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13 San Francisco Restaurants You're Not Getting Into (Unless You Read This)

Score one of the city's hottest tables with our insider tips
June 30, 2017
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by Trevor Felch

We San Franciscans are spoiled with a world-class restaurant scene full of star chefs and must-try restaurants du jour. But with quality comes popularity, lines down the street and dining rooms booked months in advance. Just remember, in the face of unwavering "no tables available" messages, there is always hope. For one, try dining on weeknights at odd hours. Or call for day-of cancelations. Be willing to walk in, put a name down and wait a few hours at a bar. Try walking in as a solo diner. Beyond those universal tips, here are specific recommendations for the area's 13 toughest tables.  

Kin Khao

Why it’s hot: This lively, contemporary Thai destination near Union Square is hardly your typical hotel restaurant or another low-key spot for pad Thai. The boldly spiced, locally sourced dishes, paired with creative Thai-inspired cocktails, make for one of the area's more dynamic dining experiences.

How to hack it: You can almost always find a reservation at 9 PM. Otherwise, reserve a week out for prime weeknight times and two weeks out for a 7:30 PM weekend slot. Better yet — come at lunch. 

55 Cyril Magnin St.; 415-362-7456

Lazy Bear

Why it’s hot: What started as a pop-up from chef-owner David Barzelay morphed into this Mission hit styled as a dinner party. Diners are greeted with hors d’oeuvres and drinks before sitting down together at a communal table for a seasonal, playful New American feast.

How to hack it: Follow @lazybearsf on Twitter. As one of the city's only ticketed restaurants, Lazy Bear releases each month's tickets all at once; the release dates are announced via Twitter. The restaurant also retweets diners looking to sell tickets (which are nonrefundable). Once a seller finds a buyer, tickets can be transferred via the restaurant's website. Pro tip: If you’re visiting from out of town or have a party larger than six, email the restaurant to ask about early booking.

3416 19th St.; 415-874-9921

Liholiho Yacht Club

Why it’s hot: Lower Nob Hill’s relentlessly buzzy restaurant and bar channels chef Ravi Kapur's family roots into a distinct cuisine that leans Hawaiian, with accents from India, Japan and California. Crowds remain steady for poke bites on nori crackers, off-menu Spam musubi and a welcoming aloha vibe.

How to hack it: To guarantee a prime-time spot you'll likely need to book a month in advance. But you can usually book a table for 9:30 PM or later on shorter notice. Also note a third of the restaurant is always reserved for walk-ins — and the site's reservation page features a wait list sign-up option.  

871 Sutter St.; 415-440-5446

The Slanted Door

Why it’s hot: Chef-owner Charles Phan's ​balanced, contemporary Vietnamese cooking at the Ferry Building has influenced restaurants nationwide with a definitive bowl of pho at lunch and pitch-perfect spring rolls at all hours. 

How to hack it: In a word: lounge. With lounge tables and bar seating, there are 50 seats total to enjoy an excellent Singapore Sling, along with the full menu — and it’s quieter to boot, with sun-filled Bay Bridge views. If you're set on the dining room, the tables are easier to reserve for weekday lunch, when you can try that superb pho.

1 Ferry Building #3; 415-861-8032

Al's Place

Why it’s hot: Chef-owner Aaron London’s relaxed, cozy Mission restaurant is one of the nation’s game-changers when it comes to putting produce in the spotlight. The french fries are out of this world too.

How to hack it: Two words: heated patio! Reservations are available most nights at desirable times because diners appear to strongly favor the dining room. The restaurant now requires credit cards for reservations, which deters some — another's hesitation could be your gain.

1499 Valencia St.; 415-416-6136

Cala

Why it’s hot: Chef-owner Gabriela Camara is a superstar in her native Mexico. Her U.S. debut is a smash hit in Hayes Valley for its seafood-centric Mexican cooking and mezcal cocktails. The airy vine-covered, high-ceilinged dining room and bar is one of the city's most dramatic dinner settings.

How to hack it: Be open to communal dining at the 30-seat table. Prime booking times are almost always available up to three days in advance online. For a dining room table, book a week in advance and strategize for a time after 8 PM, just after the pre-theater rush.

149 Fell St.; 415-660-7701

Rich Table

Why it’s hot: Hayes Valley might be the city's hippest dining neighborhood, and Rich Table is its heart, sustaining buzz with its signature sardine chips, stellar pastas and inventive California entrees in a barnhouse-chic space.

How to hack it: Plan in advance (i.e. exactly one month to the calendar day) or drop in for the 12-seat bar, where turnover is frequent, and order from the full menu. Hayes Valley isn’t much of a late night spot, so your odds of scoring a booking or walk-in after 9 PM are strong.  

199 Gough St.; 415-355-9085

Flour + Water

Why it’s hot: Californian-Italian just might be San Francisco's strongest cuisine, and Thomas McNaughton's perennial favorite is a master class on how fresh produce and pastas (some lesser known) can combine.

How to hack it: Simply walk in. Flour + Water purposely doesn’t list many of its tables for prime-time reservations, so don't try. Your best plan for eating here between 7 and 9 PM involves Trick Dog (yes, the city's premier cocktail bar nearby). Stop by the restaurant to give your name and number, throw back an expertly stirred drink or two across the street and wait for your text (usually within a half hour) — then it's pasta time.

2401 Harrison St.; 415-826-7000

Frances

Why it's hot: Chef-owner Melissa Perello draws from her upscale restaurant experience for this more casual, neighborhood favorite along the Mission-Castro border, where success could be counted in bacon beignets and lumberjack cakes.

How to hack it: Reservations are available 60 days in advance and don’t vanish quite as fast as some of the others on this list. Book on shorter notice, and tables for two at 8:45 and 9 PM weeknights are frequently available. We've noticed this restaurant tends to have more day-of reservations available than others on this list.

3870 17th St.; 415-621-3870
 

Tartine Manufactory

Why it’s hot: Tartine’s massive, industrial-chic sibling at the edge of the Mission offers way more than just bread. It’s a bakery, wine bar, ice cream window, coffee roastery and all-day Californian cafe under one roof.  

How to hack it: This is a bit of a trick question. During the day, reservations aren't accepted so you'll encounter the consistently long lines. The experience is more rewarding for dinner, when reservations are accepted (and you'll still get your bread). Weeknight booking isn’t too challenging, but for weekends, plan two weeks in advance for a table between 6 and 8:30 PM. 

595 Alabama St.; 415-757-0007

State Bird Provisions

Why it's hot: With perpetual lines and wait times, State Bird is now practically an adjective in the local dining scene. The restaurant pioneered the now-trendy concept of American fare served via dim sum carts, adding a playful twist to already inventive dishes. Note: State Bird is closing for renovations on August 21 and reopening in September (date TBD).

How to hack it: Good luck! Just kidding. Sort of. This is the city's toughest reservation to hack, but we stand by our previous tips. In a nutshell: Try late walk-ins (after 9:30 PM is ideal); email to reserve for a large group (up to 12 people); or book a table with a fast click at midnight 60 days in advance.

1529 Fillmore St.; 415-795-1272

The Saratoga

Why it’s hot: The latest from the Bacchus Group (Spruce, The Village Pub) combines one of the city’s standout retro-chic designs with elevated American cooking and a prime location near a host of Tenderloin nightlife spots.

How to hack it: Book two weeks in advance. You don’t need to plan further ahead for a 7 or 8 PM table. Also keep in mind that food is served until midnight, so it’s a perfect spot to drop in last minute after a show. 

1000 Larkin St.; 415-932-6464

Nopa

Why it’s hot: It’s still debatable which was named first, the restaurant or the neighborhood — but there's no doubt Divisadero’s rustic Californian is a constant draw, for everything from its burger and roast chicken to the cocktails and brunch.  

How to hack it: Take heart that there's lots of non-bookable seating here (60 walk-in spots total), at the bar, a spacious communal table and many ground-floor tables. Seats fill up quickly, but there's lots of turnover, so a wait over 30 minutes is rare. Pro tip for the dining room: Don't look online. If it's less than a week in advance, call the restaurant.

560 Divisadero St.; 415-864-8643

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