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07.29.2008

Best Brunch in San Francisco

Brunch is about indulgence. There's nothing quite so gratifying as sleeping as late as you want on the weekend, and then wandering out to a meal over which you can linger as long as you like and whose dishes are crafted to satisfy sweet tooth and searing headache alike. Brunch may be more socially acceptable for adults than having pancakes for dinner, but it offers the same exciting prospect of choosing what to eat with only our pleasure as a criteria.

Dinner is the most sophisticated meal, but brunch is the most hedonistic. If only because no one seems to think twice about having, say, donuts, bacon, steak and booze before 11:00 AM.

I have been valiantly indulging in brunch in San Francisco for more than ten years, and I've had more than a few adequate meals in that time period, but more importantly, I've discovered a few places that truly do brunch the right way, and at the risk of reviewing myself right out of my coveted corner window table on a Sunday, I'm going to tell you about them.

But first, let's talk about what makes a great brunch restaurant and menu. Brunch is more than breakfast. To qualify as a great brunch restaurant you have to do more than just serve eggs and bacon from 11 AM to 2 PM on the weekend. You need to have a menu that is a nice balance between savory and sweet. Good brunch restaurants will have some breakfast items, and some lunch items. Great brunch restaurants will have dishes that combine and defy both categorizations. The best brunch dishes can seem like breakfast for those who lean towards that end of the spectrum, while at the same time appealing to those who might just have already eaten their breakfast for the day.

The best brunch restaurants will also serve alcohol, and ideally have a wine list that includes champagne. My favorite restaurants also tend to serve fresh squeezed juices, and it goes without saying that the best among them also serve excellent coffee and espresso drinks.

Finally, the finest brunch restaurants in the city offer an atmosphere of respite. This isn't to say that they're tranquil -- most great brunch restaurants aren't oases of calm -- but the best brunch restaurant needs to make you feel at home and relaxed enough to order that second bloody mary and finish another section of the Sunday paper while nibbling on the last piece of bacon.

So without further ado, I offer to you my list of the absolute best places to have brunch in San Francisco.

Bar Tartine
Tucked into a sign-less storefront on Valencia Street, this bright, nicely decorated restaurant would make it into the best brunch category simply for serving fresh chunks of the country bread from it's namesake bakery four blocks away, which it does. The fact that it also makes french toast (be still my beating heart) from what I consider to be the best bread on the planet cements this as my number one favorite place to have brunch in the city. A regularly shifting menu features many delectables that often redefine the notion of brunch food. On a recent visit I had a watermelon gazpacho to start followed by a duck confit panini spread with peach mostarda (again on the world's best bread). Now if we could only get them to serve the breakfast bread pudding from Tartine Bakery, I would never have to go anywhere else on a Sunday morning. A nice wine list and beautifully designed decor make this a decidedly upscale experience, though without a shred of pretension. Despite the fact that it looks like they do on OpenTable, they don't actually take reservations for brunch. Show up shortly after they open at 11 and you're sure to get a table.

Bar Tartine
561 Valencia St
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 487-1600
Open 6PM to 10PM Tues to Sun, Saturday and Sunday 11AM to 2:30PM


Universal Cafe
Until Bar Tartine opened up, this was my favorite spot for brunch in the city. This small cafe offers a constantly changing menu of 12 to 15 dishes that are always made with excellent ingredients. There's almost always some sort of delicious hash with poached eggs on it as well as some variation on stuffed french toast, a flatbread, as well as several other dishes that shift with the seasons. Those that are interested in a little sun (should the weather cooperate) can snag one of the four outside tables on the sidewalk, while the hungover folks can slouch on the long wooden bench banquette that makes up half the seating in the narrow restaurant. There's usually some sort of fresh juice cocktail on the menu, as well as a compact and usually crap-free list of wines by the glass. No reservations here, so eating on the early side will mean less waiting.

Universal Cafe
2814 19th St
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 821-4608
Open Tues to Fri 5:30 PM to 9:30 PM, Saturday and Sunday 9AM to 2:15PM


Mama's on Washington Square
There's a reason that the last time I ate at Mama's I waited for half an hour in a line that stretched around the corner and up the street. This restaurant has been a San Francisco Institution for years. Home made baked goods of all kinds are one of the features of the restaurant, which essentially serves breakfast all day every day for those of you looking for a Wednesday brunch fix, as well as hearty lunches for those who can afford to wait 30 minutes to be seated at lunchtime. One of the only restaurants I've been to that offers several different varieties of french toast (all made with different house baked breads), Mama's is a great family restaurant with a homey feel, big portions, and great food.

Mama's on Washington Square
1701 Stockton St
San Francisco, CA 94133-2914
Phone: (415) 362-6421
Open Tuesday to Sunday 8AM to 3PM


Ella's Neo Classical American Cooking
I've never managed to figure out just what Neo Classical American cooking actually means, unless that's just a fancy way of saying "damn good pancakes" which certainly applies to this Presidio Heights breakfast and brunch institution. People seem to flock to the restaurant for the various species of pancakes on offer, as well as for their freshly made sticky buns, which are truly a spectacle to behold and a pleasure to eat. The cozy restaurant (which has a nice four seater counter for those who might be dining alone) also serves lunch and dinner, but everyone knows breakfast and brunch are what they do best. No reservations are taken, and because it's a small restaurant, you need to get there before 10 to avoid a wait on the weekends.

Ella's Neo Classical American Cooking
500 Presidio Ave
San Francisco, CA 94115-2423
Phone: (415) 441-5669
Mon to Fri 7AM to 11AM, 11:30AM to 9PM and Saturday and Sunday 8:30AM to 2PM


Q Restaurant
I first discovered Q when I was living in the neighborhood and now even when I live all the way across the city, I find myself occasionally making the trek back to the Inner Richmond for a fix of foccacia benedict and blackboard doodling. Q is a really fun, funky restaurant. Set up more like a diner than a restaurant, it's got a counter, a few booths, a pillow filled front nook with a blackboard wall behind it (lots of chalk and magnets to play with), and a series of tables that are as much art projects and game consoles as they are tabletops. My favorite table here is one that has that magnetic hair stuff under the glass that you can move around with magnetic pens, just like those old kids games. The food is eclectic with little twists like the focaccia bread under the benedicts, or red onion marmalade and blue cheese in their omelets. A nice wine list and funky music round out the experience.

Q Restaurant
225 Clement St
San Francisco, CA 94118
(415) 752-2298
Open Mon-Fri 11AM to 3PM and 5PM to 11PM, Saturday and Sunday 10 AM to 10 PM.


Just For You
I have one word for you: beignets. That's all you need to know about this little hole in the wall in the Dogpatch neighborhood. Freshly made to order New Orleans style beignets covered in powdered sugar. An order of these and one of their monster omelets and I could simply crawl back into bed with a smile on my face. This little diner is an odd bird of a restaurant, from the decor to the folks who staff the place, to the clever quips in their menu descriptions. But as long as you don't find that distracting, you'll love the southern influenced comfort food that comes in huge portions with no pretense or fuss. This is just good eating, which is why when you arrive you'll have to quickly jot your name down on the clipboard hanging by the door and wait a while, especially if it's after 11 AM. The liquor store next door sells newspapers, and a bench makes the wait pass a little more quickly. The nice folks inside will even pour you a cup of coffee if you ask.

Just For You Cafe
732 22nd St
San Francisco, CA 94107
(415) 647-3033
Weekdays 7:30AM to 3PM, Weekends 8AM to 3PM

Comments (15)

Jack wrote:
07.30.08 at 9:05 AM

Besides excellent sparkling wines, I also want to see excellent dry rosÚs on the wine list.

Arthur wrote:
07.30.08 at 9:54 AM

"no one seems to think twice about having, say, donuts, bacon, steak and booze before 11:00 AM." - Clearly, you did not join a fraternity in college :)

Nicely written, Alder.

Arnaud H wrote:
07.30.08 at 10:04 AM

No Foreign Cinema?

Alder wrote:
07.30.08 at 10:12 AM

Arnaud,

Foreign Cinema didn't quite make the cut. If my list was twice as long, it might be on there. It's definitely a really nice space. The last few times I've been there I've felt like it was a little pricey for what it offered.

Ruth Lieu wrote:
07.30.08 at 3:02 PM

I wanted to add that Bar Tartine serves that wonderful Tartine bread warm! Alder and I took Sparrow there and the staff was perfectly wonderful to our 10 weeks old baby. We stayed for a three course brunch while Sparrow was dazzled by the lighting. We would've tried more dishes but we ate too much bread.

Jennifer wrote:
07.30.08 at 3:45 PM

Thanks Alder. I passed this on to my brother who just moved relatively close to 'Just for You Cafe' with his wife. They took me to Mama's last time I was in SF so I know you are on the right track! Great spot -- and I wasn't hungry again until dinner. ;)

sam wrote:
07.31.08 at 11:10 AM

I love Foreign Cinema's brunch and think it should be on the list too. At Just for You, when you order a mimosa, it comes in a pint glass. They'll also swap orange for grapefruit if you ask. What could be better than a pint of grapefruit mimosa????

larry-s wrote:
07.31.08 at 1:21 PM

I had brunch last Sunday at Absinthe. The duck confit hash with two poached eggs was very nice. Alder, have you been there? If so, I'd be curious if you think it would make it into one of the 6-10 slots.

I really like Bar Tartine for dinner and definitely want to try it for brunch.

Alder wrote:
07.31.08 at 4:09 PM

Larry,

Thanks for the comments. It's been probably more than a year since I've been to Absinthe for Brunch but I recall having a pleasant meal there last time I did. Wouldn't make it to top 10 for me I don't think.

frank wrote:
11.23.08 at 12:39 AM

so...what wine does pair well with donuts?

Alder wrote:
11.23.08 at 11:02 AM

I prefer Champagne or Brachetto with my donuts.

Brad L. wrote:
03.04.09 at 2:29 AM

Glad to see Universal Cafe on your list. It's almost a shame that it's so popular these days.

I'm curious to know what you think of Dottie's and Brenda's - both of which would be on my list.

My top "no longer open" pick: Miss Millie's in Noe Valley. (I hear they're in Rockridge now, though I haven't been.)

Alder wrote:
03.04.09 at 9:37 AM

Brad,

Thanks for the comments. Haven't been to either ! I'll check them out.

Amanda wrote:
05.05.09 at 3:16 PM

THANKS for this info! I'm always on the lookout for new places to try! ~Amanda

Anonymous wrote:
08.12.11 at 11:30 PM

Freshly made to order New Orleans style beignets covered in powdered sugar. An order of these and one of their monster omelets and I could simply crawl back into bed with a smile on my face.
_________
Allen

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