By Andrea Nadel
A decade ago, a nice dinner out in San Francisco meant making a reservation weeks in advance, dressing up for the occasion, asking the hostess for the best table and relaxing as your server kept your water glass full. Today, these fine dining restaurants still exist but many SF diners prefer instead the “Fast Fine” concept. This typically means excellent food, but counter service, no reservations and a limited menu.
Busy tech workers usually don’t have time to cook or sit down for long meals in restaurants. But they appreciate great food made with top quality ingredients. San Francisco families have similar priorities. At a Fast Fine restaurant, a family of four will eat quickly and spend a fraction of the cost of a meal at a traditional restaurant. For diners who get overwhelmed by long menus with too many options, the Fast Fine food experience is ideal. There are usually just four to eight protein dishes, a few carefully chosen alcoholic beverages and maybe just one special dessert.
The Fast Fine model is a life-saver to the profits of San Francisco restaurant owners. They have long struggled in this city where rents are high and labor is both expensive and scarce. By 2022, the minimum wage in SF will rise to $15 hour. On top of that, owners are required to provide health care, which has resulted in the controversial “Healthy SF” surcharge.
At a Fast Fine restaurant, there are generally no waiters, hostesses or sommeliers. In fact, the diners do a lot of the work – such as filling up water glasses and even clearing tables. The small menus mean less costly inventory and less food waste. A robust food delivery business (through companies like Caviar) is a must for Fast Fine restaurants to multiply sales each day. All the restaurants below offer online ordering and delivery, and sometimes catering and private parties. Here are eight of the best:
Many credit Charlie Billies’ restaurant Souvla with launching the Fast Fine model in San Francisco. Billies had fine dining experience at French Laundry and Michael Mina, but dreamed of launching an upscale souvlaki joint like the ones found all over Greece. Souvla debuted in Hayes Valley in 2014, and it didn’t take long until lines were out the door all day. Diners choose a protein (such as rotisserie chicken or lamb leg) and either a sandwich or a salad. Extras include the much loved Greek Fries and the Greek frozen yogurt with toppings like baklava crumbles. The wine? Also Greek and limited to just five choices. Five years later, and Souvla now has four SF locations and over 60% of its business is take-out and delivery.
Fans of Evan and Sarah Rich’s exciting food no longer need a reservation at Hayes Valley’s Rich Table. In 2017 the food power couple opened counter-service RT Rotisserie just a few blocks away. In 2019, they opened a second location in NoPa. According to Evan Rich, the Hayes Valley spot serves 300 – 350 meals a deal with just 49 seats. Once again, delivery is their ticket to enhancing profit margins. The star of the menu is, of course, the rotisserie chicken. Diners choose a protein (also offered in sandwich form) and add to their meal with creative vegetable sides, soups and salads. In 2018, Bon Appetit named RT Rotisserie a “Top 50 New Restaurant” – an impressive feat for a Fast Fine restaurant without servers.
Media Noche may be the most instagrammable Fast Fine spot in San Francisco. From its colorful floor tiles to its metallic banana bathroom wallpaper, this counter service Cuban restaurant in the Mission has generated buzz since day one. Media Noche is a woman owned business. Madelyn Markoe and Jessie Baker each spent time in Cuba and Miami before creating this concept together. What does the name mean? It’s a late night snack in Miami – a hot pressed Cubano with swiss cheese, pork, ham, pickles and mustard. Media Noche offers this sandwich plus four others, as well as salads, snacks and bowls. There is one scrumptious dessert called Mi Abuelita Favorita – guava cheesecake ice cream with crushed maria cookies and chocolate magic shell.
Dennis and Daniel Lee ran a successful Cal Korean restaurant in the Mission called Namu Gaji for over six years. Today Namu Gaji is closed and the Lee brothers have parlayed their Korean cooking skills and creativity into the Fast Fine Namu Stonepot. There are two locations – one in NoPa and one in the Mission. Some menu items are the same as Namu Gaji, but the difference is that diners wait in line to place their orders at the counter. The namesake “stonepot” is similar to a Korean rice bowl with a choice of protein. Other popular options include fried chicken, tacos, poke and okonomiyaki. While Namu Gaji is expected to reopen in a Mid-Market location sometime 2020, it’s clear that the Fast Fine Namu Stonepot is here to stay.
Uno Dos Tacos
This enormous Mexican Fast Fine restaurant opened in 2014 and is part of Adriano Paganini’s Back of the House restaurant empire. The chef hails from Guadalajara and designed a classic Mexican menu that can be delivered with reliability and speed. Opening each morning at 7am for “desayuno,” Uno Dos Tacos continues service throughout the day and into the evening, with a lively Happy Hour. There are two lines for diners to wait in – one for food and one for alcohol. Unlike most Fast Fine spots, there are a number of choices for beverages, including 50 tequilas and 30 mezcals. There are five different fresh salsas made from scratch daily and always piping hot churros.
Italian food is also ripe for the Fast Fine model. In 2016 Marko Sotto opened Barzotto – an “American Pasta Bar.” Sotto formerly led operations for the Back of the House restaurant group. He snapped up an Executive Chef from Flour & Water and it wasn’t long before the Chronicle’s Michael Bauer left a glowing review. Located in the Mission district, Barzotto offers seven different hand-rolled fresh pastas and four “boards,” which usually serve as a main course. Dessert is straightforward – gelato soft serve with fun toppings. Barzotto made the smart move to sell some of its fresh pasta and marinara sauce in a small retail section and on Caviar.
Guy Eshel immigrated to Boston from Israel at a young age. After moving to San Francisco in his twenties, he missed Middle Eastern street food and saw it as the perfect match with the Fast Fine model. Sababa is a Hebrew and Arabic term for satisfaction and contentment. Eshel is betting on the fact that diners will be fully satisfied after ordering one of his signature pita sandwiches. Like many Fast Fine spots, diners choose a protein and then can opt for a sandwich, bowl or rice. Thanks to Eshel’s woodburning pita oven, the Israeli pita are fresh, plump and warm for each order. Sababa targets the corporate lunch crowd with two downtown SF locations.
Hayes Valley’s Corridor is a restaurant hybrid. Most guests order at the counter and grab a table overlooking busy Van Ness Ave. But those who prefer table service can make a reservation in the upstairs restaurant with a slightly expanded menu. The food is more varied and complex than a typical Fast Fine restaurant. Some customer favorites include the home-made monkey bread, the garganelli bolognese and the Stone’s Throw burger. Corridor is a key part of the Hi Neighbor restaurant group, who haven’t given up entirely on San Francisco’s fine dining scene. The group’s latest restaurant, the Vault, is upscale and anything but casual.
What is your favorite Fast Fine restaurant in San Francisco? Join us on a Gourmet Walks Hayes Valley Tour to learn more about the Fast Fine options in the neighborhood, and to taste that Souvla rotisserie chicken!