Thank you for subscribing!
Got it! Thank you!

Best Dining Bets in San Francisco on a Budget

An excellent cuisine has always been a major lure of San Fransico. Can you give into its culinary temptations without going broke? Yes -- our best bets for dining will show you how.

March, 2004 -- Afghan, Burmese, Cambodian, Cajun, Moroccan, Persian, Ethiopian -- whatever cuisine you're in the mood for, this city serves it. With more than 3,300 reasons to avoid cooking at home, more San Franciscans eat out than any other city's citizens in the U.S. And all you need to join the dinner party is a little money and an adventurous palate, because half the fun of visiting San Francisco is the opportunity to sample the flavors of the world in one fell swoop. Best of all, much of the city's greatest eating experiences are its small, affordable neighborhood haunts, the kind you'll never find unless someone (that would be me) lets you in on San Francisco's dining secrets.

To help you decide where to dine we've categorized the restaurants by area and by price (for a dinner). The majority of restaurants fall into the $8 to $15 range; everything below or above this range is placed into either the Super-Cheap Eats (most main courses are $9 or less) or Worth a Splurge (most main courses are more than $15) categories. These categories reflect the cost per person for a main course and a beverage-which means you can get away with spending that amount, but you can also blow your budget if you go crazy on appetizers, cocktails, coffee, and dessert.

Best Low-Cost Dining Bets

Best Value: Crepes. Yes, crepes. Cheap crepes that are bigger than your head and filled with everything from cheddar cheese and onions to spinach, ham, eggplant, pesto, tomatoes, roasted peppers, smoked salmon, mushrooms, sausage, and even scallops. Crepes on Cole, 100 Carl St. (tel. 415/664-1800) in the Haight makes them for about $7, including a side of home fries. Ti Couz, 3108 16th St. (tel. 415/252-7373) in the Mission makes even better crepes, but they are a bit more expensive.

Best Classic San Francisco Dining Experience: The lovable loudmouths working behind the narrow counter of the Swan Oyster Depot, 1517 Polk St. (tel. 415/673-1101) have been satisfying patrons with fresh crab, shrimp, oysters, and clam chowder since 1912. My dad doesn't care much for visiting San Francisco ("Too crowded!") but he loves having lunch at this beloved seafood institution.

Best Moderately Priced Restaurant: Comfortable and casual-but-upscale Fringale, 570 Fourth St. (tel. 415/543-0573), is one of my very favorite restaurants, even compared to the pricey big boys. It offers some of the best French food in the city in a wonderful atmosphere, and at a steal of a price.

Best Splurge Choice: Nancy Oaks' high-energy Boulevard, 1 Mission St. (tel. 415/543-6084) is a visual and gastronomical delight. For years it's been ranked as the city's most popular restaurant. Also worth the cash is a meal at Kokkari, 200 Jackson St. (tel. 415/981-0983) where French chef Jean Alberti creates masterpieces of Aegean cuisine.

Best Grease Pit: Anyone who's a connoisseur of funky little ethnic eateries will love Tú Lan, 8 Sixth St. (tel. 415/626-0927) one of the greasiest little holes-in-the-wall in the city. But even Julia Child is a fan of their Vietnamese imperial rolls. For late-night noshing on tomato beef with noodles and house special chow mein, Sam Wo, 813 Washington St. (tel. 415/982-0596), is my favorite Chinatown dive.

Best Budget Dinner Show: The gender-bending waitresses-mostly Asian men dressed very convincingly as hot-to-trot women-will blow your mind with their lip-synced show tunes, which take place every night at AsiaSF, 201 Ninth St. (tel. 415/255-2742). Bring the parents -- they'll love it!

Best Dim Sum: Downtown and Chinatown dim sum restaurants may be more centrally located, but that's all they have on the Ton Kiang, 5821 Geary Blvd. (tel. 415/387-8273) which serves up the best seafood dumplings and stuffed crab claws this side of China. For downtown dim sum, the venerable Yank Sing, 101 Spear St. (tel. 415/957-9300), offers a pleasing dim sum surprise on every cart that's wheeled to your table.

Best Party Scene: Throw back a few glasses of sangria with your tapas at Cha Cha Cha, 1801 Haight St. (tel. 415/386-5758) and you'll start swinging with the rest of the crowd.

Best Pizza: Has Pauline's, 260 Valencia St. (tel. 415/552-2050) perfected pizza? Quite possibly. At least it's the best we've ever had. Pauline's only does two things -- pizzas and salads -- but does them both better than any other restaurant in the city. The best by-the-slice is North Beach's Golden Boy Pizza, 542 Green St. (tel. 415/982-9738); everyone watches with envy as you stroll down the sidewalk while savoring the doughy square of deliciousness.

Best Burritos: We're not foolish enough to deem one burrito the king in this town (we can do without the hate mail), but there's a reason why people come from across town to line up at Taquerias La Cumbre, 515 Valencia St. (tel. 415/863-8205), in the Mission.

Best Place for Picnic Supplies: If you're anywhere near North Beach, head to San Francisco's legendary Molinari Delicatessen, 373 Columbus Ave. (tel. 415/421-2337) which offers an eye-popping selection of cold salads, cheeses, and sandwiches packaged and priced to go (the Italian subs are big enough for two hearty appetites). Another good sunny-day option is a picnic on Marina Green, but first stop by the Marina Safeway, 15 Marina Blvd. (tel. 415/563-4946) to pick up fresh-baked breads, gourmet cheeses, and other foodstuffs (including fresh cracked crab when in season).

Best Coffee Shop or Cafe: With all the wonderfully unique coffee shops throughout this cafe town, there can be no one winner. We do, however, love the authentic atmosphere at Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store, 566 Columbus Ave. (tel. 415/362-0536), and Caffè Trieste, 601 Vallejo Ave. (tel. 415/392-6739). Whatever you do, stay away from the ever-trendy Starbucks.

Best Happy-Hour Spread: At the top of Nob Hill inside the Fairmont Hotel is the beloved Tonga Room, 950 Mason St. (tel. 415/772-5278). Every weekday from 5 to 7pm both locals and tourists rub elbows while getting stuffed at the all-you-can-eat buffet (chicken wings, chow mein, pot stickers, and much more) for a mere $6.

Best Budget Seafood: The Crab Cake Lounge, 900 North Point St. (tel. 415/929-1730), located on the upper level of the glamorous McCormick and Kuleto's Seafood Restaurant, offers a huge selection of shellfish-fresh oysters on the half shell, Prince Edward mussels, Sacramento Delta crayfish, Manila clams -- and light seafood dishes at very reasonable prices.

Best Desserts: Okay, so maybe you can't afford a five-course meal here, but you can saunter into the Grand Cafe, 501 Geary Blvd. (tel. 415/292-0101) near closing time for a decadent dessert, such as the devil's food chocolate pudding gateau with coffee caramel sauce and cashew toffee ice cream. Besides, it's a good excuse to check out one of the most beautiful dining rooms you'll ever see.

Best Breakfast: We have a tie: Dottie's True Blue Café, 522 Jones St. (tel. 415/885-2767) has taken the classic American breakfast to a new level -- maybe the best I've ever had. Crummy neighborhood, superb food. Ella's, 500 Presidio Ave. (tel. 415/441-5669), is far more yuppie, equally as divine, and in a much better neighborhood, but it's so popular that the wait on weekend mornings is brutal.

Best Funky Atmosphere That's an easy one: Tommy's Joynt, 1101 Geary Blvd. (tel. 415/775-4216). The interior looks like a Buffalo Bill museum that imploded, the exterior paint job looks like a circus tent on acid, and the trays of huge trays of hofbrau classics will make your arteries harden just looking at them. In short, you'll love this place.

Best Family-Style Restaurant: Giant platters of classic Italian food and carafes filled with table wine are placed on long wooden tables by motherly waitresses while Sinatra classics play to the festive crowd of contented diners. Welcome to North Beach-style family dining at Capp's Corner, 1600 Powell St. (tel. 415/989-2589).

Best Burger: That's an easy one: Mo's Gourmet Burgers, 1322 Grant Ave. (tel. 415/788-3779). Consider yourself warned, however -- no other burger will ever taste as good.

Best Surreal Dining Experience: Sitting cross-legged on a pillow, shoes off, smoking apricot tobacco out of a hookah, eating baba ghanouj, and drinking spiced wine in an exotic Middle Eastern setting while beautiful, sensuous belly dancers glide across the dining room. Unwind your mind at Kan Zaman, 1793 Haight St. (tel. 415/751-9656).