On Valentine’s Day or any date night, it’s easy to leave your heart in San Francisco restaurants. Here are 10 of the best across the city, serving everything from paella in rustic surroundings to lamb-belly steamed buns in an edgy lounge-restaurant.
Lower Pacific Heights: SPQR
Diners pack SPQR’s dark, intimate dining room for chef Matthew Accarrino’s innovative pastas (perhaps squid-ink mezze maniche or cocoa spaghetti?) and phenomenal small plates like the unmatched chicken liver pâté. That’s not the only reason reservations and seats at the walk-in counter overlooking the kitchen are always hard to come by for the 50-seat dining room. It’s a handsome, inviting black-and-white-toned room that keeps things simple by boasting wine bottles and small works of art as decor. There is always buzz, but despite the small size and energy, SPQR manages to never be too loud. Another romantic bonus: learning together about new Italian wine regions and grape varietals from owner and wine director Shelley Lindgren’s masterful list.
Valentine’s Day: Five-course dinner ($94) and three-course lunch ($52).
1911 Fillmore St.; 415-771-7779
Union Square: Bouche
Paris is the City of Love, and the rustic, candlelit two-level bistro atop the Stockton Tunnel could be transported to the Left Bank and fit right in as a romantic dinner destination. Bouche is French without falling into any clichés of the genre, from the small French appellations making up the wine list to the 1 AM closing hour, which makes it the popular gathering spot after work for San Francisco’s French expat chefs. At any time of night, there is a clear joie de vivre led by owner and Provence native Guillaume Issaverdens, but it's the Mediterranean-French-Californian dishes like marinated hangar steak with charred cabbage and bone marrow jus that make Bouche a date-night favorite.
Valentine’s Day: Three courses ($70) with optional wine pairings ($35).
603 Bush St.; 415-956-0396
Russian Hill: Zarzuela
With a romantic cable-car-line soundtrack outside, this 22-year-old Russian Hill Spanish legend is the definition of warmth and comfort with lots of dramatic arches in a room full of brick and stucco. It is a thoroughly old-style experience complete with white tablecloths, leisurely pacing and timeless classic tapas. Since Zarzuela doesn’t take reservations, you and your love might have to linger with a glass of sangria before being seated. Once the tortillas and goat-cheese-stuffed grilled eggplant start arriving, followed by large plates like paella or the namesake seafood stew, it’s sure to be a lovely night channeling Madrid by the Bay.
Valentine’s Day: Closed Sunday nights, including Valentine’s Day.
2000 Hyde St.; 415-346-0800
Photo: Aubrie Pick
The month-old progressive American restaurant’s teacup booths are an invention meant for romantic dinners — residing in the center of the dining room action but with lounge-style tables enclosed in a boothlike wrap that keep couples mostly hidden from view. The entire retro 1930s art deco space is a stunner, and it's matched by the à la carte and tasting menus from chef Joey Elenterio. For date night, having one diner pick the “In the Ground or From a Stem” prix fixe menu and the other choosing the “Above Ground or From the Water” prix fixe menu is a wonderful way to sample a variety of the kitchen’s exciting creations. A lovely bonus: walk through the shared hallway to sister bar Mr. Tipple’s Recording Studio for post-dinner drinks and jazz.
Valentine’s Day: Three-course chef’s menu ($45).
1446 Market St.; 415-851-8561
Marina: Spaghetti Brothers
A world apart from the 20-screen sports-focused dive bar it replaced, Spaghetti Brothers isn’t exactly the red-sauce joint the name makes it seem like. After all, the “meatballs” are a formidable version of Swedish meatballs. An opulent ceiling, dim lights and a slick, smart vibe make for a romantic atmosphere across the restaurant, bar and lounge, but especially at the leather banquette in the back. The menu successfully blends lighter dishes like crudo with lemon and chile oil and a terrific heirloom radicchio and crispy quinoa salad with the more substantial fare such as the signature toasted ravioli starter and the Flannery’s dry-aged prime New York steak for two. Couples of can order spaghetti and share a moment like the romantic spaghetti-eating scene in Lady and the Tramp — except those characters didn’t get uni butter coating their spaghetti. For dessert, ask for two spoons and a spumoni Alaska.
Valentine’s Day: Five-course menu ($75).
3213 Scott St.; 415-400-8500
Nightly jazz and a 1930s supper-club ambiance makes everyone look glamorous in what is easily one of the city’s most stunning dining settings. Bix strikes a romantic note even from the outside due to its speakeasy-evoking secretive location in an alley amid the Financial District hustle and bustle. The spacious booths on the mezzanine overlooking the dining room and bar are particularly wonderful for couples looking for privacy. White-jacketed waiters sweep around the two-level space carrying Manhattans and Negronis, tossing together ceviche or steak tartare tableside, and presenting the incomparable warm chocolate brioche bread pudding for dessert that will win the heart of the most passionate chocolate-loving diners.
Valentine’s Day: Four-course, $80 menu with three to four choices per course.
56 Gold St.; 415-433-6300
Tenderloin: Tadu Ethiopian Kitchen
The bright-orange walls and equally bright lights aren’t a typical trait for romantic restaurants. Perhaps the atmosphere isn't candlelit with roses on the tables, yet dining at the tiny Tadu really feels like a small party gathering at a friend’s house — what with barely enough room to hold five tables and robust cooking full of fragrant spices and deeply flavored, nuanced stews. At each of the tables, couples and families of all ages rip and scoop away at large platters of tart, spongy injera bread covered with kitfo (a berbere-spiced steak tartare), lamb tibs and a dreamy vegetarian sampler spread. This is fun, communal eating that certainly will win over your date.
Valentine’s Day: Regular menu.
484 Ellis St.; 415-409-6649
While Dosa on Fillmore is grand and elaborate, the original Dosa on Valencia is warm and cozy with eclectic artwork, saffron-colored walls and a quieter rear dining room past the front bar. Sharing an array of small-bites dishes is encouraged with many selections sporting just enough spice to be alluring without being overwhelming. The dozen different dosas are a highlight, as are cocktails and the "dahi vada" lentil fritters in yogurt (maybe the visually most artistic dish in the city). It’s hard to go wrong with anything on the menu at San Francisco’s best Indian restaurant. Dosa is a perfect dinner stop for a relaxing and exciting dinner together when making it a special night out in the Mission.
Valentine’s Day: A truffle menu and a “spice” menu; both four courses for $78.
995 Valencia St.; 415-642-3672
SoMa: Dirty Habit
Romantic doesn’t have to be quiet and formal. Dirty Habit brings out the chic and sexy side of love as one of the city’s leading bar-restaurant hybrids. The interior has an edgy film noir aura, seductive lighting and a hip loungelike vibe, while the rooftop patio is one of the city’s most gorgeous outdoor spaces to savor some drinks. Inventive small bites from chef David Bazirgan such as vadouvan-roasted carrots and fried lamb-belly steam buns make lingering dates become a habit.
Valentine’s Day: Closed Sunday nights, including Valentine’s Day.
12 Fourth St.; 415-348-1555
Presidio Heights: Nico
Two-year-old Nico is a perfect blend of comfort and formality, striking that right balance of a mature space with flowers on tables, oversized mirrors and a gorgeously designed set of chandeliers overhead, and casual feel with bare wooden floors and tables and plain gray walls. Nicolas Delaroque’s unfussy cooking beautifully reflects that same philosophy, bringing together California produce and a strong French inspiration. His “carte blanche” menu gives diners a real adventure as the constantly changing five-course tasting menu is exclusively in the hands of the chef, so you can just relax and enjoy your dining companion's company.
Valentine’s Day: Six-course tasting menu ($85) with three wine pairing options; all rosé ($75), regular ($65), all champagne ($85).
3228 Sacramento St.; 415-359-1000