Food & Drink

The Most Romantic Restaurants in San Francisco

Foreign Cinema
Courtesy of Foreign Cinema

San Francisco is one of the most romantic cities in the U.S. We’ve got our mystical fog, rolling hills (and the resulting jaw-dropping views), and a bridge that’s so beautiful, it’s the most photographed in the world. Just take a look at all these romantic things to do around town! That said, we’re an especially loving city when it comes to culinary delights. So to sate your appetite and set the mood, we rounded up 15 of SF’s most romantic restaurants -- each one perfect for a first date, random Tuesday, Valentine’s Day, or an anniversary dinner with that one person who still puts up with you after all this time.

Petit Marlowe
Petit Marlowe | Courtesy of Douglas Friedman

Petit Marlowe

SoMa

An intimate Parisian-inspired bistro with a carefully curated wine list
What’s more romantic than a trip to Paris? Not much, but if you don’t have the time or resources to fly to the City of Light, a jaunt to Petit Marlowe is the next best thing. The cozy wine bar is full of charming details, like toile wallpaper hand-stitched with ducks, an oversized antique bookcase found at a French flea market, globe light fixtures that look like old street lamps, pale pink Italian leather banquettes, and vintage bistro chairs. For a third date, you’ll want a table at one of those banquettes, but for a first date, a seat at the iron-streaked marble bar is perfect. The menu is meant for sharing and snacking in the most decadent way with options like a two-tiered seafood tower, caviar service, baked escargot, and a divine crab melt. The wine list is full of interesting wines that you may not have come across before and is definitely worth exploring, especially if you and your date may be doing a little exploring of your own later on, if you know what… yes, yes you do.

 Foreign Cinema
Courtesy of Foreign Cinema

Foreign Cinema

Mission

California-Mediterranean cooking served in an stunning space with an outdoor courtyard
Surprise your date with a twist on dinner and a movie by taking them to Foreign Cinema, a beloved SF restaurant that’s been going strong for 20 years and shows subtitled films on the back wall of the enchanting courtyard, with heat lamps and twinkling string lights. This is where you’ll want to sit with your date (although the inside with its 18-foot ceilings and exposed beams is also quite lovely if outdoor seating isn’t available). It’s almost imperative that you order oysters (or even better the plateaux des fruit de mer), but from there you really can’t go wrong. Be sure to also spend some time with the wine list as Foreign Cinema has one with something for all palates and bank accounts.

 Spruce
Courtesy of Spruce

Spruce

Presidio Heights

An elegant restaurant that feels very grown-up (and also has a killer burger)
Spruce is a bit of an anomaly in San Francisco in that it’s one of only a handful of restaurants outside of the Financial District where you’ll see men in jackets and women in dresses in heels. That’s certainly in large part because of its location in Presidio Heights, just blocks away from multi-million dollar mansions, but also because the space with its dark wood, studded leather chairs, and cathedral-style ceilings, notates that this meal is going to be special. And while Spruce is definitely popular with an older crowd, it’s still a great place to take a date. Still getting to know each other? Find a spot in the lounge where you can order from a limited menu that features two of our favorite dishes at the restaurant: a burger on a housemade English muffin and a French omelet with mornay, kale, and brie.

Absinthe Brasserie & Bar
Courtesy of Absinthe Brasserie & Bar

Absinthe Brasserie & Bar

Hayes Valley

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.

The Scarlet Huntington
Courtesy of The Scarlet Huntington

The Big 4 Restaurant

Nob Hill

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.

bix
Courtesy of BIX

BIX Restaurant

Financial District

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.

Taj Campton Place
Courtesy of Taj Campton Place

Campton Place

Union Square

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.

Gary Danko

Fisherman’s Wharf

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.

lazy bear den
Lazy Bear Den | Courtesy of Andre Nguyen

The Lazy Bear Den

Mission

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 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 country ham and buttermilk biscuits, a local cheese board, and s’mores for dessert. Feeling fancy? There’s also caviar service. A (required) reservation and $25 deposit (per person) holds your table for the night beginning at 9:30pm.

the saratoga
The Saratoga | Courtesy of Kary K Walker

The Saratoga

Tenderloin

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.

top of the mark
Top of the Mark | Courtesy of Conne Perez-Wong

Top of the Mark

Nob Hill

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.

villon
Villon | Courtesy of Rachel Ayotte

Villon

Mid-Market

A stylish hotel restaurant with inventive food and creative cocktails
This seductive restaurant and lounge right off of the charming and eclectic lobby of The Proper Hotel is sexy and playful in all the right ways. From the design to the cocktails to the progressive California cuisine, the entire experience feels glamorous and significant. Almost all of the incredibly thoughtful dishes have a surprising and delightful element, like sorbet in a salad or one of the most delicious bites Dungeness crab with green goddess dressing you’ll ever eat. For optimal romance, be sure to start or end the evening with a drink by one of the firepits at Charmaine’s, the sexiest rooftop bar San Francisco has ever known.

Waterbar
Courtesy of Waterbar

Waterbar

Embarcadero

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.

Zazie
Courtesy of Zazie

Zazie

Cole Valley

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.    

Zuni Café

Hayes Valley

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.

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Daisy Barringer is an SF-based freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.