The classic, unfussy, neighborhood French bistro is a bit of a dying breed, especially in San Francisco, where restaurant rents keep going up and, with them, the price of a basic weeknight meal.
But there are several stalwarts here that have been serving up soupe a l'oignon and steak frites to grateful neighbors for decades, as well as a couple of newer additions that are, nonetheless, sticking to classic simplicity and offering up a reasonable formule (prix fixe) that won't break the bank.
Named for the classic slate chalkboard used by Parisian bistros to write their daily menus, this Duboce Triangle hideaway is well loved by its neighborhood and has been for decades. Chef Thierry Clement turns out consistently great bistro fare, and this is one of the go-to places in the city for coq au vin, duck confit, and a perfect steak frites. Also, don't sleep on the pommes de terre landaises — fried potato coins — or the escargots en Gueusaille, which are served in crispy potato cups and topped with a bright green parsley-garlic butter. It's not always easy to get in, despite this place being well established and off the radar for many — but it's a great, cozy destination now with some extra outdoor seating.
151 Noe Street, reservations here
After fears arose in the early pandemic that tiny North Beach soufflé restaurant Café Jacqueline (est. 1979) might be gone for good — with its then-83-year-old chef owner hospitalized at one point with a non-COVID infection — we were heartened to learn from Tablehopper in October 2021 that the place had reopened for business. There is no place else in the city to have some divine French onion soup, a lobster soufflé to share, and a dessert soufflé after that, like chef Jacqueline Margulis's heavenly lemon or chocolate soufflé. And while we pray she will be, Margulis may not be in the kitchen whipping up her egg-y creations forever, and this place is a must-try for all non-vegan San Franciscans.
1454 Grant Avenue — call 415-981-5565 for reservations, there is no website
In business since 1996 at Clement and 15th, chef Philippe Gardelle's ode to French bistro fare is still going strong after 27 years, serving up delicious cassoulet, bouillabaisse, and his signature salmon tartare dish with gravlax and roe — called "Salmon Trio" on the menu. This Richmond District favorite has plenty of ardent, loyal fans, but it's also not impossible to get in with a last-minute reservation or walk-in. Also, don't miss out on the perfect filet mignon, and and one of the more perfect creme brulees in town.
126 Clement Street - reservations here
Côte Ouest Bistro
Taking over the former, beloved Baker Street Bistro two years ago, partners Laurent Monchicourt and Martin Sarraih took over and updated the menu, focusing more on Sarraih's native Basque country — the chef was born in Béarn, a small town and the namesake of bearnaise sauce that's a stone's throw from Biarritz and San Sebastian. The menu at this very popular Marina District spot includes bistro classics like duck confit and steak frites, as well as surprises like a vegetarian "tarte tatin Provencale" with roasted tomatoes and burrata.
2953 Baker Street - reservations here
Acclaimed chefs John Paul Carmona and Belinda Leong introduced this gorgeous spot in Pacific Heights during the pandemic, and situated on the busy Divisadero corridor, it's an ode to roadside bistros in French, daily formule and all. The interior is both airy and warm, giving off the sense that it's been there far longer than its three years, and the menu is perfect in many ways — a concise, seasonally driven selection of elevated bistro fare that consistently surprises. A recent dish of braised lamb shoulder, perfectly molded and plated, showed off Carmona's fine-dining chops, and the place regularly features three or more house-made terrines and pates for a snack at the bar. Also, the marble bar is lovely, and feels like a Parisian getaway all on its own — a great place for an early evening cocktail, glass of wine, or a full meal.
2801 California Street - reservations here
Top image: The chicken liver mousse at Routier.