Hayes Valley is a pretty great place to live. Or just to be. It’s centrally located, it’s not a foggy wasteland, and it’s largely flat and walkable, so you don’t need to wear your hiking boots and crampons to go for a quick stroll.
Of course, this neighborhood is also home to some fantastic restaurants and bars. Here’s our list of the places that are worth walking a few blocks out of your way or crossing the entire city for - from a coffee bar/wine shop with an amazing back patio to one of the best places to eat in all of SF.
It costs around $100 per person to eat at Robin, but unlike a lot of pricy sushi options in SF, this is actually a fun place to have dinner with its loud music, colorful tiled walls, and creative dishes like potato chip nigiri with caviar on top. There’s no menu here, and instead, they just ask you what you’re looking to spend - which can feel weird at first, but like any good negotiation, you’ll always end up with the right amount of food.
Our favorite coffee shops are the places where we can grab something quick, or sit for a few hours and work on our young adult novel about a teenage Frankenstein. Then there’s 20th Century Cafe. This bright place on Gough Street looks like it jumped out of a 1940s movie, but with more color and sound. It’s one of our favorite places to grab breakfast when we can actually take our time in the morning, especially when that involves the excellent lox bagel or their amazing honey cake.
Half the time we walk into Little Gem, we want to ask them if they’ll renovate our office because this place looks like it would win an architectural digest award for “calmest space.” But aside from that, this is a good spot to drop into when you want to eat a little better than you normally do - everything here is very health-focused. The bibimbap bowl is our favorite thing to get at dinner, but if you come here after a weekend jog, go for the almond pancakes.
Tsubasa is a Japanese spot right down the block from Robin, but couldn’t be more different. This place is much smaller, and instead of having colored tiles and pennies on the floor, it’s pretty bare, which just makes it easier to concentrate on their great sushi. The nigiri is good, but we always focus on the rolls here - especially the negi torro that’s mostly tuna and the S.T.A.S.H. roll that’s filled with spicy tuna and topped with seared yellowtail.
Rich Table isn’t just one of the best restaurants in the neighborhood, it’s one of the best in the whole city. The menu here changes constantly, but classics like their porcini donuts are always available, and even if you’ve been here a million times, you’d be hard-pressed to guess what the new things will look or taste like. From make-your-own handrolls to agnolotti in borscht broth, if you have someone you want to impress, bring them here.
RT Rotisserie is the small offshoot of Rich Table located a block away, but here they have a simple menu of roasted chicken and a few other things. You can get half a bird for $8, which is one of the more affordable meals you can find in the neighborhood. This place is super casual and they have wine both by the glass and bottle, and - combined with the reasonably priced food - it makes this one of our favorite places to come for a casual midweek catch up with a few friends.
Sometimes the weather in Hayes is so good that you’ll want to sit in the parklet on Octavia and just enjoy it while it lasts. It’s at these exact moments that you should head to The Fatted Calf. This place is a specialty shop that focuses on charcuterie, and if you left your personal cutting board at home, they also make great sandwiches that are perfect for a mini picnic - go for the roast beef or the pulled pork.
Cala is a Mexican restaurant that feels like someone took our ideal garden party and put it inside an old warehouse. Aside from looking like the ultimate wedding Pinterest board, this place makes really good food - from trout tostadas that are slightly spicy and you’ll want to be passed around at that fictional wedding, to their sweet potato tacos with bone marrow salsa negra that we still think about more often than we’d like to admit. And you could do that if you really wanted to because getting a reservation here isn’t difficult and there are usually bar seats open for whenever you feel like walking in.
Gioia used to have an outpost in Russian Hill, but then they moved here to open this smaller, much more streamlined spot. It’s mostly a slice shop without much seating, so you’re best off getting your food to go, which isn’t a problem because everything comes on paper plates anyway. We like the Margherita, which is topped with thick slices of tomato, but our favorite is the garlicky mushroom pizza. Whatever you get, the crust is crispy on the bottom, chewy around the edges, and a big slice will only run you $3.50, making this possibly the cheapest and fastest place to get a bite in the neighborhood.
Souvla is easy, relatively affordable, and even though it’s a chain, we still come here a good amount. Everything on the menu is available in pita sandwich or salad form, and our favorites are the chicken and the lamb. But no matter what, you need to order the juicy potatoes cooked in the meat drippings from the spit and the Greek yogurt soft serve, which we like to grab on the way out and eat while window shopping around the neighborhood.
Next to all the weathered jean jackets and small-batch sunglasses for sale around here, Salt & Straw fits right in. The flavors at this ice cream shop are all over the place with things like Mt. Tam cheese, avocado toast, and anything else that doesn’t sound like it’d ever end up frozen and in a cone. If you want something that sounds less like it’d be on a charcuterie board or at The Mill, we like the Salted, Malted, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough and vegan chocolate.
Petit Crenn is the smaller offshoot of Atelier Crenn, and while coming here will cost you a little over $100, they do a great tasting menu that’s perfect for special occasions and important dates. They also do a brunch that’s a la carte with incredible omelets and things like mushroom tartines.
You could go to Absinthe to eat a lot of French food, but our favorite time to show up at this large brasserie is for a drink and a quick bite at the bar. They make great cocktails, both with and without absinthe, and we’re partial to their sazeracs, especially alongside one of their burgers. It’s a simple version with aioli, red onion, lettuce, pickles, and optional cheese with a big pile of fries riding shotgun on the side.
The Grove has a few locations around the city, and each one feels like an alpine cabin that got dropped into the middle of SF. It’s the kind of place that feels like you could get away with staying all day and reading a book at, and you probably could, just make sure to order some food every now and then. This place serves breakfast from open to close - get the breakfast tacos - but also has good salads and sandwiches if your breakfast mood has somehow passed.
Suppenkuche is run by the same people as Biergarten and Radhaus, but unlike those bright, wide-open spots, this place feels like a beer hall specifically designed for when it’s so cold outside that your goldfish’s life could be in danger. Even though that happens pretty rarely, it’s fun to come here with a group and drink giant Belgian beers and split some potato pancakes or schnitzel.
There are a lot of reasons we love Nojo. It’s not hard to get a table, which we would usually put up with just OK food for, but that’s not the case here. They make some of our favorite ramen in the city - go for the miso version - but even if they lost all of their broth in some kind of soup heist, we’d still come here because everything else is great too.
From the outside, Monsieur Benjamin looks like the kind of place where CEOs in movies get lunch every day. That’s not totally incorrect, but it’s also just a great special occasion spot with some of the best French food in the area - everything from the escargots and beef tongue to the mussels is fantastic. Until your business card says you’re in charge, just show up here for brunch or a nice date.
We don’t know what the legal time constraints of still being considered a pop-up are, but The Lunchpad is pushing them as far as they can go. This place is inside the Noir Lounge, but at this point, it feels more like they’re one and the same. They serve breakfast all day, but we’re usually here for lunch eating the Turkey Drizzle sandwich.
Lers Ros is a lot like a clown car - this place never feels full, even when there are a ton of tables eating at once. It’s perfect for randomly dropping into when your group of six suddenly turns to nine because there’s hardly ever a wait. Plus, most of the food here comes in family-sized portions, so having a group is the best way to take advantage of the menu. Go for the tom kha kai, larb moo, and pad kra pow moo krob with crispy skin pork belly and peppers.
Domo Sushi doesn’t have a huge menu, but the sushi here is consistently good and reasonably priced. It’s mostly bar seating, so we like to pop in here with a friend or for a weeknight date, but we prefer the latter because they’ll be more willing to let us steal some of their roll or nigiri without getting mad.
The Hayes Valley outpost of Wise Sons is small, but they still make some of the best bagels in the city. There aren’t many tables here, so your best bet is to get your order to go, which we’re fine with since bagel sandwiches were all but invented to be eaten on the move anyway.
Part of the fun of going to Smitten is watching them make your dessert right in front of you, but even without the show fitting of the Blue Man Group or Doc Brown, the ice cream here is great. The flavors change constantly, and while that means you can’t really come back for your favorites that often, it does mean that you need to come here more so you don’t miss out on any of the new stuff, like the buttermilk ice cream with raspberry crumb cake.
This Papito on Hayes Street has the same tacos we love from their original location and fantastic spicy margaritas, which makes it a great place to drop into for a late lunch or casual date. If you’re up in time for brunch on the weekends, they have solid huevos rancheros too. Sitting outside on the sidewalk is where you want to be on a nice day, but if there are no tables left, the roof here is mostly skylights, so it still (kind of) feels like you’re outside even though you’re not.