Infinite Appetite, Finite Budget: The Castro

It’s never going to be the Mission, but the improvement over the past five years has been vast.

ALEX LEBER – Chongquing chicken is heavy on hot peppers.

The thing to keep in mind when discussing food in the Castro is that it’s a much-smaller neighborhood than most people think it is. It’s pitched more toward bars than to restaurants — and with a strong appeal for out-of-town visitors (including younger queers from the suburban East Bay). Granted, everyone but the ultimate newbie knows you still have to eat before a raucous night out, but the Castro will always be a place where people let their inhibitions out in ways they might not feel comfortable doing back home — which is to say, a party spot. And if you make their neighborhood your home, you may often go elsewhere for dinner. The Castro has more 7-Elevens (one) than Michelin stars (none).

Within these parameters, though, there are many worthwhile places for a great brunch or a lovely date. Notwithstanding the borderline-insane numbers of coffee places and gotta-go-at-least-once kiosks of kitsch like Hot Cookie, here are the two dozen best — or maybe most significant — eateries in the Castro.

Anchor Oyster Bar
For 40 years, servers have kept the queue — and many passersby — happy with little cups of sidewalk chowder. That line has nothing on Polk Street’s Swan Oyster Depot, though, and Anchor’s venerable menu of sustainable seafood means this charmingly nautical space just south of the bars has never lost its position in the bivalve hierarchy.
579 Castro St., anchoroysterbar.com

Canela Bistro & Wine Bar
Tapas gave us small plates, while that trend sprouted in every direction, you can go back to the source at Canela, Mat Schuster’s playful, tempranillo-heavy date spot. Even if beef cheeks are a little out-there for you, there are plenty of accessible seafood dishes and all the Spanish cheeses and flatbreads you could ask for.
2272 Market St., canelasf.com

Chow
While Chow didn’t quite invent the concept when it debuted on Church Street in the late ’90s, it’s fair to say upscale comfort food was almost unheard-of at the time. Having expanded to four locations with the newest one opening in Berkeley this February, Chow’s Thai chicken salad and ahi tuna sandwich prove that fast-casual can’t put a dent in its claim to be a near-flawless lunch spot. And doesn’t almost everyone have an ex who worked here at one point?
215 Church St., chowfoodbar.com

Dinosaurs
The subterranean Castro location of a four-strong mini-chain is a little hard to find, as you enter via 16th Street. And while plenty of under-$5 banh mi exist in San Francisco, Dinosaurs’ shaking beef, steamed pork xiu mai meatball, and portobello-mushroom sandwiches are relative rarities. They’re worth the $8.75. Trust.
2275 Market St. eatdinosaurs.com

(Finn Town)

Finn Town
Opening chef Ryan Scott has gone and Finn Town’s menu has seen some hairpin turns, but this agreeable, two-year-old spot exudes a casual neighborhood warmth that keeps us returning. Its relationship with the Castro’s Nordic past has always been loose, but its approach to vegetarians and people who like a second cocktail at brunch more than makes up for it in intimacy.
2251 Market St., finntownsf.com

Flore
It goes up, it goes down, it plots a transformation into a cannabis-infused wonderland — we don’t really care what happens to Flore. Formerly Cafe Flore, the 45-year-old corner spot with the large, mostly enclosed outdoor patio remains the paramount hangout for neighborhood veterans, phototropic bookworms, and people whose agenda happily consists of not doing all that much for an afternoon.
2298 Market St., flore415.com

Frances
Although Octavia has stolen its thunder somewhat, Connie Tsui has maintained the charm of the Castro’s most romantic restaurant since Melissa Perello made her Pac Heights follow-up her primary occupation. It’s tiny, but the dinner-only Frances manages to pack in almost 50 seats for people who stroll down from the F-Market’s terminus for bavette steak and lumberjack cake with maple ice cream. Nine years on, this continues to hold the top rank.
3870 17th St., frances-sf.com

Harvey’s
Named for a certain slain LGBT-rights pioneer, this brunch-centric place functions almost like the Castro’s Peach Pit. With cheeky cocktails — try a “Bloody Mary Lou Retton” — and a comforting predictability, Harvey’s has a certain see-and-be-seen charm accented by original takes on diner classics, like the Heart Attack Benedict (fry bread and an Angus burger over poached eggs).
500 Castro St., harveyssf.com

Hearth Coffee Roasters
It looks like a typical Third Wave cafe, but it’s so much more. Hearth nimbly spans both brunch poles — avocado toast on one end and bottomless mimosas on the other — serving vigorous comfort food every day of the week. It’s open for prix fixe dinner, too, with a wine list curated by a sommelier. What you got, Bearbucks?
3985 17th St., hearthsf.com

Hi Tops
An anomaly in more ways than one, Hi Tops is a gay sports bar that serves food good enough to merit inclusion on this otherwise bar-free list. Wings, fried chicken sandwiches, It’s-Its, and a pork-chop-on-a-stick — plus plenty of craft brew taps — indicate a level of thoughtfulness that’s a cut above most TV-filled dives. You can watch the game or just watch their butts; no one will judge you either way.
2247 Market St., hitopssf.com

INDO
Middling Thai is common throughout the Castro, but this Indonesian newcomer — the second location of a Palo Alto institution, it’s barely two months old — might shake up some of that complacency. Be it roti frata, a green papaya salad, or a maple-y duck kapitan made with kaffir lime curry, chef Diana Anwar’s menu has become an instant heavy-hitter.
4039 18th St., indorestaurant.com

Kitchen Story
If you use Instagram to suss out where to eat, you’ve no doubt encountered the pork-belly rancheros at this brunch place with a borderline cult following. Asian and Californian flavors intersect in this kitchen like lines of latitude and longitude, and while the atmosphere is convivial enough to include a $36, 36-ounce “Fiesta Bucket,” Kitchen Story appears to blame any resulting intoxication on the straw.
3499 16th St., kitchenstorysf.com

Lark (Gabrielle Lurie)

Lark
Yes, it’s a wine bar — but it’s not just a wine bar. Slightly below street level on dive-packed 18th Street, Lark manages to be at once familiar and mysterious, a food-centric Cal-Mediterranean spot targeted to a mid-tier price point. Simply put, there are a lot of places in S.F. serving this precise type of cuisine, but few of them do it this well.
4068 18th St., larksf.com

L’Ardoise Bistro
Apart from a few corner shops, a pet store, and a Brutalist hospital, the Duboce Triangle is nearly 100-percent residential. It’s also very romantic, which means this Platonic ideal of the French bistro fits in beautifully. If you want a terrine of foie gras, a duck-leg confit cooked for seven hours, or some tip-top coq au vin, you know where it’s waiting for you.
151 Noe St., ardoisesf.com

Mama Ji’s
The only dim sum restaurant for many blocks in every direction, Mama Ji’s is also the last commercial establishment before the hill winds up to Twin Peaks. And while dim-sum often wraps up by 3 p.m., Mama keeps serving dumplings and potstickers late into the evening — with Belgian beers. Don’t forget the pan-fried turnip cake with dried shrimp.
4416 18th St., mamajissf.com

Marcello’s Pizza
This is the best place in the Castro for a slice, and one of the best in the city. That’s it.
420 Castro St., marcellospizza420.com

Nomica
Not too long ago, this seemed like it might be a cursed address. But the slightly unusual menu at this spinoff of Sausalito’s Sushi Ran — whose name, an acronym for “Noe, Mission, Castro,” puns on the Japanese word for “drinking house” — won ample credit for dishes like a five-spiced duck leg, dashi mashed potatoes, and a whole chicken in brioche that requires 24 hours’ notice. Culinary ambition doesn’t always fit the Castro’s vibe, so double points for Nomica’s longevity.
2223 Market St., nomicasf.com

Orphan Andy’s
After the owner of Sparky’s skipped town a few years ago, Orphan Andy’s became the only 24-hour diner in a hood full of night owls. Who among us, drunk or sober, hasn’t needed an emergency 3 a.m. omelet with no frills and lots of coffee? With its vintage light fixtures and a comic strip on the walls that enshrines its own mythology, this place is a treasure — and you might get blessed by a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence.
3991 17th St., no website.

The Sausage Factory
Having opened in 1968, the name of this red-sauce Italian place only took on its double-entendre quality after the Castro’s demographic profile shifted. Family-run and newly on its feet after a potential closure, this might not be Acquerello, but it epitomizes old-school comfort. We all get a craving for eggplant parm or chicken marsala, served by career waiters along with an unpretentious glass of house red, in a dark-wood interior.
517 Castro St., thesausagefactory.com

Starbelly
One of the best and oldest outposts of the Adriano Paganini/Back of the House empire, Starbelly should be on your brunch radar the way migratory waterfowl track coastal wetlands. Adam Timney’s upscale comfort-food menu is just right, from chilaquiles and fried chicken po’ boys to pizzas and king salmon for dinner. The patio is heated and they keep half the overall seats free for walk-ins.
3583 16th St., starbellysf.com

(Super Duper)

Super Duper Burgers
It seems so ordinary now, but this was the very first Super Duper location, which opened to feed hungry bears in 2010 and has since grown into a mini-chain within Back of the House. This year’s officially sanctioned Super Duper Day (April 30) has come and gone, but in terms of quality burgers, house-made pickles, garlic fries, and spiked shakes, Super Duper has no equal.
2304 Market St., superduperburgers.com

Tacorgasmico
“Simple Mexican Pleasures” greet you at this mural-covered house of authentic dishes like panuchos, elote, and cochinita pibil. You can still get a Mission-style burrito — and handmade empanadas, too. If the name sounds crassly silly, know that wordplay on “taco” is common in Mexico City and elsewhere.
2337 Market St., simplemexicanpleasures.com

Tacos Club
Our favorite Mexican place in the neighborhood is authentic enough to serve tinga de pollo and nopales rellenos de queso, but the best part about this tiny, triangular spot is pairing those tacos with $4 sangria at the outdoor tables on Taco Tuesday — while cruising the sidewalk trade. The extra-friendly service and excellent weekend hours are strong pluses, too.
2312 Market St., no website.

Woodhouse Fish Co.
Although its name has become increasingly associated with festivals like Outside Lands — its the host of “Outside Clams,” in fact — Woodhouse excels at all the S.F. classics, like cioppino and Crab Louis, to contemporary dishes like Baja fish tacos.
2073 Market St., woodhousefish.com

 

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