Where to Eat and Drink in Hayes Valley
Infinite appetite, finite budget: This compact neighborhood has become the new locus of San Francisco’s food scene, with exciting openings at all price points.
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Robin. Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane
As we’ve noted before, the dense restaurant row that is Valencia Street has shown some serious signs of disintegrating. Meanwhile, a few blocks north of the Mission, a neighborhood a fraction of its size has been the home of one ambitious, well-received project after another. Since Jardinière opened in 1997 — although several notable places have been around since long before that — Hayes Valley’s importance to San Francisco’s culinary scene has only grown. And the pace has accelerated over the past couple years. There are well over 50 bars, restaurants, and specialty shops within 30 square blocks, nearly all of them worth exploring — but here are our picks, in no particular order.
The Reigning All-Stars
Rich Table199 Gough St.If you ever get tired of New American, come and recalibrate your system. Sarah and Evan Rich’s exemplary 6-year-old restaurant holds the only Michelin star in all of Hayes Valley — for now — so it’s worth starting here. Chef de cuisine Brandon Rice let nothing slide while the Riches focused on casual spinoff RT Rotisserie last year.
Petit Crenn609 Hayes St.A casual spinoff in its own right, Dominique Crenn’s brunch-and-dinner, French-inspired spot nonetheless offers a tasting menu for $95, a relatively approachable way to experience the skills of a genuine master.
Pläj333 Fulton St.Volta came and went, yet Pläj endures. San Francisco’s only top-tier Scandinavian restaurant is a beautifully remodeled space full of herring, gravlax, and other Nordic delights. Hungry for a large ungulate? There’s saddle of elk and elk tartare.
Cala149 Fell St.Brought to us by CDMX’s own Gabriela Cámara, the extraordinary breadth of flavors found at this upper-echelon, social justice-minded Mexican restaurant should never lead you to believe that the lunchtime taqueria in the back is anything but affordable.
Nightbird and The Linden Room330 Gough St. and 292 Linden St.Kim Alter’s spartan yet decadent temple of California cuisine balances playful spontaneity with ultra-serious technique, and the Linden Room is as hidden as hidden gets. The beguiling owl on Nightbird’s front door symbolizes something mysterious; we have yet to pin down exactly what.
Robin620 Gough St.Although Adam Tortosa’s casual approach to Japanese tradition might ruffle some feathers, there is no question that Robin is the most exciting omakase experience in San Francisco right now. It’s not so much dinner as immersive theater with food, but in a mind-bendingly creative way — and in a stunning interior.
Zuni Cafe1658 Market St.One of few places for which the phrase “the one and only” feels like an understatement, Zuni continues to flourish. Chef Judy Rodgers’ roast chicken (and panzanella salad) somehow feel as important as ever, four years after her passing. Truly, all foodies must make the pilgrimage, with everyone they hold dear in tow.
Absinthe Brasserie & Bar398 Hayes St.Remember when absinthe itself used to be illegal in the U.S.? Having opened 20 years ago in January, this elegant French-Italian restaurant retains a whiff of sauciness, making it perfect for the Symphony or for the most highbrow day-drinking San Francisco can muster.
Jardinière300 Grove St.Traci des Jardins has gone on to become a celebrated restaurateur, and this is where it began. A unique French-Californian juggernaut, Jardinière nonetheless stays current under chef de cuisine Audie Golder with its unmistakable commitment to locavorism and forays into uncharted territory like the Impossible Burger.
Monsieur Benjamin451 Gough St.Corey Lee‘s follow-up to Benu was arguably overtaken by his next project, In Situ inside SFMOMA, but this top-notch French bistro wins plaudits for its impeccable service and style — along with the steak frites and seafood sausage. Its casual only in comparison to Lee’s other endeavors.
Let Us Inebriate
Anina482 Hayes St.Adjacent to another cocktail bar, Brass Tacks, Anina turned the former Flippers Burgers into a lively spot with outdoor seating, a great beer selection, and a wide range of drinks, from the low-ABV “Lowgroni” to the Southern Hospitality, large-format punch bowl made with bourbon, black tea, peach, lemon, and soda.
Smuggler’s Cove650 Gough St.Tiki bars are suddenly everywhere, but only Martin Cate’s James Beard Award-winning Smuggler’s Cove has the Rumbustion Society, dedicated to educating our palates about the phenomenal variety of rums that one might find oneself marooned on a desert island with.
The Riddler528 Laguna St.We wish it were larger, but there’s no denying that Jen Pelka’s charming, Champagne-centric bar nails all its marks, from the eminently tasteful (weekend “Brunch-ish”) to the unpretentious (free popcorn) to the inveterately cheeky (chambongs). And we dare you to find a more thoughtfully assembled list of bubbly.
Birba458 Grove St.In spite of having only 16 seats, this Europhiliac wine bar punches well above its weight. Dozens of bottles of wine and dishes like a Drunken Shrimp Toast with English ale cream sauce make for a grand neighborhood institution in spite of having been around only a few years. We know that patio is coming someday!
Noir Lounge581 Hayes St.This dark piano bar screens black-and-white classics from the 1940s, endowing it with some grade-A ambiance — and on weekdays, The Lunchpad takes over with fancy sandwiches and salads.
Dobbs Ferry Bar406 Hayes St.This low key beer-centric bar around the corner from a restaurant with the same name as Mark Zuckerberg’s hometown is a rarity in Hayes Valley: a casual spot midway between a cocktail lounge and a more raucous dive.
20th Century Cafe198 Gough St.The 20th wasn’t the happiest of centuries for Central Europe, but this refined Viennese bakery has all manner of sweet and savory morself under its bell jars. Michelle Polzine is a 2018 James Beard semifinalist for Outstanding Pastry Chef, so expect its reach to extend farther and farther beyond Hayes Valley.
Hayes Valley Bakeworks550 Gough St.A nonprofit social enterprise that provides job training to people with developmental disabilities and individuals experiencing homelessness, Hayes Valley Bakeworks is also a damn good place for a galette and a cup of coffee in the morning.
Smitten Ice Cream432 Octavia St.You will never find creamier ice cream, period. Positioned just across from Patricia’s Green, the flagship location of this endlessly expanding chain uses liquid nitrogen and local ingredients to guarantee delight. Not bad for having begun out of a red wagon.
Salt & Straw586 Hayes St.A relative newcomer on the ice-cream scene, Portland’s Salt & Straw goes hyperlocal in its quest for wild inventiveness. Cousins Kim and Tyler Malek first opened a scoop shop in Pacific Heights, but Hayes Valley is the better fit for Dandelion Chocolate’s Bean-to-Bar S’Mores.
Also of note: macarons, macarons, and macarons at Miette (449 Octavia St., miette.com), and we can’t forget coffee, from Ritual(432B Octavia Blvd., ritualroasters.com) to Blue Bottle (315 Linden St., bluebottlecoffee.com).
Newcomers and Casual Buddies
A Mano450 Hayes St.If a restaurant can be gregarious, that’s what A Mano is. Part of the Back of the House group, Freedom Rains’ kitchen has quickly grown into itself, churning out pizzas and pastas in a space that’s pitch-perfect for the neighborhood.
A Mano. Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane
517 Hayes St.Before fast-casual conquered the planet, Charles Bililies’ Souvla rescued Greek food from a sepulchre of sad souvlaki and made it the province of tastemakers. In spite of opening several other locations, the Hayes Valley mothership remains packed at all times.
Wise Sons’ Hayes Valley Bagel & Coffee537 Octavia St.Remember Moshe’s Pippic, the Jewish delicatessen that closed a few years ago? Evan Bloom and Leo and Ari Beckerman revived its spirit, updating the classics at this bread-centric satellite of their 24th St. eatery. Get some lox or rugelach, take home some chopped liver, no big whoop.
RT Rotisserie101 Oak St.Everything about this place is smart, from the affordable price points to the focused, chicken-centric menu. That it’s also a project of Rich Table’s Evan and Sarah Rich assures us that the quality is unfailing. This is what fast-casual ought to be.
Also of note: the pancakes and people-watching at Stacks, spiritual successor to Grand Cafe (501 Hayes St., stacksrestaurant.com) — fried pickles and funnel cake at the carnivalesque Straw (203 Octavia Blvd., strawsf.com) — garlic frog and flaming pot soup at one of S.F.’s three Lers Ros Thai locations (307 Hayes St., lersros.com) — Absinthe Group’s tapas-oriented spinoff Barcino (399 Grove St., barcinosf.com) and its Mediterranean offshoot with a wine shop attached, Arlequin Cafe (384 Hayes St., arlequincafe.com) — and all the comforts of Lebanon at Mazzat (501 Fell St., mazzatsf.com).
For more Hayes Valley coverage check out these stories:
The Hayes Valley Issue: A Neighborhood That Has Changed More Than Any OtherWe love it so.
From the Central Freeway’s Ashes, a Booming Hayes Valley EconomyWhile the rest of San Francisco struggles to manage commercial vacancies and blight, small businesses thrive.From the Freeway’s Ashes Comes a Booming Economy
These Hayes Valley Vacant Lots Are Small But MightyTwo itty-bitty lots on Octavia Boulevard are optimistically being considered for 24 units of housing.
Hayes Valley’s Commemoration of Central Freeway Removal UnderwayCommunity members who made the removal of the Central Freeway possible want to acknowledge a fight that led to the neighborhood’s transformation.
Where to Eat and Drink in Hayes ValleyInfinite appetite, finite budget: This compact neighborhood has become the new locus of San Francisco’s food scene, with exciting openings at all price points.