9 Restaurants To Go To When You’re Not Paying guide image


9 Restaurants To Go To When You’re Not Paying

For nights when you have absolutely no intention of reaching for your wallet.

When the opportunity to be treated to a complimentary meal arises, you should never pass it up. Maybe this meal comes courtesy of a wealthy relative, a corporate card, or a tax refund you’re tricking yourself into thinking is free money. Whether or not you’re the one putting down your card, we want to be clear that we believe the places on this guide are worth the price. But on those rare, glorious occasions when someone else is paying, head to one of these spots that are both pricey and phenomenal. 


Niku Steakhouse

Hit up this Japanese steakhouse when you’re with someone who could ramble on for hours about marble scores and beef grades—this SoMa spot revolves entirely around A5 wagyu. A massive binchotan grill is the centerpiece of the shiny space, and where you’ll see chefs barely take their eyes off filet mignons and Jurassic-looking tomahawks roasting over the flames. Pick your own personal cleaver for the night from the fancy box of knives a server brings around, and get ready for a ceremonious beef-centric dinner. 

This Japanese omakase-style handroll spot in the Mission goes all in on luxurious toppings. Slide onto one of the 14 bar seats and prepare for a stream of temaki that glitter. Fatty tuna is rich and dotted with cubes of pickled radish, buttery wagyu gets a welcome crunch from fried garlic chips, and frozen monkfish liver pâté is shaved over shiny ikura like snow. The handrolls are available in sets of five ($36), seven ($55), and ten ($96). Since paying isn’t your problem, get the biggest set and don’t look back. 

Getting together with a group of people you like and diving into a spread of garlic noodles, shaken beef, and the best crab in the city is a move we always endorse. And since the price of crab has gone up just like, um, everything else, Thanh Long in the Sunset is a great contender for your next birthday dinner sponsored by friends or family. The perfect whole-roast crabs, which are market price but hovered around $80 per crab on a recent visit, are covered in “secret spices” that we can only assume were blended together by sorcery. And the garlic noodles are equally iconic. Throwing on your requisite plastic bib and cheers-ing to another year around the sun with lychee martinis is also part of the fun.

Contrary to how the camping decor, gummy bear desserts, and a portrait of flannel-wearing Nick Offerman might make you feel, a night at Lazy Bear is anything but casual. The Mission fine dining restaurant serves a meal that runs you $275 per person and involves 11-ish Americana-centric courses that commit to the nostalgia theme with full force. Dishes change depending on what's foraged or in season, but expect things like a seafood tower with Dungeness crab dip and Ritz crackers, or a rice bowl topped with chanterelle and uni purée that tastes like Kraft mac & cheese. But all you really need to know is that dinner is a high-level production that’s even better when pulling out your own credit card is definitely not happening.  

Out of the many fantastic dim sum places in the city, Harborview on the Embarcadero is the one with white tablecloths, chandeliers, and pretty waterfront views. It’s a luxe setting that comes with a high price tag—it’s easy to rack up a tab filling up on their Cantonese-style baked barbecue pork buns, shrimp cheong fun, whole-fried salt and pepper crab, and more. But since you’re remaining blissfully ignorant in the who-is-paying department, just keep the steamers full of hefty siu mai coming. 

At this upscale Thai restaurant in Japantown, a grandiose space is matched by a meal you’ll be fixated on months later. Walk inside and you’re greeted by a dining room that looks like an oversized greenhouse. It’s overflowing with leafy plants and lined with sexy curved booths from which you’ll experience grilled squid and melt-in-your-mouth pork jowl, fiery curries, and incredible fried branzino. Because you’re reading this guide, go all in on the $125 chef’s pick menu, which is a non-stop parade of hits that’ll leave you more than well-stuffed. 

There’s no better place in town to spend a big chunk of change on flawless fish than at Ken, the Lower Haight omakase spot. The 14 courses ($225) of nigiri and impressive small plates are reasons alone to get here. Another reason is that there are only six seats, which makes it one of the more intimate sushi counters in town. You’ll get a front-row seat to chef Ken, who makes preparations and tells anecdotes about aged tuna and cod milt. Enjoy the dinner party vibe and make a mental note to suggest this spot the next time someone outside of your tax bracket wants to “take you out.” 

Seeing someone who runs a moderate to successful start-up, or recently came into a large sum of money via Scratchers? Meet up at Mijoté, a charming French restaurant in the Mission where you’ll find a seasonally changing $82 tasting menu that shines. The dishes they feature change often, but expect well-executed dishes like a roasted maitake mushroom dripping with harissa butter or a hanger steak drenched in fragrant sauce poivrade. It’s the ideal place for date nights when someone else is picking up the tab.  

Liholiho Yacht Club has “good time” written all over it. There’s a palpable buzz of activity coming from the open kitchen, and the “heritage-driven” dishes that are in a class of their own are just as exciting as the space. This Lower Nob Hill restaurant is where you want to celebrate any occasion that warrants sticking a sparkler into a baked Hawaii. Go all in on the silky shaved pig’s head salad, charred ribeye with nutty black sesame dipping sauce, and steam buns stuffed with beef tongue and kimchi, and pat yourself on the back for somehow finessing this phenomenal meal for free. 

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photo credit: Carly Hackbarth

9 Restaurants To Go To When You’re Not Paying guide image