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How The Bar Became A Hot Table

In San Francisco, incubator of many a food trend, sitting at a table is so passé. Here’s why barside dining is the next big thing in foodie-land

  • Ms Scarlett Johansson and Mr Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, 2003 Kobal Collection

“Or you can sit up at the bar.” How many times have you heard those words from an apologetic member of restaurant staff just after they’ve informed you how long the wait is for a table? (Especially if the unit of measurement is hours or even weeks rather than minutes.) Eating at the counter has traditionally been considered an after-thought, a lesser experience. But – like the rise of food trucks and communal tables in recent years – this is changing and restaurant bar dining is becoming “a thing” in San Francisco, the city where food trends are born.

It makes perfect sense as a solution (one might even say disruption) to an OpenTable obsession gone mad that’s led to over-packed reservation systems and spin-offs auctioning coveted tables at a premium. Many of the city’s top restaurants have stepped in to help out more spontaneous diners, quietly allowing quick-thinking walk-ins to taste the most talked-about food in town without waiting forever for the privilege. Here’s our insiders’ pick of the best bar stools with food adjacent.

A16, The Marina

Bar vibe: Despite Puglia-inspired restaurant A16’s deserved reputation for stellar Italian wine, the atmosphere at the bar feels more like a cocktail party, with regulars often mingling between courses. The sommelier’s 500-bottle wine selection serves as the backdrop.  

Cuisine: The veteran bar staff will steer you through fare inspired by the cuisine along the Puglia highway the restaurant is named after: roasted beets with buffalo milk yogurt, rhubarb, hazelnuts and cress, or margherita pizza with tomato, fior di latte (mozzarella), grana padano and basil.

Insider intel: It’s not advertised but, if you ask, the bartenders will serve half-glass pours of light crisp southern Italian wines as palate cleansers between courses. That’s right, palate cleansers.

The Progress, Western Addition

  • Ed Anderson

Bar vibe: A busy, modern and masculine curved bar set apart from the main dining room at this much-buzzed, contemporary American family-style eatery from Mr Stuart Brioza and Ms Nicole Krasinski – popular with selvedge denim-wearing concert-goers heading to nearby music venue The Fillmore.

Cuisine: A pick-and-choose version of the dining room’s six-course $65 menu featuring the same dishes, such as shaved cauliflower with crunchy pork belly and ear dressed in a lime vinaigrette. A bonus bar menu is divided into “provisions” ($5 bite-size snacks such as grilled lap cheong sausage) and $10 “commandables” – scaled-down versions of the restaurant’s main dishes.

Insider intel: The bar begins seating at 5pm, half an hour before the restaurant’s tables open up, and stays open past the last seating in the dining room.

Frances, The Castro

Bar vibe: This intimate 10-seat bar is nestled in an alcove separate from the dining room at Ms Melissa Perello’s locavore haven, and is usually filled with upscale neighbourhood regulars, so be prepared to introduce yourself.

Cuisine: Glorified French comfort food – juicy cast-iron duck breast bound with mission fig and caper relish or crisp applewood smoked bacon beignets with chive crème fraîche spiked with a dash of maple syrup and sherry. Balance out the richness with a sparkling wine – try the MV Tissot Chardonnay from the French Alps. 

Insider intel: Locals rave about the panisse frites – chickpea fritters with green harissa aioli and lemon. You might have to offer them around.

Quince, Financial District

  • Patrik Argast

Bar vibe: San Francisco’s vibe is famously dressed down and casual, but if there’s one place the suits congregate to seal the deal, it’s at the bar of this Italian/ French-inspired fi-di heavyweight.

Cuisine: At the bar you can taste the creations of James Beard Award-winning chef Mr Michael Tusk without committing to the marathon (not to say expensive) nine-course degustation served in the restaurant. Order à la carte to sample highlights such as handmade tortelli with smoked sturgeon, and German osetra caviar.

Inside intel: If you really fancy a splurge, the bar has a caviar menu not offered in the dining room, with more than half a dozen caviars from Uruguay to Israel.

Delfina, The Mission

  • Eric Wolfinger

Bar vibe: Date-night diners seek out this super-casual and super-tiny bar with front-row seats to a live cooking show from the kitchen of the restaurant – The Mission’s foremost Italian.

Cuisine: Dishes as simple as handmade spaghetti and tomato sauce with Monterey calamari and warm white bean salad are the reason for the long wait for a table here. Other culprits include al dente rosemary tagliatelle with Sonoma duck giblets and house-churned butter di buffala (local water buffalo butter) sprinkled with sea salt to spread on moreish slices of Tartine bread.

Insider intel: When we said the bar was tiny, we meant it. There are only four seats so come early and come on a weeknight.

Rich Table, Hayes Valley

Bar vibe: As low-key and convivial as the surrounding restaurant run by married co-chefs Mr Evan and Ms Sarah Rich, this 12-seat L-shaped wooden bar attacts a relaxed, culturally diverse crowd from The Mission District and polished street-chic urbanistas from fashionable Hayes Valley.

Cuisine: It’s described as “cerebral California”, which translates as local seasonal ingredients augmented by the chefs’ high-mindedness: dried porcinis in the form of crispy doughnuts or tajarin with fluffy foie gras mousse topped with almonds and cocoa nibs. There’s even Douglas fir in the bread, which is served with in-house cultured butter.

Insider intel: Sit at the very end of the bar to get in on the lively kitchen action and small talk with the chefs.

Alta CA, Civic Center

  • Alanna Hale

Bar vibe: Two blocks from the San Francisco Symphony and the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium concert venue, Alta CA draws an interesting mix of music lovers. The horseshoe-shaped bar lends itself to striking up conversations.

Cuisine: The locally sourced menu is dominated by traditional Jewish favourites plus a few less than Kosher treats – a highlight being the creamy smoked pork trotter, served with frisée, pickled mushrooms and a runny egg. It goes very nicely with a barrel-aged boulevardier (bourbon, Calisaya and Campari, finished with flamed blood orange).

Inside intel: Play dining roulette and let the staff choose for you – they’re very good at the pairings.