Billy Riordan was just starting to gain momentum when the novel coronavirus arrived on the West Coast. Riordan co-owns a restaurant in San Francisco called Barrio, where business was taking off just as the city was shutting down.
“Our sales were going up, up, up, up. We were kind of getting recognition, and then all of a sudden, bam, the brakes slammed,” he said.
Riordan co-owns Barrio with Tim Milojevich. The two accomplished chefs opened the beer bar and Latin kitchen in the neighborhood of North Beach in July 2018.
Barrio announces itself with a simple splash of cheery yellow paint. No flashy signs or designs clutter the front door. The name, which means “neighborhood” in Spanish, epitomizes the welcoming nature of this tiny eatery. It only takes one glance to see the whole interior of this cozy spot, which is squeezed between numbers 1608 and 1610 on Powell Street. The business has just four employees, which Riordan considers family.
The restaurant’s unassuming appearance is seemingly at odds with its menu of high-end, authentic Latin food, which features unique takes on tacos, ceviche, quesadillas, and more. But this approachable vibe is exactly what Riordan had envisioned.
“That’s kind of where I think we’re different, we make our tortillas from scratch, we make our hot sauces from scratch,” said Riordan. “But I know everybody’s name…and everyone’s having a good time, and we know everybody.”
Riordan has been in San Francisco for 20 years now. In his mid-twenties, he moved to the heart of North Beach, a close-knit community that quickly became his extended family.
“If you need something, you put the word out and people will band together and take care of you. It’s a very cool neighborhood.”
People from all walks of life come to North Beach to enjoy the food at Barrio, from locals, to young professionals, to yoga moms. It’s the kind of place where everyone is welcome. Sometimes Riordan even ran a tab and let customers pay later. The restaurant soon developed a small cult following for its high-quality Latin eats and fiery hot sauces. A standout dish on the menu is the cochinita pibil, which is roast pork served over blue corn tortillas. It’s a recipe that Riordan’s partner Milojevich perfected after living in the Yucatan.
Aside from the tasty dishes, people sought the laid-back atmosphere away from the craziness of the dinner rush at the usual tourist traps. Today, the streets of San Francisco are deserted in the wake of Covid-19, and Barrio has long since closed for regular business.
“The first couple of weeks I was up in the middle of the night, stressed out about my family, my employees’ family, the business—is it going to survive?”
Despite the crisis, San Franciscans are still enjoying Barrio’s handmade dishes. During March, Riordan held “tamale popups,” which involved making 600 tamales a week for customers to buy at a pickup window. The overwhelming turnout had them selling out within an hour. Riordan and his team took every precaution before and during the popups to prevent the spread of the virus. But in the back of his mind, he was worried about exposure, especially with a one-year-old daughter at home.
“It was very unclear if we should even be out there and putting our employees at risk, and ourselves at risk, and everything like that,” he said.
But even though the city shut down, Riordan still has to pay the bills. His first priority was making sure his employees would be okay. He sat down and signed each one of them up for unemployment, which he has personally been unable to receive as a restaurant owner.
It’s not only the tamale popups that are keeping Barrio afloat, but also devoted customers. Riordan was surprised and touched when people donated to the business.
“It was kind of nice to see how everyone rallied around restaurants when this first happened and how important restaurants are to people,” he said. “Hopefully the public will take care of us once this is over and people feel comfortable going out.”
Riordan said there has been another good thing to come out of the crisis: quality time with his family. Spending time with his wife and young child has been the silver lining of the pandemic, causing him to slow down and reconsider what’s important. He’s also using this time to take a step back and see what improvements can be made at Barrio, considering it a fresh start for the restaurant. He hopes to come out of the crisis stronger than before.
If all goes well for Barrio, North Beach won’t lose this little hub that’s dedicated to food, family, and friends—three things that are critical in a time like this.