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Here's to Our Health

San Franciscans have a village mentality. Leave the big-box stuff to the Los Angeles and Miami; let New York have its sweeping fine-dining restaurants. We’re proud of our casual, but conscientious, neighborhood joints that don’t cost an arm and a leg—the little guys, owned and run by a chef who knows your name: the Delfinas, Terzos and Blue Plates; the SPQRs, Mavericks and Frescatis.

At the same time, we’re also a bunch of liberals—sometimes to the detriment of those we (claim to) love most. At least that’s what the owners of some of our most beloved restaurants are saying right now. It started with SF's living wage. As of January 1, 2008, the minimum wage is $9.36. And a week ago, as The New York Times reported, “A federal panel of judges granted San Francisco the right on Wednesday to put in place a key part of its universal health care program as legal arguments about the first-in-the-nation plan continue. The unanimous decision, from a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, allows the city to require businesses with more than 20 employees to pay a fee to help cover employees’ health care costs, something city officials say will help about 20,000 people without insurance.”

Which is all great—in theory. But this means that restaurants will soon be paying each staff member about $11 an hour in total (this includes the money going to the health care)—including servers, who often walk out of restaurants like the above, with a good $250 a night in tips. This is $7 more per hour than servers make in New York, where servers only get $3 an hour plus tips (almost every state works this way, assuming that, with tips, servers make at least minimum wage). Meanwhile the poor back-of-the-house suffers; most cooks don't make more than $12 an hour.

This is the down-and-dirty: Restaurant owners are going to have to make up for this somehow. They have options, of course: closing and getting out of town, using cheaper ingredients (there goes your Marin Sun Farms rib-eye) or, most likely, adjusting menu prices, if they haven't already (sticker shock, coming to you soon). As for the culture of dining, you can also expect to see a rise in big restaurants with corporate backers. As Gerald Hirigoyen, owner of Piperade and Bocadillos, says, the law is going to hurt the mom-and-pop operations the most. “I’m just going to go live on a desert island,” he said wryly. “That, or go work for Google.”

The San Francisco Chronicle reported on all this yesterday. Click here to read more. My favorite part of the article is supervisor Tom Ammiano’s comment: “But remember, restaurants are in this for profit. This is not a Peace Corps exercise for them.''

I mean, really—how dare they.