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December 22, 2014
Rich Table

San Francisco's Best Restaurants (and Where to Eat Instead)

Tried to get a reservation at one of San Francisco’s most popular restaurants and struck out? It happens to everyone, locals included. Did you try calling in the afternoon to see if there’s a cancellation the day of? Many of our most-hyped restaurants also save tables for walk-ins, so it’s always worth coming by. However, it’s recommended to have a couple of other spots in your back pocket, just in case you can’t wait two hours. Here are some great alternatives within walking distance from four of San Francisco’s hardest restaurants to get into. They aren’t necessarily replacements for the full experience, but they all offer quality food in a fun environment and will definitely help you avoid a hangry evening.

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State Bird Provisions (1529 Fillmore St.)

State Bird Provisions was already one of San Francisco’s hottest tickets—and then it was named Best New Restaurant in the country by Bon Appétit magazine. Reservations are infamously hard to get, but they do have space set aside for walk-ins. Try your luck (folks line up before the restaurant opens every day), but if it doesn’t work out, Fillmore Street has several other good choices. Website

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Dosa on Fillmore (1700 Fillmore St.)

For utterly delicious Southern Indian food with fun cocktails, check out Dosa on Fillmore. The restaurant’s namesake dosas (a rice flour crêpe) come with a variety of seasonal fillings, along with numerous dishes that are big on flavor. The full bar cranks out some good cocktails, too, and the large, windowed space is comfortable and modern and usually lively, too. Website

Out the Door (2232 Bush St.)

Charles Phan’s Out the Door is an outpost of his well-known Slanted Door in the Ferry Building. The modern-industrial space is comfortable, and the menu of updated Vietnamese classics uses excellent ingredients and fresh flavors. If you’re missing the small-plates style of State Bird, order lots of the starters and have a share-fest. Oh, and the desserts are all worth trying, especially paired with a Vietnamese coffee or one of the stunning teas from their comprehensive selection. Website

SPQR (1911 Fillmore St.)

Nearby SPQR offers some of the most inventive Italian food in town, from chef Matthew Accarrino. From the seasonal housemade pastas to the creative starters, you’re bound to have a memorable experience here. Wine director and partner Shelley Lindgren’s list of Italian wines is inspired, and the staff can point you to some ideal pairings. SPQR can also get busy, but it’s worth trying for a counter seat—especially if you’re willing to wait a little bit.Website

Elite Cafe (2049 Fillmore St.)

Elite Cafe has been holding down a spot on Fillmore Street since 1981, but recently brought chef James London on board from New York. He’s made some great updates to the menu, and using some excellent ingredients from local producers. The full bar is always a good time, and the Southern hospitality keeps everything fun and lively. Website

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Frances (3870 17th St.)

After snagging a Michelin star and James Beard nod in its first year, Melissa Perello’s Frances has consistently been one of the hardest tables in town to lock down. The restaurant’s petite size doesn't help, either. Fortunately, despite the Castro’s reputation as a bit of a food desert, there are some great nearby alternatives if you just can’t wait. Website

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Fable (558 Castro St.)

Stylish newcomer Fable from chef-owner Jon Hearnsberger is serving delicious New American dishes in a fun and whimsical environment. From the etched mirrors to the woodland creature portraits, the space feels like a sophisticated visit to the land of Beatrix Potter, and the menu highlights seasonal produce and quality meats. The local rabbit two ways has become their signature dish, with fried rabbit and rabbit stewed in a gumbo-style sauce. Website

Anchor Oyster Bar (579 Castro St.)

For a classic San Francisco seafood experience, check out Anchor Oyster Bar, right on Castro Street. The people watching from the front windows is exceptional, the seafood is fresh, and the service friendly. What more could you ask for? Website

L'Ardoise (151 Noe St.) 

Cozy L’Ardoise is tucked a bit off the beaten path in neighboring Duboce Triangle, and offers one of the more charming date places in town. The authentic French bistro offers well-executed classics, including a coq au vin and duck leg confit. Website

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Rich Table (199 Gough St.)

Rich Table in Hayes Valley is a stellar example of New California cuisine—and has the waitlist to prove it. The rush for this place has subsided a bit, and reservations aren’t totally impossible if you’re willing to eat at 5:30 or 9:30 p.m., but it can still be a tricky one. Fortunately, there is no shortage of good spots in the neighborhood to try instead. Website

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Absinthe (398 Hayes St.)

Hayes Valley mainstay Absinthe has a classic, long bar and bistro-esque lounge, where many a walk-in diner can enjoy oysters and a burger. The cocktails are top-notch, the restaurant lively, and they even have late night hours. Website

Monsieur Benjamin (451 Gough St.)

Chef Corey Lee has been a local culinary star for years with his high-end Benu. His newest, Monsieur Benjamin, is just up the street from Rich Table. It’s a modern French bistro, with chef Jason Berthold offering innovative takes on classic dishes, incorporating the best of California ingredients. It is brand new and can get busy, but the service style is brisk and they’ve got a communal table, so you may have some luck. Website

Zuni Café (1658 Market St.)

One of the most classic restaurants in San Francisco is Zuni Café, and it’s just around the way from Rich Table. The late Judy Rodgers created some timeless signature dishes, including the famed roasted chicken for two and Caesar salad. The oysters are wonderful, the bar is friendly, and the corner location simply reeks of city glamour. They’ve also got late night hours. Website

Alta CA (1420 Market St.)

One of the most exciting restaurants to crop up as a result of the revitalizing of the Mid-Market neighborhood is Alta CA from the Daniel Patterson Restaurant Group. The modern restaurant has a bar in the middle of the dining room, and inventive food from chef Yoni Levy. And somehow, they often have tables and bar seating available. Open late too. Score! Website

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Flour + Water (2401 Harrison St.)

The Mission’s Flour + Water has been churning out housemade pastas and delicious pizza since 2010, but the lines out the door haven’t subsided. They hold many tables for walk-ins and also offer bar and communal table seating, so it’s worth a trip to see if there’s a spot for you. If there isn’t, never fear! The neighborhood is full of quality places to dine at. Website

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Foreign Cinema (2534 Mission St.)

Gayle Pirie and John Clark have been holding down Mission Street’s Foreign Cinema  since 1999. This is quintessential California cuisine, with Mediterranean inspiration and seasonal products. The salads are always wonderful, and the main dishes don’t disappoint (hello, fried chicken). The space is both cozy and grand, with a fireplace, back courtyard for nice evenings, and a full bar.

Heirloom Café (2500 Folsom St.)

Heirloom Café is only a few blocks away, and offers one of the most extensive and interesting wine lists in the city. Owner Matt Straus has a penchant for selecting bottles from exceptional vintages and exciting wine regions, and some wonderful older selections. Fortunately, it’s all served without pretension, and with a spare but well-executed menu of seasonal dishes. Check out the prix-fixe menu, which is a good deal since it includes wine pairings, and the off-menu burger. Website

St. Vincent (1270 Valencia St.)

Another great spot for good seasonal cuisine is St. Vincent on Valencia Street. It can get crowded, but they've got a long communal table for walk-ins. Both the wine and beer lists here are tops, and they’ve elevated pairing food with a beer to a fine-dining experience on par with wine service. The flavor-forward American food lends itself well to beer, too. Website

Marcia Gagliardi writes a popular insider weekly e-column about the SF dining scene, subscribe for free at Out now is her first book, The Tablehopper’s Guide to Dining and Drinking in San Francisco: Find the Right Spot for Every Occasion, a groundbreaking new style of guidebook. And check out her new app, Tablehopper’s Top Late-Night Eats, which highlights 95 SF spots serving food past 11pm!

Photo by laurabl / CC BY-NC-ND

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