Certain bars have thoughtfully crafted cocktails, but try to get by with one deep fryer for a few basic food offerings. Fair enough. There’s no rule bars have to pour extra money and resources into hiring a head chef and serving a full menu (at least not anymore). And yet, to the delight of drinkers, several local watering holes have been leveling up their food offerings of late. It’s nice to see a new round of neighborhood bars investing in talented chefs and full menus. These days, it’s possible to belly up to a sweet glazed pumpkin salad, a serious crab sandwich, and the finest fish and chips these hills may have ever seen. So snag a stool — here’s where to eat at the bar right now in San Francisco.
Cole Valley Tavern opened somewhat sleepily in April 2022, taking over the former Kezar Bar & Restaurant space with its Streamline Moderne window wrapping the corner of Cole and Carl. Cocktails were stellar since day one, thanks to underrated bar pro Maxwell Salvati, who’s coming from Linden Room, the Snug, and the original Magnolia on Haight. But the food was just fine, until chef Seamus Gibney of Cod Damn was officially hired, putting his critically acclaimed fish and chips on the menu this fall. Gibney’s cooked for a decade across San Francisco including at chowder house Pier 23, Mersea, and Proper Hotel, before launching his own pop-up during the pandemic. “I jokingly said I was going to be the fish and chips king to anyone who would listen,” Gibney says, and now his father won’t stop mocking him.
Originally from Rochester, New York, Gibney grew up with the Catholic tradition of fried fish Fridays, and he’s obsessed with that distinct style: Fresh haddock from the East Coast, wet battered in a bubbling mix of beer and sourdough, all swished in the fryer to achieve all those crispy edges. “You know the ‘cheese skirt’ on a burger?” Gibney asks. “We call this the ‘batter mullet.’” The chips are made from Kennebec potatoes, hand-cut chubby, and thrice fried. They come with a trio of sauces: curried tartar sauce, kimchi thousand island, and the “chippy sauce,” akin to a fancy ketchup, but sweet with dried fruit and tart with malt vinegar. Fish and chips are only available for lunch or on Monday nights. But Gibney also overhauled the regular dinner menu, adding a cozy pozole, smoked meatloaf, an extra thin and crispy chicken sandwich with herbed kewpie, and a damn fine smash burger.
Over a couple of hills, Mr. Digby’s has settled in as a favorite tavern, welcoming the toddlers and puppies of Noe Valley. Since the beginning, they’ve served strong martinis and twists on classics, with early hits like fully loaded deviled eggs and spinach dip melting into Hasselback-cut sourdough. But wife-and-husband owners Kristen Gianaras McCaffery (Novy) and Mike McCaffery (Mission Rock Resort) have a knack for listening to the neighborhood and were looking for a light menu refresh. They recently snapped up the services of consulting chef Kirsten Goldberg, the former culinary director at SF Cooking School, with years of experience from Boulevard in San Francisco to Babo in New York City. “This wasn’t a broken menu. Nothing was broken,” Goldberg says. “We just wanted one step lighter in the same direction.”
She’s folding in hearty salads, including a glazed pumpkin salad featuring both fluffy kabocha and ruffled delicata, roasted and tossed with kale while still warm, and sprinkled with salty-sweet granola and a pop of pomegranate seeds. Plus fresh fish, sliding seared Tombo tuna onto brothy white beans, bright with chimichurri and Calabrian chiles. You can now get half a roast chicken, rubbed with garlic and rosemary, and served over crispy smashed Yukons. There are more plants, including an olive flatbread, big roasted mushrooms, and a veggie variation of the pot pie. She’s putting the finishing touches on a new bean burger, flecked with fine herbs and dolloped with lemon aioli, peppery arugula, and pickled onions. Hopefully, she’ll soon add fresh pasta, given that she literally taught a class on cannelloni.
Rolling down to the Mission, at Fort Point’s colorful big beer hall on Valencia, the menu has flipped a few times in a few years. But finally, the hot dog era is over — this fall the brew pub debuted a fresh fish menu, inspired by the classics of San Francisco. Co-owner Dina Dobkin came up with the idea and wisely called in a seafood obsessive: Brand new culinary director Cecile Macasero is a Bay Area native who rose through the ranks at Michelin-starred Kin Khao, but for the past few years he’s been at the Whale Wins in Seattle, getting an education in sustainable seafood from chef Renee Erickson.
He’s got a serious crab sandwich contender for the season. It’s a sweet and simple crab roll, tossing cool Dungeness meat with house mayo and creme fraiche, and stuffing it into a warm split-top bun griddled in clarified butter. The cioppino boasts a flavorful fish stock, infused with crab and shrimp shells and enriched with crab fat. It’s served “lazy” style, so no shucking required, and in a colorful enamel mug, so you could have “a beer in one hand, and a cioppino in the other.” The Rice-a-Roni arancini and “Not-Exactly-It” ice cream sandwich take inspiration from other iconic San Francisco treats, while the Sicilian-style crudo and Louie salad pay tribute to local seafood institutions Swan Oyster Depot and Sotto Mare. The full seafood menu is available at the Valencia flagship, and a few dishes are also at the Ferry Building outpost and Presidio pop-up.