Small plates might be the biggest trend across the San Francisco dining circuit right now. Not far behind – and quickly catching up – is the move from à la carte menus to prix fixe dining. The set course experience comes in all shapes and sizes, both at the table and on the credit card bill. Some aren't worth your time or money, while others are spectacular in presentation and scope, and still others represent old-fashioned three-course value with a starter, main course and dessert cheaper than if you'd ordered them separately. At these restaurants, the price for your food is set and the cost is just right. All you need to do is enjoy the meal.
Chapeau! and Baker Street Bistro
In France, you’re as likely to see a menu “formule” at a cafe or bistro as you are to find regular à la carte offerings. A proper three-course, fixed price meal (or four courses if you desire cheese) is normal. The serving sizes are just right for pacing your appetite over the number of courses and the price is usually a major bargain. Leave it to San Francisco’s low-key but high-quality French dining rooms to carry on this tradition 6,000 miles away. Chapeau! in the Inner Richmond offers three courses for $55 or four courses at $65 with a few choices in each category channeling classic French with slight Californian tweaks. Meanwhile, Baker Street Bistro has a steal of a three-course set (no choices) menu when it opens for dinner at 5:30 PM and sells out within an hour (note: The early dinner is perfect if you’re spending the day around Crissy Field and the Presidio).
There is a certain je ne sais quoi perfection about the Presidio Height’s Cali-French restaurant run by Manresa alum Nico Delaroque. He only offers diners five courses for $65 on the “carte blanche” menu. In other words, no menu. You'll find out about dishes when they arrive. The meal arcs from lighter vegetables to fish to meat, and then a dessert finale. Yes, this is the place to do wine pairings ($55) to keep the surprise going. It's hardly a surprise how many diners leave Nico vowing to never look at a menu again.
3228 Sacramento St.; 415-359-1000
It’s not high-end dining like older sibling Atelier Crenn, but it’s definitely not a casual bistro either. Dominique Crenn’s year-old Hayes Valley prix fixe–only spot (except at the chef's counter and at lunch) fits in between. The restaurant is a personal ode to her native Brittany featuring an approachable, yet ambitious, five-course menu for $87, including the hospitality charge. Petit Crenn's nightly menu is seafood- and vegetables–only, weaving together the likes of gnocchi with spring vegetables, grilled whole fish, vadouvan baby carrots with mint yogurt and a coffee-chocolate éclair. But one very French twist you can always depend on: a refreshing salad served between the main fish course and dessert.
609 Hayes St.; 415-864-1744
The biggest reason to go for the $93 chef's picks instead of à la carte at this perennially popular Hayes Valley restaurant requires a hashtag: #fomo. Rich Table's comprehensive menu features four major categories (plus the must-order oysters with kimchi juice and the freshly baked Douglas fir levain bread). As a party of two or even four, you simply won't try everything that you want to try. The solution is letting the kitchen just go ahead and cook away on and off menu. From the signature sardine chips to Evan Rich’s superb pastas and quirky snacks, then concluding with Sarah Rich’s simple and profound desserts – we're convinced prix fixe is the optimal Rich Table strategy so as not to miss out on anything.
199 Gough St.; 415-355-9085
When the Stones Throw and Fat Angel folks debuted their third concept last year, everything regarding prix fixe dining in San Francisco changed. Price at Trestle: $35. Everyone thought it was a misprint but, yes, diners get three courses of a top-tier caliber for the price of an average entree in San Francisco these days. Each course has two choices, like right now the main dish is between an elegant French leaning truffle stuffed chicken and a Spanish-style crispy-skin bass. An additional homemade pasta course adds $10 (get it!). It’s little wonder why the crowds pack the Chinatown restaurant nightly.
531 Jackson St.; 415-772-0922
Flour + Water
The big negative of the always jammed Mission Italian restaurant's $75 pasta tasting menu: not getting the chance to indulge in burrata or enjoying one of the stellar pizzas. But, don't worry too much about that. Flour + Water's niche is inventive pastas, and they're the reason diners wait at 5 PM for a table. Nobody in the city owns a particular sub-genre like chef Thomas McNaughton does with the art of pasta. The pasta tasting is a riveting journey of five pasta styles and imaginative accompaniments. Who would have guessed that halibut cappelletti not only exists, but is transcendent when it's in a spot prawn broth with the spreadable, spicy sausage, n'duja? You'll have several epiphanies like that. Dessert is included but sadly is not a pasta.
2401 Harrison St.; 415-826-7000
Twenty-three years is an incredible lifetime for a restaurant. Firefly has staying power because of chef-owner Brad Levy's smart comfort cooking and the charming atmosphere manages to be great for bringing the kids or for an intimate date night. The $38 three-course prix fixe served Sunday to Thursday is another reason Firefly is still going strong. Any appetizer, any entree and any dessert can be chosen in the prix fixe. It's an incredible bargain. The problem: How do you choose between the classic fried chicken or a new offering like the Brazilian seafood stew, moqueca? Tough call. Here's to another 23 years in Noe Valley for Firefly.
4288 24th St.; 415-821-7652
Sometimes, the decision of prix fixe compared to à la carte is about math. Why not order the four courses for $59 when a typical three-course à la carte dinner is around $55? But beyond the math (and factoring in what a serious value both à la carte and prix fixe are at this Mission restaurant), it’s wise to maximize the number of hyper-seasonal, always fascinating creations you can try from chef-owner Brett Cooper. Besides, the prix fixe will make sure you don’t skip dessert or the house-baked sourdough. A party of four going the prix fixe route could try everything on one of San Francisco's smaller and most enjoyable menus. Talk about a feast.
1001 Guerrero St.; 415-875-9810
You don't need any more of a reason to try the rustic California–Eastern European cooking of Nick Balla and Cortney Burns other than trusting that they are two of our most gifted chefs in the Bay Area. But we've got two new factors. While restaurants across the city are rapidly driving tasting menus towards $100, Bar Tartine recently cut back its "Friends & Family" prix fixe dinner concept by $20 to $58. It's three courses with several dishes in each course: a downright steal. The Mission restaurant is also one of the few places to serve weekend lunch (NOT brunch) following a similar prix fixe format at $37 a diner.
561 Valencia St.; 415-487-1600
1601, Prubechu and Radio Africa
Prix fixe meals aren't just smart ideas for good deals. They're also a great way to really explore cuisines you're not familiar with. SoMa’s 1601 presents contemporary Sri Lankan dishes like goat stew with beet root and chèvre mousse in a rollicking chef's tasting menu at $95 (trust us, this is ambitious, destination-worthy cooking). In the Mission, learn about the cuisine of Guam in Prubechu’s five-course, $65 menu. For $10 (!), Radio Africa serves a two-course Community Tuesday dinner that is beyond a bargain for what might be an heirloom tomato salad and short-ribs with couscous reflecting the bold African flavors served weekdays (they aren't open on weekends). The Bayview restaurant is a community centerpiece for this emerging neighborhood and the once-a-week prix fixe is a crucial reason why.
Sons & Daughters
We're not going to choose between the highest of the high-end dining experiences in the Bay Area. Chances are you've heard of Lazy Bear, Saison and Benu. Are they worth the $300–$400 a person price tag? That's for another article some day. There are a handful of similar quality fine-dining places at substantially lower prices. This Lower Nob Hill restaurant is the best of them when factoring in the cost-to-experience ratio for its $115, seven-course menu. Hip-hop music might be playing in the background, but the service, plated presentations and general fine-tuned everything is comparable to the likes of Quince and Manresa. Almost all of the ingredients come from the restaurant's farms and gardens in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Those pristine raw materials become exquisite fine-dining compositions that don't go too crazy like some of its peers, combined with a dining room where you actually can have a good time too.
708 Bush St.; 415-391-8311
Michael Mina and One Market
Don't forget lunch! By making the mid-day meal your high-end splurge, the blow to your wallet is less severe than at the same restaurant in the evening. Michael Mina's flagship has a $55, four-course chef's choice menu at lunch. Nearby, One Market has a two-course seasonal lunch option for $25 with two choices per course (add $5 for dessert). These are FiDi power lunches at a fraction of the power dinner cost.