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An illustration of Fig & Thistle wine bar in Hayes Valley Fabiola Lara

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Love, Friendship, and Food in San Francisco

Four stories of how food and drink bring us together

On a drizzly, cold day in January, a friend from Tel Aviv and I exchanged voice messages over WhatsApp. On the agenda for discussion: her on-again-off-again relationship with a boyfriend. The latest comeback reportedly happened over a course of food adventures: A craving for a certain salad led them to a nearby deli. Then, there was a consequential subsequent pizza delivery. Next, she invited him over for leftover cake. Listening to the messages, I thought about the explicit and subtle ways food weaves itself into our love lives, especially when you live in a big city with options that tempt on every corner.

In the Bay Area, this rings especially true. For its mix of locals, long-timers, fresh transplants, and about-to-leavers, food and drink establishments are a rare constant, a source of comfort and connection. It’s not just about the fact that many first dates and important conversations often happen over pet-nat and elaborate charcuterie boards, or about the fact that romantic restaurants always make headlines around Valentine’s Day. And although many established couples’ text message threads are peppered with “What should we eat tonight?” back-and-forths, it’s not about that either. Rather, it’s the notion that food underscores the way we come together, loosen our inhibitions, discover new lovers and friends, and see each other anew.

Here are four Bay Area-based stories that illustrate just how singular eating together at an excellent restaurant or bar can be, in romantic contexts and beyond.

Two hands holding flutes of Champagne and toasting.

Returning to the same bar ‘til death do them part

In San Francisco, where new bars and restaurants seem to pop up every other day, holding on to one dearly beloved spot is a rare delight. Take Aimee Rancer and Tom McCormack, a Pinterest creative strategist and an architect, respectively, who just can’t get enough of the same couple of bars. Their love for Fig & Thistle — both the original Hayes Valley location and the Market Street offshoot that was rebranded to Millay in summer 2021 — runs deep.

Aimee Rancer and Tom McCormack hold hands and smile outside of a San Francisco courthouse. Aimee Rancer and Tom McCormack

The couple met in early 2017, moved in together a few months later, and quickly adopted the cozy wine and beer bar on the corner of Gough and Ivy as a second home. In addition to being walking distance from their apartment, the bar, in true San Francisco fashion, offered something truly special: “We don’t get a lot of light in our apartment, so the big windows and tons of light were always fun,” Rancer says. This is where the couple had some of their “best, most difficult conversations,” she says, including the one about Rancer going away to London for work for several months, back when work travel was a given. McCormack says the bar served as a backdrop for many vivid memories from each life stage of their relationship. “From the beginning, when we were dating … to adopting our dog Bolt and bringing him there. We even talked a lot about trips we’d take — which, eventually, we went on a few!”

The biggest Fig & Thistle moment came in 2019, when the two left work early, got dressed up, and headed to the courthouse, following a stop at the Hayes Valley bar, where the two said their vows again. “There were three of our friends, but then also all these random people who were going out on a Friday night,” Rancer says with a laugh. “Weddings are a lot of pomp and circumstance, so it was a fun way to celebrate intimately on a smaller scale. It was very us, and very San Francisco.” A big wedding followed in 2021. “If we ever leave the city, we will always keep this place close,” Rancer says. “Saying our vows there was a moment I’ll never forget.”

The friendship formed over ice cream

In the spring of 2021, Oakland-based pilates teacher Liz Tenuto was freshly divorced, new to the area after a move from Los Angeles, overwhelmed, and genuinely sad. To the rescue came student Sydney Arkin, who was dealing with her own set of setbacks. At the time, Arkin was running Bad Walter’s, a “bootleg” ice cream business that she started illegally from her home in late 2020. Then, in May 2021, the health department shut down Arkin’s operations. “Being in the kitchen is physically taxing,” says Arkin. Pilates was just the ticket.

A selfie of Sydney Arkin and Liz Tenuto smiling. Sydney Arkin and Liz Tenuto

“After one class together, we decided we should get drinks — and have done it pretty much weekly since,” Arkin says. While searching for a commercial kitchen, Arkin started using Tenuto as her guinea pig, bringing her new flavors to try. “You can be your own worst critic, so her positive feedback and emotional support were very important to me,” Arkin says. The connection was instantaneous; the two bonded, and not only over ice cream — which is “lactose-free, so I could eat a whole pint at once,” Tenuto notes.

What started as mutual appreciation for ice cream turned into a deep friendship built around a continuous affair of culinary exploration. Arkin, an ex-New Yorker who’s “absolutely happy to eat the same takeout all the time,” and Tenuto, new to the Bay, decided to get to know each other and the area through food. “We go out, we indulge and explore the Oakland food scene,” Arkin says, at spots like trendy Temescal natural wine bar Snail Bar, and Lulu, the sunny California-Mediterranean brunch destination in Berkeley. Last Christmas, the two found themselves sitting by the table at a friend’s dinner party, holding hands, and admitting their food-fueled friendship was by far the best thing that 2021 brought them. “Now Sydney’s business is up and running, and I feel much better myself,” Tenuto says. “It’s really beautiful for women to have this relationship with food — and with each other,” Arkin says.

A pint of ice cream from Bad Walter’s.

Falling in love over fish dumplings

People say it’s hard to find love on the apps in the city, but something clicked for Tiffany Wang and Matthew Duffy. Wang, a sought-after digital creator who also does marketing, and Duffy, a logistics project manager, met through Hinge in August 2020. Duffy was just back from a 10-year aid work stint in Africa, and Wang, a Bay Area native and a long-term San Franciscan, caught his attention. “One of her prompts said, ‘You should message me if you like to eat family-style and drink dirty martinis,’” he recalls. Leading up to the date, a key discovery was made — both had lived in Beijing, China, during 2009, but never crossed paths, despite having 20 mutual Facebook friends.

“For our first date, I gave him two options,” Wang says. “Italian at Beretta, or Hawker Fare.” Duffy chose Hawker Fare, to Wang’s delight. Since that first date, over fiery rice ball salad, the two have been inseparable. Having been back in San Francisco only occasionally for the past decade, when he’d frequent subpar North Beach bars with his brothers, Duffy was new to the city’s flourishing food scene and found a trusted guide in Wang.

“I got to share all my favorite restaurants with him, and it just so happens that he loves Asian food just as much as I do,” Wang says. “We love Szechuan cuisine, fish dumplings from Happy Family Gourmet, Burmese from Burma Love and Mandalay, and Vietnamese from Bac Lieu.” Duffy is pescetarian, adding a specific angle to their culinary exploration. But above all, he says, they share a love for “super spicy foods and umami bombs.” A year and a half since that first Hawker Fare date, Wang and Duffy are living together and can’t wait to travel — to Paris, Hong Kong, Singapore, anywhere that will allow a delicious development for their relationship. “Food and drink is what clinched it for me,” Wang admits. “Our taste buds 95 percent align.”

An illustration of a fiery rice ball salad on a plate.

Finding serenity at the farmer’s market

Pandemic-related closures and ever-changing guidelines can drive any couple to fight, let alone a couple that works in the food and beverage industry. In spring 2020, San Francisco Chronicle columnist and recipe developer Christian Reynoso and sommelier John Herbstritt, who’ve been together for more than a decade, both found themselves out of jobs; Reyonoso was a sous chef at Zuni Cafe, and Herbstritt a server at Sorrel. Their solution to the unexpected turn of events was a busy routine of frequenting local farmer’s markets. “We would go to the Ferry Building on Saturdays, to San Rafael on Tuesdays, to the Castro on Wednesdays, and sometimes to Berkeley on Thursdays,” Reynoso says. “We’ve always loved farmer’s markets, but it has really ramped up in the last couple of years.”

Indeed, the farmer’s market was there for them in the past, too — in 2011, the couple was unemployed and started their own illegal pickling company, which was promptly shut down by the FDA for the lack of a canning license. But this time around, it was a way to stay grounded; “We probably didn’t need to go to five markets a week, but it made the world feel a little more normal,” Reynoso says. “And being able to be outside, in a different space together, has made our relationship more healthy.” Herbstritt also highlights the comfort of predictability. “At least we could plan something, right?” he laughs. “I remember spending a lot of time peeling a bunch of baby artichokes at one point, and it was time-consuming, but also exciting to plan a meal around.”

Reynoso, who’s currently focusing on developing recipes for a variety of nationwide and local publications, and Herbstritt, who’s enrolled in law school, still go to the Ferry Building frequently, and now they go with a new family member: a Pomeranian-Chihuahua mix puppy they had adopted in April 2020. For a while, the adorable dog didn’t have a name, but the farmer’s market took care of that, too. “He loved nibbling on the tiny Albion strawberries at the markets, so we named him Albion,” Reynoso says.

An illustration of a brown dog surrounded by strawberries.

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