Unlike queer bars, which are mostly concentrated in a few neighborhoods in San Francisco, LGBTQ-owned restaurants are more evenly distributed across the Bay Area. In fact, it’s almost fair to say that the center of gravity has moved to Oakland, as the comparatively lower costs have long made it a home for most of the industry’s workers. Regardless of where they call home, the region’s varied LGBTQ-owned restaurants and cafes are a dynamic bunch, from places that fly the rainbow flag high to others that let the food speak for itself. As we emerge from the pandemic’s long shadow, this selection of spots should guide you to eat well while supporting a vital community.
Chef Kasem Saengsawang’s stated goal is to “make sure people get enough spice.” On an industrial block of Alabama Street in the Mission - and with three other locations as well - Farmhouse Kitchen’s kaleidoscopic interior represents as much a commitment to color as to flavor. Dedicated as much to the street food of Bangkok as to regional dishes from around the country, this masterful second-generation Thai restaurant stands in its own category, with inventive dishes like a volcano cup noodle with braised beef alongside a wide array of curries. Note: If the food of neighboring Laos intrigues you, Farmhouse offshoot Lao Table serves a gorgeously presented, $60 “Little Lao” platter for two that makes for the ideal date night centerpiece.
If big brunch crowds are your barometer that nature is in fact healing, then Kitchen Story is the coal mine with the happily singing canary. They’re doing it all safely and in line with public-health protocols, of course, but outdoor seating at this Castro spot feels like the Before Times in the best possible way. And it’s all brunch here: weekdays and weekends both, with no dinner service. The famous Millionaire’s Bacon anchors a menu of omelets and benedicts, rounded out by sweet treats like mascarpone-stuffed deep-friend french toast. Go ahead, clink those mimosa glasses on a Wednesday afternoon the way you’ve wanted to do for 16 months now. But don’t overlook the beermosa, a Hefeweissen-and-OJ combo that’s made for al fresco dining.
Sam Butarbutar and Wenter Shyu opened Third Culture in 2016, immediately winning praise for their signature mochi muffin. If you’re a cynic, it might almost sound like a trend-chasing hybrid in the vein of the cronut, but it’s a brown-butter treat with a unique contrast between interior and exterior, born of an Indonesian dessert Butarbutar’s mother made him. Mochiko rice from the Central Valley is the key ingredient in nearly everything on Third Culture’s menu, from brownies to doughnuts, along with matcha-based drinks to wash it down. Muffins are one of life’s singular pleasures, and better still, everything here is carefully sourced, meaning the doughnuts are simultaneously whole foods and hole foods.
The rumors of its impending demise were not true, as Old Oakland soul food superstar Miss Ollie’s outlasted COVID on the strength of near-infinite good vibes from the community (and the fact that this place makes some of the best cow heel soup and saltfish & ackee in Oakland). Having roared back to life during Black History Month with a pop-up series celebrating foods from the African diaspora, the restaurant with the category-defining fried chicken kept that momentum going with “Kindred by Sanctuary,” a sort of nonprofit business incubator for Black guest chefs and creators. If Miss Ollie’s becomes a global phenomenon, that development would be most welcome, but if more okra-heavy seafood gumbo is what we get instead, then that would be perfectly wonderful, too.
One high-concept project after another has flamed out in the Castro over the past decade, but Mat Schuster’s tapas restaurant remains a notable exception. Canela Bistro and Wine Bar continues to thrive, owing as much to its pintxos and Spanish cheese selection as to its expansive wine list filled with albariños, garnachas, and lesser-known varietals from the Basque Country. Perhaps the only SF restaurant to embrace outdoor dining by selling patrons warm socks and blankets, Canela’s menu specials are also worth keeping on your radar at Halloween, Passover, Cinco de Mayo, and pretty much all holidays, along with prix fixes tied to SF Gay Men’s Chorus shows and musical-theater openings. The Castro may always be more of an entertainment district than a hotbed of fine dining, but Canela threads that needle well.
With craft breweries all leaning hard on that cavernous industrial look, Temescal Brewing stands out for its commitment to Memphis, that pastel squiggle-filled aesthetic that looks like Saved By The Bell or a graphically advanced early-’90s bedspread. Home to the exceptionally diverse Queer First Fridays, this place also has a sizable outdoor area where you can throw back a huge range of hazy IPAs, their various hop profiles front-and-center, alongside more unusual offerings like Guava Boat (a pale ale) and a cocoa-forward Scottish ale. In an industry long dominated by cis white men, Temescal Brewing stands out for its commitment to equity and inclusiveness - but most of all, it’s just a really fun place to drink good beer.
San Francisco has never really been a late-night town, and all-night restaurants are in outrageously short supply. This two-level diner with formica, red swivel chairs, and plenty of carnival glass has been in a league of its own ever since the almost-as-gay Sparky’s vanished from Church Street years ago. Newly bedazzled with plastic partitions to keep diners safe and comfy in relatively close quarters, Orphan Andy’s awaits the city’s full reopening. Sometimes, you have one drink too many and you need an omelet at 1:30am - and it may be quite lively even at that hour. Nighthawks this isn’t.
Filipinos constitute the most populous Asian American community in California, yet many people lack the same familiarity with silog and lumpia as they do with sashimi, pad thai, or even xiaolongbao. It’s second-wave Filipino restaurants like FOB Kitchen that are doing the work to change that, as Jami and Brandi Dulce have resumed serving their incomparable crispy chicken skins and brunch items like an adobo fried rice with a sunny-side-up egg and pickled radish. The fact that there’s a full liquor license helps differentiate FOB further from old-school, turo-turo Filipino spots, and if you’re wary of the Tapatio in your cabinet, buy some bottled hot sauce and return the bottle for refills at a discount.
West Coast bagels are having a moment, as NYC partisans reconsider their long-treasured “it’s something in the water” snobbery. Boichik owner Emily Winston started out in true DIY spirit, with a simple cottage-food license, perfecting her dough one batch at a time through a five-year quest. The name - derived from a Yiddish term of endearment for a young man - carries a connotation of gender-fluidity, but if you’re looking for a surer sign of its provenance, Winston set up her brick-and-mortar in the original location of Noah’s Bagels in Berkeley. It was Noah Alper himself who clued her into its availability, and now lines are long as people queue up for cinnamon raisin, sesame, and “pumperthingels.”
Chefs Jen Biesty and Tim Nugent of Mediterranean spot Shakewell crowdfunded it into being on the strength of their stints at Scala’s and Zuni, further amplified by Biesty’s multiple appearances on reality TV. Seven years on, it’s an effortlessly successful endeavor - from the humblest marinated olives to the most elaborate Moroccan-spiced paella. If COVID forced restaurants to be maximally creative, Shakewell responded admirably with to-go sangria and cocktails like a Fairlane made with habanero-infused tequila. Spanish tapas are the original small-plate experience, and now that sharing bites has come back, it’s extra-comforting to see papas bravas on the same menu with wraps and other casual dishes from the opposite side of the Mediterranean.
“You have to order the beignet flight! You also have to get the hangtown fry…” is how most sentences recommending Brenda’s French Soul Food trail off, as it slowly dawns on whoever’s talking that yes, everything is good. This temple to New Orleans, along with spinoff Brenda’s Meat & Three (plus locations in Oakland and San Jose) put partners in life and work Brenda Buenviaje and Libby Truesdell on the brunch map, serving rich Southern dishes like fried catfish benedict, a succotash and cheddar omelet, and Bananas Foster french toast. Lines are always long, portions are always massive, and sweet watermelon tea should always be considered. Plus the beignet flight really is a can’t-miss - the crawfish beignet, in particular.
When Hella Vegan Eats’ three-year tenure at Classic Cars West ended, owner Sofi Espice rebranded as Gay4U. It’s been a roaming, mostly-brunch operation, with occasional pop-ups for pizza and other tasty items, all of it intended to build and nourish a thriving community during a challenging time. (“Community” gets tossed around all too often, but here, trans people of color eat for free.) Amid a crowdfunding campaign to help establish a proper space for performances and events, Gay4U churns out jackfruit tacos, chickpea-seitan burgers, and a well-loved “bruja bowl” full of roasted vegetables and witchcraft. If this isn’t peak Oakland positivity, nothing is.
In a city replete with LGBTQ-owned coffee shops and roasteries — shout-outs to the stalwart Pinhole and region-wide powerhouse Equator — one stands out for its sheer pluck. A combination art gallery and cafe that isn’t nearly as satanic as its name or address (66 Sixth St.) suggest, Pentacle is a place for queer-punk bike couriers to re-caffeinate on their rounds, especially when venturing into Downtown where nearly all the alternatives are national chains. Walk in and be greeted by a fabulous Art Nouveau mural, too sweet to be called homoerotic, of two mystical-looking men about to smooch. And they say Sixth Street can be a harsh place.
Since its inception more than a decade ago, Old Oakland Filipino spot Cafe Gabriela has been a hotbed of culinary and revolutionary fervor. Named for Gabriela Silang, an 18th-century rebel commander of a Filipino independence movement, this small-but-mighty spot does a brisk lunch business serving Oakland workers, and it’s notable for devoting the time and labor to roasting their own small-batch coffees. With Filipino sandwiches like a pulled pork adobo cheek-by-jowl with American classics - turkey with cranberry, anyone? - this is an immigrant- and LGBTQ-owned enterprise with an altar dedicated to 60 ways to build community and a birdcage full of poetic affirmations. The first order of business is keeping everybody fed, body and soul.
Believe it or not, but there was a time not long ago when local ice cream was restricted to straightforward flavors like mint chip or praline. All that changed in 2008, when Jake Godby and Sean Vahey opened this impish parlor where Secret Breakfast (bourbon and toasted corn flakes) has reigned supreme ever since. After numerous partnerships with drag performers, LGBTQ-honoring flavors like Harvey Milk and Honey Graham, and off-the-wall experiments like a “Government Cheese” flavor, Humphry Slocombe offers 12 invariably excellent flavors daily, from passion fruit milk chocolate to “Here’s Your Damn Strawberry.” A word to the wise: Tahitian Vanilla is the richest vanilla anywhere, and it makes your second scoop pop.