SFGuide

The Casual Weeknight Dinner Guide

For all the nights when you can’t deal with figuring out where to get dinner.
The Casual Weeknight Dinner Guide image

photo credit: Carly Hackbarth

The art of the casual weeknight dinner is tricky to master. You need a place that’s easy to get into, will get you home and in bed by 10pm, and won’t scare your budgeting app into thinking someone stole your credit card. Oh, and great food wouldn’t hurt, either. So use this guide, which has places that check all of those boxes, from spots for excellent seafood curries to a dumpling place with some of the best xiao long bao in town. 

THE SPOTS

photo credit: Melissa Zink

Thai

Lower Nob Hill

$$$$Perfect For:Casual Weeknight DinnerLunch
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Need a last-minute dinner spot in Union Square that’s walk-in-only? All roads lead to The Thonglor. At this relaxed place, you could pull any of their Thai standards, like the fiery pad gra pow or richly spiced duck curry, out of a hat, and end up with a meal you’ll still be fixated on next week—but, really, get here to devour some of the best pad thai in the city. The only downside is there are only about eight tables in this teeny space, so you might have to drain your phone battery while you wait. But things move quickly, meaning you’ll have a steaming pile of noodles in front of you in no time. 

photo credit: Erin Ng

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Tuba is one of the few places where you can roll up eight people deep at the last minute, and have a good chance of being seated faster than you can say “party of eight.” And dishes at this Turkish restaurant in the Mission are fantastic—and big enough to feed that party of eight, with leftovers. Plump dolmas and sweet cevizli ezme are excellent ways to kick things off as you get cozy in the bistro-like space, complete with deep maroon walls and curvy chandeliers. But if the sarma beyti kebab isn’t on your table, you’re missing out—tender beef and lamb are wrapped in lavash and topped with a generous helping of tomato sauce and garlic yogurt.

If you’re looking to get hard-to-find regional Thai dishes almost any night of the week (except Tuesday), mosey on over to Mama Mu’s Bistro in the Outer Sunset. Almost every dish here is a massive umami bomb that’s full of slow-building spice, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. While they do make excellent Thai classics like pad kee mao with chewy noodles and a crunchy tum thai, you’re really here for the regional bowls. We especially like the Phuket bowl of pepper-laden ka nom jeen nam ya yellow curry. And even if you don't typically round out your weeknight meals with dessert, there’s no way you should skip the mango sticky rice.

photo credit: Brit Finnegan

A meal at Katsuo + Kombu is always hassle-free. Show up any weeknight to this NoPa noodle house, walk up to the counter, and simply order a bowl of some of the best udon in the city. Their Fukuoka-style udon is made from scratch, and the noodles are slightly thinner and chewier than the ones you’ll find at most of the udon counters in town. We can’t promise that a line won’t form outside during the peak diner rush, but regardless, this bowl of broth is worth it. There are both hot and cold options, like the tan tan dry noodles or the fukuoka signature with a broth so rich it made us feel like we won the lottery.

Tacos are the perfect casual weeknight food (and also the perfect late-night food, and the perfect anytime food, etcetera etcetera). Clearly, we love tacos, and Tacos Del Barrio is our taqueria of the moment. The ones at this Mission spot serve as our inspiration to get up in the morning. The tortillas are perfect, the meats are all high-quality, and the salsas are full of flavor. Order any of eleven fillings (melty-yet-crispy carnitas and well-charred asada are our favorites) and lay on any of the six smoky, fresh, and charred salsas from the bar. You won’t be disappointed.

If you’re in the Richmond in search of casual Indian-Pakistani food, Chaska is the answer. This family-run spot is a chill haven of well-seasoned curries, biryanis, and tandoori dishes that'll wake up your sinuses with all the spice. The menu is massive, but gravitate toward the crispy veggie pakora, the chewy okra bhindi masala, slow-cooked goat karahi, and daal makhani. Get some naan for your curries, and raita for a dash of freshness, and you’re guaranteed a good time.

Say you only have $20 in your pocket and you need some rich broth to make it through the day—Bac Lieu in Bernal Heights and their giant bowls of rare beef phở táí to the rescue. If you’re feeling like a big spender, then other stand-outs include the shrimp cake chao tom, the crispy and fishy bánh xèo, and the garlic noodles, which are some of the better ones in the city—a high honor.

photo credit: Erin Ng

When you need a place for a spontaneous meet-up with friends who are randomly in town or third date with someone you met on an app, all roads lead to Dumpling Home. It’s a Hayes Valley spot where you can sit inside or on their parklet and enjoy steamers full of xiao long bao, pan-fried pork buns, and vegetable dumplings. There’s usually a crowd outside, but the line moves quickly—and you can go window-shop for fancy soap and houseplants at the stores nearby while you wait. 

This Goan restaurant is a neighborhood gem we selfishly want to keep a secret, but also want to shout about from the top of Coit Tower so everyone knows about their coconutty and slightly sweet prawn xacuti. At the quiet Marina spot, it's always easy to walk in and get a table, everything is shareable, and dishes—especially the seafood specialties and tandoori fish—are packed with flavor and perfectly cooked. So no surprise: we visit here whenever our fridge leans empty. Grab a seat and recap the day’s ups and downs with whomever you’re with over tandoori fish and fluffy naan.

If your Wednesday was filled with back-to-back meetings (and your t-shirt was inside-out the entire time), you’re probably in the market for some comfort food. Abu Salim is here for you. The Haight spot has mood-boosting murals and cushy banquettes for you to sink into. Order the hummus topped with crispy beef and lamb shawarma, falafel stuffed with caramelized onions, sumac, and pine nuts, and lots of pita to go with it all. By the end of the night, you’ll have convinced yourself that no one really noticed the shirt thing.

Wood-fired pizza with bubbly, chewy crust is the name of the game at this Outer Sunset spot. And since pizza is the ideal shareable group meal, you’ll find us here in the naturally lit dining room at least once a month, splitting pies over spritzes and wine. Get the pies topped with curled pepperoni cups or purple potato, pesto, and crispy pancetta. Ordering sides of hot honey and ranch is non-negotiable.

While there are many quick and easy spots around town for comforting Japanese curry, we go to Nippon Curry in the Marina for their well-lit and spacious dining room with lots of tables and high-tops. Here, you’ll sit around warm plates of richly seasoned Japanese curry that are the comfort food equivalent of Morgan Freeman’s voice, and are flowing with vegetables or pork katsu, and the requisite tangy pickles.

This counter-service Mexican restaurant in the Richmond specializes in food from the Yucatan, and what they serve is what you want after coming home and realizing that no cooking is happening tonight (you have an empty fridge anyway). On the menu are gigantic burritos, tacos with homemade tortillas, and tender cochinita pibil and poc choc, which you should get on a panucho—a fried, bean-filled tortilla topped with meat, cabbage, and pickled red onion.

We go to this counter-service Ethiopian spot in Mission Bay for big, family-style platters of tibs and stews, and to catch up on our friend’s latest online dating escapade (plus, Tadu is open on Mondays). Every time we come here, we always end up with their excellent vegetarian combo. It’s a rainbow of saucy, packed-with-flavor kik alicha, misir wot, gomen, and alicha tikil gomen, and comes with more than enough injera to go around. And don’t miss the richly spiced kitfo. 

Udupi Palace is where you go when you want to show up in sweats, catch up with a friend for an hour, and eat some of the best dosas in the Mission. The ones at this South Indian vegetarian spot are perfectly crispy, filled with well-spiced potatoes, and, depending on the kind you get (like the mysore) are roughly the size and shape of a briefcase. This small spot also does a saag paneer that’s heavier on the spinach, ultra puffy poori, fried samosas that get a boost of flavor from an array of chutneys, and a big curry section.

Donaji is a bright, counter-service Oaxacan spot in the Mission that we hit up for quick dinners when we’re on a time limit, or for meet-ups with a third-tier friend who texted twice about wanting to catch up. The incredible mole enchiladas and masa-centric dishes, like the loaded tlayuda, come out fast, and it’s never hard to get a table or a seat at the bar. Wash everything down with some agua fresca while you field questions like, “What else is new with you?” 

We feel as comfortable going to Gialina in Glen Park for a Thursday night double date as we do taking a soccer team to carbo-load after a game. The relaxed spot specializes in thin-crust pies topped with everything from pancetta and soft egg to mushrooms, caramelized onions, truffled fontina, and preserved lemon—and they’re all well-balanced and delicious.

For a night that is sweatpants-and-oversized-sweater levels of comfort, head to Perilla in the Inner Sunset. At the family-run Vietnamese spot, you can show up in socks and slides as you dive into fantastic garlic noodle combo plates, and no one will bat an eye. The buttery, springy noodles pair perfectly with the tender five-spice chicken with crackly skin.

Our first thought when someone asks us to go out for dinner on a weeknight is usually, “Will I be home in time to finish my true crime documentary before I pass out?” The second is, “Let’s go to Beit Rima.” The walk-in-only spot for Arabic comfort food never disappoints. Their delicious mezze platter loaded with muhammara, hummus, baba ganoush, and labneh deserves its own entourage of paparazzi. Be sure to order the whole-fried branzino, which has the crispiest skin ever.  

This Burmese spot in the Richmond is exactly where you want to be for celebratory midweek meals after getting a random raise or finding out you successfully disputed a parking ticket. Mandalay will lift your mood. The walls are yellow, and there are colorful umbrellas hanging overhead. And everything on the menu, from the nutty tea leaf salad and mango chicken to the coconut chicken noodle soup, explodes with funky, savory, and sweet flavors. They also have beer, sake, and $10 wine by the glass if you want something to toast with.

The menu at Lers Ros is so thick it could count as a short novel. It’s why we like to arrive with as many people as possible and order enough to make our waiter somewhat concerned. The Mission location has the space to fit your spontaneous team dinner or meal with your entire apartment and their significant others any night of the week. The roasted duck curry is our go-to, as is the pork tom yum noodle soup that’s the perfect balance of spicy and sour. 

One thing we’re always down for on a random weeknight: pupusas. Got to Balompié Cafe #3 in the Outer Mission for them. The casual, walk-in-only spot decorated with soccer scarves offers pupusas with common fillings like chicharron, loroco, and cheese, and specialty pupusas, including shrimp, ground beef, and carne asada. Grab a seat by the window and you’ll hear the welcomed slap of pupusas coming together while you wait. They’re served hot with ideal crispy cheese edges and sides of oregano-heavy curtido.

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