Living in San Francisco, it can be easy to forget that getting a table in a good restaurant isn’t impossible. It doesn’t necessarily involve knowing that you’re going to want Chinese food at 9:30pm a month in advance or waiting at a bar for three hours.
Sometimes, you just want to throw on some jeans and whatever eco-sustainable, world-saving casual dress sneakers are in at the moment and hit the street. Walking into dinner with the reasonable expectation of arriving and sitting down without your phone battery dropping more than 2% in the time between shouldn’t be that hard.
That’s why we have this guide - it’s the best places in SF that you can actually get into without having to strategize or plan for months in the future.
A consistently great burger can turn us into regulars at a restaurant pretty quickly. Throw in super good cocktails and easy-to-get reservations or walk-ins and you have a winning trifecta. Maven in the Lower Haight checks all these boxes. It’s also perfect for a last-minute date when you’re not sure if you want it to turn into dinner, but your horoscope said “love was on the horizon,” so the random person who writes those for the Chronicle is saying there’s a chance.
Sometimes you just want to go to a nice dinner. And sometimes on those days you also have zero motivation to “plan” or “think ahead” because pre-reserving space and furniture inside a restaurant can feel daunting. When it’s one of those days, head here. Gardenias, with a seasonally changing American/Californian/Mediterranean menu, is a low-key, easy-to-walk-by-and-miss spot on Sutter with an older crowd and zero wait - whether you want to grab bar seats or a regular table.
Sure, the general area of Mid-Market Street is a dystopian hellscape, but Kaya is an oasis from the cluster/windtunnel that rages outside. The revamped Alta space turns out Jamaican food, cocktails, and great ice cream for dessert in an airy, bright room that makes you want to stay there for a while. And even better, you won’t have to wait to eat the jerk chicken and soft serve with rum raisin sauce.
Sushi doesn’t have to be an omakase blowout or a delivery with a wait long enough where you’ll wonder about the AC of the car it rode in. ICHI in Bernal is a go-to for easy sushi that doesn’t cost a million dollars in a space that’s enjoyable to sit down for a meal in. Besides the sushi, get the miso clams.
Pac Heights is a bit of wasteland for easy, sit down dinners that aren’t the bacon mac and cheese at Palmer’s that you spring for after your fourth cocktail. Keep Troya in your back pocket for when you can’t be bothered to wait in line for Delfina. The Mediterranean spot is definitely casual, but still nice enough that you won’t feel awkward coming in like you were dressed for a job interview, and the food is quite good. Go for the lamb hummus or the chicken kebabs.
Last minute dinner plans in the Mission sometimes end in tears or standing on a corner eating a burrito. While the latter isn’t something we’d be mad about, when you want a sit-down meal and a minimal wait, Namu Gaji has you covered. This Korean-Japanese spot on the corner of Dolores Park’s menu is small but mighty and can keep vegetarians and carnivores happy with the crispy rice stone pots and appetizers like the mushroom dumplings. Save room for dessert - their black sesame pudding is stellar. Or if you suddenly have an increased penchant for lines and waiting, Bi-Rite Creamery is next door.
It’s been a day and you need a glass or four of wine, along with some pasta that’ll help you not think about the seven continuous hours of meetings you sat through this afternoon. Cotogna and Flour + Water are definitely off the table because people here seem to have assistants handling all their restaurant bookings. Instead, try out Altovino in Nob Hill. The place does fresh handmade pasta that holds its own against the big names and it’s easy to roll into any day of the week. Better still, the staff makes you feel welcome and not like they’re doing you a favor by opening their door to you.
Surprise, your LA client is in town and needs to be wined and dined in FiDi. La Mar is here for you. It’s right on the Embarcadero with a lot of space and Peruvian seafood. Lots of space is the key part here, both indoors and outdoors, because you can usually always get a table in a pinch. Not the cheapest place around, but worth it for the ceviches and pisco sours.
One of our favorite things about this place in the Castro is that the bar seats have backs to them, so if you’re sick of working on your pasture all day, it’s a good place to find yourself. Aside from that, it’s never hard to get a spot here. Show up, sit down, and order from their menu of classics like braised short ribs and french dips. Or just do as we do and get the burger.
The tickets you had to the Giants game were actually for last season, so now you’re in deep SoMa looking for something to make the trip worth it. Petit Marlowe is an excellent place for dinner, especially once all the Happy Hour folks clear out. The place feels like a Parisian seafood spot and, along with turning out awesome fresh fish - from the raw bar to the crudos - everything here is good, albeit pricey.
If Uma Casa was in a different neighborhood than Noe Valley, it would be slammed at all times. This place serves excellent Portuguese food in a cool space, but because you’re in Noe and not on a European vacation where everyone eats late at night, the crowd is older and home with the kids and therefore not out and eating at Uma Casa. Make the most of it.
It’s hard to explain how many times this place has come through in the clutch. Great Lao Isaan food in a cool, huge space in the heart of the Mission that’s basically a guaranteed good time. We can’t imagine a more perfect solution for many of your dining problems, and the tiki drinks are always strong.
Burma Love is practically across the street from Hawker Fare. We prefer this place to its more famous sibling, Burma Superstar, and not just because of its shinier interior and ease of entry – the food is better too, especially the chicken with mint and the fried catfish.
Lers Ros is the best last-minute group dinner spot in town. You have to order at least one type of meat that you’ve never eaten before (we’re partial to the alligator because have you seen that golf course video?). More conventionally, the tom kha khai and crunchy pork skin are some of the best things on the menu. If you feel like reminding yourself that we’re at the top of the food chain, you’ll leave happy. If you don’t, the standys from pad see ew to pad thai are delicious as well.
In addition to the incredible beer selection, the line at Garaje moves pretty quickly, there are a lot of tables, and the food here is consistently solid. Skip the burger - you can get a similar one at In-N-Out - and instead go for the zapatos. We like ours with carnitas, but anything will be a safe bet.
Sure, sometimes there might just be a sign on the window announcing they happen to be closed on a random Thursday night, but that’s part of the adventure at this Burmese spot in the Richmond. Despite having as good if not better noodles and curries than Burma Superstar, Mandalay manages to stay less slammed. There’s plenty to explore on the menu, but the tea leaf salad, shredded pork with garlic, and coconut rice are good places to start.
Not exactly a cakewalk to get into, but not the toughest either. It’s pretty much what you’d expect from upscale Mexican: think of it as Tacolicious without the scene or Nopalito without the wait. Gets the job done, if a little hard on the wallet.
On the weekends, Chubby Noodle becomes a packed and noisy vortex that seems like it sucks in the rowdiest people the Marina has to offer (if you ignore the Tipsy Pig). But on weeknights, Chubby Noodle is a solid go-to if you’ve got an indecisive small group. The Korean pork tacos are the best thing on the menu, but they’re a small plate, so look to the garlic noodles when you actually want to eat and not just as an excuse to keep drinking.