Information on new restaurant establishment (i.e. food service use).
If you're planning to open a restaurant establishment (i.e. food service use), your project will require a Building Permit Application. A restaurant's nature, size, and seating can all affect how it will be regulated. In some zoning districts restaurants/food service uses are categorized simply as retail businesses and are not treated differently from other retail uses, while in other districts the definitions for restaurants/food services uses are more complicated and diverse, and are therefore regulated differently. When planning your project you will need to consider these, and a number of other important regulations, and depending on the scope of work and zoning district of the property, your project may also require Neighborhood Notification and several accompanying Pre-Application steps. (See Understanding What's Allowed below.)
Got permitting questions?
Read the FAQ
Although you should check with the Planning Department at the outset to understand what nature, size, and seating controls exist in the location where you are proposing a restaurant, you will also need a "Food Permit to Operate or Certificate of Sanitation" from the Health Department (1390 Market Street Suite 210, San Francisco, CA; 415-252-3800). For more information, visit the Health Department's Food Safety Program web page.
If your restaurant project includes a physical expansion of the building, please see our Building Expansion/Change of Use – Commercial permitting page. If your restaurant will be a legal commercial use in a residential district see our Commercial Use in Residential Districts (e.g. Corner Stores) permitting page. If your restaurant involves a mobile food facility or food truck, see our Mobile Food Facilities/Open Air Sales (Temporary Use) permitting page.
It is recommended to visit or call Planning staff at the Planning Information Center (PIC) early in the planning of your project, before making any commitment to lease or operate a new restaurant. Planners at the PIC can help you determine what zoning requirements and other regulations apply to your property, including how your particular food service activity is defined under the Code. The PIC is at 1660 Mission Street, 1st floor and may also be reached by phone at (415) 558-6377 or via email at email@example.com.
We also recommend you contact the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) to confirm their requirements before submitting your Building Permit Application. They can be reached at (415) 558-6088, or at 1660 Mission Street 1st floor
Understanding What's Allowed
New restaurant/food service uses are regulated by the San Francisco Planning Code. To maintain the character and purpose of distinct areas in San Francisco, the City's geography has been divided into distinct zoning use districts (view these zoning use districts on the San Francisco Zoning Map and Section 201 of the Planning Code). For each activity or use of land in any given zoning district, the Code states if that activity or use is either: Permitted; Conditional; or Not Permitted. Therefore knowing the zoning district of your property will help you identify what specific limits may apply to your project and which application materials you will need to submit.
You can find the zoning use district and height limits of your property on the Find My Zoning page, or directly from our San Francisco Property Information Map by entering your address or Assessor's Lot and Block number and click the "Zoning" tab.
Other Things To Consider
In addition to the zoning district and land use regulations in the San Francisco Planning Code, your application will also be reviewed under provisions in all of San Francisco's Municipal Codes, the San Francisco General Plan, and Department policies based on a number of criteria (e.g. the historical significance of your property, the environmental impact of your project, or other regulations).
Here are the most common regulations you will need to consider:
Pre-Application Process & Neighborhood Notification requirements
Many new restaurant/food service uses require Neighborhood Notification, a process where the Planning Department mails a notice alerting neighbors and neighborhood groups in the vicinity of your proposed project and they are given a period of 30 days to respond with concerns or to request a Discretionary Review (DR). This includes projects in Neighborhood Commercial (NCD), Chinatown, Western SOMA, or Residential-Commercial Combined (RC) zoning districts, where Section 312 of the Planning Code states that commercial projects in these zoning districts require Neighborhood Notification. Depending on the scope of your project, you may also need to provide a "Pre-Application Notice" to nearby neighbors, and/or you may need to hold a "Pre-Application Meeting." The triggers for the Pre-Application Process are explained in the Pre-Application Information Packet.
However, within each of the aforementioned zoning districts, there are some distinct regulations to consider when planning for your restaurant/food service establishment:
Neighborhood Commercial districts (NCD)
Specifically within Neighborhood Commercial districts (NCD), establishing a restaurant in a space that was not previously the same kind of restaurant requires Neighborhood Notification, at a minimum, and may also require a Conditional Use Authorization (CU), or in some cases it could be completely prohibited.
Commercial uses in Residential Commercial (RC) districts
Regulations of commercial uses in RC districts are based on the nearest NCD district. In RC districts, restaurants/food service establishments are subject to the same regulations, but Neighborhood Notification is not required.
Commercial uses in Residential Commercial (RC) districts
The Western SOMA zoning district utilizes NCD definitions for purposes of Neighborhood Notification requirements only. Any proposed use that meets the definition of a restaurant requires Neighborhood Notification equal to that required in NCD districts.
Five distinct definitions for Restaurant/Food Service uses
In Neighborhood Commercial (NCD), Chinatown, Western SOMA, or Residential-Commercial Combined (RC) zoning districts (i.e. the districts where restaurants are not simply considered retail service), there are five distinct definitions for restaurant/food service uses, and each is regulated differently.
Retail Coffee Store
Retail Coffee Stores (Planning Code Section 790.102(n)) have very limited space, seating (up to 15 seats) and no food preparation. Cafes meeting this definition are not treated as restaurants under the Code, but instead as basic retail services.
Small self-service/fast-food restaurant
Small self-service/fast food restaurant (Section 790.91 / Section 890.91) is a restaurant that is less than 1,000 gross square feet in size with less than 50 seats that provides prepared food that is usually served at a counter.
Large fast-food restaurant
Large fast-food restaurants (Section 790.90 / Section 890.90) operate similarly to small self-service but are larger, greater than 1,000 square feet with no limit on seats.
Full-Service restaurants (Section 790.92 / Section 890.92) are generally traditional wait service restaurants (i.e. individuals order from their table and are served by wait staff and pay after eating).
Specialty Food, Self-Service
Specialty Food, Self-Service (Section 790.93) is intended to apply to specialty foods provided by uses like bakeries, delicatessens, and confectioneries with limited seating (up to 10 seats) and no on-site liquor consumption and food principally consumed off-site.
- Grocery Store - NCD districts only
The NCD districts also have a provision for grocery stores to have limited/accessory food preparation for take out (Section 703.2(b)(1)(C)(iii)), with no more than 100 square feet for food preparation and service and no seating.
Change of Use & Change of Definition
It is important to keep in mind that if a new owner of an existing restaurant operates the facility differently than the prior owner it may be considered a change of use under the Planning Code. For example, a change from full wait service to counter service would change the restaurant definition under the Planning Code from full-service to self-service restaurant and could be a new use under the code. (See "Five distinct definitions for Restaurant/Food Service uses" above.)
Formula retail subject to "Conditional Use Authorization" (CU) in some zoning districts
In certain zoning districts there are controls on uses described as “Formula Retail,” which can include restaurants and food service uses. Briefly, these are operations commonly referred to as "Chain Stores" with more than eleven U.S. locations and standard logos, layout, decor, etc. New formula retail uses require Conditional Use Authorization (CU), and in some cases are completely prohibited. Following submittal of a CU Application, the proposed formula retail restaurant would be reviewed by the Planning Commission at a public hearing. The Commission would make findings to determine if the proposed project were consistent with the San Francisco General Plan and promoted the general welfare of the City. For more information, see our Formula Retail permitting page.
"Conditional Use Authorization" (CU)
For each activity or use of land in any given zoning district, the San Francisco Planning Code states if that activity or use is either: Permitted; Conditional; or Not Permitted. If your food service establishment involves a use that you would like conditionally permitted (e.g. formula retail use, increasing hours of operation use, or change of use by opening a restaurant in a space that was not previously the same kind of restaurant) a Conditional Use Authorization (CU) Application must be submitted. Following submittal, your project will be reviewed by the Planning Commission at a public hearing. The Commission will make findings that your project is consistent with the San Francisco General Plan and promotes the general welfare of the City. CU is further explained in our Permitting Glossary here, or in our handout General Planning Information Bulletin: Reconstruction of Destroyed Buildings and Uses.
Environmental impact of your project
Projects may require a separate Environmental Evaluation Application depending on the scope of the project. Generally, most new food service uses—without an increase in the building envelope—are are generally exempt from environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Larger scale food service developments may require more detailed environmental evaluations. You can read a summary of the environmental review process on our Environmental Planning (formerly MEA) web page which includes a list of projects exempt from environmental review (known as "Categorical Exemption). If your proposed project is not exempt from CEQA, you will need to submit an Environmental Evaluation Application. The application also includes contact phone numbers if you have questions about the need for environmental review. If environmental review is required, it must be completed before any other permit approval actions are taken. Contact the PIC if you have questions as to whether your project will require environmental evaluation.
If your project involves alteration to a structure that has been identified (through a Historic Resources Survey or other means) as a historic resource or if the structure is 50 years old or greater then there will most likely be additional materials and process involved in order to determine if the proposed work is appropriate. See our Historic Preservation section to read more about evaluating historic character and the additional procedures that might be required if a historic structure is impacted. Preservation Technical Specialists (planners with specialized training in evaluating impacts on historic resources) at the Planning Information Center (PIC) can help you understand what's allowed on your building. There are regularly scheduled hours where Preservation Technical Specialists are available to help you at the PIC, click here for more info.
Removal of dwelling units (i.e. housing units)
If your project involves removing dwelling units by demolition, that process is subject to some additional procedures as is discussed separately on our Removal of Dwelling Units permitting page.
Hours of operation & "Conditional Use Authorization" (CU)
Commercial uses in certain districts such as Neighborhood Commercial districts (NCD), Chinatown Mixed Use Districts and specific Downtown Residential Mixed Use Districts may have restrictions on the hours of operation. Depending on the scope of your food service establishment and the zoning district of your property, later hours will require a Conditional Use Authorization or in some cases it may not be permitted.
If you are interested in providing sidewalk seating for your food service use, you need to obtain a "Revocable" Street-Use Permit to place Tables and Chairs from the Department of Public Works (DPW). Generally, DPW reviews these permits to ensure pedestrian circulation. As part of the Café Tables & Chairs application, you are required to gain Planning Department approval. The Planning Department will normally approve these over-the-counter. Don't forget that if your restaurant's definition in the San Francisco Planning Code is subject to seating limits, these seats would be included in that total count (see "Five distinct definitions for Restaurant/Food Service uses"above). Contact the PIC if you have questions.
Any new signage would require a separate sign permit. See our Signs permitting page.
If your proposed project would include any live entertainment, amplified sound, or amusement devices it may require a permit from the Entertainment Commission. Also, in certain zoning districts, entertainment activities accessory to, or within other establishments (e.g. live music in a bar) may constitute a separate use under the San Francisco Planning Code with separate Neighborhood Notification and/or approval requirements.
Walk up facilities are pedestrian services located on a building wall such as a restaurant service window. See our Walk-Up Facilities permitting page.
Applying for Your Permit & Paying Fees
The following information must be submitted when applying for a Building Permit to open a new restaurant/food service use:
- Construction plans and/or drawings (existing and proposed floor plans are required for change of use projects). See our Plan Submittal Guidelines.
- Neighborhood Notification materials (if required)
- Forms provided in the Pre-Application Packet (if a Pre-Application Meeting is required)
- Forms provided in the Conditional Use Authorization (CU) Application (required only if seeking a Conditional Use Authorization)
Since every project is unique, we have a useful matrix handout, the Permit Application Checklist which explains submittal requirements based on the proposed work as described under "How to Use This Matrix." A checklist of required materials to be submitted with the Building Permit is also included in the Building Permit Application Packet which also describes the Section 312 Neighborhood Notification
To submit a permit, prepare the Building Permit Application and bring it along with all necessary plans and materials as described in the Permit Application Checklist and/or Building Application Packet to the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) at 1660 Mission Street. If you are a new user, we recommend you come to the Planning Information Center (PIC) also at 1660 Mission Street before proceeding to DBI.
Permit fees are based on the construction cost of your project. To estimate permit fees, the Planning Department's fee schedule is available online. We also have a fee calculator for Building Permits reviewed by the Planning Department. If you have any questions, please stop by or call the Planning Information Center (PIC) staff at (415) 558-6377. Depending on your location and project type, impact fees may be required for new construction. Contact the PIC to see if these requirements apply to your property. Please note this is for the Planning Department's review fees only. Fees for review by the Building Department are available here. You may also call DBI at 558-6088.
Don't forget: Should the cost of staff time exceed the initial fee you paid, it is possible an additional fee for time and materials may be billed upon completion of the permit review process. Additional fees may also be collected for preparation and recordation of any documents with the San Francisco Assessor-Recorder’s office and for monitoring compliance with any conditions of approval.
Permit Review Process
If you have already visited the Planning Information Center (PIC) at 1660 Mission Street and you are confident you have all the correct materials for your Building Permit Application, your next step is to submit your application materials & fees listed in Applying for My Permit & Paying Fees to the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) at 1660 Mission Street.
After initial screening of your application by DBI, the Planning Department will review the application to confirm it is complete for Planning Department requirements. If information is missing, or if corrections are needed, you will be asked to return with that information. If Neighborhood Notification is not required, planners at the Planning Information Center (PIC) will review the application to determine if it complies with the San Francisco Planning Code (view the code online) and is consistent with our Residential Design Guidelines and the additional regulations detailed above in Understanding What's Allowed. If so, it may be approved over-the-counter. If Neighborhood Notification is required, the application will be taken in and routed to an assigned planner at the Planning Department.
3. Plan Review
Similar to Screening in Step 2, when the Planning Department reviews your application, an assigned planner will determine if the application complies with the San Francisco Planning Code (view the code online) and is consistent with our Residential Design Guidelines and the additional regulations detailed above in Understanding What's Allowed. In addition, according to Planning Code Sections 311/312 Neighborhood Notification procedures, prior to filing any Entitlement Application (this includes but is not limited to Building Permits, Variances, and Conditional Use Authorizations) the project sponsor must conduct a minimum of one Pre-Application Meeting if the proposed scope of work triggers such a meeting. The triggers for the Pre-Application Process are explained in the Pre-Application Information Packet. Once the planner determines that your project is approvable, he or she will initiate the Neighborhood Notification process.
Neighborhood Notification entails mailing an announcement of your project to neighbors and neighborhood groups so that they, or any person, may voice concerns they have over the proposal or so that they may request a Discretionary Review (a hearing seeking denial of the project or changes to the proposal before the San Francisco Planning Commission). The permit is held by Planning for a 30-day period from the date of mailed notification to allow adequate time for public review of the proposal. During the notification period, any person may ask the San Francisco Planning Commission to exercise its power of Discretionary Review over the Building Permit Application.
You will meet with review staff from different departments as directed by DBI, who will check your construction documents to verify the proposed construction will meet the various City Municipal Codes (view all codes online). Staff from the following departments will check a typical Building Permit for new restaurant/food service uses:
- Department of Building Inspection (DBI)
- Department of Public Works (DPW)/Bureau of Streets Management (BSM) (if use of streetspace/sidewalk is needed)
- San Francisco Fire Department (depending on occupancy)
- San Francisco Public Health Department
Other agencies may be involved depending on the scope of your project.
When all the reviews are complete, the permit will be issued, and you can begin work. Note, there is a 15-day period after Building Permit issuance in which any party may appeal the permit to the Board of Appeals.
Inspections of permitted work is the responsibility of the Department of Building Inspection. DBI's Inspection Services page explains their inspection function.
Applications & Handouts
Applications Mentioned On This Page
Handouts Mentioned On This Page