San Francisco has us well trained. We've become quickly accustomed to the precarious customs around approaching the hottest restaurants in town. Evolving with the times, San Francisco residents are unshakable when it comes to dining out.
The city is rich with choices of top restaurants, in fact, the 2017 Michelin Guide appointed as many three star restaurants as New York City. Crazy, hey? I remember moving to San Francisco in 2011, prior to the typical line around the block hours before opening or waking up at 4 am to catch an online reservation two months in advance. There was no such thing. Sure the week of was pushing it, but two weeks at max was all that was required at the favorited spots.
My husband and I are devoted. We have our go-to spots, know the rules of engagement when it comes to avoiding the lines, and are generally okay with skipping some of the trendier restaurants. This past Saturday, our favorite sushi restaurant (Saru) was closed for the holidays, and our minds raced with possibilities for where we would dine on our one cheat day for the week. (We are on ridiculously strict diets that allows one day of cheat meals, so we wanted to make it count.) I had been craving a brunch at the tough to reserve Nopa. Travis threw out the idea of trying to get a table at the famed State Bird Provisions. So we set out on a mission to conquer both on a Saturday.
Here's how we ate at two of San Francisco's hottest restaurants in one day with no reservations.
First up, brunch at Nopa.
If you checked today for a weekend brunch reservation, your next available spot would be indeed at least three weeks out. It would probably be at a less-than-desirable time, and if you're like my husband and I, you'd squabble over the allotted time slot and eat somewhere else. Why Nopa? When the restaurant opened in 2006, it was an instant hit that redefined the neighborhood it's named after. For the past 7 years, I've loved it for its dinner menu, and adored it even more for its creative and approachable brunch. This is no scramble or omelet with an oversized Bloody Mary brunch. It's a precise and delicate brunch, yet sturdy at the same time. Think dishes like custard french toast with huckleberry butter or baked eggs soaked in a bath of mushroom cream and other delights. In short, it's a San Francisco institution.
How we got in:
I remember my cousin and I back in the day had shown up early and with luck and timed a seat at the bar. So I convinced my husband that showing up 30 minutes early (10:00 am) was indeed the golden ticket. We waited in our car, with a close eye on the restaurant to see if anyone was lining up. At 10:05 I saw the first brave soul emerge to get in line and told my husband it was time. So dramatic, I know, but when you've spent a good deal of time planning to eat here, you would become a survivalist too. We got in line at 10:10, and within 10 minutes there was easily more than a dozen people waiting. The doors opened at 10:30 and being the second person in, we grabbed a seat at the bar. Because the kitchen doesn't open until 11 am, they only allow seating at the bar (not the community table that is first come, first serve). We grabbed a 1/2 pot of coffee to kill the time, and at 11am we were into our breakfast. Thirty minutes of waiting was well worth it, and you can tell the handful of regulars knew this was the way to outplay the system to dine during the coveted brunch hour.
The thirty minute wait was only to train us for what was about to unfold a few short hours later...
Second, dinner at State Bird Provisions.
I've seen the lines for years and wondered, could it possibly be that good? It has a reputation of being one of, if not, the hardest reservation in San Francisco. Either waiting hours in a line in hopes of getting a seat or getting a coveted online reservation 60 days in advance at 12:00 am PST (if you're lucky.) I've had a few friends share that it is one of the best meals in San Francisco. After eating there, I will say it is one of my top three dining experiences in my lifetime thus far. The food is playful — it tugs at your inner child but also recognizes your need to be an adult. The tapas-style fare gives you an opportunity to be the stage director, choosing the plates as they come by on a cart dim sum style. If you see what you like, you grab it, and they add a mark to your list (dishes are $3–$24 on average). The food is beautiful, flavors that play to Asian cuisine, French heritage, and all perfected with local ingredients.
How we got in:
An online reservation was not happening. In fact, I've never seen an available online reservation for a time slot between 5:30-9 for any day of the week over a dozen times of checking. As it states on the website, a portion of the dining room is reserved for walk-ins on a first-come basis. The restaurant opens at 5:30 and I can't count how many times I have seen lines at 3:00 pm for a spot. My husband and I gripped for what would be our longest wait to date, and decided to show up at 4:00 pm, hoping the bad weather would play to our advantage. We were second in line, and I am partially embarrassed to say that. But, by 4:30 the line started to inch down the block and by 5:00 pm, I could no longer see where it ended. We found ways to pass the time, watched the kitchen prep, and they even brought us hazelnut hot chocolate for waiting so long! We were seated at the chef's counter and it was delightful. It took a bit of time invested, but at the end it was well worth the wait.
Thank you San Francisco for another delightful food experience.
*Not any good photos from either, as I had to put my phone away. Food experiences that captivating demand my full attention.