12 Secrets of the San Francisco Dining Scene

Off-menu desserts, late-night tapas deals and hidden tables at the Bay Area's top spots
May 23, 2016
by Trevor Felch

With such a prominent dining culture, San Francisco restaurants, cafes and bars can't keep anything hidden for very long. However, look further and there are always secrets to be found. From spectacular tiki cocktails to outrageous off-menu po' boys to an entire dining region that's frequently ignored, many of the Bay Area's dining and drinking secrets cannot be kept any longer. We're revealing some of them here.

Tiki Menu at Pagan Idol

FiDi suits mix with volcanoes and mermaids at the city’s hottest new bar. The main cocktail menu riffs on tiki classics (like passion fruit whip and li hing mui powder with the cachaça- and tequila-based Bird of Paradise). Dig deeper and there's vintage tropical treasure to be found (though not in the treasure chests acting as decor). Over 60 retro tiki drinks make up a secret menu, plus there's a nightly off-menu frozen drink from the bar’s slushy machine.

375 Bush St.; 415-985-6375

Spam at Liholiho Yacht Club

Don't cringe at the thought of Spam. Chef-owner Ravi Kapur's housemade off-menu blend of ground pork shoulder and ham with a tamari, sesame oil and brown sugar glaze isn't at all like what comes out of the can or into your e-mail box. It's meaty and tender — hardly bouncy or rubbery — laid atop sticky rice and complemented by furikake seasoning, nori, and a Sriracha-spiked aïoli for a reinterpreted musubi (the beloved Hawaiian sushi roll often filled with the canned stuff). For once, Spam is a good thing.

871 Sutter St.; 415-440-5446

Hidden Upstairs Dining Room at Trick Dog

The not-your-average bar food (led by the gold-standard kale salad) at the city's premier creative cocktail destination isn't very enjoyable while standing three-deep on the jammed bar floor. Fortunately, there's an upstairs loft with full-service. Reservations aren’t accepted, yet you won't have to wait because nobody seems to know about it. You can have a civilized dinner, from scallops crudo to dessert, at a real table while watching the mob scene below. Cheers to comfort.

3010 20th St.; 415-471-2999

Happy Hours at La Marcha

Berkeley's new runaway Spanish hit owns the happy hour genre from 4–6 PM and a second happy hour from 10 PM–midnight. Are the snacks nuts and fries? Hardly. The bites are mini versions of the regular tapas, such as goat cheese-stuffed piquillo peppers and wild boar meatballs to go with your glass of sherry. Factor in the excellent half dozen paellas offered at any hour, and yes, the East Bay can lay claim to having the Bay Area's happiest happy hour(s) and preeminent Spanish restaurant in one place.

2026 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley; 510-269-7374

Almond-Macadamia Nut Milk at Saint Frank

This perennially fashionable Russian Hill cafe goes to great lengths for a nut milk that's far more than just a dairy substitute in a latte. Saint Frank makes its own version and not only is it tremendous — it's the only cafe to do so in the city. The result is a rustic, distinctively earthy milk (unlike most bland versions) to smooth out espresso drinks. Countless visitors each day order the almond-macadamia nut milk cappuccino just for the milk itself, and they end up talking about it with the same reverence as Napa wine tasters do about Cabernet.

2340 Polk St.; 415-775-1619

French Fry Creations at Popsons and Boxing Room

Fries-followers, pay attention (and arteries too): Mid-Market’s new burger-centric Popsons has a secret Chubbies Shorts Salad (named for the SF-based shorts boutique) holding a burger patty on a base of french fries, covered in queso and garnished with lettuce. In Hayes Valley, the New Orleans–themed Boxing Room has an off-menu, atypical French Quarter combination of bacon-giblet gravy, cheddar cheese and fries filling a po' boy. Both wonderful, satisfying fries inventions lead to the question, where is the secret juice cleanse menu?

998 Market St.; 415-658-7554
399 Grove St.; 415-430-6590


The South Bay's Restaurant Scene at Various Locations

San Francisco, the North Bay and the East Bay receive constant praise for their abundant food and drink options. What about the South Bay?

Everyone around the Bay knows the ambitious Manresa, but it's still a secret how the South Bay actually isn’t missing out on the eating and drinking fun. In Los Gatos, Manresa chef-owner David Kinch’s ode to his hometown New Orleans at The Bywater lets the good times roll with exceptional gumbo and beignets unlike anything else in Northern California. Nearby you'll find San Sebastian–worthy tapas at PintxoPote. BirdDog in Palo Alto reflects the city’s entrepreneurial creativity on its plates (the wood-grilled avocado is worth a drive on its own) from a chef sporting a Nobu and French Laundry pedigree.

Perhaps most noteworthy are the major SF-level cocktails in an old Saratoga saloon at Jack Rose Libation House and the fascinating rice bowls and seafood ramen at Kumino in a Mountain View strip mall (from alums of Manresa and Momofuku).

532 N. Santa Cruz Ave, Los Gatos; 408-560-9639
424 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos; 408-797-8688
420 Ramona St., Palo Alto; 650-656-8180
18840 Saratoga Los Gatos Rd., Saratoga; 408-395-3500
580 N. Rengstorff Ave., Mountain View; 650-964-3300


Paella at Canela

The Castro’s venerable tapas bar attracts a devoted audience for its Sunday paella. What a bummer, though, how the labor-intensive dish is only available one day a week. Well, it isn't. Make a reservation a few days in advance, ask for the paella, and you will almost always be accommodated. Besides, isn't every night meant for a saffron-fragrant seafood and rice feast as special as Canela's?

2272 Market St.; 415-552-3000

Irish Soda Bread at Andytown Coffee Roasters

San Francisco's four-dollar toast infatuation shows no signs of stopping, but there is one oasis in the far reaches of the Outer Sunset. This coffee roaster/cafe bakes its own soda bread and serves it not-toasted (!) with jam, bacon or butter, because a co-owner hails from Ireland and couldn’t find good soda bread in the city. His grandmother’s recipe is the source for the exceptionally moist, dense bread that still never gets attention in this carb-crazy region. The bread's mandatory partner is one of the city’s most Instagrammed drinks, the Snowy Plover (iced espresso, brown sugar and sparkling water, topped with whipped cream).

3655 Lawton St.; 415-753-9775

Beer Nuts at The View

San Francisco’s quintessential view from above has one feature that can almost equal the impossible-to-match vista: an addictive, under-the-radar bowl of beer nuts. Chef David Holland coats a half dozen kinds of nuts with a knockout trio of chili powder, brown sugar and puréed chipotle peppers. After a low-heat roast, they’re crispy, sweet, spicy, sour and tangy — a dream bowl of munchies for enjoying a dream view.

780 Mission St.; 415-896-1600

Not-so-Quiet FiDi Italian Secret: Credo

In a city filled with passionate opinions and Italian restaurants, it's a baffling surprise how one of the most unknown dining rooms for Cal-Ital cuisine has, of all things, a theme of free speech. Read Shakespeare, Churchill and dozens of other quotes on the walls while eating the excellent pizzas. Later, listen to JFK and Reagan in the bathroom. You'll feel more eloquent after lunch or dinner, especially if you order the salmon (yes, a great salmon dish!) as a main course and the s'mores tart for dessert. Let this FiDi secret be heard.

360 Pine St.; 415-693-0360

Chocolate/Mint at Rich Table

This bustling, cozy Hayes Valley Californian knows how to balance the best of both worlds: unfamiliar techniques and ingredients with familiar comfort roots. A perfect example is the secret dessert nodding to what seems like everyone's favorite cookie, the Girl Scouts' Thin Mint, boasting a salted chocolate sable cookie, iced milk and mint chocolate cream. Dare we say it's a significant improvement on the original that tastes much more vividly of dark chocolate and mint?

199 Gough St.; 415-355-9085

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