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If you’re dating in San Francisco, chances are your experience is peppered with equal parts awkwardness, dread, and delight. If you’re starting a new relationship, you might be eating your way through the city as we speak, exchanging shy, infatuated glances over crudo and pet nat. If you’ve been lucky enough to hold on to a long-term partner — maybe you moonlight on OKCupid as a “happily poly couple,” no judgment there — you might want to mix things up occasionally. One thing is certain, though: the city has no shortage of great date night spots.
Of course, romance can mean many things to many people — from fancy vibes and decor that invites an impromptu subscription to Rent the Runway, to just the right blend of darkness, good music, and strong drinks. Or maybe it’s a softly lit, delicious, and affordable restaurant that makes for an excellent weeknight outing. Whatever it is, our ultimate date spot guide — complete with some of the newest names in town — has you covered.
These restaurants have great lighting
San Francisco has a thing for spot lighting. Aside from making food photography difficult, the harsh, overhead spots are hardly flattering — and everyone wants to look good on a date. At Boulevard, the historic institution recently renovated by Ken Fulk, everyone indeed does, thanks to a clever mix of Tiffany lamps and small brass lighting fixtures on the tables, placed at different levels.
Then, there’s Lord Stanley, which currently hosts a series of pop-ups named Turntable, where its lighting designed to play up everyone’s best features: the gorgeous glow is achieved thanks to various lights of different shapes and textures, which mix nicely with the rosy-pink neons framing the takeaway window. Zuni Cafe always has impeccable lighting; head upstairs for a more secluded feel. And at the perpetually full Mission newcomer Buddy, a mixture of soft sconces and dim overheads paints everyone the perfect shade of peach.
Here are fancy (but affordable) dinner options
Dating in San Francisco can get expensive, quickly. Sure, a $295 ticketed meal is nice for a very rare occasion, but for those who pack several outings into a month — and split the bill — finances matter. And yet, sometimes a date requires a sparkly atmosphere, an aura of an occasion. How to reconcile the two? To start, head to Hilda and Jesse on Monday night, where an affordable $45 three-course dinner (or a five-course culinary adventure for $75 per person) pairs well with the whimsical interiors and a prime location on the corner of Washington Square Park.
For excellent people-watching and gorgeous decor, The Madrigal — walking distance to the San Francisco Ballet and opera — looks and feels way pricier than it really is (a cocktail and an appetizer will set you back approximately $30). In the Marina, Flores, festive and adorable with murals and chic design touches, is excellent for a night of inexpensive apps and a shared margarita pitcher. And there’s something about Trestle — it’s the brick wall, perhaps? — that always feels special without breaking the bank.
Try these not-so-obvious coffee shops
For a casual daytime hang, nothing beats a coffee shop. But where to drown the first date scaries in high-quality brew, and hopefully not run into your entire friend group? Try The Coffee Movement, a blink-and-you-miss-it spot in Nob Hill, with a perfectly located outdoor bench you and your date can share.
On the other side of town, Cafe Centro is easy to love. Located on the edge of South Park, it feels romantically European, and lends the date an unexpected twist of novelty. Cafe Reveille in Mission Bay is tucked away and looks great. But the most unique option of them all? Fluid Cooperative Cafe inside La Cocina’s Municipal Marketplace. Pick a sunny spot, peruse cookbooks together, hide your embarrassment in ample people-watching — nothing bad can come out of this scenario.
Check out these sexy bars for a cocktail date
When it comes to bar dates, there’s a delicate balance. Too rowdy, and the date might go awry. Too boring, and the whole point of a sexy, liquor-fueled time gets missed. But at the following spots, everything is just right. Take ChezChez for example; while not textbook “sexy,” its effortless vibe, cozy lighting, and smooth vermouth cocktails will put a unexpectedly chic spin on any date night.
There’s also something sensual about Arcana, a Mission newcomer with ample plants, cozy corners and live music performances. At Millay, the tiny bottle shop and bar, the atmosphere is always on-point, and the noise level makes for intimate — but not too excruciating — communication. But sexy doesn’t have to mean understated. A place like Cold Drinks Bar, neatly hidden in Chinatown above China Live, supplies an intentionally lavish atmosphere and an opportunity to splurge on top-notch whiskey cocktails while seated snuggly on a leather sofa.
Where to stock up for an al-fresco picnic
As the weather warms up (but before San Francisco’s notoriously chilly “summer” sets in) dining alfresco is a fun, low-stress option for a date, whether the first or one of many. Care to showcase your foodie chops as you take it to go? Then head to tiny Alimentari Aurora to stock up on snacks, cheese, and tinned fish — tackling the challenge of opening it without splashing oil all over can be cute! — and Potrero Hill has plenty of charming spots to consume the goods.
In the Sunset, Queens is a beloved destination for interesting salads and cool, new drinks, all ready to be taken to Golden Gate Park. The new-ish Tahona Mercado makes shopping for the picnic part of the fun; the adorable self-described “Mexicatessen” offers pastries, chocolate, chips, and salsa. For something more substantial, consider the takeaway at Square Pie Guys in SoMa. Their brand-new Souvla collaboration is a great conversation starter about your date’s fast-casual dining preferences.