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The Best Restaurants for Every Budget in the SF Bay Area

From power dining to first dates, here's where to splurge or find bargains
February 13, 2017
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by Trevor Felch

Whether you have a little money to spend or a lot, you can eat well in the San Francisco Bay Area. To that end, we've highlighted eight reasons to dine out in the city (everything from brunch to a first date) and offered inexpensive, moderately priced and splurge-worthy spots that fit the bill. These multipriced options for some of the most common dining occasions will remind you of just how much variety the city has to offer.

Brunch

Inexpensive: The Gastropig
The crowds are packing into this new Uptown Oakland breakfast sandwich specialist for its social-media adored egg, cheddar and bacon #baconslut sandwich. But don’t miss lunch options like the Ode to Genova (cold cuts stacked high on Dutch Crunch bread in an ode to the much-missed legendary Genova Deli in Oakland).

Moderately priced: Okane
The Design District’s new izakaya is offering a bento box–style prix fixe brunch. Diners get four small plates, plus rice, pickles, salad and miso soup for $18 to $22 depending on which small plates are chosen. It’s a lot less pricey than dinner and equally rewarding. À la carte supplements are offered and shouldn't be skipped, especially the abalone porridge and beet-cured salmon.

Worth a splurge: The Garden Court
Brunch can be a glamorous, galalike occasion, which is what you'll find at The Garden Court including items like $38 madras curry–laced lobster rolls and amaretto berry French toast for its Sunday brunch. There is no more dramatic a setting for a leisurely weekend meal with family and friends than in the century-old palm-filled lobby dining room of the Palace Hotel in the FiDi. The price is steep, but the setting and food make it an extraordinary brunch.

Pre-show

Inexpensive: Little Gem
You can make a reservation with table service or order at the counter at Hayes Valley’s Little Gem, which focuses on fresh, produce-driven cuisine like rice bowls and salmon with quinoa at an approachable price point. Its French Laundry pedigree shows in the slicker service and fine-tuned food.

Moderately priced: August One Five
This Civic Center newcomer’s modern Indian cooking will set the tone for a special night out at a smart price. Start with crispy fried spinach and the trio of naan, then head towards the rack of lamb and tandoori sea bass. Cocktails are starting to get deserved citywide praise and no Instagram star leaves without a photo of the Maharaja portrait on the wall.

Worth a splurge: Jardinière
The 18-year-old Cali-French Hayes Valley classic from Traci des Jardins is as strong as ever with its current à la carte menu format and dramatic mezzanine dining room. Make sure to plan your time so you can get the full experience. Consider making it a four-course meal because pastas like tajarin with Dungeness crab, uni bottarga and yuzu are an underrated must-order.

Power dining

Inexpensive: Trou Normand
It's easy to forget that the food at FiDi's Trou Normand is about more than just soaking up drinks, as shown by the worth-a-visit charcuterie, crab toast and marquee pork chop. The spacious booths and gorgeous back patio were made for business meetings, further enhanced by a round (or three) of the deftly made classic cocktails. 

Moderately priced: Kokkari  
Despite the proliferation of food trucks and office lunches, this downtown Greek stalwart and perennial top rated establishment in our survey keeps the power lunch alive and well. Each of its almost 200 seats are full from noon to 1 PM. Fueled by octopus, spiced lamb souvlaki, bottles of assyrtiko and sand-heated Greek coffee, Kokkari is truly one of the city’s power symbols.

Worth a splurge: Michael Mina
Athletes, business titans, city leaders, start-up founders who just struck gold on Sand Hill — they’re all coming to the flagship of San Francisco’s most well-known chef. Dinner at this FiDi spot means a $135 five-course prix fixe, and lunch is either à la carte or a five-course tasting lineup for $55. Note that suits and ties are the norm for men.

Counter seating

Inexpensive: Cordon Bleu
It’s basic, crammed, cheap and very filling. That sums up the four-decades-old Vietnamese five-spice chicken, shish kebab, rice and salad specialist in Lower Nob Hill. It’s a favorite of locals and construction workers for a no-frills simple and balanced one-plate meal on one of the few counter stools.

Moderately priced: Cockscomb
More often than not celebrity chef-owner Chris Cosentino is in the house and your companion at the counter overlooking the kitchen. At dinner, gaze at the pig's head or massive pin bone steak ordered by large groups. At lunch you'll see a factorylike preparation as table after table orders the definitive vegetarian burger of the city, the plant-based Impossible burger with Gruyère and Dijon mustard.

Worth a splurge: The Restaurant at Meadowood
The chef’s counter at one of the country’s finest restaurants is truly a bucket list splurge, clocking in at $500 per diner with service included. But it's served in the kitchen itself for a front row seat to a performance of chef Chris Kostow’s kitchen team, and the number of served courses runs into the teens.

Day trip

Inexpensive: The Barlow
Sebastopol’s food and drink community has two breweries, several wine tasting rooms, a major coffee roaster, a bakery, crêperie and Zazu's rustic pig-heavy cuisine. Not to be outdone, there’s also arguably the best Bay Area pizza at Vignette. A day of nothing but eating and drinking? That’s our kind of trip.

Moderately priced: Plumed Horse
Wrap up a Santa Cruz Mountains wine tasting day with dinner at a restaurant with one of the great sparkling wine programs of the country and a beautiful glass-enclosed wine cellar. The Saratoga legend thrills on the food side too, led by the as-good-as-it-sounds uni and crab fondue soufflé.

Worth a splurge: Single Thread
Since we took a First Look at Kyle and Katina Connaughton’s Healdsburg restaurant, the spot has found its groove and is rapidly become one of the gastronomic destinations of the Bay Area. The California-Japanese vaguely kaiseki-style experience is downright thrilling and worth a trip on its own. If you stay in one of the few upstairs rooms, which start at $800 per night, then dinner starts to seem like a bargain.

Prix fixe

Inexpensive: Overproof 
The $50 price tag includes paired food AND cocktails, a value that multiplies when you've got solid bartenders and a small but mighty kitchen of this caliber. This is Mission bar ABV's mezzanine rotating pop-up, changing a spirit focus every three months, with the bites and atmosphere following that theme. Right now the flip-flop concept channels rum in the drinks, and the spirit's geographic heritage influences the food and tropical decor.

Moderately priced: 3rd Cousin 
Most city diners don’t know this residential Bernal Heights restaurant exists, but those who do enjoy an $89 prix fixe that would easily nudge into triple figures in other neighborhoods. There's an extensive à la carte menu, but the prix fixe lets you graze the best hits like uni crème brûlée with three types of fish eggs.

Worth a splurge: Saison
From the reserve caviar and uni toast to the Burgundy wines selected by Mark Bright and the elegant cocktails that deserve way more attention, SoMa's groundbreaking restaurant is the most unique, transcendent tasting menu journey diners can experience in the Bay Area. The polish comes for a price; you'll plunk down $398 for food alone.

Group dining

Inexpensive: Alembic
A decade old and still going strong, the Upper Haight cocktail legend isn’t just about the (excellent) drinks. The private booth seating is ideal for small groups. So is the multiform menu of either a $45 four-course prix fixe or à la carte items like the noteworthy fried chicken and jerk-spiced duck hearts. Good, delicious times are guaranteed.

Moderately priced: 1760
Group celebrations need to be flexible occasions, since some friends might prefer cocktails, while others might want wine, and some might prefer roast chicken, while others want to share small plates like avocado and lardo toast. The globe-spanning Polk Street sibling to formal Acquerello caters to a variety of tastes and has a smoky chocolate dessert made from milk chocolate ganache with hickory ice cream and bourbon caramel to end the night.

Worth a splurge: Boulevard
This Embarcadero legend, San Francisco's most popular full-scale restaurant, thrives with Bay Bridge views, a belle epoque design and wood oven–roasted heavy menu with a strong seasonal bent. If you’re the guest of honor for an evening at Boulevard, you feel like the toast of the entire town.

First dates

Inexpensive: Birba
Forget coffee. First dates need wine. You need unpretentious but thoughtful bites like cotechino (Italian sausage) in tomato and garbanzo bean stew, plus a wine roster that is quirky yet safe. Most importantly, the vibe needs to be upbeat but not overly loud. This tiny Hayes Valley wine bar is exactly the place that will almost guarantee a follow-up date.

Moderately priced: Babu Ji 
When you’ve only been talking on an app and via text messages, a conversation starter is needed. Hello, beer fridge and the ever-present Babu Ji “mascot” that's part of the decor at this new contemporary Indian restaurant in the Mission.

Worth a splurge: Lazy Bear
The Mission’s destination dinner party restaurant shatters the awkward first date ice with its communal seating and tour de force menu by chef-owner David Barzelay. As you have to buy prepaid tickets before the date even starts, there's no awkward "who's paying?" at the end. It's the fun and food caliber of Lazy Bear, however, that's the real draw.

brunch
theater district
prix fixe
omakase
romantic restaurants
power dining
date spots
neighborhood restaurant