Pop quiz: what are you doing six weeks from today? Answer: not going to State Bird Provisions -- you’re already two weeks too late for that, buddy. If you want a table at State Bird, or really any of SF’s big-deal places, and you don’t want to plan your life out two months in advance (or eat at 5pm or 9pm), you’ve really only got one option: getting to know their walk-in policies really, really well.
Which is where this story comes in: we rounded up 25 restaurants that 1) have reservations that are incredibly difficult to land, and 2) all have kinda secret walk-in policies that’ll help you get a table... TONIGHT.
Marina How far out is it booked? One week; two weeks for weekends How many no-reservations seats? 40 Average wait for walk-ins: 30 minutes It's over a decade old with expansions near (Oakland) and really far (Tokyo with a much smaller menu), so you’d place the smart restaurant industry money on A16’s popularity waning by now. Poor move. A16 is still THE go-to restaurant in the Marina, and the 10-seat wine bar in front is so much more than a pleasant oasis in a bro-dude desert. It’s a mature scene, boasting elderly couples and Marina girls past their rowdy prime, though by no means are the proceedings ever quiet in A16. Once you've ordered one of Shelley Lindgren's 40 glasses of wine on offer, good luck deciding whether to go the antipasti, pasta, or pizza route. The craziest part: almost one-third of the tables are reserved for walk-ins, so no wait will last more than a glass of fiano.
Financial District How far out is it booked? Two to three weeks How many no-reservations seats? 45 Average wait for walk-ins: 15 minutes There could be no food and Boulevard would STILL be a tourist destination for the exterior and interior with Paris-evoking Belle Époque design. But we want the pork chop and Dungeness crab salad, too. Of course the rear part of the dining room with Embarcadero and Bay Bridge views are the seats always in demand. Without planning, the counter seats overlooking the kitchen and the bar/lounge “bistro” area almost always have opportunities, even at prime time. You don’t get white tablecloths covering your table (but you get cute mini ones for your plate area) or the blue water goblets (at least I didn’t recently but maybe that’s just me). But you’re at Boulevard. That means you’ve made it. (Pro tip: go at lunch, get the lunch-only burger.)
Embarcadero How far out is it booked? Three to four weeks How many no-reservations seats? 52 Average wait for walk-ins: 15-30 minutes The two main walk-in options are the lounge and a counter by the kitchen, and personally, I’d opt for a the lounge’s bar, which feels like a glass greenhouse looking out at the Bay. Given that half the restaurant is reserved for walk-ins, yeah, skip the OpenTable route in favor of the open chef tapas counter/table instead. Bonus Daily Double: this is the rare, wildly popular spot you can probably bring yourself and five other pals, and get seated quickly -- if sitting outside in the sun (or viciously brisk wind) is cool with your entourage. Oh and you better be drinking sherry cocktails and munching on the “Bikini” and possibly the best paella you’ve ever had.
Financial District How far out is it booked? Two weeks How many no-reservations seats? 23, plus eight outside Average wait for walk-ins: 15-30 minutes Indeed prime time reservations at Cotogna are about as challenging to procure as ones at next-door Michelin-starred sibling Quince, but Cotogna is a really flexible place for the walk-in crowd. Counter seating overlooks the pizza oven, rotisserie, or the cocktail shaking action (all good). Or sit outside on lovely, leafy Pacific Ave and count the number of Teslas at the Quince valet. Cotogna really is even more of a flexible place in terms the style of dining (pastas are mandatory and keep an eye on the prix fixe that is nothing short of a jewelry heist). Then it’s completely unflexible where menu categories feature identical prices (all pastas are $19 for example). Wine? Yup all bottles are $50 and glasses are $12. No up-selling or scams.
Mission How far out is it booked? One to two weeks How many no-reservations seats? 16 Average wait for walk-ins: 30-45 minutes There‘s something in the casual air and simple-yet-perfect spaghetti with tomato sauce that seems natural to walk in to Delfina. Perch yourself at one of the two high-tops at the bar, order some spiced almonds and a glass of white from Alto Adige, and then dig into an uncompromisingly rustic bowl of pristine spaghetti and tomato “sauce” not like any marinara you’ve seen. Delfina’s bar and dining room toe the line of grown-up, civilized, and bustling, creating that ideal with so-hard-to-recreate restaurant energy. I’d say it’s like Italy, but most places aren’t on par with Delfina in Milan or Rome. Note: I’m told up to 50 diners could walk in on busy nights, so chances are good my friends. And the premiere mashed potatoes are the olive oil-soaked ones here with the chicken. Bet you didn’t expect that...
Mission How far out is it booked? One month (but way, way longer if you’re looking for a reservation during a popular time of year) How many no-reservations seats? 19 and a few more at tables Average wait for walk-ins: 30 minutes on average, but really anywhere between no wait and an hour and a half Roughly one-third of the 12 dining room tables are for the reservation-less crowd. So, really, the worst that can happen is a Trick Dog cocktail-length wait, a small price to pay for Thomas McNaughton’s bold, routinely brilliant pastas, un-heralded pizzas, and a really fantastic Italian wine list. Try to ask for half servings of the pasta, because in a perfect world, you’d try each one on the menu. That, or just opt for the pasta tasting menu.
Mission How far out is it booked? Two to three days; two weeks for weekend brunch How many no-reservations seats? Around 70 Average wait for walk-ins: Minimal, if any This eternally excellent Mission institution is the Lawrence of Arabia/Ben-Hur epic of the list -- the only venue with a capacity that can easily exceed 300 when you count the various dining rooms, bars, and foreign and indie film-viewing patio areas (or in restaurant math speak, seven or eight “Frances-es”). Myriad bars dot the area including the “kind of it’s own thing, kind of not, and completely good time guaranteeing” László. Most folks don’t think you can order the same food there. Uh, yeah you can. Basically, you can always walk in at Foreign Cinema EXCEPT (note the all-caps) for the pop tarts and Persian flat omelettes at brunch. Then, half the tables are reserved for walk-ins. That means more tables for fellow walk-ins, but since this might be the leader out of the clubhouse for our city’s unofficial official meal, chances are your fellow walk-in-loving San Franciscans will be joining you.
Castro How far out is it booked? One month How many no-reservations seats? 10 Average wait for walk-ins: One to one and a half hours Frances seats just under 40 at snug, bare wood tables in the dining room, and those tables get reserved FAST. If you wanna go on your birthday with a party of five, you’re probably going to want to go the actual reservation route. Personally the counter is far from my favorite on this list since the view is of a wall, so I strongly advocate walking in rather late for an actual table or nabbing a last-second OpenTable reservation (which is a thing here because people book sooooooo far in advance tables tend to open up last minute). The snacks of chickpea panisse frites and bacon beignets are hard to pass up, but saving room is paramount because you’ll remember why we all used to eat real main courses. Also: Lumberjack Cake. Get that. Also also: red and white wine blends by the restaurant beverage director Paul Einbund get measured and diners pay by the ounce of what’s consumed. Get those, too.
Fisherman's Wharf How far out is it booked? Three weeks How many no-reservations seats? 11 Average wait for walk-ins: Zero to 20 minutes Zagat clearly knows what they’re doing having named this venerable Fisherman’s Wharf non-tourist trap the city’s most popular restaurant since around the time Gavin left for Sacramento. Gary Danko is packed each night for all occasions -- tourists' night out, birthdays, foodista parties, you name it. While elegant and stunningly designed, the dining room can feel corporate and too precious. Enter: the no-reservations bar, which might be your only option if you’re walking in (good luck trying to walk into the dining room sans reservation). There’s less pomp and circumstance, and you can let your hair down more while you house Chef Danko’s oysters with caviar and horseradish-cured salmon. Bonus: you can order a la carte, unlike the prix fixe-reservation crowd. Don’t let your hair down too much because this is a soufflé-for-dessert place.
Financial District How far out is it booked? Two to three weeks How many no-reservations seats? 14 Average wait for walk-ins: 30 minutes San Francisco’s beloved Greek stalwart and ultra-high-octane power scene does manage to have 14 bar seats for partaking in the trimmed-down, casual taverna menu with bites like zucchini cakes and lamb meatballs, accompanied by a glass of xinomavro. The FiDi captains of banking who unwind in the vast two dining areas book their perch long in advance. Yet, it’s so big and with diners tending to be early (since they woke up for the NYSE opening bell), waltzing in after 8pm shouldn’t be too much of a problem for grabbing a non-bar table. If EVERY table is full, the grilled octopus and baklava is just as swell at the bar. And the whole dining room won’t watch you lick your honey-slicked fingers post-baklava.
Russian Hill How far out is it booked? Ranges wildly from two days for early in the week nights to two weeks for Thursday-Saturday How many no-reservations seats? 45 Average wait for walk-ins: Zero minutes There is La Folie, the legendary domain of Chef Roland Passot. If you don’t have a reservation, bonne chance. Then there is La Folie’s Lounge next door, the most elegant adult watering hole in an area of the city that tends to remind folks of their Delta Epsilon kegger days. Of course the wine list is excellent in the posh lounge, but don’t sleep on the cocktails here. It's got bar snacks perfected with truffle oil- and truffle salt-kissed popcorn and smoked salmon lollipops, a dream hors d’oeuvres concoction if there ever was one. Oh, did I not mention that you can order anything a la carte from the regular menu? BECAUSE YOU CAN.
Lower Nob Hill How far out is it booked? Three to four weeks How many no-reservations seats? About 40 Average wait for walk-ins: 45-60 minutes THE hottest opening of 2015 hasn’t cooled off so far. Even if reservations are still impossible, the bar, the bar’s communal table, and the front room booths are plentiful. The main bar overlooking the prominent portrait of chef/co-owner Ravi Kapur’s young, care-free mother is where it’s at (the wooden booth seats are not exactly the prime example of comfort). Kapur’s cooking is from all sorts of culinary cultures -- from India-evoking clams in coconut curry with garlic naan, to off-menu homemade Spam that’s part islands, part creative genius.
Financial District How far out is it booked? One to two weeks How many no-reservations seats? 17 Average wait for walk-ins: Zero to 30 minutes Mourad is gothic on the outside and the inside is an architect’s dream of chandeliers, tiles, brick, and spacious environs -- breathtaking and causing dizzying anxiety at times from its grandeur. Mourad Lahlou’s cooking easily competes with the surroundings, and the chicken dinners are how family-style should always be. Walk-ins pretty easily find space at the bar after the happy hour masses. The dining room is a bit harder until after 8:30 or so.
Divisadero How far out is it booked? Two to four weeks, depending on the day of week How many no-reservations seats? 35, plus another 25 or so at walk-in tables Average wait for walk-ins: 30 minutes It’s amazing that with so many walk-in spaces -- 20 at the bar and counter overlooking the rotisserie spinning chickens heading for your place setting next, 15 at the communal table, and six regular tables (including one for a group of five to six!) -- walking in here without a wait is a challenge. Luckily, the waits are never long. Honestly, my best luck is usually around the normal 8pm dinner time because the first wave comes early and the second, industry wave comes late. Keep in mind, brunch is terrific but the waits are far more lengthy than those at dinner. The custard French toast at brunch is the Maltese Falcon of the genre.
North Beach How far out is it booked? 3 weeks How many no-reservations seats? 45 Average wait for walk-ins: 15 minutes A little Polk St, a little North Beach, a little FiDi, a little Pac Heights, Park Tavern is quite simply a San Francisco block party every night thanks to Jennifer Puccio’s unmatched deviled eggs with bacon and jalapeño and close-to-unmatched lamb and beef Marlowe Burger. It really does look and feel like a hybrid humble tavern/English countryside lavish estate. How such a high and low can be reached together is the mystique. Stop thinking, grab an Ed’s Negroni (an homage to legendary owner Ed Moose of the restaurant’s predecessor Moose’s), and the wait should be short for one of the 25 communal table seats or 20 bar seats. The cougar-watching action is primo there.
Western Addition How far out is it booked? One month How many no-reservations seats? 24 plus a few standing areas Average wait for walk-ins: Zero minutes for the bar, one to two hours for the dining room Thanks to the family-style setup, The Progress generally seems a like a place to come with a big group. Don’t do that with no reservation. With a reservation, wow are you in for a blast partaking in the $65-a-person feast of dishes like the “Treasure Chest” of fermented sausage, trout quenelles, and sweet onion rice dumplings. That’s just one dish. The lounge area allows this method of eating, or most of the dishes are a la carte... though you’ll need a good five to six per person for a real meal, just like in the dining room. The Progress is hard to get into. Luckily, it’s not State Bird hard. AND unlike with the older brother next door, there... are... cocktails (make sure to get The Concession, and yes, that’s popcorn rum in it).
Financial District How far out is it booked? Close to two months How many no-reservations seats? 12 Average wait for walk-ins: Zero minutes for the salon. Good luck in the dining room. Michael and Lindsay Tusk’s stately dining room just might be the most serene you’ll encounter in a lifetime, from the art work to the floral work to the freakin’ amazing lighting (seriously, they placed them at angles for specific shadow positions on the white tablecloths). The $198 prix fixe journey from the Champagne cart to the incomparable pasta work to the hundreds of mignardises on the sweets cart is without question one of the country’s definitive fine-dining experiences. And you can piece it together yourself without having to booking ahead by hitting the small salon/waiting area by the door. It has its own small menu, a caviar menu, and you can also order from the dining room menu. It will not be cheap. Yet cocktails are regal and the salon does feel straight out of Buckingham Palace.
Hayes Valley How far out is it booked? Three to four weeks How many no-reservations seats? 12 Average wait for walk-ins: One hour Thank God for the dozen bar seats at Rich Table. Yes, they’re in demand, so the earlier or later rule applies, but a brief wait isn’t the worst when it brings tremendous rewards, far beyond sardine chips. That being said, we’re sure people have had entire dinners of just those chips. A nice balance of starch and protein, right. Seriously, the bar really is a fun place to sit and don’t neglect ordering the Douglas fir levain bread for $2.50.
Embarcadero How far out is it booked? One month How many no-reservations seats? 50 Average wait for walk-ins: Zero to 30 minutes Combine all of the deserved awards won by chef/owner Charles Phan, the gorgeous Ferry Building space and view, the tourists that come with the territory, and the fact that this is still the contemporary Vietnamese pace-setter nationwide and yeah, of course reservations are hard. Really hard. Solution: outsmart the tourists and go to the 50-seat bar and lounge. It’s the same menu. The Singapore Sling and Carter Beats The Devil cocktails here are maybe even better than at regular tables. You’re definitely getting spring rolls and shaking beef. And you didn’t have to plan this last month, or worse, pay for the reservation on a third-party site. Another plus: the bar is way quieter and less of a crazy scene than the tables in the dining room.
Lower Pacific Heights How far out is it booked? Two to three weeks How many no-reservations seats? 16 Average wait for walk-ins: 30-60 minutes With total seating for 42, including a wine bar that seats 10, then six at the chef’s counter (which can be reserved, in theory, further limiting space for walk-ins), space is at a premium. All in all, about 40 to 50 walk-ins a night can make it, but it’s best to be safe by coming late to avoid a significant wait. Weeknights are really the time to come. It’s such a cute, relaxed boîte that keeps the volume low and the quality high. In other words: it's perfect for taking your in-laws or that all-important third date.
Western Addition How far out is it booked? 59 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes How many no-reservations seats? 15-20 Average wait for walk-ins: Two to three hours I’m sorry. I can’t help you here. Early or late doesn’t really even work for the perpetually swamped State Bird. This would still be the case if it were the size of an airplane hangar. The fact is, Fat Angel and The Progress nearby are the de-facto waiting rooms that often become dinner because three hours... three hours is as long as a baseball game! With about 50 seats total, one-third are reserved for those lining up. Reservations are only easy if you’re a bot (or that used to be the case) or have the quickest fingers literally 60 days to the second in advance. Don’t refresh the page!! To be honest, pick a friend to go wait, put a name down, go see a movie, get a drink, get a massage, get another drink, then your table should be ready. And yeah, you could show up at 4pm and probably be one of the first people in when the doors open at 5:30pm, but isn’t having to wait a couple hours while drinking nearby way more fun than just sitting out front? Note: the quail dish is the best on the menu. Double note: pace yourself, don’t order too much from a dim sum cart at first. There needs to be major strategy in deciding the dishes down the stretch.
North Beach How far out is it booked? Three weeks How many no-reservations seats? 35 Average wait for walk-ins: 30-45 minutes Hey, at least Tosca isn’t quite as out-of-control popular as the owners’ flagship in New York, The Spotted Pig. Unfortunately, the only walk-in space is the bar up front that fills up rapidly, then ebbs and flows erratically over the evening. Chances are there will be a wait, but not longer than it takes to finish a nicely balanced Trouble In Paradise. Since North Beach tends to get jumpin’ at later hours, going here early is a smart move for a less-chaotic bar. Or go super late to try for a real table (it closes at 2am, after all). All the time, the roasted treviso and chicken for two (complete with claw!) will be waiting for you.
Financial District How far out is it booked? Ha! How many no-reservations seats? EVERY SEAT (110) Average wait for walk-ins: 30 minutes For our 164-year-old curveball, the grand ol’ Gold Rush of 1849 classic on California St takes no reservations. If you’re Willie Brown or Joe Montana, even? You bet. Put your name on the wait list. Luckily, waits aren’t too long, especially at dinner. If you’re with a large group and it’s your birthday, you’ll likely wait less than an hour on a Friday night -- impossible for the 24 others on this list. Night and day the crowds come for the hangtown fry, the private booths with interesting “history,” and the 20-stool horseshoe bar with bartenders in white smoking coats. We throw around the words “classic” and “vintage” a lot. Tadich is the full-on legit example of those adjectives. May it live another century (or five).
Financial District How far out is it booked? Two to three weeks, unless you’re going on a weeknight early in the week, then oftentimes you can get one within two to three days How many no-reservations seats? 20 Average wait for walk-ins: 15 minutes Television chef Tyler Florence breaks the “celebrity chef” curse and proves that it is actually possible to run a superb restaurant AND be a TV fixture. Don’t believe me? Have you not tried the burger or the city’s leading fried chicken? A fifth of the restaurant is reserved for walk-ins, mostly at the bar, which everyone in the FiDi knows is the spot in your back pocket when it’s happy hour time and you actually want a better drink than the well stuff. The later the hour gets, the slimmer the crowds, the more dark and romantic, and the less loud and tavern-y it gets. My quick two cents addition: go on the weekend. It's a prime, peaceful Saturday night destination compared to the others.
Hayes Valley How far out is it booked? Two to three weeks How many no-reservations seats? About 30 Average wait for walk-ins: Zero to 20 minutes Hey, did you know Zuni makes a fantastic roast chicken with a toasted bread salad? It’s one of San Francisco’s great secrets. Actually, the great secret of Zuni lies in all the nooks and crannies of the triangular, diamond-shaped room that could’ve been arranged by Picasso in his cubist years. On the ground floor is the standing-only bar (meh, unless you just want a few oysters) and a few lounge tables (score!) overlooking the creative characters on Market, ready for walk-ins. If you’re a burger hound, come at lunch or post Book of Mormon. No wait + hall of fame burger on focaccia = yaaaaaaas.
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Trevor Felch is a restaurants writer for SF Weekly and contributing editor for Vino24/7. Follow him @TrevorFelch.