Grub Guide

Secrets to Snagging a Seat at San Francisco’s Most Hard-to-Get-Into Spots
State Bird Provisions’ chef’s counter.

Let’s say you have a hot date. It’s Thursday, things came together sort of last-second, and you want to impress this hot date by getting a table at Cotogna on Friday night on short notice. How do you go about this? We’ll begin by saying that there are no guarantees in this life, and there certainly aren’t any when you’re talking about reservations at one of the ten restaurants we consider the hardest to get into in S.F. — and several of them don’t even take reservations. And also bear in mind you may have to sit at a bar, which we think is perfect for a first or second date, since staring too intently across a table at someone you barely know can get a little weird. But you can, in fact, get into Frances, or Boulevard, or the newly white-hot State Bird Provisions, you just have to play your cards right and perhaps have a Plan B.

Our first word of advice if you’re trying to impress a true gourmande: Some of the absolute best restaurants in San Francisco are not actually the hardest to get into. Tables at Benu, Saison, Coi (all of which have two Michelin stars), and Bar Tartine can often be reserved week-of, even at prime hours like 8 or 8:30. (Rich Table is also reaping a lot of well deserved buzz, and the reviews haven’t even come out yet, so bear that one in mind.) We’d suggest giving these a shot, via phone, especially if you have the means. No need to pick the hard-to-get-into spots just because they’re hard to get into…

Also, in the cases of restaurants that don’t take reservations, we have some tips for avoiding lengthy waits, but these may not be the best choices when it comes to impressing that hot date. Because you will have to wait a bit no matter what.

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Boulevard is one of the most successful restaurants in America, and remains one of the tougher reservations to get in town, at least at prime time. You’ve got three options though: 1) Dine at the bar, which tends to have open seats on the earlier side, and at random times throughout the night; 2) eat like an East Coaster, after 9 p.m., and take your date for a drink first at Americano, or Slanted Door, or out on the patio at Sens; or 3) take your chances as a walk-in, or try calling the restaurant the day of, or the day before. They hold aside some tables, and they, like anyone, get cancellations all the time. 1 Mission Street; 415-543-6084. See the listing.
This Burmese joint in the Richmond, with locations also in Oakland and Alameda and a fourth in the works at 14th and Valencia, takes no reservations. But there is a semi-secret, unlisted phone line that will connect you directly to the host stand at the Clement location, where they will put your name on the list and take down your cell number in order to alert you when a table comes available. That number is below, and we’d suggest hitting up one of the many nearby bars while you wait, like the Plough and Stars, the Abbey Tavern, or the Rockit Room. 309 Clement Street; 415-350-7117. See the listing.
It’s been pretty consistently tough to get a prime-time table at this sister restaurant to Quince since they opened in late 2010, and it remains a favorite spot of much of the Financial District and Jackson Square crowd. Once again, bar seating is available for diners and it’s not hard to snag an early seat there. Also, you can try for a walk-in seat or cancellation by just showing up, putting your name in, and stepping next door to Quince’s lovely lounge for a cocktail and snack while you wait. (Katrina Parlato, GM at Quince, says that lots of people just end up staying over there and having dinner too, which isn’t a bad option if you’re trying to snag a table at Quince, either.) 490 Pacific Avenue; 415-775-8508. See the listing.
After all these years, the restaurant that was, arguably, singly responsible for putting the Mission on the food map remains a tough place to get into. The small dining bar very often has space available on weeknights, and you can always have your pick of tables in the 5:30-6 and after-9 p.m. range on weeknights too. (Is 9 p.m. really that bad? We personally think it’s perfect.) Calling the restaurant or simply showing up is once again a wise option, because in this age of online reservations, you can’t always trust that the Urban Spoon openings are the only ones that exist. Otherwise, you’re looking at booking more than a month out, especially Thursday to Sunday. 3621 18th Street; 415-552-4055. See the listing.
You’re still looking at two months out for a prime-time reservation at Frances if you trust OpenTable. But here’s another situation where it never hurts to call, tell a story to a real person, and find out about any cancellations or wiggle room — especially on a weeknight just before service begins. Counter seats, while a little bit cramped, are still perfectly pleasant and can be had any night of the week when they open at 5 p.m., or you might have to stand around for 30 or 40 minutes waiting for one — we’ve also snagged two counter seats at 9 p.m. on a Friday, or 8 p.m. on a weeknight, more than once without waiting more than ten minutes. But if you’re dying to dine at this place, you can get easily get same-day or weekend reservations either with the old at 5:30 p.m., or with the young at 9 or 9:30. 3870 17th Street; 415-621-3870. See the listing.
There are only two secrets to getting a table at this ever-buzz-worthy spot, and we’re sorry to say they’re not really secrets: Go really early, and be a party of 2. They open at 5, but if you’re there before 6 you will likely get to sit down on a weeknight. And don’t even bother with the weekends unless you show up at like 10 p.m., or you’re willing to wait over an hour to sit down. We wish there were better news, but there’s always the option of going in for lunch, every day but Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., or of simply ordering some takeout and taking it to Dolores Park. 2234 Mission Street; 415-863-2800. See the listing.
Nopa is one of the most popular neighborhood restaurants in town, and you can often expect to wait over an hour if you try to arrive as a walk-in between 7 and 9 p.m. The bar seating, however, is really comfortable and first-come-first-serve (we’ve never waited more than 30 minutes for a seat or two to open up here), and there’s a communal table up front where we’ve been sat within minutes of arriving on a Friday night at prime time. Otherwise, you’re looking at dining at 6:15 p.m. or after 9 p.m. most weeknights, and those reservations are easy to be had, even at the last minute. 560 Divisadero at Hayes; 415-864-8643. See the listing.
Here’s the dirty secret of Nopalito and their frequently announced two-hour wait times: Lots of people put their names in and disappear. That two-hour wait could easily become a one-hour wait, especially on a weeknight, and you don’t need to wait at the restaurant. They’ll gladly put your name on the list via phone, and they now have a whole iPad-based, automated system that texts you when your table is ready. So, call ahead, and be nearby long before you think the table will be ready. (Also, the new Sunset location can be a little easier to get into.) 306 Broderick Street; 415-437-0303. See the listing.
This is a mega-popular, after-work, expense-account place within easy reach of all of downtown, so even seats at the 20-person bar can be tough before 6 p.m., let alone after. They do take walk-ins and there are plenty of cancellations, and like all of S.F.’s popular restaurants, it’s actually quite easy to get a table 9 or 9:30 p.m. with little advance notice. Ferry Building; 415-861-8032. See the listing.
Ever since they were named the Best New Restaurant in the country by Bon Appétit last month, Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krazinsky’s Fillmore district restaurant has been mobbed, with reservations at all hours currently booked until late November — making this, in fact, the hardest place to get a seat in the city right now, full stop. They have a six-person chef’s counter which is first-come, first-serve, and that is now filling up immediately when the doors open at 5:30 p.m. thanks to a “walk-ins welcome” message on the website. There are also a couple of tables set aside, which you might luck into getting if you show up, but here’s the unpleasant secret for this place in the current climate: You need to show up at like 4:45 3:00 and get in line, or expect to likely wait two hours or more. 1529 Fillmore Street; 415-795-1272. See the listing.
Secrets to Snagging a Seat at San Francisco’s Most Hard-to-Get-Into Spots