10 Unexpectedly Romantic Restaurants and Bars in the SF Bay Area

From a waterfront dive bar to a creative prix fixe restaurant that's only temporary
February 6, 2017
by Trevor Felch

Whether you’re looking for waterfront views without the scene or a champagne bar that swaps the dark stereotype for a retro Parisian setting, San Francisco and the Bay Area are full of date-night options that don’t scream “romance” but are perfect for couples. The traditional romantic destinations in the city are always worth a visit (make sure to call ahead if you're hoping to go on Valentine’s Day), but there are other options. Whether you'd prefer the glamour of Mourad, the lure of kombucha at Healdsburg SHED or a pot pie at Hillside Supper Club, we’ve got your next romantic night out taken care of — at destinations that aren’t even trying to be date night spots. You'll fall in love with these (and at these) 10 restaurants and bars.

Who says that romantic restaurants need to be small, dark and intimate? Those certainly work for the genre, but there is something equally swoon-worthy about the soaring, dramatic dining room of this FiDi Cali-Moroccan stalwart. Whether you opt for the seven-course tasting menu or share the chicken for two, the menu works as well for couples as it does for large parties. Pro tip: Ask the sommelier to give you a post-meal tour of the wine bridge above the bar area.

Must-order: Roast chicken for two; hot smoked salmon; or the $120 seven-course tasting menu

140 New Montgomery St. #1; 415-660-2500

The Riddler
Wine bars tend to be overly romantic with low lighting, love-themed rosé flights and plush couches that can make even deeply in love couples feel awkward. That’s where Hayes Valley’s recently opened champagne bar steps in, boasting a Parisian-themed decor shimmering with leather banquettes, cafe-style tables and a sleek gold-and-black color motif. It’s stylish, feels like a vintage throwback and is full of champagne and caviar. The whole package is casual enough for a second date and special occasion enough for a nightcap on your 22nd anniversary.

Must-order: Caviar and champagne

528 Laguna St.

True love lasts forever and many restaurants do too, but Nick Balla and Cortney Burns aren’t opting for the long haul with their latest venture. The two are already three months into their 18-month experimental and temporary Mission restaurant. Yes, there’s something bittersweet about a limited-run restaurant, like falling in love with someone who's about to leave the country. Motze has a set five-course Japanese-slanted menu and a bevy of creativity and personality — couples will have no shortage of topics to talk about.

Must-order: $58 set menu for five courses; rice porridge “sumo stews” at lunch

983 Valencia St.; 415-484-1206

Melissa Perello’s still red-hot Californian at the edge of the Mission and Castro is no stranger to the spotlight. But is it romantic? Absolutely. Have you tried not being cozy with those tiny tables? They invite for couples to lean closer to each other over the shareable food like bacon beignets and tender-as-possible bavette steak. Another fun romantic perk is the wine measured by the ounce, blended by the restaurant's wine director. It’s fun to be liberated from glasses and bottles and focus on drinking great wine — just don’t judge your dining partner too harshly after seeing the ounce total on the bill.

Must-order: Bacon beignets; kale salad (trust us); changing fish preparations like wild striped bass with cilantro ginger chimichurri 

3870 17th St.; 415-621-3870

Ijji Sushi
At almost 20 bites for $135, the Divisadero omakase sushi spot is among the very top of an increasingly crowded field for the high-end raw fish genre. Yes it's not traditionally romantic here with no sharing or lush decor. But sitting at the sushi bar, watching the masters cut the glistening fish and use the blow torch on a single idyllic scallop, while you sip on junmai sake in a Burgundy glass is one of the great dining experiences the city has to offer. It’s not loud and not quiet either — just the right amount of energy and sophistication.

Must-order: $135 omakase menu with five small appetizers, 13 pieces of fish, miso soup and a petite dessert

252 Divisadero St.; 415-658-7388

Hillside Supper Club
This outstanding, underrated gem next to Bernal Heights' Precita Park exemplifies romantic dining that can take your relationship to the next level via conversation. Eavesdrop at the bar and San Francisco will seem like a small, wholesome Midwest town, with everyone talking about the neighborhood over a glass of wine and bison tartare. The low-lit dining is both seductive and casual. The seasonal comfort fare by Tony Ferrari and Jonathan Sutton follows on cue, striking that right mark of daring but approachable.

Must-order: Bison tartare; short-rib pot pie; housemade goetta sausage at brunch 

300 Precita Ave.; 415-285-6005

Val M. Cantu and Carolyn Cantu's Cali-Mex Mission restaurant is sleek and beautiful, yet it always flies under the radar. It's designed by Carolyn (she previously worked with the city’s star restaurant designer Ken Fulk) and is one of the most tastefully appointed rooms in the city, balancing formality with a casual sense — just look at the mushroom-shaped chandeliers and colorful paintings. On the cuisine front, the tasting menu isn’t cheap by any stretch, but it is still a value at $157. It’s top-flight fine dining without the attitude and gravitas that can make a seemingly romantic night seem rigid and formal.

Must-order: $157 per person tasting menu with 12 to 16 courses

3115 22nd St.; 415-757-0994

Healdsburg SHED
As a restaurant-bar-fermentation lab/exhibition space, SHED is the heart of Healdsburg food and drink culture, which in turn means it is the core of the signature town of Sonoma County’s many wine regions. It’s a bucolic space with no shortage of delicious options for a present or future meal. Wake up with a cortado and the formidable freshly baked double chocolate croissant or enjoy superhero chef Perry Hoffman's pristine produce-driven cooking with a slight global edge at lunch or dinner. All together, this is the California farm-to-table good life we see in magazines turned into reality.

Must-order: Anchovies on toast; slow-roasted meats like lamb shoulder with sunflower molé; housemade kombucha

25 North St., Healdsburg; 707-431-7433

Central Kitchen
Strolling along 20th Street in the far edges of the Mission, you'd never guess that you'd end up in a dreamy Californian indoor/outdoor dining room. With a partially retractable roof and ample natural light, this spot really does feel like the setting for a starry-eyed couple like that of La La Land. The almost whimsical atmosphere is complemented by the thoughtful, satisfying cooking of Thomas McNaughton (Flour + Water) and his team (think robust pastas and hearty meats with a lighter touch). Couples can even tap dance their way over to next-door bar Trick Dog.

Must-order: Squid ink chitarra with uni butter; mixed roast of pork; fry bread with burrata

3000 20th St.; 415-826-7004

The Embarcadero dive bar is more than just a pregame spot before a Giants game or mid-walk watering hole for tourists ambling along the bayfront. True, it's cozy with a no-attitude atmosphere for an Anchor Steam and a burger at noon or midnight. However, locals know that it's best on a sunny day, when they gather, mimosas in hand, to enjoy that parking lot–obscured view of the Bay that invites deep talks and relaxation. As the seagulls circle overhead, the Hi-Dive reminds you of what a special city you live in.

Must-order: F-Line burger with cheddar bacon, barbecue sauce and caramelized onions

Pier 28; 415-977-0170

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