Hayes Valley Restaurants
20th Century Café
198 Gough St., Hayes Valley
This café came to us by recommendation from Kim Alter, who calls it one of the neighborhood's hidden gems. Inspired to open up shop after visiting cafés in Prague, Vienna, and Budapest, owner and chef Michelle Polzine is known for knishes; linzer tortes; a drool-worthy, 10-layer Russian honey cake; and for her eclectic collection of vintage dresses and aprons. As Alter told us, "She's just the whole package."
398 Hayes St., Hayes Valley
Absinthe was an early pioneer both of the craft/artisanal cocktail scene in San Francisco (the absinthe cocktails are still amazing) and of the Hayes Valley neighborhood (they were one of the first in the area). The cuisine slants French, but not in a restricting way—you’ll find a Hawaiian swordfish alongside their famous French onion soup and coq au vin. The upstairs private space is unique in the city for being completely separate, with an exclusive-use bar and entrance.
149 Fell Street, Hayes Valley
Mexico City native Gabriela Camara has gained trailblazing status for her California-meets-Mexico fare (think: prawns in chile guajillo broth and crab tostadas with napa cabbage and habanero). Always bustling for dinner, the Hayes Valley hotspot is also a mainstay for lunch (its adjacent standing room taqueria is open daily from 11am-2pm). While the food is reason enough to come, it's worth noting the interiors—industrial and light-filled—are beautiful.
307 Hayes St.
So at three doors strong, Lers Ros is technically a chain, but don't let that stop you from giving their simple, authentic Thai food a shot. Menu items vary slightly from location to location and everything is consistently perfectly prepared and delicious. There's also a location in the Mission and Tenderloin.
451 Gough St., Hayes Valley
This is one of those restaurants you can always count on to be great, no matter when you come, or what the occasion—and the subtly French menu is that magical length that gives you options without being overwhelming. While the wine list is thorough and creative, it's the cocktails that really shine—try a refreshing Daybreak (a combination of genepy, elderflower, tonic, and lemon), or their subtle absinthe drink, which is served with gin, mint, and Lillet. The space, which you'll know from the neon cat that hangs out front, is around the corner from the symphony and the War Memorial Opera House, so it's the perfect spot for a date before a performance.
330 Gough St., Hayes Valley
Kim Alter's been a fixture of the SF food scene for a long time, working with the Daniel Patterson Group and several of the area's high-end restaurants, but Nightbird is her first solo project. It comes highly recommended by Chef Thea (who calls Alter a "kitchen badass"), which is as about good a seal of approval as you can get at #goophq. Go for Nightbird's stunning $125/person tasting menu that changes with the seasons; next, head to the Linden Room, her teeny-tiny cocktail lounge next-door, for after-dinner drinks.
560 Divisadero St., Hayes Valley
Nopa is one of few restaurants around that's open late—dinner is served until 1am—which is unheard of in SF. This is a definite good thing considering it can be challenging to land one of the communal tables or booths on a super busy night, but if you’re lucky you can snag a seat at the bar. In a city full of Italian restaurants, this is the place to go for fresh pasta that changes regularly according to what’s in season. So good is the selection of the house-made pastas, burgers, salads, and sides that local chefs go here on their nights off. The wine list is the stuff of legend.
609 Hayes St., Hayes Valley
Paying homage to her ancestral roots, Dominique Crenn's second (and slightly less experimental) restaurant emphasizes fresh seafood dishes—mussels and clams with garlic and saffron—and a great selection of French wines. The bright, cozy space is white, crisp, and just a touch nautical, with lights dangling from raw rope built-in bench seating decorated with light pillows. Unless you want to eat at the first come first serve bar, try to make a reservation well in advance. The menu is prix fixe—but it's totally worth it.
199 Gough St., Hayes Valley
This is the kind of place you bring a friend from out of town to, because it shows off the best of what SF's food scene has to offer. The restaurant is owned by Evan and Sarah Rich, a married couple who met when they were working in the kitchen at Bouley. Though both Evan and Sarah come from fine dining backgrounds, the vibe at Rich Table is much more relaxed, which results in ambitious dishes and exotic ingredients presented in a refreshingly unfussy way. The move, if you can, is the chef's picks. Photos: Kassie Borreson
1658 Market St., Hayes Valley
The menu at this classic French-slash-Italian restaurant changes daily but the delicious food remains a constant. The specialties are the whole roast chicken (it's made-to-order so expect to wait a bit), and the bread salad—both dishes were developed by Judy Rodgers who's been running the kitchen since 1987. Sadly, Judy passed away in 2013, but her incredible recipes live on.
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