Sometimes, you want to look like you’re trying a lot. Like when you’re putting together Ikea furniture in front of other people or throwing a brunch, even if it’s just eggs. Other times, you want to be a little more nonchalant. When you’re going out with someone and you aren’t sure if it’s a date, for example. Or an old friend is visiting you to see if you’re really hacking it in California. Here’s where to do that. All of these places are fairly casual - but they serve food that pretty much anyone should find impressive.
Thanks to Flour + Water and the like, SF is justifiably obsessed with fancy pasta, but getting a reservation at one of those places can scream “I was on my laptop at midnight a month ago for this.” Barzotto, on the other hand, makes great pasta and has affordable wine in a spot that’s walk-in only.
Sometimes the best strategy is to get your date (or enemy) to underestimate you. For that, take them to Eiji in the Castro for sushi. This place is pretty small, so the action from the kitchen spills over into the dining room, but once you sit down, you’ll be able to hear each other fine and you won’t be bumping into anyone next to you. The menu is pretty simple, but the nigiri is amazing, they make their own tofu, and it’s impossible not like their mochi-covered strawberries.
The Morris is in a less trafficked part of the Mission - unless you’re into urban foraging around bus depots, you may not have walked past it before. So you’re clearly not taking whomever to the coolest part of town, and then when you walk in, it still just kind of looks like a pretty nice neighborhood spot. But that changes once your food arrives. Everything here is great, from the foie gras dumplings you order one at a time to the smoked duck that, in our opinion, should be mandatory for everyone who sits down here.
Hook Fish Co. looks a lot like a fish shack and that’s because it is one. There aren’t any sailing flags or an old skipper with a hook for a hand trying to pawn off his tales on whoever will listen, but there is a staff who will help you order the best things on the menu. This isn’t that hard for them, though, considering this place in the Sunset serves some of the best non-fancy seafood in the city. The crab cakes are full of crab, not filler, and the fish tacos come on homemade tortillas. It’s hard not to walk away impressed, unless you had a pet crab in the second grade named Debbie.
A lot of prix fixe and tasting menu places blend together. The food might be incredible, but you know up front that you’re signing up for white tablecloths and a small menu that includes the hot new mushroom of the week and some sort of bird that’s not quite chicken, but is pretty much chicken. This isn’t the case at Mr. Pollo. Imagine if you gave a bunch of mid-90s skateboarders a stove to cook on, a can of spray paint to decorate, and a questionable liquor license to draw people in, and that’s this spot in a nutshell. For $30, you get four courses that usually include a salad, an arepa, some sort of protein, and a dessert, all of which add up to one of the more memorable meals you’ll eat this year.
The crowd at Dancing Yak is pretty typical for a casual weeknight dinner with families and their kids, couples on dates, and groups of friends where one guy is inevitably trying to look like Allen Ginsberg. The food here - from the curries to the samosas - is great, but the thing that keeps us coming back are the chicken momos. They’re some of the best dumplings in SF, and bringing an unsuspecting person here to get them will win you instant points.
This French spot has a location in Hayes Valley too, but that neighborhood has too many structures made of shipping containers to easily convince someone you’re not trying that hard. Plus, the one in Potrero Hill looks and feels like the neighborhood restaurant that everyone should fight to have close to them. The menu includes French staples like mussels and fries, French onion soup, and, because we’re in SF, a roast chicken to go with your garlic mashed potatoes. None of the food is overly showy, but it’s a level of comfort food that’s hard to beat.
Yes, Zuni is absolutely legendary, but it’s not impossible to get a good reservation here so you actually can brush it off like snagging a table was no big deal. Aside from that, this place pretty much invented the concept of being effortlessly amazing by serving simple things like a roast chicken and the perfect Caesar salad, all in a space that looks like somewhere Meryl Streep would for sure hang out.
The Alembic looks like a thousand other bars you’ve seen before. There are wooden floorboards, a worn bar, and dark leather booths - you’d fit in well if you were an old copy of Great Expectations. But before you start wondering if you ever actually read Dickens or just told people you have to seem smarter, you’ll see that the food at The Alembic is anything but standard. You can get everything from bone marrow to house ricotta here and it’s all great, but if you’re not ordering a lot, this is one of those places where you’d do yourself a favor to order the spiced duck hearts instead of something you could maybe get somewhere else.
You could squeeze a very casual date out of the Union Street location because they serve alcohol there and because it’s a little “nicer,” but the North Beach one blasts Italian disco that even your coolest friend will end up Shazamming under the table while they pretend to check their emails. Both spots are counter-service only and make great and affordable pasta. It’s impossible to pick a noodle/sauce combination that doesn’t work, but we like the tortellini with butter and sage and you can’t miss with the nightly specials.
Burma Superstar is super popular, but their offshoot Burma Love in the Mission is a much bigger, nicer, and more low-key space. Plus, we’ve even had better meals here than at the mothership. Make sure to order the tea leaf salad.
If you tell someone that you’re taking them to Cocotte, odds are they’ll think you said Coqueta, and that’s understandable because one is right on the water and has a ton of foot traffic, and the other is in Nob Hill and not owned by a celebrity chef. But while this place isn’t tangentially connected to the Food Network or HGTV (which probably helps with the crowds), they do serve great French food like coq au vin. The restaurant is small and feels like you had to know about it for years to get inside.
A lot of times, all-day cafes can be more about utility than experience, but this isn’t the case at Pearl in the Richmond. The space here is impressive and looks like a cross between a Southern mansion and a beach house that you’re considering dropping half a month’s rent to stay one more night at. They have an interesting mix of dishes on the menu and you could end up with pasta, cauliflower hummus, or wood-fired bagels depending on what time of day you’re here. Maybe you spend the whole day here and try it all. We wouldn’t blame you.
Arlequin is one of the few places in Hayes Valley you can go to that doesn’t scream that you’re trying too hard. On the surface, it’s just a coffee shop with some food, but that food is much better than it should be and you can eat it on the back patio if the weather is nice. It feels like you’re in The Secret Garden, but also somehow in the middle of a neighborhood and with fewer spoiled children.
Walking up and down Columbus Avenue can land you in a lot of tourist traps and bars, and if you’re sick of that, but don’t want to go too far, head to The House on Grant. This place mostly serves seafood like miso black cod and grilled sea bass with garlic soy, as well as other things like wasabi noodles that have a good kick, but won’t blow smoke out of your ears. The restaurant is pretty small, and having a reservation is a good idea on a weekend, but you should have no issue just walking in on a weeknight.