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May 1, 2005 01:55 PM

A month of lunches

  • w

or as one of my co-workers says, $8 a day and you still get fat.

Lunch in the Financial District has been the worst part of my otherwise wonderful new job. I hadn't worked in this area regularly for more than ten years. Lunch in Emeryville and SOMA in the 90s was a great adventure, somewhere new to discover nearly every week.

But down near Embarcadero & Market, it's a steady diet of overdressed salads, overpriced pressed sandwiches, greasy pseudo-ethnic food, dumbed down for suburban tastes, and the occasional splurge. I expected the hundreds of Starbucks outlets but wasn't prepared for the Subway invasion. And while Subway isn't my idea of a great meal, at least it's cheap.

While I've mined the list of Friday chowdowns, I don't have the luxury of long meals in the middle of a workday. I'd rather spend under $10 (and $6 or 7 would be better).

Kamakura on Battery. Mediocre donburi, soba, and uninspired heavy tempura. Friendly staff, nice place to relax and read or hang with a friend. I usually get the grilled saba (mackerel) bento. Set your expectations low, and you might become a regular.

Tadich Grill. Cool atmosphere, rude waiters, okay but expensive seafood. Better after a bloody Mary, I suspect. Lump crabmeat and shrimp salad was not great. Tiny iced tea, never refilled.

Torrefazione on California & Battery. Okay. Trendy scene for those too cool for Starbucks. Nice logo. Overpriced cookies, but they do sell Brown Cow yogurt. Cappucino at Peet's is better.

Lee's Sandwiches. One of the best values. The big branch on Battery is not as good as the one on Front at California. (Many of the employees making sandwiches don't speak much English, and I had trouble getting a sandwich without mayo. Then they offered me cucumber and told me after I'd said yes that it was extra.) Turkey is fresh roasted, not pressed, for under $4 and they have cranberry sauce. Rolls aren't as good as remember. Shrimp salad is okay. Fruit salad is quite good but might double your bill.

Henry's Hunan. I was a regular at Henry's on Bryant for years, generally sticking to either rice plate #1 or the cold noodles with chicken and peanut sauce. Jeff always brought me hot and sour soup. The branch on Clay is awful--smoked ham was salty, greasy, and flavorless. Holding out hope for the one on Natoma, which is rumored to be better.

Sweet Max's in 101 California. Okay rare roast beef and good chicken noodle soup. Beautiful fresh turkey and the chicken on the chicken salads is fresh roasted. My friend pronounced the onion soup "sherry soup." Awful coleslaw. Used to be pricey but now a relative bargain.

Cafe Rocca in the back of 100 Pine by the MUNI heart. Decent salads garnished with fresh steamed broccoli and cauliflower, run by a Spanish speaking Korean-American woman. Jars of rice krispies treats.

Specialties. All our catered lunches come from here. The veggie sandwiches with the shredded carrots are good, even if they don't have any protein. Salmon salad is tasty. Giant cookies, the size of small cakes. They slice the strawberries, which I like.

Palapas on Pine. Sorry, can't do fake Mexican taco salads. I'll take Chevy's instead.

Chevy's in Embarcadero 3. Despite being big enough to wash your hair in, the margaritas are really vile. We ordered top shelf ones, and they were far too sweet--nearly undrinkable until the ice melts. The happy hour bargains are only in the bar area, which they didn't tell us until after we'd ordered in the restaurant. Good guacamole for typically outrageous prices. The nachos were delivered with burned tops.

Sapphire on Sacramento and Battery. Another steam table, this one with a few Burmese dishes. The rice noodles are okay (bland). The Burmese garlic chicken is good. $5.29 for two entrees and a rice or noodles. Very blue walls. Full bar at dinner. Anywhere else, I wouldn't be impressed, but one of the more promising meals I've had downtown.

Birley's Sandwiches, Embarcadero 4. They're huge, expensive, and the clientele spends more on a suit than I do on a vacation. But I like this place. Plus they have occasionally interesting fresh fruit--4 tiny tangerines for $1 one day. The roast beef is rare. Get half a sandwich and one of their fancy soups for $6.95. (As everywhere downtown, pick up a frequent buyer card.)

Bananas on Pine. Very friendly steam table Thai and American grill at the front. Get the combo plate--2 entrees plus rice (but they'll substitute pad thai for the rice) for $6.95. Greasy but good orange chicken. I get whatever veggie entree has just come out. Pretty indistinguishable sauces and flavors, but lots of food and sri racha on the table.

Seller's Market. Known in my office as S&M. Pastries from Boulangerie/Bay Breads--I'm hooked on the blueberry madeleines for breakfast. $2 muffins. Friendly cooks, clueless order takers, very odd layout. Pulled BBQ chicken salad was awful--fake smoke, overdressed. Pizzas are paper thin. Tiny containers of Sharffenberger pot de creme for $2, great looking yogurt and fruit parfaits--for $4.75? Rotisserie chicken looks good--but would make more sense if they were open when I leave work to take one home. Goood Frikken Chicken this is not.

Tea Garden on Mission & 1st. The beef noodle soup is okay; the tendon was yummy, but I wasn't wowed by the salty broth. I like their won ton a lot. Not great if you want to eat there: you have to stare at yourself in the mirror.

Happy Sushi truck by the Pacific Stock Exchange. Fine sushi for $7 for assorted nigiri. Sometimes he has spider rolls. Plus he's a sweet guy. Maybe it's just the principle. Not there on Wednesday.

Arabi in the Rincon annex. Tried the pastitio with salad for $6.95. More like spaghetti with meat sauce and some eggy custard, but tasty and fresh.

The Gap cafe. Excellent condiments and mashed potatoes. And real silverware. I liked my grilled sausage but was surprised it was served without a bun. Not open to the public, and make sure your button down shirt is ironed.

Oasis on Drumm. What a scene! I got in line for my chicken schwarma with hot sauce along with another 20 or 30 people, paid, and then wondered how I would know which was mine without a number. The guys behind the counter have some mysterious system--since practically everyone orders chicken schwarma with some variation. $6.95 and I like Truly Med's better. But pretty good. Next time I'll get the lamb gyro.

On the list to try: Cafe Madeleine, Yank Sing 2 Go, Cafe Algiers, maybe Bistro Burger and the $5 smoothie place on Front. One of the engineers promised me a cafe with live music on Friday afternoons.

Help me out here, folks. I've got another 11 months of this. Or I could just live on chocolate bars from Fog City and Acme epis.

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  1. hey windy--great post. i work in the FiDi also and have tried most these places on your list and came to generally the same conclusion on them. btw--i heard about the Sellers Market--where exactly is it located? I'm curious about these blueberry madeleines you mentioned!

    i've also eaten at bistro burger several times out of convenience (located right outside my bldg), and personally i like it. the onion rings there are pretty good too.

    a couple of my friends mentioned that the Happy Donuts on Sansome (I think it's either sansome or battery) serves a good pad thai (and other thai dishes) on wednesdays only. haha, sounds weird to me, but they always go every wed.

    not sure if you're willing to walk up this far, but crepes a gogo on kearny is also good. (speakin of crepes, do NOT eat at Metro Crepes at the citigroup bldg.) actually, kearny street has several good small lunch joints.

    there's a place inside 101 california called California Swiss (Suisse?)--sorry for the uncertainty--that attracts a huge crowd for their amazing salads. the dressing is their secret--they won't even sell it separately or give it to you on the side.

    there's a little alley way in the block between montgomery and kearny and sutter and bush. in this alley there's a place called Cafe Ambrosia. I've gotten many coworkers hooked on their frozen yogurts--they rotate flavors weekly, but when they have TOFFEE NUT, you've GOT to try it. you can call in advance to check.

    if you've got friends working for Wells Fargo, ask them to get you the Southwestern salad on Tuesdays from their cafeteria. Really good, big, and only like 5 bucks.

    don't fall into the Napa Valley salad or Briazz trap!

    4 Replies
    1. re: euni

      I'll second the Happy Donut recommendation - they have changing specials - but I like the wonton noodle soup (usually on M-W-F) and garlic rice chicken (not sure if that's a regular special or not). They don't have banh mi on their written (chalkboard) menu, but i've been told it's always available as a special request - I haven't tried it yet. And I can't remember if it's Sansome or Battery either - but it's across from that Peet's/Specialties corner at Market.

      1. re: Celery
        Melanie Wong

        My sister works close by and Happy Donut is her go-to place for an inexpensive and tasty lunch.


        1. re: Celery

          Sounds like some things never change: Happy Donuts specials were the best cheap lunch option when I worked in the area ten years ago!

        2. re: euni

          Great, thanks for the ideas. Happy Donuts sounds perfect. My circle gets a little wider every day--I don't mind a walk.

          The place in 101 California is Suisse Italia. I remember their salads from catered lunches when I first moved to SF.

          Despite its address, S&M is at the corner of Pine and Front. They have chocolate chip madeleines too.

        3. m
          Melanie Wong

          The mention of Burmese, even steam table, at Sapphire drew my interest. It also reminded me of a very satisfying bowl of noodles from Natoma Cafe. Maybe a little too far for you, but worth checking out for $4.95. Here's a link to my post from February.



          1 Reply
          1. re: Melanie Wong

            I'd walk a lot farther for a decent lunch under $5. Can't wait to try it. I'll report back.

          2. d
            david kaplan

            Don't give up until you try Cafe Madeleine. Also, Harvest & Rowe on 2nd makes very good made-to-order salads, with soup & sandwiches as well. Sai's, at Washington & Sansome, is good enough for Vietnamese (I get take-out bun). And if you want a salad bar, the Korean-run place on the north side of Sutter just behind the back of Crocker Galleria is nice -- lightly dressed brussel sprouts, cooked spinach, snow peas, marinated tofu, japchae, plus all the regular salad bar stuff.

            2 Replies
            1. re: david kaplan
              Frosty Melon

              I was going to mention Harvest & Rowe as well (and I posted about it several weeks ago too). The owner was featured in the current issue of San Francisco magazine. The tossed-to-order salads are a good value and the soups are solid.

              1. re: david kaplan

                great one! i almost forgot about that korean-run salad bar! i also really like their chicken japchae...Windy, you should try this place too.

              2. I worked in the Finacial District a few years ago and the one restaurant that sticks in my mind and I think I'm the only one who ever mentioned on the board is Tricolore. Can't vouch if it is still good, but it was a wonderful Italian Cafe when I worked in the area.

                Tricolore Cafe & Pizzarea
                590 Washington St
                San Francisco, CA 94111-2929
                (415) 391-0509

                So agree about that Henry's Hunan on Clay. I'm blanking on some of the restaurants, but just around the corner from Henry's is a little Chinese shop that had excellent... it's too many years. I've got an appointment in SF on Monday and I'll try to remember to cruise by and find the name. Was taken there by Chinese coworkers in my company.

                Near Sam's, sort of in the Beldan Lane area, but on the other side of the street is a little downstairs food court. The restaurants keep changing, but there are usually some decent ones.

                I worked in the building on 800 California and at the time I worked there there was a nice little sandwich shop downstairs. Not the ultimate sandwich but better than most places in the area. They did have these amazing brownies. Charles Schwab had offices in that building prior to the move to Main Street. Don't know if the loss of buisiness from CS put the place under. I'll do a visual inspection on Monday if I have time and see if it is still there.

                Near Tricolore is Gondola. Yeah, not the ulitmate Italian but decent prices for decent food and the staff is nice. Usually went to Tricolore though.

                Paoli D'Asti has (had?) some decent if a little pricy take out food. Not crazy about the sandwiches. The restaurant itself is WAY too expensive. Nice staff though.

                B & M Mei Sing on 2nd always had reliable Chinese food at a good price. Usually wound up ordering the beef and tofu. You gotta take my Chinese recs for what they are.

                I've been wondering about that Asian (?) restaurant on the second floor across from the Embarcadero and the Hyatt.

                Hmmm, If I'm in the area Monday I'll see if there was anything else worth while.

                And for a $19.95 three course prix fixe splurge ... Silks in the Mandaren Oriental. The chef has change since I was there, but some day when the boss is nipping at your heels, the clients are up in arms and the computer has crashed for the gazillionth time taking all your work with it ... it is a luxurious quiet little oasis where they are glad to see you and your are pampered as is appropriate in a five star hotel.

                Thanks again for the current status in the area. Very helpful to those who work there.

                PS ... I like Yank Sing 2 go. But then again, I like Yank Sing.

                14 Replies
                1. re: Krys

                  Tricolor is a bit far for lunch for people who work on Market (I just moved to 425 Market, which is actually on Fremont). As is Sai's, IMHO. I've been waiting impatiently for the Pho Hoa to open in Embarcadero 3 -- I know it's not great pho, but it still has to be better than anything else within four blocks of my office.

                  I like Oasis, but I always get the falafel wrap there. I don't know how they do it either, but they've never gotten my order wrong, even though mine is a special order (no tomatoes, but with cucumber/yogurt sauce).

                  Around the corner on Sacramento is Focaccia, which has the best lunch under $5: the quarter roasted chicken with two sides and bread. The mashed potatoes are delicious (the server admitted they have a ton of butter), and I salve my conscience by omitting the gravy. The made to order salads are a good deal, too, since I usually find a small is plenty. The sandwiches are pretty good, but since they were the office regular catering when we were at 50 California, I'm pretty sick of them. For a while after their move/retooling they were experimenting with dessert purveyors, but they seem to have settled on Dianda, which is pretty darn good.

                  Next door to Focaccia (in their old spot) the same owners have put in a burger place called Burger Factory. I'm had mixed luck with them -- the people who work there are still figuring out how to make burgers, but when they get them right they're pretty good, and a good deal: a double cheeseburger, fries and a drink is something like $5.25, which includes a choice of cheese and a choice of bread, which they make in house. Much better than the Bistro Burger around the corner: I had the worst lunch *ever* there, the Thai chicken sandwich, which was vile. Plus I think they use some kind of liquid smoke to get a charbroiled taste, because the burgers there always -- okay, the two times I tried them -- "repeat" on me. Anyway, you couldn't pay me to eat there again.

                  The fries at Burger Factory are made from fresh potatoes, and they tend to undercook them, but if they're not too busy they'll double fry them for you.

                  There's a new place in Embarcadero 4, level 3 (where Splendido used to be) called Monte Cristo Cafe (or Cafe Monte Cristo, or something very close to that). Or rather, there's a sign for it -- I haven't trekked up to that level to see if it's open and what the menu is like. Anyone?

                  Finally, you can always walk over to the Jackson Square Safeway and buy things like yogurt without having to deal with the limited selection and/or high prices of the snack/sandwich shops.

                  1. re: Ruth Lafler
                    Rod Williams

                    I walked by the coming-soon Cafe Monte Cristo in Embarcadero 4 last Wednesday -- it still has a ways to go before it opens.

                    2nd & Market might be a bit far away from the OP, but I also like B & M Mei Sing, which Krys mentioned above -- I get frequent cravings for their yummy Szechwan Pork Chow Mein (used to be $4.95 -- may be a little more now).

                    The basement food court that Krys mentions on the north-east corner of Bush & Kearny used to have a good Mexican counter -- Taqueria Vallarta -- among other inexpensive attractions. Not sure if it's still there.

                    Schroeder's, on Front between Calif. & Sacramento (?) is an old favorite, though I haven't eaten there in ages. A quick peek at their website ( shows that most lunch dishes are now in the $10-$12 range, I believe they also have a take-out window on the street.

                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                      I threw in Tricolor because Henry's Hunan is actually a further walk, no?

                      1. re: Krys

                        Depends on which Henry's Hunan location and where your office is. Among the three locations one of them is probably closer to your office (when I worked at 50 Cal, the Sacramento Henry's was definitely closer). If you're going to Tricolor you might as well go around the corner to Bocadillos.

                        1. re: Ruth Lafler


                          You mentioned you were currently at 425 Market. At one time, there was a cafeteria with decent food on the second floor of 444 Market across the street.

                          They changed the address of the building, so it is no longer 444 Market, but it is the big silver building on Market and battery.

                          The company that occupied the building for a long time had the cafeteria for employees, but it was open to the public and not owned by the company.

                          I am wondering if it still exists. IBM at one time did training at 425, but no food. I'd always go back to 444 for lunch. Nice made to order Ceaser Salad.

                          You might ask at the desk in the lobby if the cafeteria is still there.Nice view of market street from the 2nd floor.

                          They never advertised as they were making money from the company that occupied 444 Market. That might still be the case for whoever the current occupants are.

                          1. re: Krys

                            If it's the place I'm thinking of I went there a couple of times with a friend. It is (or was) the Shaklee cafeteria. I'll have to check and see if it's still there and still open to the public. I remember the food was nothing special, but it was a relatively nice place to sit.

                            1. re: Ruth Lafler

                              Shaklee is no longer listed on the directory at 444 and the elevator won't stop on the second floor without a key/card, so I guess the cafeteria is no more.

                            2. re: Krys

                              it's 8/20/2010, I Still miss Martins' Cesar Salad at the 2nd Floor, 444 Market. (which is now 1 Front St)

                        2. re: Ruth Lafler

                          I love Oasis -- always get the falafel wrap with a special twist and they always get it right. And they are extremely pleasant which is more than can be said for a lot of the "fast" food places in the FiDi. Not as good as Truly Mediterranean, but definitely in the ballpark.

                          Pho Hoa in Embarcadero 3 looks to me to be a long ways away from being finished. I poked my head that way the other day and no work was going on, and it didn't look even close to being done. Does anyone have any information?

                          1. re: farmersdaughter

                            Work around the corner from Oasis. Passed it many times over last two months but never experienced it. I went in a little before noon today, order a chicken shwarma with spicy sauce, pickles and yogurt, lots of tomatoes, too. People there were very pleasant and helpful.
                            It was delicious, really hit the spot. Flavorful but not crazy. Nice hits of allspice and garlic. Danced back to the office, still reeling from the satisfaction.
                            Overall, a great little spot in the area. Gotta try the hummus and tabouleh next time.

                            1. re: DCarbonaro

                              I like Oasis's veggie options more than the meat. The mezze box has hummus, baba gonoush, falafel, raita (? cucumber/yogurt item), tomato/cucumber salsa-like thing, and flat bread. They used to have some excellent very fresh pita bread, but now it's just lavash-like. Sorry for mis-spellings etc.; know very little about Middle Eastern food. Anyway, it's very tasty. A bit too much for one person, but not quite enough for two! The same folks run the liquor store a few doors down and it has a deli also. I think it must be open later in the evening.

                              1. re: MargotB

                                I like the packaged baklava they have near the register as well.

                                The deli has a nice selection of ice cream treats, including more than one flavor of It's-It.

                                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                  Coming up on dinner time and about to leave the office. Sounds like I'll be snacking on the hummus and babaganoush while making dinner.
                                  Thanks for the suggestion!

                          2. re: Ruth Lafler

                            Ewww, Monte Christo ---- hope it doesn't specialize in that hideous sandwich made from ham and cheese then covered with batter and deep fried.. Even I, who once split a doughnut in half, buttered it, and then put it in the broiler can't handle a Monte Christo sandwich.

                            Well, back to the half grapfruit (at least it's an Oro Blanco from Berkeley Bowl) I brought for lunch here in Oaktown.

                            PS: You guys think SF is a lunch-time trial...just try outer downtown Oakland.

                        3. I work on Market and Main and haven't really found restaurants I'm thrilled about. I don't like spending $10/day on lunch either.

                          Thanks so much for your review. Some are close enough to me, so I'll have to check it out. I only get 30 minutes for lunch, so I have to be quick! If I could, I'd open a fast food Chinese restaurant around here, since I can't seem to find any. I just want a rice plate for $5! Since I'm "dieting" I could split that into two lunches :-)

                          Portico on Beale and Market has really good pizza (good size) for about $3. I love their roasted chicken w/two sides too (I always get 2 sides of rice, BUT they have a yummy potato that I KNOW is heart attack material but so good). I used to like Lightening Foods for their Caesar salad but haven't enjoyed it recently... too much dressing (thought I'd never say that) and the pieces of romaine are too big.