Where To Eat & Drink In Bernal Heights
photo credit: Carly Hackbarth
There are a lot of really good reasons to hang out in Bernal Heights. Maybe you call this neighborhood home. Or maybe you’re on a never-ending quest to find your dog’s new best friend running around Bernal Heights Park. Whatever brings you to the neighborhood, you'll find a ton to eat and drink. Most of the spots on this list are on Cortland Avenue or Mission Street, but that just makes it easier to check out more than one spot at a time.
This Mexican spot promises "good eats,” and that’s exactly what it delivers. From the moment you step into this homey space, everyone makes you feel like part of a family, and the fact that the menu consists of mostly homestyle guisados surely adds to that feeling. This is simply one of those restaurants where you come once and then keep coming because every dish is firing on all cylinders, and perfectly executed, from the fresh salsas to the crispy tacos dorados to extra-corny homemade tortillas. Of all the choices, get the spicy pozole, the rich chicken mole that you can smell as soon as you walk in the door, and the tangy green pork costillas, which will make you feel warm and fuzzy.
You could spin around 15 times, blindfolded, then point a finger at a map of San Francisco and it’d land near a great dumpling spot, like United Dumplings. Their hand-folded dumplings highlight more unique ingredients, like tender bulgogi, chicken and truffle oil, and a mix of gooey mozzarella, corn, and chicken. But don't overlook their more traditional ones, like pan-fried potstickers with pork and Napa cabbage. You'll also want to order the garlicky string beans and sautéed pea shoots—they alone are worth the trip.
This spot does mainly Detroit-style pies with sponge-like crusts, and serves them in a casual space that doesn't mind if you roll up in a t-shirt and sweats. The move is to sit at the bar, order a beer, and strike up a conversation with whoever’s sitting next to you over a slice of pepperoni with slightly chunky tomato sauce (their best pie here). But any of the high tops in the dining room will get the job done if you're coming with friends and ordering a big spread of multiple pies, salads, and mozzarella sticks.
The spot formerly home to Virgil's Sea Room officially traded in the boat for one that can go to outer space. Mothership is a sci-fi-themed cocktail bar in the Mission that has groovy lights, futuristic curved white walls, and, naturally, a dance floor. This place also has a big back patio with a hanging garden and lots of tables. The drink menu includes refreshing cocktails that are a step above the classics, like the Knee Deep with mezcal, chile ancho, and a Sichuan salt rim, and the Dinner Theater with tomato gin and vermouth. Mothership also hosts frequent DJ dance parties and special events.
With its Lisa Frank-style horse mural and menus with hand-drawn doodles all over them, Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack feels like a Trapper Keeper turned into a restaurant—and a good one at that. All the food on the classic Italian American menu is great, from the big bowls of spaghetti and meatballs to the eggplant parmesan. And everything comes in huge portions, too. By the time you’re done with dinner, the only thing you’ll want to do is go home and crash on the sofa.
There are several guarantees to having dinner at this cozy Nepali restaurant: you will leave well-fed and happy, and possibly tipsy from all the free wine refills the owner may personally pour you. Another reason for the feel-good vibes at Cuisine of Nepal comes courtesy of the steamed chicken and vegetable momos. They’re served plain with a side of chutney, or drenched in a creamy soup of blended tomatoes, chilis, and other spices that warm your tongue. Go with the latter, complement it with the sizzling lamb and the chicken cashew cream curry, and call it a night. The dining room of this spot is mainly a skinny hallway lined with tables, so come with a small group.
Going to The Front Porch for brunch is never the wrong move, unless you’re trying to do a lot of activity after, in which case, maybe think again. This place on the border of the Mission and Bernal Heights makes Southern food like chicken and waffles, eggs benedict, and chicken fried steaks. Everything here is so good—and hearty—it might inspire you to walk it off, and then loop back for the fried chicken for dinner (which they also do).
This casual Mediterranean-ish spot has been making us feel at home and filling us up with homemade pastas, hearty meatloaf—and the best fried chicken in town—for the last two decades. The space resembles a cottage more than an actual restaurant, with dimly lit dining rooms outfitted with chandeliers, and eclectic paintings in mismatched frames of cars, boats, and people. And the patio, filled with twinkle lights, bricks, and flowering trees, is so cozy and quaint, we half-expect to run into a family of anthropomorphic cartoon farmer bears out there. Come to Blue Plate for date nights, big group dinners, pinot noir-soaked meals with someone you used to hunt mushrooms with, or whenever you want the weight of the day to dissipate.
We love fermented dough like the city loves ultra-light down jackets, which is why we order PizzaHacker’s sourdough pies at least once a month. They're gorgeously charred, and the tangy crusts nail the stretch factor—chewy on the inside and a crisp exterior. Go for the specials written on the chalkboard wall, like the Forbidden Fruit, which is essentially a Hawaiian pie with jalapeños and red onions (it will convert the staunchest pineapple-on-pizza haters). Seating at this relaxed spot is picnic benches, making this place ideal for family dinners and weeknight group hangs.
The noodle-inclined people in your life will appreciate that you can choose between Thai and Japanese-style noodles at this Bernal Heights restaurant. It’s a casual yet always busy spot where you can build your own ramen bowl with options like chashu or crispy pork belly, kikurage mushrooms, and fried tofu, and eat it alongside some khao soi, pad thai, and pad see ew. You’ll probably need several visits to get through their large menu of seasonal specials and starters, from beef udon noodles to deep-fried chicken wings and corn tempura. This place is small and doesn't take reservations, so prepare to wait.
Pinhole Coffee is another great cafe in the city serving lattes, pour overs, and flat-whites. The plant-filled coffee shop also has the capacity to inspire you to make vinyl decals with your Cricut and sell them on Etsy. There’s a pillow-covered banquet surrounded by a big rainbow wall, colorful murals, and stickers all over the doors. And because this place doubles as a neighborhood gathering spot (expect a line), don’t be surprised when you exchange dog training tips with the person standing next to you.
Piqueo's is split up into a few small dining rooms, which makes this Peruvian restaurant feel pretty intimate. Share some small plates, like the ceviches made with spicy leche de tigre and whatever fish is fresh that day, or wine-braised short ribs that all but fall apart. The service is quick, but dinner here still feels like a full evening out.
Black Jet Baking Company makes great breakfast pastries, like morning buns, croissants, and seasonal breads that are perfect when you’re not in the mood for a full sit-down breakfast. If it’s a sunny day in Bernal Heights, we like to pop in here to pick up something to snack on before a hike around the neighborhood.
If we had to be locked inside anywhere in the city for a week, we’d choose Barebottle Brewing Company because we would never get bored. This huge brewery has screens everywhere so you can watch whatever game is on, plus video games, ping-pong, and board games you and your friends can set up at a long table in the main room. They also have over 20 different beers on tap with interesting names like the Key Lime Pirate, which could only taste more like pie if there were graham cracker crumbs in it. And with a rotating food truck lineup, we wouldn’t get tired of what we ate either.
Wild Side West somehow manages to channel both a Gold Rush-era saloon and an art museum. This cash-only dive bar is a Bernal Heights community staple that’s been drawing in people from the neighborhood with reasonably-priced drinks and pool tables since the 1960s. But the real draw of Wild Side West is its outdoor garden, which has plenty of tables, chairs, and hidden corners that make you feel like you’ve left Bernal Heights completely.
If you just want a big bowl of pasta, head to Vega. This Italian restaurant serves excellent baked rigatoni and handmade gnocchi in an intimate setting that’s perfect for first dates, or dinner with friends you haven’t seen since you all traveled to Italy last summer. Order a glass of wine to go along with your pasta—or their salads, pizzas with homemade tomato sauce, and appetizers like grilled calamari. On nicer evenings, ask to sit out front. Their heated patio will take you right back to your favorite sidewalk cafe in Rome.
Bernal Star is a casual restaurant with a large breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu. On weekends, it’s the perfect place to grab brunch with friends who recently hit Major Life Milestones, and talk about your upcoming trips to Napa over plates of french toast, buttermilk waffles, and crispy fish sandwiches. But the crowd-pleaser is their patio, which is outfitted with plenty of heat lamps to keep you and your dog warm on chilly Bernal Heights mornings. If you come here later in the day, the patio is ideal for having a beer and their solid burger.
Fog machines and punk rock bands combine to create one of the most fun live music bars in the city. Even without the music, this Bernal Heights place would still be a great dive, with well drinks, Happy Hour, and bingo nights. Expect The Knockout to be your last stop of the evening, because once you walk in, you won’t ever want to leave.
This bottle shop is so small that it feels like a basement cellar—and one that sells mostly Italian wines. It also doubles as a bar and is one of our favorite spots in the neighborhood to go for quick dates or any time we want to drink a glass of wine alone at the counter overlooking the street. Order a charcuterie or cheese board and don't look back.
There are so many red lights inside The Royal Cuckoo that you might think it was a darkroom instead of a bar. But instead of stacks of photographs, this place on Mission always has great music playing thanks to their huge record collection. And it feels like a place where the Beatniks would’ve loved to order strong drinks while discussing poetry and how much effort they’re “not” putting into their facial hair. If the inside gets crowded, there’s a back patio to hang out on, but you’ll still want to spend most of your time under the red lights inside.
El Rio is a San Francisco institution that’s always ready to party. This Bernal Heights bar has a full calendar that includes themed dance parties, drag shows, live music, and ping-pong out on their fantastic outdoor patio. When you get tired of bobbing your head to loud music or drinking cheap cocktails, you can play pool or shuffleboard. There are not many guarantees we can provide in this world, but going to El Rio means you’ll either leave here happy, sweaty, or kind of buzzed—or a combination of all three.
Bernal Heights has a bunch of great dive bars and places to drink wine, but Holy Water is the go-to for nice cocktails. It's a dark space with a ceiling painted to look like ethereal clouds and hanging twinkle lights. There are also a few small TVs in the corners if you need to check the scores. The cocktail menu changes up every now and then, but expect everything to be well-made. We like the Du Monde, a chicory-coffee cognac Old Fashioned.