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Solo diner overwhelmed by her choices

I will be in SF in one week, arriving Sunday afternoon and leaving on a red-eye for Mexico Tuesday at midnight. I will be staying at California and Van Ness. I have 3 dinners and 2 lunches (or we could say 6 dinners and 4 lunches since I would love a mini gastro crawl). The issues: I am by myself and need to eat at the bar versus a table. I probably shouldn't spend a whole lot of money. Every place I stop at I would love to have a glass of wine and try 1-2 small plates off their menu and not spend more than $30 with tip. I love ALL food, I eat all meats (offal included), and am VERY adventurous (although could not bring myself to eat shark fin soup while in Hong Kong recently).

I am really struggling with my choices. I don't believe I have to spend a lot of money to eat great food (ie. recent horrible experience at Schwa in Chicago that I still haven't brought myself to post about) but I can't decide whether I should focus on "cheap eats" or on eating cheaply at more upscale places.

For example: I could go to Out the Door on Bush st for a snack, Saigon Sandwich for banh mi, Turtle Tower for pho, Hog Island on Monday for their happy hour oysters, Mission Chinese for some famous cheap eats, and maybe Alembic for a snack and cocktail.

Or I could go to Cotogna for lunch, AQ for dinner, Delfina Pizza for their broccoli raab pizza, Frances for a reasonable but possibly yummy dinner, and Bar Tartine sounds like a must. State Bird Provisions has been on my list for months (yes, I know I would have to get there early and wait for a bar seat) but after reading some reviews I am leaning against it. Same for Slanted Door.

I need help! What am I missing? Every time I read the boards there is another restaurant that I must try. Again I am dining solo so this could possibly help me narrow down my choices b/c I want to feel comfortable wherever I go. And I prefer to stick to one area each evening but visit more than one restaurant. I also don't mind eating early and beating the crowds since I am coming from the east coast. Thanks to those who choose to help!

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  1. Some reflections: I had a lot of experience with such situations during travel, especially before CH was well established. I would gather authoritative information and make some reasonable choices. (In some venues, a single source offered a lot of the available public info, such as an energetic restaurant critic -- Fitzmorris in New Orleans, for example).

    On CH, and this board in particular, queries of this kind are so frequent there's a vast body of existing and even reasonably recent suggestions and exchanges already, if you'll do some searching. Even while reading this posting, I saw some examples displayed by CH's sidebar to the right under "Discussions you might like," but that's just the tip of the iceberg.

    1 Reply
    1. re: eatzalot

      And I have read most of them! I had hoped that was apparent. I have gone many places and haven't bothered with an "approve my itinerary" post, but with SF I guess I am curious about the best choices for a solo diner who is looking for great food that won't break the bank. I know I can't go wrong with what I am leaning towards, but I guess we all think we are a little special and can't help but ask for help/approval of our choices. It's human, I suppose.

    2. Do both? If you mix in some cheap eats you can budget more for your more expensive places.

      Here's an easy decision: skip Slanted Door.

      I think doing a Vietnamese crawl (Turtle Tower, Saigon Sandwich) for lunch sounds like fun (and definitely cheap).

      AQ has a bar (part of which is actually table height) -- a couple of small plates plus a glass of wine would put you over $30, but worth it IMHO.

      Barbacco is just what you're looking for: inexpensive, yummy, lots of counter seating, and wines by the glass or even half glass.

      At this point, I'm tempted to suggest Mission Chinese just for the "see what all the fuss is about" factor.

      Since you're going to be here Sunday-Tuesday, you might check whether any of the place you're considering are closed on one or more of those days, since they're common days for restaurant closure.

      19 Replies
      1. re: Ruth Lafler

        Thanks Ruth! I was hoping to hear from you. I will most likely take your advice and do a combination. I think AQ is a must, and I am excited that you mentioned Barbacco. I did put it on my original list and I will reconsider it. Do you think Mission Chinese would work for a solo diner? That is what I am most nervous about. I was considering ordering a bunch of take out (I wouldn't be able to eat it all), and picking up a bottle of wine to take back to the hotel room. Is that sad?

        I am industry and aware of the possible Sun-Tues closures and have taken note. Thank you for the reminder.

        1. re: JazzyK

          Mission Chinese delivers, and it presumably would deliver to your hotel. I personally love putting my feet up and eating in my jammies when I'm traveling. Alternatively, you could probably recruit some people to eat with you.

          What are you planning on doing between meals? How are you getting around?

          1. re: Ruth Lafler

            Does Mission Chinese (Danny Bowien) do the take out/delivery, or is it the restaurant that he uses that does it? I am a little confused about that.

            I was going to walk around the different neighborhoods mostly. I plan on getting the 3 day Muni pass and taking also the Bart from SFO. I would like to hike the Land's End trail on Monday. I plan on walking a lot to burn off all the food I will be eating. At night I will try to use public transit as much as possible b/c I am assuming it will be safer.

            1. re: JazzyK

              Let's put it this way: you can have Mission Chinese food delivered. http://www.missionchinesefood.com/sf/

              No bar. No atmosphere. Seriously.

          2. re: JazzyK

            Why wouldn't Mission Chinese work for a solo diner? It is very, very casual. If they're open, you could go for lunch. I understand wanting to hang out in your pj's and enjoying delivery if that's what you want to do, but I wouldn't worry about eating there as a solo diner (or anywhere in town, really).

            1. re: Leely2

              Does Mission Chinese have a bar or just tables? I guess I am a little bit confused about the atmosphere there.

              1. re: JazzyK

                Just tables (unless I'm entirely misremembering). I've been there twice, but only in the daytime. It is very casual, like a regular hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant. I can't see eating there solo being a problem at all.

                Maybe I'm crazy?

                1. re: JazzyK

                  Mission Chinese is just tables. If you are not doing a whole lot of planned things, I might suggest a Mission food crawl, ending with take out from Mission chinese. The ONLY reason I personally wouldnt do MC solo is because its a lot of food.

                  I would also recommend taking the 1 California to Fillmore and check out that street and area, including state bird.

                  1. re: smatbrat

                    Good point about it being a lot of food for a solo diner. I think I will only order take out if I do end up needing to try the food.

                  2. re: JazzyK

                    I'm really confused by your statement that you need a bar. In your post you even stated "I'm alone so I need to sit at the bar". That's certainly not how we roll here in SF, so is this a personal requirement, or do you think it's the only sensible way to deal with being alone?

                    Given your statement of adventure, I think you should throw in a little szechuan. Dong Bei Mama and Spices are board favorites, and mission chinese, and all of them you just sit at a table, no one will be looking at your funny.

                    On the high end, I'd give Crenn and AQ serious consideration.

                    1. re: bbulkow

                      Some people -- especially women -- prefer to eat at a bar when dining solo for a couple of reasons. It allows for conversation with other people sitting at the bar, and with the bartender(s), and the other people provide a buffer from men who think that a woman sitting alone must be dying for their scintillating company. That said, I think San Francisco is much friendlier to single diners -- and single woman diners -- than many other places.

                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                        I don't think it's an "especially women" thing. Most men I know would much prefer eating at the bar when dining solo (or even when dining with a buddy or two). I, for certain, would feel miserably bored and lonely sitting by myself at a table at a place with no bar like Crenn where a dinner would last for hours (and might not fit the OP's $30-with-wine-and-tip budget, anyway). Hotel restaurants that, by nature, cater to a lot of single diners often have TV's at the bar so that patrons can watch sports in addition to chatting with the bartenders and fellow diners. The TVs at the bar at the restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton are likely more of a nod to solo diners than an attempt to turn it into a sports bar.

                        1. re: nocharge

                          I agree with both of you. This is exactly how I feel. Maybe I shouldn't have said that I "needed" to sit at a bar, but I certainly prefer it. I also love seeing the inner workings of a restaurant and you don't get to see that nearly as much from a table. And whether or not a restaurant has good bar seating also helps me narrow down my choices. Thank you!

                          1. re: JazzyK

                            I have a list of rules in life, and on the top 5 is "eat at the bar". It's up there with "show up on time". Eating at the bar gets your prompt service, a better view, and often a great meal when there are no tables to be had (like the "secret bar" at Le Bernardin in NYC).

                            That being said, I would never feel "miserably bored". Nor would I require a bar and a bar seat in order to visit a restaurant alone. I wouldn't reject a restaurant, especially at the $30 level, for not having a bar. Most asian places don't have bars. If you had said "I prefer bar seating" I wouldn't have disagreed.

                            The good news is just about everywhere in SF has a bar. I really liked the bar at Zero Zero in a recent visit, and the small plates were arguably better than the pizza. All bars serve the full menu. Places that don't have bars are the handful of expensive tasting menu places, and asian places, and super-small counter places. The bar, in SF, is so popular that many restaurants have multiple bar seats, communal tables, etc.

                            I am struggling to think of even a single restaurant in the bay area which isn't in one of those three categories, and doesn't have a bar.

                            You said offal. That would be incanto. Great chalkboard and bar, but the tables are OK too, but you'll have trouble squeaking out for under $30. Check out the Spices! restaurants, although I don't see the "murder casserole" anymore, they've always specialized in offal. I haven't visited the SF branches, but it's probably a table place.

                          2. re: nocharge

                            But men don't have to worry about the creepy men who think you're dying for their company factor!

                            1. re: Ruth Lafler

                              And I won't be dying for their company. I prefer to chat with my neighbors a little and people watch. Not interested in much more, except good food of course!

                    2. re: Leely2

                      Barbacco isn't open on Sundays.

                      One of the advantages of bar seating is you can often immediately get seated, despite there being parties of two or more who might be waiting an hour. At Mission Chinese Food, there isn't a bar, so a solo diner will be competing with every other party.

                      I've been inside MCF once, and have had no interest in returning since I learned they do delivery. The ambiance is, and never intended to be, anything special and with the exception of the soup, the dishes I've had in-house and delivered have not differed in quality.

                      1. re: hyperbowler

                        Thank you! All good points. It seems there is no reason for me to dine in at MCF.

                  3. re: Ruth Lafler

                    I second skipping Slanted Door unless the OP is not versed in Vietnamese food. If so, it's still tasty.

                  4. Particularly on Sunday - Tudesday, the issue with solo dining isnt one of comfort or atmosphere but the menu. e.g. at Barbacco, you could try 3-6 things and would be limited by $$$. While at say many indian restos, it would be difficult to sample 3 things without a lot of leftovers [excepting appetizers]. I dont remember what the small-sized items are on offer at Mission Chinese, but the menu seems geared for voluntary sharing ... while the tables are geared for involuntary sharing (of space).

                    MCF predecessor Mission Street Food, was an a good solo option as they had a lot of small items to try ... with two-three people you could order the whole menu, but even solo you could try a good number of items. (Am I the only one who preferred a world with one MSF to a world with MCF + Commonwealth?)

                    Since you are heading to MEX, this doesnt make sense but otherwise, for zero ambienace, but otherwise optimal for solo/cheap, try a taqueria ... could try at least 4 meats + agua fresca for under $10.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: psb

                      Yes, I really need places where the portions are not huge. I would rather be able to try multiple items and not have to leave a lot of food on my plate. This discussion is definitely helping me see the way I should probably go. Inexpensive lunches (Saigon Sandwich, Turtle Tower, Tuesday at the Ferry Building), and then spend a bit more on smaller dishes for dinner. Just need to narrow down dinner :)

                    2. All I have to say is MAKE SURE you go to at least one of my 4 current favs right now:

                      1. State Bird Provisions
                      2. Bar Tartine
                      3. AQ
                      4. Rich Table

                      Agree that you should go to Mission Chinese just to see what all the talk is about. And, unlike most people here, I actually enjoy the food. Make sure to get either the Salt Cod Fried Rice, Thrice Cooked Bacon, or Kung Pao Pastrami. Open for lunch everyday as well except for Wednesday when they are closed all day.

                      I do most of my dining out solo and out of all the places I have been to in SF, high end and whole-in-the-wall, I have never once felt out of place. Most places have bar/counter seating which looks into an open kitchen. Some great places besides the ones I mentioned above that I can think of off the top of my head are:

                      1. Frances
                      2. Cotogna
                      3. Commonwealth
                      4. Nopa
                      5. Wayfare Tavern
                      6. Namu Gaji

                      And as for Slanted Door, skip it.

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: benv

                        I would dine solo at Cotogna in a heartbeat no matter where they seat you but I've only been at lunch. Don't miss it!

                        1. re: benv

                          I think I have narrowed dinner down to AQ, Barbacco, Frances, Cotogna, Bar Tartine, and State Bird. I just realized that I still need to fit in a pizza at Delfina! Time to get a map out to see if I can hit up 2 a night...

                          Thanks everyone!

                          1. re: JazzyK

                            Delfina's pizza set a new standard but has now been eclipsed or at least equaled. I am more interested in the coal-fired at Tony's.

                            1. re: JazzyK

                              Good luck with State Bird Provisions. They are usually booked two months in advance - check their site to see their booking procedure.

                              They save a few tables every night for 'walk ins' - but the line goes down the block and around the corner.

                          2. My current favorites for solo dining at the bar are Barbacco, Perbacco, Cotogna, AQ, Bar Tartine, and Incanto. The latter's exceptionally comfortable as there's a wide step for your feet.

                            Mission Chinese, maybe get the salt cod fried rice to go and eat it on the plane.

                            Shark's fin soup is not very interesting.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              Interesting that everyone seems to like the salt cod fried rice at MCF. The one time I tried it, it was seriously lacking in the salt cod department - especially for the price. Sounds like it must have been an isolated incident.

                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                Incanto will be added to my list. I had already been eyeing the menu and have been following Chris Cosentino for a while (how can you not between Top Chef and Iron Chef?). I think it will come down to locations and hours b/c everywhere sounds wonderful.

                                I just don't like what they do to the sharks. But I do eat Foie so go figure. My morals may be somewhat unclear.

                                1. re: JazzyK

                                  You may not know that California will soon also prohibit shark fins; of course not without controversy. http://www.chow.com/food-news/132094/...