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Aug 25, 2014 11:34 PM

Alternative to State Bird? [San Francisco]

Hello -

My fiancé and I (live in NYC) will me meeting two friends - one from Hong Kong and one from Sydney (who has never been to the states before) - in SF for a night. Wanted to do a dinner like State Bird... amazing food, fun casual atmosphere. Unfortunately, no ressies left for State Bird :(

I know we can walk in, go early, etc but we have a bunch of errands to run and the two out-of-towners will be sightseeing.

What are the best alternatives for a similar restaurant. I keep running into either great food or casual atmosphere - can't seem to figure out something like State Bird. Please no Asian food... unless it's super super fusion. Genre of choice is "Californian".

Thanks so much!

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  1. Get someone to stand in line for you from Task Rabbit.

    It will easily be worth it.

    Nothing else quite like it in SF. Absolutely incredible.

    If you're somehow completely against the idea, you could maybe try Rich Table, or Frances I guess.

    5 Replies
    1. re: Eudoxus

      No, not against it at all.
      I just hate how the new TR website is now... hard to use.
      How many hours would I expect this task to take?
      And would they be able to block a spot - say 7PM or would they just call me when they're close to the front?

      Thanks a bunch,

      1. re: swl123

        They could probably get you a spot for 7-9 pm range. Or, you could just show up at 5:30 and get into first seating. I would have the task rabbit guy show up 2 hours early, this guarantees that you will get in. With that time, the TR guy will most likely start at the head of the line, or very close to it.

        You might want to show up at 5:30 just so they will take your phone number down to contact you/confirm, but it's probably not 100% necessary.

        1. re: Eudoxus

          You wont necessarily get into the first seating showing up at 5:30. I met friends there who got in line at 4:30 on a weekend and we didn't make the first seating. If its a weekday your chances are better probably.

          1. re: sunnyside

            How can you not make the first seating if you are the first in line? Like half the restaurant goes to people who show up first every night.

            I guess, to be fair, I did wait 2 hours in line on a Sunday.

            1. re: Eudoxus

              Highly unlikely that you would be the first in line if you get there at 5:30. I don't know how many seats they hold for walk-ins, so I can just give my experience as a data point.

      1. re: barleywino

        we've enjoyed all of our visits to SPQR and agree that it's very representative of the style of cooking in these parts, from top notch local ingredients. it is also quite casual, quite convivial, with excellent service -- for us they pretty much set the standard, service wise, granted we don't go to the fancier places.

        1. re: moto

          How much fancier do things get? Saison/Benu/Crenn/Quince/Coi?

          You're still dropping at least $100/person at SPQR, despite the casual atmosphere. And isn't Saison actually fairly casual as well?

          1. re: Eudoxus

            we have never spent $100 per person at SPQR, more like a little over $100. for two before tip, with some leftovers taken home. we don't drink their wines, as well curated as they are, unless it's a special winemaker's event -- the $40-60 bottle from our library is a sunk cost (usually from eight or more years previous), so the $20. corkage represents a net reduction from the comparable $70-100+ bottles from their great list.

            1. re: moto

              What do you order exactly?... You're not ordering too much for $100. 1 app, 2 pastas, and a dessert is already at least $85, and tax + tip will send that over $100.

              Portions on pastas are generous, but that would still be a fairly light meal.

              It is true that I was thinking of a bit of wine with the meal previously. I had a bit of wine at State Bird as well though. Just an app + pasta at SPQR is still about $65 with tip + tax, while the 27 courses of food at SPQR were probably more like $75. Even with a two person meal at SPQR, that's 4 dishes versus 27.

              The breadth of the meals is just different.

              Or are we just saying fanciness? When does the fanciness come in exactly for you in general?

              1. re: Eudoxus

                we haven't been to state bird prov., coi, saison, atelier crenn, but suspect that the latter three are 'fancier' than spqr, just my guess. we rarely get dessert. if we share three appetizers, two primi at spqr (or one secondi and one primi, a bit more expense), plus the $20. corkage, it probably goes a little over $100 before tax and tip, but not much. can't compare the breadth of the courses, but five distinct plates is often sufficient for us. when a Piemontese winemaker visited, we shared three glasses of his whites and 500 ml. of his nebbiolo, and it still wasn't $100. per person, but perhaps we had only four plates rather than five.

                1. re: moto

                  State Bird is definitely more casual in atmosphere than SPQR.

                  Apps at SPQR are about $20, pastas about $25, mains about $35. I don't see how you can possibly get 3 apps ($60), a pasta, and a main ($60) plus a $20 corkage for "a little over a hundred". It would be more like ~$140. There's $20 in tax on that, and a $30 tip, which brings you to about $190, or about $95/person with tax and tip.

                  Maybe prices have recently risen there?

                  1. re: Eudoxus

                    the appetizers when we went early in the year were more like $15, as they are on some web site listings, pastas (primi) more like $20, secondi $30 not $35. if they've increased as you describe, we'll probably order less on our next visit or not go at all. my earlier descriptions stated that tax and tip were excluded.

      2. Try using Tablesweep, it will capture tables that open up as cancellations come in. Every friend (N=5) who has tried using it for SBP has been successful, just gotta be patient and flexible on times.

        3 Replies
        1. re: Melanie Wong

          Thanks for that - have put in a request on Tablesweep... but can I ask how far in advance your friends got their table? Just want to know when to start looking for back-ups.

          1. re: swl123

            I only know for myself. My booking came in 30 hours before the requested time. You should definitely have a back-up res arranged ahead of time.

        2. Can you name a couple of places that seemed to you not to be casual enough? Great food and casual atmosphere almost defines SF dining. Bar Tartine, Zuni, AQ, Bar Jules, Nopa, there are so many.

          22 Replies
          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            I don't know if the food at Bar Tartine, Nopa, Zuni is up to the standards of State Bird? Definitely good... but looking for wow.

            Places with food that will definitely make me happy are stuff like Saison but that is too formal.

            I wanted to try AQ but looking at the google images online - I sometimes see tablecloths and people in suit jacket (although that was just one picture) so that turned me off.

            1. re: swl123

              If you're looking for more intricately prepared food and plating, then I'll second barleywino's recs for SPQR (also a Michelin 1*) and Central Kitchen, and add Commonwealth. Bar Tartine might fill that bill too, but I have not been there at dinner time to offer a personal rec.

              ETA: The essence of "Californian" is simple prep to highlight our local food stuffs. So much depends on how impressed you can be by top notch ingredients.

              Disclaimer: owners of SPQR are friends of mine.

              1. re: swl123

                If AQ has tablecloths that's a change. You might see people in suits anywhere at any restaurant, especially on weekdays, but they'll usually be outnumbered by people dressed very casually.

                My impression from reports here, which are kind of hard to find among the hundreds of posts about how hard it is to get into / tips on how to get in, is that State Bird is not as consistently good as lots of other places.


                1. re: swl123

                  If you're looking for "wow" I feel like SBP would disappoint. The experience is fun, the food is solid, but it's not exactly groundbreaking or overly innovative in its preparations.

                  If I can get a table at Rich Table or Frances, I'd take either over SBP anytime, unless I was with someone who hadn't been and wanted to see what the experience is like.

                  1. re: Frosty Melon

                    Please tell me where you are eating at, because my experience at State Bird was completely incredible in every way imaginable. I would say it was the perfect meal. Where else can I go to eat 27 different things, most of which I have never seen before, and most of which could be star dishes at any other restaurant? All for about $85/person (including tip + tax)?

                    I recently I have had meals at Cotogna, SPQR, & Commis, and none of them could touch State Bird. SPQR maybe, in terms of their apps and pastas, was there in terms of flavor, ingredients, etc... but I paid $85 for 1 app, and 1 pasta. That's 2 things. Compared to the 27 different things I ate at State Bird for the same price, nearly all of which were just as well prepared, and as interesting and flavorful as the dishes at SPQR. For literally the same price. I thought the meats at State Bird were better, too. The only area with a little lag was the desserts, which SPQR happens to be insanely good at. But they weren't necessarily awful.

                    If there are other places offering the same experience with even better cooking for marginally more money, or the same cost, I would love to know about them, because, as a total dining experience, State Bird is easily the #1 SF restaurant for me.

                    Rich Table and Frances are the two next on my dinner list, but just from looking at the menus I don't really see how they can totally compete with State Bird in terms of breadth of the experience. What, besides the easier reservations, do you find better about them exactly?

                    1. re: Eudoxus

                      My sentiments exactly about SBP. We've been about 10 times, ranging from a couple months after it opened to as recently as July this year and every meal has consistently been excellent. They excite the palate with balanced textures and flavors in every dish. Although we might order a few more dishes or bottles of wine than Eudoxus does as our usual average is around $100/person. It's very hard to say no to the amazing dishes they bring around and the state bird and pancakes are must orders from their "commandables" menu. We're usually too full for dessert, but never miss taking a "World Peace" shot to cap the evening off.

                      1. re: foodcoupleSF

                        It's the bottles of wine. Which are super reasonable btw. But I am not a big drinker, nor are most of my friends, so we just had a couple of glasses of some things to try them. If you spend on wine, that will always nicely pad your bill.

                        My only regret about our meal is that we did't try literally everything on the menu. It's hard to get through it all! But we were just too stuffed.

                        Dessert, oddly, isn't an absolutely huge miss though. I might just keep eating savories next time!

                      2. re: Eudoxus

                        So, on value, I'd agree that SBP is pretty good value for money. But that aspect diminishes if you're paying extra for a task rabbiter.

                        I would agree with Frosty Melon on the level of innovation. I'm sure that, in part, our reaction was influenced by the incredible hype around this restaurant. We did overall enjoy our meal and had a nice time, and we would return. Service, once we finally got seated, was good. The novelty of getting western food on dim sum carts and trays was great -- I do love the immediate gratification aspect after having waited around for our table to turn.

                        But I agree that there are other restaurants doing more interesting stuff food-wise. For example, when I go to Camino once every 6 months or so, I find something pretty new to me and interesting (last time it was fig leaf ice cream). Nothing at SBP made me exclaim "how did they do that?!" (technique) or "how did they think of that?!" (combo of flavors). Maybe we are just a spoilt and blase crowd. Also, maybe they are taking stuff from cuisines I don't know as well (I'm very familiar with Chinese food, so borrowing ingredients or combinations from it doesn't particularly blow me away). So ... mileage may vary!

                        Here is a rundown of our impressions:

                        * smoked trout with avocado, early girl tomatoes, and potato chips (so good we had it twice - but was it super innovative? nah. I can make it at home.)

                        *"short stack" corn pancakes with red hawk and garlic chives (basically tasty. innovative, yes. Worth waiting 3 hours in line? no. Was I so excited by it that I hope that other restos will copycat? no.)

                        *salmon tartare with crispy quinoa atop cucumbers (nice texture. quinoa was a new touch.)

                        *duck liver mousse with almond financiers (delicious, two elements taken from a french playbook and combined in a new way)

                        *nocino and date ice cream sandwiches (tasty, the flavors are very chinese but the form is different)

                        *plum shrub was fan-fricking-tastic, and I take my hat off to them for it. I like the shrub trend, and they were on point.

                        *world peace is very tasty, but the flavors are not unlike some nut-enhanced smoothies. Texture is actually smooth, though.

                        *cumin lamb and squid with bok choy and snap peas (okay so this is obviously a play on a well known Chinese dish, but there is no sichuan peppercorn. The ingredients are fine, but I didn't find this innovative or elevated, in fact I'd say it was dumbed down, and I regretted ordering it.)

                        *oysters (whatever was on them overpowered their delicacy. and yes, raw oysters are nice, but not new.)

                        *beef tartare (bland, not new)

                        *"state bird" itself -- batter was way too thick and overwhelmed the bird. We were nonplussed.

                        *blue bottle's ethiopia yirgacheffe gelena abaya natural was french pressed into brightly acidic mud

                        1. re: Torina

                          Yeah, to be fair, I am not really that well versed in Chinese cooking/cuisine, so perhaps that is why I was wowed by it.

                          I agree that the lamb dish was a miss though, just not exciting enough, weird.

                          But surprised about your experience with the quail, I thought it was the best fried quail ever, and was craving more the whole meal. I recall ours had a very light batter though, the batter usually being the downfall of fried quail dishes.

                          I would never order coffee at a restaurant without a dedicated coffee bar in it (only one I know of is in Venice, CA: Superba Food + Bread).

                          1. re: Eudoxus

                            WRT the quail, maybe we were there on an off night ... it was I think a Tuesday (definitely was a weeknight) and we were the last seating.

                            By the way, have you tried Ippuku in Berkeley? Was there last night, and it reminded me of this conversation. Japanese food is less familiar to me than Chinese, so likewise the 'wow' factor may be different for others. But I think you, Eudoxus, would like it because you do get many, many small plates and all of them are excellent.

                            Last night, two stand out "how did they do it" dishes ... a "tatami mat" of baby sardines. Really, really interesting texture and presentation. And also a tempura of Brentwood corn that came out as an incredibly airy cake. Never seen any tempura like it before. I wasn't sure what to expect when I saw it on the menu, was thinking possibly strips cut off of the cob, but they were kernels tossed with batter but somehow fried with lots of spaces in between bits of batter (and seemed evenly fried throughout).

                            We also ate beef tongue, fresh tofu skins, and handmade soba noodles, amongst others.

                            1. re: Torina

                              Tatamiwashi (sardine mat or cracker) is available commercially although I have yet to find a source around here (I tried Nijiya). Some restaurants (e.g. Nobu) use it in their omakase preparations.

                        2. re: Eudoxus

                          I personally don't think the "breadth of the experience" at SBP is terribly extraordinary. As someone else has pointed out, you can have a similar experience at Frances or Rich Table by focusing on small plates. But your mileage may vary.

                          1. re: Frosty Melon

                            Hmm, well, all I can say is that I hope you're right, and I look forward to expiring both of those places.

                            No one loses if I find something even better than State Bird I would say. =)

                      3. re: swl123

                        My thoughts. Granted we probably have different palates as I have eaten at State Bird twice and it has it's ups and downs for me like many other places in SF.

                        One thing is true is that it's not the typical format for New American/Californian/Italian/French which is somewhat plentiful in NYC. But from my travels the typical Californian restaurant is actually not well done abroad.

                        AQ is not white tablecloths so that could be an option and isn't the standard cal fare. NOPA also isn't tablecloth but does hew closer to typical Californian cuisine (but your friends from Hong Kong and Sydney may appreciate it nevertheless). There has been sadly a resurgence in French bistros and Gastropubs that are easily found other places.

                        DOSA on Valencia is pretty unique. It's one of the few mid to upper range South Indian restaurants outside of India and it's a fun space.

                        1. re: swl123

                          I don't think you can go by photos like that. Some people wore suit jackets to State Bird, others wore T-Shirts. I'm pretty sure that's how it is at nearly every restaurant in SF.

                          I'm not even sure that Saison is that formal. They actively cultivate an open kitchen concept, and a bar and try to keep your $750 dinner fairly casual.

                          Nopa and Zuni are probably not on the level of State Bird; Bar Tartine might be the next best thing though.

                          1. re: Eudoxus

                            I find nopa on the same creative and taste level as State Bird and it serves cocktails and has a decent wine list. Parking is harder.

                            I find Zuni less creative/innovative and the space is a bit more traditional. But I find the taste level the same.

                            Bar Tartine I would say is more innovative risk/taking than State Bird, but it runs the risk of your guests really disliking the flavor and aesthetic.

                            1. re: goldangl95

                              NOPA? The place that's known primarily for its burger?

                              Who is the type of person that would really love Bar Tartine's aesthetic (e.g. someone who likes X, or likes to eat at Y & Z)?

                              1. re: Eudoxus

                                Nopa's kind of like a younger sibling of Zuni.

                                Bar Tartine isn't like anywhere else I've been. They're very farm-to-table but combine the usual Cal things with thoroughly assimilated Hungarian, Japanese, and modern Scandinavian influences. Best bread around.

                                1. re: Eudoxus

                                  For its burger? I'm confused about the possible derision on that comment. It's a neighborhood restaurant that's open all day from 11 to 11 (or so), yes during that time many people come there to hang out and get the burger but they get plenty of other items. State Bird also has "low brow" items on their menus (See ice cream sandwich, pancakes etc.) - it's part of what SF and Cali cuisine is all about. The flavor profiles/ingredient list at State Bird are no more innovative than NOPA or Frances the standards of innovative neighborhood Cali cuisine (same category State Bird is in). None of them are using much or any molecular gastronomie and none of them are using more "out there ingredients" than rabbit or squid (which are really not that out there). None of them are experimenting with out there flavor combos e.g. using more bitter, green, or sweet elements in ways that really challenge the palette.

                                  Bar Tartine is low on the pandering flavors I love (lots of unami, and salt and spices), its a very subtle flavor profile - mostly coming from pickled ingredients, herbs and the base vegetable and meat elements themselves.

                                  1. re: goldangl95

                                    The fact that the guy ended up at NOPA and was fairly disappointed with his experience seems to indicate that my initial surprise at the mention of NOPA as a State Bird substitute was justified.

                                    Feels like perhaps there is a little too much NOPA love in SF.

                                    It's clearly not a bad restaurant, but not so sure it should be on the recommended list to out-of-towners looking for something really interesting.

                                    Though who knows, maybe they would have been just as disappointed at State Bird...

                                    1. re: Eudoxus

                                      The request was for a substitute for State Bird, with an extremely casual atmosphere. If the request had been for "something really interesting," people would probably not have recommended NOPA.

                                      1. re: Eudoxus

                                        Right I think we've been running into this problem a lot on this board lately:

                                        I think the board did fail if NOPA has gotten really bad about reservations across the board, or the food has gone downhill in creativity or ingredients in the past 6 months and no one has noticed. So apologies to the OP if that's happened.

                                        But in terms of restaurants, I've hit my head against a wall repeatedly in figuring out what to recommend (OP not your fault) because I don't see anything obviously "wow" about SF Cuisine, it's about consistency, good produce, and a care about sourcing - these aren't by its nature things that wow most people. Our Michelin 2 star restaurants (say Atelier Crenn or Saison) wow people but that was clearly not what the OP was looking for:

                                        1. SF is throwing out a lot of the same type of restaurant which is our own bad. Because its mostly the type of restaurant that can now be found across the US and somewhat globally (see #3 below but also gastropubs and bistros are popping up everywhere)
                                        2. The request for no ethnic really strips out the diversity available in SF which is one of our strengths. (which has now happened on repeated requests or "I can get Thai at home" or "Mexican at home" type of responses).
                                        3. Cali cuisine is now somewhat a global phenomenon. Yes we have more of it, and yes our produce is better. But unless you are eating here for a week to just see how deep the quality runs, or really care about produce - you're not going to be blown away by a meal that you can get 90% there at home. I was annoyed by the quality of the white peaches I had at a recent dining experience in LA - most people woudn't care or certainly wouldn't be wow'd by excellent peaches to care about that 10% difference in produce.
                                        4. Formal and molecular gastronomie cuisine isn't very representative of SF say compared to Chicago. I'd say our formal cuisine is more my style - again more produce focused and lighter. Less obsessed with prestige ingredients, but again coming from NY you already get something close there.
                                        5. The new innovative frontier that's left to us is creating unexpected and unfamiliar tastes out of European cuisine (say Bar Tartine), and that usually makes people unhappy. Most people don't want to eat "bitter" food, or "bland" food, or food that's flavored by pickles or licorice.
                                        6. Or you have State Bird which came up with a gimmick *shrug*

                          2. Haven't been for a while, but Rich Table comes to mind.