In San Francisco, waiting to eat at some of the best restaurants in the city is just as normal as needing to catch your breath in Potrero Hill. Sometimes you get lucky by knowing exactly where you want to eat far enough in advance that your waiting is spent hovering over a laptop, ready for new reservations to enter the system. But more often than not, you’ll likely have to go somewhere in person the day of and stick it out, just like the pioneers did when they first travelled out here by covered wagon all those years ago.
Once you’ve come to terms with the whole having patience thing, it’s time to make a plan. Here’s our guide to where to hang out near 8 great restaurants in the city that consistently have long waits. For each spot, we’ve listed a couple bars where you can hang out until your table is ready - all of which should help avoid the inevitable urge to give up and eat a burrito.
Flour + Water
Waiting in line for dinner is a special San Francisco pastime, and that’s usually what you have to do if you want to eat Flour + Water’s pasta tasting menu. You could line up early for when they open at 5:30pm and risk getting sunburned, or you can come in and put your name down before you head to a bar in the area to wait it out.
This is one of our favorite bars, especially when you’re starting your night. Even if it’s a little crowded when you walk in, Trick Dog is one of the only bars in SF where the bartenders actually take drink orders for everybody - not just for the first row of people at the bar who haven’t moved all night. The drink menu changes here regularly and follows themes like tattoo artists or classic SF restaurant cookbooks, but you can always count on the cocktails to be good.
Or if you want something potentially less crowded, you could walk around the corner to True Laurel. This place makes drinks that are just as creative as Trick Dog’s and come in fancy glassware that feels like you could break them if you accidentally close your hand when you sneeze. The drinks here are well made enough that you’ll want them to last 15 to 20 minutes, so after one or two rounds, your table should be ready.
Tony’s Pizza Napoletana
Tony’s is a spot that tourists love to hit up, so there’s always a line at this living encyclopedia of pizza. We’ve seen the wait run as little as 30 minutes and as long as four hours, but stick it out - this pizza is worth it.
The glass brick window entrance at Tony Nik’s feels more like the setting of a noir film set in old Miami than a bar in the middle of North Beach. It’s only a few feet away from the other Tony’s that you’re waiting to get a table at, but this one doesn’t have a giant line. Instead, you can walk right in and get a drink while you wait for your turn to go eat at one of the most classic pizza joints in SF.
Church Key is a few blocks away from Tony’s Pizza, and has one of the best beer lists in the whole neighborhood. The lounge upstairs has a long red velvet booth running the length of the room that seats a ton of people and works great if you have a large group. Listen to music while you try and fathom all the pizza options at Tony’s.
State Bird Provisions
If you’re not lucky enough to get a reservation at State Bird Provisions by staying up until midnight and rapidly hitting refresh on your browser weeks in advance, the good news is they leave about half of the restaurant open to walk-ins. Unless you get here at 5pm, you’ll end up waiting a few hours, but it’s worth it to experience the excellent small plates, as spring rolls and dumplings zoom past your table on little carts throughout dinner.
The Snug is about a 15-minute walk from State Bird, which isn’t the worst thing when you’ve got State Bird amounts of time to kill. It’s easy to drop in, grab a few seats at the low bar by the window, and enjoy a cocktail - we like the whiskey smash with bourbon and the spicy prickly pear with mezcal and habanero.
We love going to The Social Study for dates, especially when you can turn waiting for a table at State Bird into a mini-date. The beer, wine, and sake selection is solid, a DJ plays every Thursday through Saturday, and they have a projector always playing movies on the wall, so there’s a lot to distract you from how long you’re waiting for dinner.
Elephant Sushi doesn’t have a ton of seats and is only open Wednesday through Sunday. They also make some of the best sushi in the city for around $30 per person. Both of these details pretty much guarantee this place is never empty, but it’s worth waiting for a flaming sea bass roll and himalayan trout served on a block of himalayan salt.
If a clown car company decided to open a wine bar, Bacchus Wine Bar would be the prototype. Even when the tiny spot on Hyde Street is packed, it’s a great place to enjoy a few glasses of wine and listen to some vinyl while you wait for a table at Elephant Sushi.
When you’re looking for a glass of wine before you start drinking sake at Elephant Sushi, Union Larder is right across the street. One of the reasons we love this spot is that you can come here for a quick catch-up or stay for the whole evening. If you’re looking for a larger, more relaxed space than Bacchus, this is where to go.
Rich Table in Hayes Valley takes a bit of planning to get a prime-time reservation, but the bar seats are saved for walk-ins so anyone can drop in for some porcini donuts and sea urchin tonarelli. This place gets busy pretty much as soon as they unlock the door, but there’s a couple great bars in the neighborhood that are only a few blocks away.
Fig & Thistle Wine Bar
Fig & Thistle is one of our favorite bars in the area. The place is small and dark, and feels a little secret since the entrance is down a back alley. If your impromptu trip to Rich Table is a date, this is a good place to start.
Anina has one of the best patios in the city, and even if the weather isn’t what anyone would call “fine, I guess,” they have heaters everywhere to make sure you’re comfortable. If the patio is packed, you’ll usually be able to get a place to sit at the bar. Order a couple rounds of Carribean-themed cocktails, or one of their punch bowls, if the wait at Rich Table is longer than you expected.
Liholiho Yacht Club
Even if you show up early on a Monday, you could end up waiting two hours for a table at Liholiho Yacht Club - which still feels like the coolest restaurant in the city even though it’s been open for years. You’re here just as much for the Hawaiian-inspired food as you are for the scene in this brick walled room that feels like a members-only club.
Louie’s Gen-Gen Room is the downstairs bar connected to Liholiho Yacht Club. It’s never too hard to get a place to sit, and they have a cocktail list that’s different from upstairs but still uses tropical ingredients like passionfruit, mango, and guava.
Hogwash is a bar that always has 30 beers on tap. It’s only a few blocks away from Liholiho Yacht Club, but a two-hour wait will give you some time to try a couple of beers at the long communal table that’s great for big groups.
Pacific Cocktail Haven is a cocktail bar right next door to Hogwash. The back room has a bunch of small tables so if you’re going to Liholiho on a date, you can start it early over a few well-made drinks.
Nopa would be the perfect restaurant to hang out at, except everyone wants to hang out here. On a busy night, people will hover over the first-come, first-served bar seats like vulchers or someone waiting to say, “that’s what she said.” If you don’t feel like becoming one of those people, you can give them your phone number and go get a drink somewhere for a while.
Fool’s Errand is a small, dark wine bar on Divis that always has a solid by-the-glass list. On nice nights, grab a window table next to their floor-to-ceiling windows and watch as you’ll see a bunch of people walk out of Nopa - which is catty-corner from the bar. Plus, if you’re starving, they do small things like cheese boards to snack on while you wait.
If you’re really impatient or just have a thing for Pacman, you could wait for your table at The Emporium. This arcade bar has tons of machines and games like Galaga, skeeball, and air hockey to play while you pass the time. If you’re not careful, though, you could end up playing through your call to come back to the restaurant.
Even though it’s not the only reason we go here, part of our brains will always unofficially call Horsefeather, “The Nopa Waiting Room.” It’s only a few steps away from the restaurant, the cocktails are great, and we could hang out on the semi-outside glassed-in patio all day.
Swan Oyster Depot
There’s almost no way to eat Swan Oyster Depot without waiting. If you don’t get here early enough to be seated, the wait usually runs over an hour - partially because the line gets that long and partially because once you sit, there’s no rush to make room for the people behind you. Because it is an actual line instead of a waitlist, you can’t leave without losing your spot. But you can do what people always have and hit a liquor store before you show up and make friends with all the people around you.
You can’t leave the line at Swan Oyster Depot once you join it, so your best option is to grab a couple of cold ones from the corner store.