between fast food and full service dining, such as whether food is served in disposable wrappers or whether the bill is paid before food consumption.  A major distinction is made based on whether the floor area of a restaurant is above or below 1,000 square feet, creating another layer of size regulation on top of generally-applicable use size limits.

Spurred by Supervisor Mirkarimi’s recent legislation to make changes to the restaurant definitions and controls in the Planning Code, the Planning Department is taking the opportunity for a re-think of the entirety of restaurant regulations.  Department staff presented its proposals at the Planning Commission this afternoon, which include:

  • Reducing the number of restaurant categories to three:  “Restaurant” (food and on-site alcohol), “Restaurant-limited” (food and off-site alcohol), and “Bar” (on-site alcohol only);
  • Principally permitting “Restaurant-limited” uses in all Neighborhood Commercial Districts;
  • Pegging the controls on “Restaurant” uses to the existing controls on full-service restaurants (e.g., if a full-service restaurant currently requires a CU or is not permitted, a CU would be required for the new “Restaurant” use).

A more conservative proposal is also being considered, which would actually increase the number of restaurants that would be subject to a CU.

At the hearing this afternoon, the executive director of the Small Business Commission, the director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, and the executive director of Livable City all heartily supported the effort.  Discussions on the overhaul of restaurant controls will continue for the next few months, and the proposal will be heard again by the Planning Commission on August 4.  Those wanting to get involved in the effort should contact planner Aaron Starr at


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