There are a lot of one-liners about living in San Francisco. Within a month of moving here, if someone brings up that fake Mark Twain quote, your gut reaction will be to find a fax machine and throw it from the top of a building. Another one that gets tossed out a lot is how we live in the most expensive city in the country, and that line stings a little more because it’s got a lot of truth. Luckily, though, there are a lot of places around SF where you can have a very good, sit-down dinner for about $30 (here, we’ve defined “dinner” as an entree with either an appetizer or a drink). Whether you want Burmese, sushi, or Italian, use this guide to find the best places to eat affordably around the city.
Mr. Pollo isn’t like the other prix fixe places in SF. It kind of feels like you’re eating at a friend’s place who just really likes to cook rather than a real restaurant. It’s $30 for a four-course meal that typically includes a salad, an arepa, a main course, and a dessert. The arepa is huge and would probably cost half the meal at another spot in SF, but you’re not at another spot, you’re in a tiny eight-seat place that looks like a stove fell into a college dorm room, eating one of the most interesting meals in the city.
San Francisco might be the American capital of fancy pasta with places like SPQR, Flour + Water, and Che Fico, but the price tag on those places is pretty steep. That’s why Barzotto is great. It’s a counter-service spot in the Mission that makes delicious (and affordable) pastas, each of which is around $15. Get the extra long noodles and a glass of wine and you’ll still have money left over to grab some soft serve for the inherent post-pasta walk around the block after you leave.
Beretta has the noise and crowd of a Spin Doctors concert, so it’s not an ideal spot for a date, but if you’re out in the Mission and get hungry, it comes through in a pinch and won’t slow down the night. You can get a couple of appetizers, like their walnut bread with burrata, or skip straight to pizzas. Either way, you’ll leave happy and ready to go back out.
Aside from the absurdly long menu, we love Lers Ros because you get a good amount of food for your money. Everything here is served family-style (usually enough for three to four people if everyone orders one thing), and at about $15 per large plate, it’s a great deal. Plus, there are a lot of tables, so you can show up last minute with a group and still be fine.
The Marina/Cow Hollow
You wouldn’t go to Delarosa by yourself for the same reason that you didn’t want to sit alone at lunch in your high school cafeteria - it’s a social place with a lot going on. Also, eating an entire pizza solo isn’t as funny of a work story as you think it is. But if you’re dead set, you can come to Delarosa and get a pizza and a few cocktails without spending too much money. Coming with another person or two though does give you the ability to try more. Plus, you have someone to talk to while you people watch in the Marina.
We like Causwells for brunch, but it’s also a great utility restaurant for dinner. You can come here on any given night with a few friends, a date, or wander in alone and be fine sitting at the bar. They have a substantial craft beer and by-the-glass wine list to choose from while you wait for your food, and pretty much everything on the menu is good. That said, the burger is what you should order.
Flores is a good spot for impromptu weeknight get togethers. A big reason to go here is for margaritas, but the food is solid as well. We like the duck enchiladas both because they’re good and because they’re small enough that you won’t have to share if you don’t want to. Maybe split some guacamole, too.
North Beach/Russian Hill
Comstock is mainly a bar, but it’s a bar with great food. Start with some white cheddar chexx, skip the rainbow unicorn tartare that mostly exists for pictures, and order some lo mein cacio e pepe or the burger. Get a daiquiri or a manhattan, too.
Chubby Noodle is infamous for its brunch, but the food is better at dinner. Plus, you can choose what you want to eat instead of being stuck with the set brunch menu, which is substantial, but leaves off some of the hits like the Korean pork tacos. The large dishes are served family style, but there’s not much stopping you from taking down the crispy garlic noodles on your own. Just make sure to add fried chicken to them.
Cocotte is a great neighborhood restaurant in Russian Hill. The place is small and can get a little noisy, but it’s the kind of volume that’s a good thing on a date or if you want to sit at the bar alone. They serve French food here, and have classics like mussels and beef tartare. The coq au vin is more than enough for a whole meal and at $23, you should get a glass of wine to go with it, too.
Far from the best Italian in the city, but also very far from the worst, The Italian Homemade is a go-to for a last-second dinner. Choose your pasta and sauce, and start scouting for open tables. This location doesn’t have beer or wine, so you could double up on pasta or get a few bombolino for dessert. If you must drink wine with your pasta, though, the Union Street location has you covered.
Iza is one of our favorite ramen shops in San Francisco. It’s not huge, and there’s no crazy schtick to get you here, they just make really good food. As you internally debate what to order, get a beer or some sake, and while a bowl of ramen will cover you for the night (we like the Iza Ramen), their fried chicken is a good thing to split with someone as well.
It’s tough to find affordable seafood in SF, but Woodhouse Fish Co. on Fillmore does the job. Most of the sandwiches and entrees are around $20, and we especially like the fish tacos, clam roll, and crab cakes.
If you want to go on a nice date without blowing all of your money for the weekend, you can game the system at Nopa. Eating here alone can be expensive, but the portions are also huge, so if you go there with someone else, you can split an appetizer and an entree and make it out fine. The burger is a little small to cut in half, but if you get stood up, take yourself on a date and get that and a cocktail.
Much like golf or arbitrage, eating sushi omakase regularly is an expensive hobby to pick up. Fortunately, there are public courses for the former, and Oma San Francisco Station exists for the latter. This eight-seat counter is located in the middle of the Japan Center and has a $30, five-course option that includes soup and a hand roll, which is more than enough for dinner. For the quality of the fish, it’s a pretty great deal.
When you get out of work too late to go to the grocery store, Ippudo is a solid option for a not too expensive dinner. All of the ramen is around $15 and is more than enough to fill you up, but if you’re still hungry, you can get a chicken bun or two to round everything out. And if you need to take the edge off from work, they have a good list of Japanese beers, too.
This is a good spot to come after work with a few friends. The main thing to get here are the sliders - we like the Black and Blue with blue cheese and bacon. Cocktails are $11 and sliders are all under $5, so you can mix and match as you see fit, and still come in under budget.
Maybe it’s been a bad day or maybe you’ve decided to save your diet for next year’s resolutions, but you could really go for some bar food right now. If that’s the case, walk over to Hogwash. They have a ton of beers on tap, good german sausages, and our favorite, fries covered in curry.
If you work near Union Square, go to B44 for a quick date after work or a meal with a few of your officemates. It’s a tapas restaurant that has all the usual suspects on the menu, like patatas bravas and gambas al ajillo, and the portions are actually substantial. It’s not too hard to get a table if you walk in on a weeknight, and everyone you’re with will be able to get a small plate and a glass of wine without sweating their bill later.
Souvla may technically be SF’s answer to fast casual, but that doesn’t stop this place from making really delicious Greek food. It’s a good spot to catch up with a few friends or go on a very casual date. Order the chicken salad or the lamb sandwich, skip the fries and opt for the juicy potatoes that are cooked in the rotisserie drippings instead, and get some frozen Greek Yogurt, which is good enough to merit a trip alone.
RT Rotisserie may be our ideal casual weeknight dinner. Almost everything on the menu - from the chicken to the pork belly to the cauliflower - is great, you can get in and out pretty quickly if you need to, and at $10 for half a chicken, it’s a steal. With the extra money you have, get some fries or the charred cabbage salad.
Domo is a small, casual sushi spot in Hayes Valley that mostly has bar seating. The main reason we like this place is their specialty rolls, which hover around $10 per roll. If you show up with a few people, the wait won’t be too long, and you wouldn’t want to sit at a bar with more people than that anyway, so it all works out.
There are perfect date restaurants, but Fiorella may be our only favorite restaurant for double dates. It has a buzzy atmosphere and the walls are covered in pictures of famous SF figures, so you can get away with gaps in conversation or fill them in with, “Oh look, is that Dharma from Dharma and Greg?” (it’s not by the way). The pizzas have thin, crispy crusts, the octopus is great, and the food is pretty affordable so you won’t leave fuming that you had to endure that awful human interaction and spend a fortune.
This place in the Richmond feels a little like you’re eating in a Top Golf or a chain sports bar, but they also serve solid Korean BBQ. Come here with a group and do the $25 all-you-can-eat option. Load up on pork cheek and lemongrass chicken thighs, and maybe get some bacon-wrapped asparagus so you’re not just eating meat the whole night.