Odds are, you’ve ended up in Union Square with clients, coworkers, friends from out of town before you all go to the theater, or someone who is honestly fascinated by how cable cars turn around. Unless you’re looking to pop into Neiman Marcus or the Nike Store, though, there’s little reason to stay.
Regardless, if you need to eat in the neighborhood, we’re here to help you out. Save yourself from the tourist traps and fake-old-timey storefronts designed to lure you in. Trust us instead.
Ayala is one of the best seafood restaurants in the whole city. The spaghettini with crab and white miso has nori worked into the pasta dough, so every bite tastes like the ocean. It’s our favorite thing here. But everything else is creative and delicious, too - like the cioppino verde that’s smokey and seems like the solution to a math problem involving how much seafood you can possibly fit into one dish. If you’re someone who avoids Union Square at all costs, this place will change your mind.
Working and shopping in Union Square is inherently stressful, but Oren’s Hummus is a great place to unwind before heading home. This spot has great Israeli small plates and dips like hummus with lamb and skewers that go perfectly with the wine you can drink after a long day.
As much as you want to show your visiting clients all that SF has to offer, you get the feeling that they don’t really want to venture far from Union Square. So take them to Burma Club. This spot is from the same people as Burma Superstar, and along with great cocktails, they also have the same food as their other locations, including the tea leaf salad, spicy tomato chutney, and rich curries with beef.
This place is right next to the heart of Union Square, and we usually like to come here when we realize we’ve spent too much on a black turtle neck we already have. And while this place is small and tends to get crowded, their chicken ramen alone makes the wait worth it.
If you’re looking for a quick bite, head to Tacorea. This place mixes Korean and Mexican food, and the result is things like their Tacorea kimchi burrito with spicy pork, kimchi, cheese, and Spanish rice. They also have tacos filled with “Kanye” asada, and carnitas that they serve with tater tots on the side. You can get in and out of here pretty fast and without a struggle, but if you’re really in a rush, they run a good takeout operation.
Your laptop fell off your bed while you were reaching for a glass of water, and now the Genius Bar is performing emergency surgery. There’s no waiting room at the Apple store for you to wring your hands and read old magazines while you wait, so head to Hogwash a few blocks away. They have a ton of beers on tap and a menu of sausages to eat while you contemplate buying one of those hospital bedside tables for your computer. If the fall was particularly bad, order the curry fries and get a duck egg on top of it - just try not to think of Humpty Dumpty when you do.
B44 is a bit of a power player because it can work for a lot of reasons, from a last-second date after work to dinner with your team. They have Spanish classics like albondigas and fancy toast with tomato and Iberico ham, and the portions are pretty generous for what you pay. We like the gambas al ajillo, but make sure to keep some of the bread from the beginning of the meal to soak up the oil under the shrimp.
Meeting someone in a hotel bar kind of screams that you have less imagination than a person without imagination, so if you want to grab cocktails with someone staying in Union Square, take them to Local Edition. It’s dark inside, but once your night vision kicks in, you’ll be able to see that this place looks a lot like a speakeasy. Luckily, though, they have a long spirits list with options beyond moonshine and bathtub gin.
The words “bowling alley food” typically conjure up the image of a plexiglass box full of pizza withering under a heat lamp, but this is not the case at Fifth Arrow. Aside from the fact that this bowling alley is a legitimately cool place to hang out with some friends, the food is good enough to merit coming here for just that. Which is a plus, considering that bowling here is $55 per hour per lane and that there are only three lanes. Save the bowling for someone’s birthday or as a pregame for a concert at August Hall next door, but feel free to come here after work on a random night for some solid pizzas and cocktails and maybe some Jenga.
Some restaurants are perfect when you’ve had a rough day, and Cordon Bleu is definitely one of them. You may have to wait 15 minutes or so before you can sit down at the ten-seat counter, but you’re already out of energy, so what’s another few minutes. The menu includes a bunch of combos plates - rice, shredded cabbage salad, pork rolls, pork chops, and other grilled meats - but the best thing is the five-spice grilled chicken. Eat it here, or if you just want to go home and watch Vanderpump Rules to remind yourself that you’re a responsible person who actually has their sh*t together, you can get chickens to go, too.
Hotel-adjacent restaurants tend to feature mediocre breakfast buffets and people taking conference calls in public areas. Tratto is the exception to that rule. The bar is good for drinks and light bites, and the Italian classics on the menu are well-executed. In fact, it’s easy to forget this place is attached to a hotel, unless you have to go to the bathroom... through the hotel lobby.
Have you ever just walked past a line and gotten into it because you assumed there was something worthwhile at the end? When you’re near Union Square, sometimes that line is for delicious ramen, and sometimes it’s for a meet-and-greet with Ashlee Simpson. In Mensho’s case, it’s ramen, and it’s worth the wait. This place is small inside, but you’re here for the spicy lamb ramen, so focus all your attention on that.
Pakwan is a simple, inexpensive Pakistani-Indian option very close to Union Square, and it always comes through for us. The menu is full of classic tandoori dishes and curries, and it’s perfect for a casual meal with friends. Get a lot of naan, some biryanis, and a curry or two, and you’ll be ready for whatever else your day/night has in store.
Another good spot for Pakistani-Indian food. You need both naan and chicken from their tandoor oven in your general vicinity ASAP. The goat is also great if you need a break from the order you get at every other Indian place.
Meeting your visiting clients for breakfast doesn’t need to be fancy, it just needs to break the incredibly low bar set by hotel buffets around the world. For the classic American breakfast, take them to Sears Fine Food. They have all the diner standards, from pancakes and waffles to omelettes and eggs Benedict, in a space covered with WWII-era posters and kitsch. Get some strong coffee and an order of Swedish pancakes to split amongst the group, and prepare for some small talk about hills and Karl.
Popsons does excellent burgers (unsurprisingly, since it’s from the people behind Causwells). The space is nicer than your average burger place, but not so upscale that you’ll get a steak knife impaling your food, or a $25 bill. Order at the counter and your burger will be ready quickly - we usually go with a double cheeseburger, or the “savory burger,” with mushrooms and truffle cheese. Don’t skip the fries, either. It’s not the best place for a leisurely meal, but it’s perfect for a quick bite.
If you need a work power lunch near Union Square, go to Bluestem. Sure, the inside looks like a hotel lobby and the burger is $18, but you’re here to make deals and impress someone into buying direct response ads or chipping in to your ICO that will revolutionize banana stands everywhere. The duck confit salad is a good move, and Happy Hour runs until 6:30pm, making it a good place for post-work snacks and drinks.
A perfect spot for outdoor Happy Hours and work lunches. You’re here for tacos, bowls, and burritos, and you can’t have a better outdoor meal anywhere near Market Street. The inside is big, too, and perfect for groups looking to grab a quick meal.
We’re glad the people behind the original Delarosa in the Marina had the good sense to set up this outpost in an area that is generally devoid of decent food. The downtown location has a nice outdoor patio in a pedestrian area off Market Street, and is one of your best options around. Whatever you do, get the burrata bruschetta.
You’ve most likely seen pictures of Mr. Holmes and their “I Got Baked” sign. You may have also seen a few of their signature pastries - from cruffins to croissants to one of the best chocolate chip cookies in the city. If you need sweets and baked goods, this place should be on your list, just know that there can be a line.
Ryoko’s is not glamorous or fancy. There is no omakase. But the sushi is fresh and there are lots of roll options - we’re partial to the Orange Delight, an avocado/cucumber roll topped with salmon. If you stay late enough, it becomes a karaoke party. Do with that information what you will.
A good option for coffee on Market Street. The toasts are also worth your time (especially the avocado or fig jam and ricotta version). Breakfast or lunch here is very much the right choice. If you’re here to do work, know that they do not have wifi before you set up your portable standing desk.
The crew behind Sons & Daughters delivers some fancy modernist dishes, but you don’t feel like you got lost in a chem lab while you’re eating here. The food is incredible, and if you’re a planner, you should absolutely make a reservation for the $145 tasting menu in advance.
If you’re taking clients (or yourself) out, go for the omakase meal at Akiko’s Restaurant. You can eat amazing fish and drink top-shelf sake here, provided you are okay with paying up for it. Just make sure you go to the right place: you want Akiko’s Restaurant, not Akiko’s Sushi Bar, another spot confusingly close by.
Afraid of sharks? So are we. Like, refuse to swim in the ocean afraid. Conveniently, this Hawaiian restaurant on the Tenderloin border has no sharks - only incredible fried chicken, beef tongue buns and tropical cocktails. We’re big fans of this place, and come for birthday dinners, snacks and drinks with out-of-towners, and really any other reason we can possibly think of. There’s also a bar (Louie’s Gen-Gen Room) downstairs.
An old friend texted you to say they’re in town this week and want to get together one night. This would have been great to know the literal months in advance that they knew so you could get a decent reservation, but instead of shaming them, you need to swallow your anger and be the hero that Gotham needs. If you’re lucky, you can snag bar seats at Liholiho Yacht club, but if not, you can typically still find a place downstairs at Louie’s Gen-Gen Room. A lot of the food is waffle-based, but instead of syrup, they top theirs with bone marrow. You can also get pigs in a blanket with their house-made spam and some really good beef tartare while you enjoy a few cocktails and listen to stories about how your friend is just soooo busy these days.
While this isn’t the closest Thai food to Union Square (that’d be Kin Khao), it’s walkable, and it’s by far the best option. The fried pork ribs and stir-fried pork belly are top of our list.
This brick and mortar location of the Del Popolo truck has incredible wood-fired pizza and a great wine selection. Get a seat at the bar to enjoy them both.
Once you’re inside this place, you have several levels to explore, with tons of TVs, the game selection of a Dave & Buster’s, and a strong, IPA-heavy beer list. The wings and quesadillas are better than average, too. Come to hang out with coworkers, or bring a big group that wants to watch sports.
Like its sister spot on Fillmore, Jane on Larkin serves some of our favorite lattes, granola, breakfast sandwiches, and avocado toasts in the city. The baristas are friendly, and if you feel like hanging around for a few hours and ordering lunch too, you won’t be making a mistake.
Press Club, off Market Street, is a dark, upscale spot to get a drink at without committing to a sit-down dinner with people you barely know. Colleague from Phoenix in town? Go here. We’d definitely recommend the meat plate and as many cheeses as your party feels comfortable ordering. Hopefully you don’t have to itemize your expense reports.
There’s no way wrong to order at Hops & Hominy, but you’ll regret not getting the shrimp and grits, fried chicken, and black-eyed pea fritters. Just maybe go here after work instead of having to battle your temptation to take a nap at your desk if you go at lunch.
This place is fancy in a way that feels slightly corporate, and it’s pretty expensive, but the Moroccan food is really, really good. Get one of the large-format meats and everyone will go home happy.
Taqueria Cancun serves one of the top five burritos in SF, and they don’t need succulents or fancy tiles to bring people in. The burritos do that on their own. Plus, this place is open until 10:30pm every night. What else do you need?
There are lots of vegetarian and even vegan options for rice bowls and takeout sandwiches at this casual Vietnamese spot. We’re partial to the smoky eggplant and crispy catfish sandwiches, or the hawker bowl if we feel like keeping our hands relatively clean.
Have you ever wished that San Francisco was more like other American cities - especially like, say, New York City? Relive the claustrophobia, condescending service, overpriced cocktails, and “French bistro” food of your two years in Manhattan at The Cavalier. OK, perhaps we’re being too harsh, as the food is often pretty good here. More importantly, the scene is wildly entertaining. Just be prepared to be the least well-dressed person in the room.
This is a cocktail bar we can get behind. It’s relaxing, with a vaulted space reminiscent of the Art Deco era’s greatest achievements. Order a beverage (or three), especially anything with calvados, cognac, or armagnac, and don’t skip the outstanding charcuterie.