Acquired Taste: Blood Rice Cakes With Timothy DeLaGhetto and Justina Valentine
Lower Pacific Heights
Fine dining in a beautiful and historic mansion-turned-hotel
Dining at The 1881 feels like being transported back in time into someone’s home for an exquisite meal in one of the most regal dining rooms in all of San Francisco. The restaurant is inside of the Mansion on Sutter in the Payne Mansion (built in 1881--hence the name), a boutique hotel that has been restored to its original glory with historic materials, colors, finishes, art, and furniture. Of course, that stunning attention to detail would mean nothing if the seasonally-inspired and locally-sourced California-French cuisine and the outstanding wine list didn’t take you on a memorable culinary journey worthy of the space. Let’s be clear, it’s a pricey journey, but when it comes to a special occasion that would benefit from a little romance, it’s well worth every penny. In fact, things might go so well that you end up spending even more for one of the luxurious guest rooms upstairs.
Like a jaunt to Paris without the jet lag
When Absinthe opened in 1998, it immediately became the destination for serious cocktail drinkers. Today, it is still an excellent place to get a fantastic drink, as well as a romantic spot for French and Mediterranean-inspired fare. Though the dining room is known for being the more intimate space because of its plush chairs and hand-painted murals of the garden of Versailles, sitting at a bistro table in a corner of the front bar is actually much cozier and more reminiscent of a Parisian brasserie. Start with oysters or caviar from the raw bar -- and one of eight absinthe cocktails -- and see where the evening takes you from there.
Cocktails, steak, and a man playing your favorite songs on a grand piano
The Big 4 Restaurant in the Scarlet Huntington Hotel pays tribute to a grander time in the 1870s when “The Big Four,” a group of four businessmen, philanthropists, and railroad tycoons, dominated the West... and all lived in lavish mansions next door to each other atop Nob Hill. The masculine décor involves lots of dark wood, green leather banquettes and club chairs, white tablecloths, Gold Rush and Western Railroad memorabilia, and a grand piano played by a man in a bow tie who is happy to take requests. The key to a romantic evening is to start next to the aforementioned piano in the lounge with a cocktail made by a veteran bartender before moving to the dining room for a meal of comforting classics like French onion soup, roasted oysters, cioppino, filet mignon, and strawberry shortcake or bread pudding for dessert.
A swanky supper club with live jazz every night of the week
Walking into BIX feels like stepping back in time. The dimly lit two-story dining room features soaring ceilings, art deco design, and a mahogany bar manned by bartenders in jackets. The bar and restaurant scene is always bustling thanks to expertly concocted cocktails, live jazz seven nights a week, and people looking to see and be seen. Those seeking a more intimate experience should ask to be seated on the mezzanine where they’ll be able to take in the vibrant scene below, but can also re-enact the classic Lady and the Tramp spaghetti scene (albeit with lobster spaghetti) in relative privacy.
Diners dress up to experience this beautifully presented and elegant meal
The Cal-Indian cuisine at this Michelin starred restaurant in the Taj Campton Place hotel is a fine dining experience unlike any other in San Francisco. It’s the place to go if a delicious meal full of unusual flavors, decadent presentation, and flawless service play into your idea of foreplay. There is a seven-course tasting menu every evening that features chef Srijith Gopinathan’s unique take on California cuisine inspired by his Southern Indian heritage. Think fresh Northern California ingredients seasoned with aromatics and traditional spice blends, then prepared with smoke and fire and plated with exceptional creativity. The wine pairings are a must for optimal romance, and so is settling into one of the comfortable leather booths where it’s quite easy to forget there’s anyone else in the restaurant except the person sitting across from you.
A special occasion French-inspired restaurant with a fantastic wine list
With the advent of fine dining spots like Saison and Lazy Bear, Gary Danko has fallen out of favor with those looking to impress their Instagram followers with a pricey dinner. But for a luxurious meal with impeccable service, a great wine list, and patrons who bother to actually dress up (because they want to, but also because “elegant attire” is requested), Gary Danko is the perfect destination. Diners choose from three, four, or five courses, and the cheese presented tableside and the chocolate soufflé are musts.
California cuisine in a romantic, art deco space
This restaurant from chef/owner Traci Des Jardins that opened in 1997 embraces decadence in a way that you don’t see much anymore -- there’s lots of mahogany, red carpet, dim lighting, exposed brick, and a Champagne theme that should feel cheesy, but doesn’t. Start the evening with a drink at the marble and mahogany circular bar before heading upstairs to the mezzanine where you’ll order wine from an impressive list, French-inspired dishes, and if you’re smart, the cheese plate.
A more casual and intimate Lazy Bear experience (without the high price tag or forced conversation with strangers)
Lazy Bear is one of the best restaurants in San Francisco, but we just don’t think a dinner party atmosphere and romance to go hand-in-hand. No offense, strangers, but it’s hard to stare longingly into someone’s eyes while sharing a table with a couple dozen other people. That’s why we love The Lazy Bear Den, a late night “nightcap” experience that takes place upstairs in the mezzanine, a cozy area that gives out mid-century ski chalet living room vibes with a 1960s vintage (faux) fireplace, leather banquettes, and lots of textured pillows, throws, and rugs. While the communal diners interact downstairs, the guests upstairs can enjoy an intimate seating that includes access to the full 1000+ wine list, cocktails, and delicious, and shockingly affordable (for Lazy Bear and for San Francisco) snacks, like smoked ham and biscuits, a cheese board, and carrot cake for dessert. A (required) reservation and $25 deposit (per person) holds your table for the night beginning at 9:30pm.
A sexy spot that’s perfect for a third date
This two-story cocktail bar and restaurant in the historic 1908 Saratoga Hotel building brings upscale glamor and style to the Tenderloin, as well as “lost and forgotten” spirits and playful cuisine. Start with a drink on the main level and take a minute to appreciate the stunning back-lit bar which plays perfectly off of the black walls, ceilings, floors, and leather chairs, as well as the tiered chandelier that dangles over the staircase. It’s that staircase that will lead you down to the cozier lower level, which is where you should enjoy dinner at a table draped in a white tablecloth and lit by a small lamp. The Green Goblin (botanical vodka, Green Chartreuse, Maurin Quina, lime, basil) is the perfect civilized cocktail that will help you feel a little less civilized, which is ideal since the things to order are the burger for the main and the Ho Hos for dessert.
A popular hotel bar and restaurant with stunning city views and over 100 martinis
This penthouse lounge and restaurant on the 19th floor of the elegant Mark Hopkins Hotel is certainly a favorite with tourists thanks to the 360-degree views of the city and signature martinis, but if you’re looking for romance, don’t eschew it just because of that. It’s also a favorite with locals looking to enjoy sunset cocktails, fancy tapas, charcuterie and caviar, live music, and maybe even a spin on the dance floor.
A chic hotel restaurant with refreshing cocktails that shouldn’t be missed
This seductive restaurant and lounge right off of the charming and eclectic lobby of The Proper Hotel is sexy and playful in all ways. From the design to the cocktails to the food, the entire experience feels glamorous and surprising. The dishes are meant to be shared, but not hogging the warm Hawaiian bread rolls served with cultured butter will be a real test as to much you truly like your dining companion. For optimal romance, be sure to start or end the evening at Charmaine’s, the sexiest rooftop bar San Francisco has ever known.
Enjoy fresh seafood with stunning water views
Any fancy restaurant with up-close views of the waterfront and the Bay Bridge lights is going to feel a little sexy, but add in sustainably sourced fish, floor-to-ceiling aquariums, and a heated patio, and the sex appeal shoots through this two-story roof. And did we mention the oyster bar? Waterbar has one of the most expansive selections on the entire West Coast.
This hectic brunch institution turns into an intimate bistro when the sun goes down
When you think of Zazie, you probably think of crowds waiting on the sidewalk, gaggles of girls rehashing last night’s antics over mimosas, and parents maneuvering strollers. And that’s all fair -- until dinnertime, that is. Once the brunch crowds stumble off, Zazie turns back into a quiet, intimate bistro with indulgent French fare served by an attentive wait staff. The place to sit is the back patio where you’ll find ivy-covered trellises, twinkling lights, and plenty of lamps to heat things up if you can’t do it on your own.
What’s more romantic than a famous roasted chicken for two?
This glass-encased flat-iron-shaped restaurant is still crowded with locals and tourist almost 40 years after it opened. That’s in part because of the laid back -- but not too laid back -- SF vibe and the quality cocktails served at the zinc bar, but mostly because of the phenomenal California cuisine -- the most popular of which is cooked in the wood-burning oven. For those looking for a romantic evening, a seat in the corner on the second level overlooking the street is ideal. What to order? Why, the Zuni Caesar salad and famous roasted chicken for two with warm bread salad, of course.