San Francisco's 8 Toughest Tables (and How to Score One)

Tips and tricks for cracking these hard-to-get-into hot spots
August 25, 2015
by Amy Copperman

If you want to snag a table at likes of Liholiho Yacht Club or the perennially crowded Boulevard, we've got some helpful tips and tricks to hacking the city's coveted tables (and no, one of them isn't "wait for everyone to go away to Burning Man"). We talked to hosts and general managers to get intel on when to go and how many seats are reserved for walk-ins so you're never stuck refreshing a reservation queue again. 

Liholiho Yacht Club
Booked: Three to four weeks out.
Why It’s Hot: This playful lower Nob Hill restaurant might be the hottest restaurant of the year and it hasn’t cooled yet. There’s not a menu quite like Ravi Kapur’s Hawaiian-leaning masterpiece at Liholiho Yacht Club, earning him and the team that brought us Nopa three stars from Michael Bauer earlier this year. Kapur combines his Hawaiian heritage with a San Francisco sensibility that he’s honed at Boulevard, and as founding chef at Prospect, to create dishes like Spam fried rice with corn and bay shrimp; fried oyster and beef carpaccio with Thousand Island dressing, and cheeky cocktails that pay homage to the islands. 
How to Hack It: Reservations are booked three to four weeks out, but thanks to the open seating at the bar, the bar’s communal table and the booths in the front room, there are about 40 seats reserved for walk-ins each night. You’ll likely experience a 40-minute wait, but if you come early and build happy hour into the wait time, it only adds to the experience. If the bar is too crowded to sip cocktails like the Ginger Grant or Tropicalia, head to Benjamin Cooper a few blocks away to pass the time over a cocktail and a couple oysters on the half shell.

871 Sutter St.; 415-440-5446

Petit Crenn
Booked: One month out.
Why It's Hot: The tiny dining room, combined with Dominique Crenn's star power make this brand new Hayes Valley spot a hot-ticket item. Fresh seafood and vegetables are the star here as Chef Dominique Crenn showcases Brittany, France-inspired food during a five-course tasting menu. 
How to Hack It: With only two seatings per night, reservations (which open on the website a month in advance) for one of the 38 seats are a must. If you're willing to forgo the five-course tasting and order ala carte, the ten bar seats are reserved for walk-ins. According to the the general manager, a couple tables are saved for last-minute reservations that you make via email ( Alternatively you can opt for the Chef's Table experience for you and five friends (email to secure it), which reserves the table for the whole night and includes special menu items such as caviar, lobster, and abalone.  

Flour + Water
Booked: One month out.
Why It’s Hot: Chef Thomas McNaughton’s housemade pastas and wood-fired pizzas have been a hit since this rustic Italian restaurant opened in 2009, and judging solely from the average hour-long wait for walk-ins and month-long wait for reservations, we still can’t get enough.
How to Hack It: The bar and communal area, plus about one-third of the dining room, is reserved for the reservation-less. According to the host, people will generally line up by 5:30 PM and are seated right away by the time the restaurant opens. That means if you’re coming in any later, it’s best to get there around 9:30 PM when there’s a turnover between the early birds and night owls. 11:30 PM on most nights will see hardly a wait at all, but if there is, it’s best spent at Trick Dog a couple doors down for creative pre-dinner cocktails. As for getting a reservation through OpenTable, a limited number of tables are made available two months prior, so it’s just a matter of settling on a date and booking two months in advance.

2401 Harrison St.; 415-826-7000

Tosca Café
Booked: Three weeks out.
Why It’s Hot: Acclaimed New York chef April Bloomfield has imbued a historic San Francisco space with a bit of New York glamour, earning the restaurant a celebrity following. The storied back room with rumors of crazy nights involving Jay and Beyoncé, Sean Penn and Kid Rock only add to the lure. And that hasn’t even covered the food — hearty Italian with Bloomfield’s signature attention to meat is the star here, especially the roast chicken for two or grilled beef tongue.
How to Hack It: The bar is the only open seating in the restaurant so the trick to scoring a walk-in seat is to go super early before the bar gets packed two to three people deep. Or, since it doesn’t close until 2 AM, try your luck at a table later in the evening when the bar is generally more crowded with nightlife crowds and the dining room has thinned a bit.

242 Columbus Ave.; 415-986-9651

The Slanted Door
Booked: One month out.
Why It’s Hot: A Ferry Building location with Bay views and a far-reaching reputation make this trendy Vietnamese eatery a hit among locals and visitors, meaning you’ll have to plan a month ahead if you want to get a reservation here. Award-winning executive chef Charles Phan still sets the pace around the world when it comes to creative Vietnamese dishes, making a bit of planning or these hacks worth it.
How to Hack It: Skip the bustling, packed-to-the-gills scene in the main dining room and head to the 50-seat bar and lounge, which it would seem many don’t realize serves the same exact menu. You forgo the views, but that’s nothing that can’t be fixed with a walk before or after you dine on spring rolls and shaking beef. Alternatively, get farther away from the tourist crowds by going to the lower-key Slanted Door offshoot, Out the Door in Pacific Heights. The menu is a slightly pared-down version as the original but the standouts, such as the Imperial Rolls and cellophane noodles with Dungeness crab, remain.

1 Vallejo - San Francisco Ferry Building; 415-861-8032

Booked: No reservations for brunch.
Why It’s Hot: Beachy, weathered wood covering the walls, delightful New American eats, and a solid bar with arguably the city’s best old fashioned make this a popular hipster hangout and the place to see and be seen during weekend brunch.  
How to Hack It: The expanded dining room that’s effectively doubled the size of the restaurant hasn’t done much to accommodate the hoards of brunch warriors who flock to foggy Outer Sunset for Dutch pancakes and eggs-in-jail with thick levain toast. But it has helped a bit. Even though you’re still looking at a wait, there are few places more delightful to spend a Saturday or Sunday than this charming strip of Ocean Beach paradise. Put your name down and grab coffee and a famed cinnamon toast at Trouble Coffee a couple doors down to quell hunger pangs. Browse The General Store on the same block for handcrafted dream catchers, pottery and coffee-table books or sip your coffee in the serene succulent garden in the back. Suddenly you’re on vacation — who’s in a hurry for brunch? Alternatively, come at 9 AM when they open to sit down right away—you can always go back to bed when you’re in a Dutch pancake food coma.

4001 Judah St.; 415-661-6140

Booked: Two to three weeks out.
Why It’s Hot: Embarcadero + Bay views + renowned chef mean this spot is always buzzing with visitors and locals, likely entertaining visitors. And all this hasn’t even covered the refined American fare that precedes itself in reputation, the extensive wine list and superb service.
How to Hack It: If you’re set on a view, come at lunch (order the lunch-only burger) when the tables overlooking the Embarcadero are less crowded. Otherwise, 45 seats are reserved for walk-ins each night, but those will likely be in the bistro/lounge area where you have to forgo white tablecloths and Bay views, but the service, swanky ambiance and impeccable food remain.

1 Mission St.; 415-543-6084

Park Tavern
Booked: Three weeks out.
Why It’s Hot: Chef Jennifer Puccio’s deviled eggs with bacon and jalapeño, beef tartare and lamb-and-beef Marlowe burger keep people returning over and over to this trendy bistro. The iconic North Beach location and cocktails that pay homage to the former owners of the space lend a bit of history San Franciscans can’t get enough of.
How to Hack It: With 45 seats reserved for walk-ins, it’s almost easier to come here without a reservation, especially if you plan on sipping a pre-dinner cocktail (Ed’s Negroni is one of the best in the city). It’s likely that you’ll put your name down for a table and bar seats will open up before you even get called to sit. As for brunch, it’s not unheard of to call early (while still in bed) and secure a reservation for that very day — it just takes asking nicely and a bit of luck.

1652 Stockton St.; 415-989-7300

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toughest tables