12 Alternatives to SF's Most Popular Restaurants (and Longest Lines)

Skip the hype and the wait and try these solid standbys
November 21, 2017
by Trevor Felch

San Francisco sure knows how to draw queues for its restaurants, bars and artisan shops. Sometimes it seems like you'll never try all the top spots because, well, everyone else is in line too. Think State Bird Provisions, Swan Oyster Depot and Bi-Rite Creamery. Just mention "Liholiho" and you're likely to hear about the estimated wait times before the must-orders. As special as these restaurants are, there are days when you just can't wait two hours for dinner. This list is your backup plan: Skip the major lines and try these smart alternatives.

The famous line: Tartine Manufactory

So, you were intimidated by the lines for morning buns and freshly baked country loaves at Tartine? Well, queue up for an even longer wait at its younger sibling a few blocks east. The enormous Tartine Manufactory has an appropriately large all-day menu (plus soft serve, wine, bread, coffee and more) to serve its large crowds.

Where to go instead: 20th Century Cafe

Michelle Polzine’s quirky, vintage-style cafe was one of the first in the massive wave of recent Hayes Valley newcomers. It doesn’t get the big lines, but the timeless Austrian-Central European pastries (like poppyseed babka and Sacher torte) are rare for SF and worth a detour. 20th Century Cafe doesn’t bake ancient grain bread loaves like Tartine Manufactory — but it does make its own bagels and ice cream, plus knockout chocolate chip cookies and great sandwiches and salads in a sunlit space that's twice as charming as the Manufactory.

The famous line: State Bird Provisions

San Franciscans can count on two things every day at 5 PM: congestion entering Bay Bridge and a healthy line outside State Bird Provisions on Fillmore. Getting reservations is a competitive sport and waiting in line is just as challenging.  

Where to go instead: Aster

Nobody else in San Francisco quite replicates State Bird’s unique hybrid of full-service dim sum dining. But out in the Mission, Brett Cooper quietly offers riveting tasting menus that recall State Bird in terms of layering robust flavors with pristine ingredients and catchy textures. Cooper might pair a soft-cooked egg with the crunch of puffed rice and seafaring funk of nori and smoked trout roe. It's complex without making you think too hard — and isn’t a huge splurge.

The famous line: Trick Dog

With a chic refurbished warehouse vibe and clever drinks with ingredients like "everything bagel" or garnishes like a mini PB&J, this Mission bar is relentlessly popular for good reason. If you’ve ever tried ordering a drink at 8 PM on a Friday night, you know about the famous wait.

Where to go instead: The Alembic

This Upper Haight bar opened 11 years ago, and balanced creative cocktails with not-your-average pub grub (vermouth-poached fennel with quince sorbet?) long before craft cocktails became a thing in SF. Essentially, The Alembic was Trick Dog long before Trick Dog arrived. It’s still a smart destination for a definitive bone marrow toast and both new-school and old-school libations.

The famous line: Nopa

What doesn’t Nopa do well? The must-orders run the gamut from the burger to the roast chicken to desserts to cocktails and wine — in brief, it’s the ultimate restaurant. And it's open late. Everybody in SF knows these things, which often leads to a disproportionate number of people eating while standing awkwardly on a corner.

Where to go instead: The Saratoga

Spruce's younger sibling in Lower Nob Hill is basically Nopa for the East of Van Ness crowd. Everything we just rattled off, from the burger to a riff on Ho Hos for dessert, is closely matched at The Saratoga. Here you'll find a more glamorous vibe and more attainable tables, which means an extra round of barrel-aged Negronis and cheesy ‘toga tots for your party.

The famous line: Liholiho Yacht Club

The "Aloha" tile sign at the base of this Lower Nob Hill culinary star's front door has probably been Instagrammed a million times by now — and that warm spirit of aloha extends throughout the restaurant. But aloha also means "goodbye"; many diners often don’t get past that opening sign because reservations are difficult and walk-in wait times can be daunting.  

Where to go instead: Aina

This former brunch pop-up became a permanent Dogpatch fixture and is more Hawaiian-focused than Liholiho, which tends to skip around the world with subtle references to the islands. It's a steal of a value, especially if you opt for the recently unveiled ambitious $60 chef’s counter tasting menu. Both restaurants offer stellar poke variations but Aina adds sensational riffs on Hawaiian standards like saimin and lomi lomi trout. Note this recommendation is for dinner only; brunch lines can be, well, Liho-like.

The famous line: Outerlands

It’s a long journey to this Outer Sunset brunch favorite. Then you'll ultimately enjoy eggs-in-jail with bacon and fluffy-as-a-cloud cast-iron baked Dutch pancakes with apples and chocolate — but not before a usually significant wait amid the coastal fog.

Where to go instead: Marla Bakery

No, your ideal Outerlands replacement is not Trouble Coffee, a few doors down; the cinnamon toast and coffee are a smart choice, but unfortunately the tiny shop and parklet effectively becomes Outerlands’ waiting room on weekends. Instead, opt for the other side of Golden Gate Park and visit the Outer Richmond’s superb homey bakery and cafe. Like at Outerlands, the Marla Bakery brunch is a mix of sweet and savory specialties. Dig into a terrific housemade bagel with herbed cream cheese, a messy twin-patty burger and massive pecan sticky buns.

The famous line: Swan Oyster Depot

Once you're inside the century-old Russian Hill seafood legend, you’re greeted by the ever-comical and bubbly Sancimino family, along with all the exceptional Dungeness crab and oysters you’ve ever dreamed of. The problem? This San Francisco classic, bolstered by Anthony Bourdain, often has lines down the street for its 20 barstools.

Where to go instead: Farallon

This upscale Union Square seafood destination doesn’t have as much affable charm as Swan Oyster. But it does have its own history and unique whimsical underwater atmosphere (jellyfish chandeliers! kelp columns!) and the oysters, caviar and crab (chowder or Louie) are still downright outstanding. Here, you can have a real seat and linger as long as you wish — and prices beat Swan Oyster during happy hour (daily until 6 PM), when you can enjoy $5 and $7 specials.

The famous line: Bi-Rite Creamery Mission

It’s one of the iconic San Francisco scenes on a beautiful day in the Mission: sunbathing crowds on the hills of Dolores Park and a snaking line of ice cream–goers blocking the sidewalk across the street. The ice cream is some of the best in town, but is it worth a half hour in line for a treat that melts in minutes?

Where to go instead: Bi-Rite Creamery Divisadero

We’re being a little tricky here. It’s true — the salted caramel flavor really is that good. Please do try it at Bi-Rite because no other ice cream parlor can replicate the silky texture and sweet-smoky sensation of this iconic scoop. But you can avoid the lines (mostly) if you buy it at Bi-Rite’s Divisadero location instead. In addition, you’re only a block from Alamo Square Park and the Painted Ladies, a grand combo with your salted caramel. Cue the Tony Bennett.

The famous line: Mr. Holmes Bakehouse

The craze for cruffins (a croissant/muffin hybrid) hasn’t subdued at this Tenderloin bakery known for the viral food and Instagram-driven signage ("I Got Baked in San Francisco"). Don’t get us wrong, the cruffin is delicious — but it may not be worth lining up at 7:30 AM for a pastry and social media fix.

Where to go instead: Vive la Tarte

The cruffin isn’t even Mr. Holmes’ best item (that’s the brioche donuts). It's also not necessarily superior to a regular croissant or muffin. For those, you can walk right into Vive la Tarte, SoMa’s chic bakery/cafe ode to everything-dough. The fruit-filled croissants are textbook buttery and flaky. Unlike at Mr. Holmes, you can also get a great cappuccino, SF’s best quiche, terrific falafel and, thankfully, a seat.

The famous line: The Buena Vista

The cable car turnaround at Ghirardelli Square has one of SF’s most famous non-food lines. And, sometimes it seems like every tourist waiting to ride the cable car also wants to stop at The Buena Vista for its iconic Irish coffee.  

Where to go instead: Sláinte

Irish coffee is actually Irish so why not enjoy it at an Irish pub? Yes, you’ll have to trek to Jack London Square in Oakland, but its version of Irish coffee (with Powers Irish whiskey, Oakland's own Bicycle coffee and fresh whipped cream) is miles ahead of The Buena Vista classic. Keep in mind that it takes just as long to get to Ghirardelli Square from many parts of the city as it takes to reach Sláinte.

The famous line: a Mano

The pasta-focused Italian newcomer from Back of the House Group (Beretta, The Bird, Flores) has had lines out the door since opening day. That's because of three main factors: a no-reservations policy, affordable prices (by SF standards) and a prime Hayes Valley–Patricia's Green location.

Where to go instead: Corridor

Here’s the catch about a Mano: It’s all about the scene and location. The food is consistently less exciting, especially when compared to its neighbors. But Cala, Rich Table and Petit Crenn can also have waits, so they're not ideal alternatives, especially if you're dining before a show. Our advice? Cross the street to Van Ness and try Corridor. Here, you can dig into redesigned comfort food like falafel croquettes and meatloaf Wellington — and if you're craving Italian, there are spicy tomato-braised meatballs and a few excellent pastas nightly.

The famous line: Al’s Place

Aaron London’s Outer Mission veggie-centric Californian spot is perpetually packed for “snackles,” black kale with "awesome sauce" and a signature dessert that riffs on a classic PayDay candy bar. In addition, some major national media praise has only made the waits longer for one of a few tables.  

Where to go instead: The Morris

The low-key, suave bistro in the former Slow Club space really is quite similar to Al’s Place in terms of semi-isolated Mission location, quaint size and a Californian cooking style that's both comforting and edgy. But The Morris doesn't get the tourist crowds, partially since it doesn't offer Al's "snackles" or vegetable entree hook. Instead, you'll find a signature smoked duck platter and a mic drop–worthy foie gras dumpling starter. And don't forget, The Morris is probably the only place in SF you can enjoy a chartreuse slushie and an 1875 vintage Madeira by the glass.

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