Whether it’s dinner with an old coworker who messaged you six months after you left or drinks with that one person you keep running into at parties who you’ve never really been alone with, you can’t really tell if this is a date. You’ll need to figure that out, but you need to choose somewhere to meet up first.
You can’t choose a place that’s difficult to get into and where they explain the life cycle of your parsnip while they serve it to you, but you also shouldn’t pick somewhere that you’d go in sweatpants on a Sunday when you haven’t done laundry in a while. It needs to be casual but still impressive and you should be able to hang out for half a drink or linger over for some small plates until the third time the server asks if you want anything else.
Whether or not you want this to be a date, two things are for sure: first, you hope this person feels the same way you do. And second, you should go to one of the 15 spots on this guide.
You’ve known this person for a while, but you mostly see each other at birthdays and other places where you have friends close by as a safety net. But then they asked you to hang out just the two of you, and you’re wondering if there’s actually something there. Suggest going to Horsefeather as a test run. It’s a cool space that looks a little like a futuristic greenhouse, and it has great drinks, so coming here means you’re at least giving this a fair chance at working out. Plus, if you’re actually hungry, they have things like tacos and a fantastic burger that you can eat while you contemplate if you’d rather just stick to running into them at events that require sparkly hats.
The text messages you get from this person are so vague that all your fortune teller did was shake her head and hand you a referral, but you still want to give it a shot. ABV is a dark bar in the Mission and there are always enough people inside that you won’t feel like your potential date can hear your nervous thoughts about what’s going on between the two of you. Get one of their great cocktails and something to snack on like a charcuterie board. If it goes the way you want it to, you can sit here for hours without it feeling weird, and if not, at least you got a good drink out of the night.
Red’s Java House is an old-school San Francisco burger spot with a back patio that overlooks the Bay Bridge. On a nice afternoon, it’s a near-perfect place to spend a few hours drinking a bucket of beers and eating a burger or two served on a sourdough roll. It’s not usually somewhere you’d bring a later-in-the-game date, but if you find that you’re holding each other’s eye contact for long periods of time, this is a great spot to come where you won’t be interrupted and can talk about everything from career plans to how your worst fear as a child was a monster made of socks.
You’re already somewhat close with this person - not so much that you’ve ever brought up a story about an ex in front of them, but enough that you’re not worried about being able to hold a conversation, even the one about possibly being more than just friends. When it’s time to test the waters to see if a relationship is in the cards, take them to Bar Crudo for Happy Hour. It’s nice enough to be a date spot, but if they seem a little skittish, you can make a comment about how great it is to share the $1.50 Happy Hour oysters with a friend.
Your ex’s friend who never stopped commenting on your stories asked if you’d want to hang out in real life. You’re open to the idea of moving from DMing to texting, but there’s a 12% chance they’re there to ask what went wrong or if you know where their friend’s sunglasses are. This is a perfect time to go to Barzotto, a counter-service Italian place in the Mission. It’s casual enough that you could be meeting for a quick “So, what’s new?” but their housemade pasta is always an impressive move, especially for what you’re paying for it. Get the long noodles and a glass of wine while you try to figure out what’s actually going on here and if they saw you walk in wearing those forgotten sunglasses.
Anina is a bright bar in Hayes Valley that’s always busy and where you can get tropical drinks that won’t remind you of spring break. The back patio here is all communal picnic tables, so when you’re only meeting one other person, it feels a lot more casual since you’re sharing your space with a few strangers. Hang out for a while - even on a cooler day with the heat lamps outside - and trade stories of the worst thing that happened to you on a vacation. If things are going well, think about checking out somewhere in the area for dinner like RT Rotisserie or Domo.
This rooftop in the Mission has some of the best views of the city, so halfway through a paloma when the person across from you mentions their significant other like it was something you knew the whole time, you can look off into the distance to compose yourself before you turn back to them like nothing changed. Then order a second drink and maybe a third while you watch the sun set off behind the horizon, along with your feelings toward them.
The Mill is our ideal spot for a gateway date with that person from your dodgeball team since you’re not sure if you’re into them or just impressed by their form. At night, it stays super laid-back, but swaps from serving fancy toast to pizza by the slice that’s as incredible as anything you’d get here for breakfast. Plus, each slice is only $3.75 so if it turns out you want to go back to only hanging out while you both pretend not to take this league way too seriously, at least you didn’t spend a fortune on dinner.
Going to a wine bar can be a little intense when you don’t know if this person thinks about you when you’re not around, but if you both work in the Financial District, you can always just claim that Verjus is close to your offices. This place doesn’t take reservations, so you can drop in whenever and get a few small plates like pate en croute or croquettes while you decide if you’re going to be here long enough to split a full bottle of wine or just a few glasses.
You’ve seen each other at a few networking events around the city, and while you’re not sure if they’re more interested in you or mimicking your career path, you agreed to drinks and need a place to go. Leo’s Oyster Bar in the Financial District is filled with both business people talking about market saturation and couples squeezing the last few moments out of Happy Hour, so you’re safe here either way. After a few cocktails at the bar when you’ve figured out if they’re looking for advice or someone to take to weddings, decide if you want to get some raw oysters or split the lobster roll. No matter what, it’s going to be a good night.
Lolo in the Mission has as many groups of friends catching up as it has couples on early-in-the-game dates, so you’re safe coming here with that person from trivia night who always nails the lightning round as well as you do, but who also might just be interested in trading random facts before next week’s playoff round. This place is decorated with car doors and light fixtures made from bicycle parts so it’s hard to run out of emergency things to talk about between rounds of guacamole, margaritas, and some empanadas.
Your ex from college is moving to town and you’re not sure if they’re looking for some introductions or if they want to try and make it work again now that you live in the same zip code. Either way, they want to get dinner. Suggest Elephant Sushi in Russian Hill. It has a lot of two-top tables and food that’s good for splitting with another person. Plus, it’s walk-in only so it won’t seem like a lot of planning went into coming here. Showing up on the earlier side is still a good decision unless you’re OK with waiting for a bit while you listen to how awful the dating scene was where they used to live.
RT Rotisserie is one of those rare restaurants that makes it seem like you put effort into your dinner choice even though it’s a fast-casual place. This counter service spot is one of our favorites for a casual midweek dinner, with incredible rotisserie chicken that’s about the same price as what it would cost in a grocery store. They also have wine, which could lead to a conversation about what’s going on between you or just set you up to hear about how they’re thinking of quitting their job to start a boutique confetti company in Greenwich, CT. Either way the chicken is worth it.
Sometimes you don’t care if it’s a date or not, since you know you’re going somewhere you’ll have fun no matter what. That’s how we feel about Amelie in Nob Hill. Aside from the occasional live music and the menu of things like cheese boards, they also have a Happy Hour option to taste three wines for $12, which is great by any city’s standards. It’s a fun spot to come and try new wines with a friend, or maybe someone who’s a little bit more, because either way you’re going to have a good time.
Getting a reservation upstairs at Liholiho Yacht Club takes about a month of planning and it’s somewhere to save for long after people start asking where the other person is when you show up without them to a party. But when you’re not sure if you’re even moving in that direction, just walk into Louie’s Gen-Gen Room. This bar has a lot of similar food to what’s upstairs, but it’s way more low-key with things like spam pigs in a blanket and waffles with bone marrow, all of which is fun to share with a good friend, even if they stay that way.