The Ultimate San Francisco Date Night Guide

[Photographs: Lauren Sloss, unless otherwise noted]

There's no denying it: San Francisco is a city made for romance. Neighborhoods are full of hidden gems ripe for exploring; there are stunning, screen-worthy kiss backdrops atop every hill; and even the fog invites you to cuddle just a little bit closer.

Or so you'd think. According to, well, just about everyone, San Francisco can be an awfully tough place to get lucky. Some say it's the worst for single women, who can't even count on getting a cheesy pickup line thrown their way. Meanwhile, a certain dating service promises to fly women out from New York, just to give poor San Francisco dudes a break. (Which is pretty insulting, in my opinion.)

But after many years of dates both great and terrible in this city, I have figured out the secret to making things fun: good food, and lots of it. Also good drinks, ditto the lots of 'em part (because, dating). So without further ado, I present to you my ultimate dating guide for this fair city. You'll find suggestions for all kinds of landmark dates, to suit a variety of budgets. And yes, this is based entirely on personal experience, so feel free to chime in with your favorites, too!

The First Date: Toronado

Okay, so remember the part where I said that this would largely be based on personal experience? Exhibit A. Toronado was the scene of my first date with my now-boyfriend, and it went well enough that I'm here to recommend it to you all! Hear me out. Toronado is 100% anti-romantic in terms atmosphere —we're talking smelly bathrooms, pushy beer wonks, and often, very loud metal on the jukebox. This is good for two reasons: one, no pressure, two, if you are feeling the romance, it's completely due to your sexy, sexy chemistry.

Toronado is also a great way to see what kind of a beer person your date is. With one of the best draft lists in the city, you'll quickly learn if they take beer seriously. Are they in over their heads? Willing to learn? Know more than you? Ordering a Bud Light? These are very important questions to have answered early on. The "drinks" date is a go-to for first dates because, well, booze makes things a whole lot less awkward, for one. And, if things go badly, you can make a run for it before you're locked in to a full dinner. Here's another great bonus of Toronado: should things go well, you have an ideal dinner option built in right next door: delicious Rosamunde sausages that you can have delivered right to your bar stools.

Getting Serious: The Ferry Building Saturday Farmer's Market

You've got to really like someone to be willing to brave the Ferry Building on a Saturday together. This weekly cluster of delicious, delicious food stuffs and farm goods will give you the chance to see how well you deal with mental strain and physical strife together (namely, waiting in terribly long lines while starving). Sampling each other's favorite vendors will further enlighten you about your respective brunch tastes (Primavera chilaquiles or Roli Roti porchetta?), and make for a delicious smorgasbord of a meal. You'll be mingling among the long-termers and marrieds, too —the market is nothing if not a serious-couple hot spot —and, even more significantly, you'll probably be sober. That is, until you escape from the crowds at Il Cane Rosso for some bubbly.

Double Date: State Bird Provisions

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[Photograph: Maggie Hoffman]

The best kinds of double dates feel like four great friends hanging out and sharing a memorable meal. These days, it doesn't get much more memorable than State Bird Provisions. Lively and innovative, dinner at State Bird is as high-energy as it is delicious. And going with just two people quickly starts to feel masochistic. The restaurant's nouveau dim sum-style format means that trays and carts of gorgeous food are brought right to your table... and you have to have the self-restraint to say no. Going as a party of four allows you to try almost all of the rotating small plates, a few key items on the "permanent" menu (pancakes and 'world peace' peanut muscovado milk are musts), and better your chances of getting a table than with a party of six.

Back Up Plan: Han Il Kwan

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The reality is, you're going to have a hard time walking in and getting a four-top at State Bird for your double date. But never fear! Delicious barbecue at Han Il Kwan is here to save the day. The Outer Richmond spot is one of the city's best for tabletop cooking, and, similar to State Bird, requires way more food than two people can handle (trust me: I've done it. It hurts). Order two kinds of meat to grill (I love the spicy bulgogi and the spicy pork), a bottle of soju, and two large bottles of Hite beer. Feast on the generous banchan and spicy kimchi, and, if you have room, an order of marinated octopus.

Group Date: Mission Bowling Club

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

What's more fun than a great dinner out with a group? Dinner and bowling! Mission Bowling combines the best of both worlds, with a delicious, thoughtful dinner menu (including one of the best burgers in the city), killer cocktails, and six lanes for your bowling pleasure. You can't order food at the lanes, but reserve a table for dinner and a lane or two to follow, and try to keep your trash talking under control (or don't). Keep the drinks flowing while you play, and go for the most creative bowling names possible.

Adventurous Date: Old Mandarin Islamic

Three words for you: extremely spicy pepper. That is the name of one of the signature dishes at Old Mandarin Islamic, a halal Mandarin restaurant way out in the western reaches of the city (Parkside, to be exact). One or both of you, may well be venturing to this part of town for the first time. But the food, and convivial, family-run atmosphere, are worth the trip. Those extremely spicy peppers (pictured) arrive steaming in a pile with diced chicken and softly scrambled eggs; you'll be so taken by the flavor that you'll get a few big bites in before your mouth catches fire. Spiciness not your thing? Go for the restaurant's excellent hot pot, for which you can order vegetables, tofu, thinly-sliced meats, and lamb testicles. They're worth ordering alongside more traditional meat parts — the offal absorbs the flavors of the hot pot nicely, and take on a springy mushroom-like texture (the inevitable "balls in mouth" jokes are an obvious bonus). You'll definitely want to take advantage of the restaurant's BYOB policy, too — both hot peppers and lamb testes pair well with beer.

Budget-Friendly Date: Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store

My boyfriend was aghast when I told him that I'd included Mario's as a "cheap" date spot. "Cheap implies negative!" he sputtered. "Mario's should be... the most romantic perfect date ever!" I won't give him that, but I will concede that Mario's, while very budget-friendly, is far from cheap in terms of experience. This pocket-sized sandwich shop and cafe is tucked on a corner of Columbus Ave., right across from Washington Square Park. It evokes North Beach's old school, Italian-centric, Beatnik-y charm; not its touristy, cheesy side. And Mario's sandwiches, made on fresh Liguria foccacia (baked just across the park) are delicious, satisfying, and sharable. And, they're all under $12. Pair with a carafe of the house red, and you'll find that it's easy to linger for hours.

Splurge Date: Nopa

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Nopa's flatbread

Here's the thing about Nopa. It's not Coi, or Gary Danko, or Chez Panisse. You can easily order a $14 cheeseburger and a beer, and go home very happy. But Nopa is also an ideal place to splurge, and is one of my favorites spots to go big. The fact that it can be both is one of the things I love most about it. The space itself soars — high ceilings and huge windows allow you to watch Divisadero come to life as the fog rolls in. Start with one of the creative, well-balanced cocktails — I love the Dawn, made with Flor de Cana rum and amaro. Then, move on to the magnificent wine list, one of the best in the city. Take up the sommelier's offer for recommendations, and allow him to find a bottle perfectly suited to both of your tastes. When ordering your food, think in courses, and order everything to share. For a real bonus, try to snag seats at the chef's counter overlooking the wood-fired oven. You can watch the plates come together while lingering over a meal that might inspire you to become a regular.

Pure Romance: Cafe Jacqueline

There's something about soufflé that feels special — the delicate construction, the rich flavor, the unabashed use of butter. So Cafe Jacqueline, a tiny all-soufflé restaurant in North Beach, is made for a romantic night out. The space is small and simple, with rough-hewn wood floors and candles providing much of the light. Your meal will be long and leisurely, in true French fashion, and will be bookended by two soufflés, one savory and one sweet. Order escargot to start, and a heady bottle of French red to take you through the evening. Should you head out back to check out the restaurant's tiny garden, you may pass Jacqueline herself, beating eggs in the kitchen.

Get Lucky: Zuni Cafe

Zuni Café is a San Francisco institution, and with good reason. Here's another one: it's a great spot to go if you're looking to get lucky. Snag a table for two in the narrow, triangular bar area, where you can see the light fade over glasses of Champagne. Pair the bubbly with a dozen oysters —wherever you fall in the oysters-as-aphrodisiac debate, this combination will start things off very right. Move on to the famed roast chicken for two — it takes an hour to reach crisp-skinned, juicy perfection, leaving you time for a cocktail, or maybe more Champagne. The chicken itself is a sensuous experience: it's succulent, rich, and good enough that you'll be eating with your hands. You could order dessert, or you could lick your fingers and reach for the check instead.

All About Atmosphere; The Cliff House

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[Photograph: Wes Rowe]

One doesn't really forget about the Pacific Ocean living in San Francisco, but it's easy to let months pass without a trip to the beach. The ocean is cold here, and more often than not, our little part of coast is blanketed in fog. A date at the Cliff House is the perfect time to pay the Pacific a visit, and take in one of the most stunning views the city has to offer. Perched on a cliff overlooking Ocean Beach, the Cliff House has multiple parts —one is a more casual cafe that evokes the restaurant's old school San Francisco charm, the other is a "fancy" restaurant, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows directly overlooking the churning surf below. It doesn't matter which you choose, so long as you have a window. The food and drinks aren't the best, and are generally overpriced, but it's a wonderful spot to sit for an hour or two, watching the sunset and the tides change.

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