Eating Out Strategy
Where should we eat? With hundreds, even thousands, of San Francisco eateries competing for your attention, it may seem like a daunting question. But fret not. Our expert writers and editors have done most of the legwork. Delve in, and enjoy!
If you're determined to snag a table at a restaurant with lots of buzz, call and make a reservation as far in advance as possible—try dining there earlier in the week if the Friday and Saturday tables are all full. You can also get lucky at the last minute if you're flexible—and friendly. Most restaurants keep at least a few tables (and sometimes more) open for walk-ins and VIPs, and you should always ask if there's a bar or counter you can dine at. Show up for dinner early (5:30 pm) or late (after 9 pm) and politely inquire about any last-minute vacancies or cancellations—you can also try calling a restaurant in the early afternoon, because that's when they're making their reservation confirmation calls. If you're calling a few days ahead of time, ask if you can be put on a waiting list. Occasionally, an eatery may ask you to call the day before your scheduled meal to reconfirm: don't forget, or you could lose out. As a last resort, don't forget many popular San Francisco restaurants are also open for lunch.
Unless otherwise noted, the restaurants listed in this guide are open daily for lunch and dinner. Prime time for dinner is around 7:30 or 8 pm, and although there are places for night owls to fuel up, most restaurants stop serving around 10 pm. Restaurants, along with bars and clubs, may serve alcohol between the hours of 6 am and 2 am. The legal age to buy alcoholic beverages in California is 21.
What to Wear
In general, San Franciscans are neat but casual dressers; only at the top-notch dining rooms do you see a more formal style. But the way you look can influence how you're treated—and where you're seated. Generally speaking, jeans will suffice at most table-service restaurants in the $ to $$ range. Moving up from there, many pricier restaurants require jackets, and some insist on ties. In reviews, we mention dress only when men are required to wear a jacket or a jacket and tie. Note that shorts, sweatpants, and sports jerseys are rarely appropriate. When in doubt, call the restaurant and ask.
If you're watching your budget, be sure to ask the price of daily specials. The charge for these dishes can sometimes be out of line with the menu. If you eat early or late you may be able to take advantage of a prix-fixe deal not offered at peak hours. Many upscale restaurants offer lunch deals with special menus at bargain prices. Credit cards are widely accepted, but some restaurants (particularly smaller ones) accept only cash. Also, keep in mind that a restaurant listed as $$$ may actually have a good deal or two, such as an early prix-fixe dinner or a great bar scene and good, reasonably priced bar food to go with it.
Tipping and Taxes
In most restaurants, tip the waiter 18%-20%. (To figure out a 20% tip quickly, just move the decimal spot one place to the left and double that.)
Bills for parties of six or more sometimes include the tip. Tip at least $1 per drink at the bar; $2 if it's a labor-intensive cocktail. Also be aware that some restaurants, now required to fund the city's new universal health-care ordinance, are passing these costs along to their customers instead of raising prices—usually in the form of a 3%–4% surcharge or a $1–$3.50-per-head charge. (SF sales tax is currently at 8.5%).
Dining with youngsters in the city does not have to mean culinary exile.
Smoking is banned in all city restaurants and bars, and is now banned in all restaurant outdoor areas, from sidewalk seating to patios.
Most upper-end restaurants offer valet parking—worth considering in crowded neighborhoods such as North Beach, Russian Hill, Union Square, and the Mission. There's often a nominal charge and a time restriction on validated parking.