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The Best Fast-Dining Spots in the Bay Area

Our favorite 21 places for a culinary quickie.



Photo: Courtesy of Sajj

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Sababa’s falafel.

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Barzotto chef Michelle Minori.

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The Bird chef Blair Warsham.

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This story is part of a feature on San Francisco’s growing appetite for fast-casual dining. Read it here.

Sababa Hot Pita Bar
In Hebrew, sababa is slang for “great” or “cool,” but where financial district office workers are concerned, it translates to “lunchtime utopia.” The virtues of Guy Eshel’s bright, kinetic Israeli spot are numerous: His salads, for one, make the nutritionist’s commandment to “eat the rainbow” both literal and enjoyable. But what’s great about Sababa is in many ways encapsulated by its pita bread. No mass-produced, outsourced pockets darken the doorstep here; instead, Eshel’s pitas emerge from the oven throughout the day hot, fluffy, and demanding to be eaten on their own—or at least stuffed with as many of those salads (and Sababa’s shawarma, kebabs, and fried eggplant) as possible. 329 Kearny St. (near Pine St.), 415-800-6853
—Rebecca Flint Marx

Although Corridor’s owners don’t consider it a fast-casual restaurant, the airy spot is proof of what good can come from inserting counter service into a full-service restaurant concept. The Hi Neighbor group’s hybrid model offers the best of both worlds: You can order at the counter and make a clean break 20 minutes later, or settle in for more traditional table service. Either way, chef Jason Halverson’s smartly executed food is a unifying source of pleasure, from the voluptuous depths of his butternut-squash-and-leek risotto to the sweet nostalgia of his Nilla pudding tart. 100 Van Ness Ave. (near Fell St.), 415-834-5684

Souvla lives and dies by its namesake, the rotisserie spit that slowly turns hunks of meat until they’re deposited, juicy and tender, into pita sandwiches and salads. Those meats—pork, chicken, and lamb—dominate the brief menu at each of the three locations of Charles Bililies’s Greek chainlet, as does the still relatively novel experience of ordering a (real) glass of (good) wine to accompany food that’s served on a tray. Bililies calls this high-low mashup “fine-casual,” but no jargon is necessary to endorse his food, which is just really damn good. Multiple locations

Core Kitchen
Perhaps wary of the dreary connotations, this clean, well-lit spot in Oakland’s City Center doesn’t call itself a vegan restaurant. But you know that you’re a long way from the Golden Arches when the kitchen cooks with plants and nothing more. An exercise in virtue, the menu is also surprisingly vibrant. It includes verdant wraps, with collard greens playing the role of tortillas, and veggie “noodle” dishes starring ribbons of zucchini. You can get them tossed with pesto, topped with seasoned sweet potatoes, or, best of all, Thai-style, with broccoli, cabbage, cashews, and a coconut-almond sauce. Everything is organic and free of added sugar, salt, flour, and oil. Given the restraints, some dishes are a touch drab. Good thing there are saltshakers by the counter. A dash of sodium won’t kill you. In fact, it’s necessary to bring some things to life. 499 14th St. (near Clay St.), Ste. 119, Oakland, 510-350-8406
—Josh Sens

What Souvla has done for souvlaki, Barzotto is doing for pasta: giving it the fine-casual treatment by condensing it into a short but smart lineup that’s ordered at the counter and can be chased by a glass of wine. The Mission restaurant offers five kinds of pasta, all made by former Ne Timeas Restaurant Group chef Michelle Minori. It’s homey, straightforward stuff—there’s braised beef in the pappardelle and chorizo ragù in the cavatelli, and a bowl of ramen that could probably raise the dead. But Barzotto isn’t here to challenge; it’s here to comfort, and in that it succeeds. 1270 Valencia St. (near 24th St.), 415-285-1200

Much has been written about Eatsa: its lack of cashiers, its quinoa bowls that emerge magically from a wall, its triumph in reframing the mid-20th-century Automat as an innovation for the future. Less has been written about the actual quinoa bowls, which are on the whole quite good. Although quinoa doesn’t incite shivers of passion in the typical consumer, Eatsa is very skilled at dressing it up in some delectable costumes. One of the best is the Smokehouse Salad, a mashup of smoky barbecued portobellos, grilled corn, both pickled and fried onions, and white cheddar cheese. There’s barbecue ranch dressing, too, which makes it that much easier to close your eyes and imagine that you’re not the kind of person who enjoys eating quinoa. Multiple locations 

Latter-day salad bars dominate the fast-casual landscape; between Mixt Greens, Tender Greens, and Sweetgreen, it can feel as if the city is in danger of drowning in a biblical flood of chlorophyll. But Sweetgreen, which opened its first San Francisco location in October, has managed to stand out, and not just because of its lines or its refusal to accept cash. Its salads, made using produce plucked from a roster of local farms, actually make you want to eat salad. Case in point is the Spicy Sabzi, a heap of organic baby spinach and kale tossed with a myriad of vegetables, along with quinoa and roasted sesame tofu. Dressed with a carrot-chili vinaigrette, it’s virtue that’s served with an actual personality. 171 2nd St. (at Natoma St.), 415-855-7653

Originally a San Francisco pop-up, then a takeout window near the Embarcadero, this Cal-Mex mashup has expanded to a cozy space in Oakland, the city where chef-owner Maria Esquivel was born. Her menu has remained intact: Slow-cooked carnitas; smoky, shredded chicken; and roasted medleys of seasonal veggies can all be had in salads, rice bowls, or tacos, the last of which are so large that they could almost pass for open-faced burritos. Sides of rice and beans are made with care, as is the guacamole. The kitchen also serves a lively version of elote—charred corn on the cob, rolled in crema and crumbled cotija, then dusted red with the gently spicy chili-lime powder called tajin. 303A Oakland Ave. (near Pearl St.), 510-735-9748

Sajj Mediterranean Foods
With its build-your-own falafel, shawarma, and kebab bowls and wraps, Sajj seems designed to be the Chipotle of Middle Eastern food, and with four locations already in the South Bay, it’s clear that the concept has found an audience. Although the food won’t radically alter your culinary understanding of the Middle East, it does offer quality, as well as a nod toward sustainability with its use of some locally sourced produce. The falafel is crisp, the hummus is creamy, and the greens are fresh. Plus, there’s complimentary lentil soup served with every order and cilantro-mint chutney good enough to be sold by the vat. 636 2nd St. (near Brannan St.), 415-658-7577

Shiba Ramen
In Japan, many of the finest ramen shops aren’t restaurants. They’re stands. You order at the counter, grab your noodles, take a seat. With this bare-bones operation in the Emeryville Public Market, husband and wife Jake Freed and Hiroko Nakamura invoke those spare traditions—though their compact menu roams into some interesting terrain. The White Bird, for instance, a tori paitan–style ramen that draws on recipes from northern Japan, boasts creamy chicken broth, brightened with red threads of togarashi pepper. It’s simple, satisfying, and not the same old soup. 5959 Shellmound St. (near Shellmound Way), Kiosk 10, Emeryville, 510-985-8309

Burma Bear
The burly man in the open kitchen is also the bear behind this Uptown lair. His name is Hubert Lim. He was born in Burma but raised in San Francisco, and his menu reflects his hybrid past. Burmese-cuisine-meets-barbecue is how he bills his cooking, which spans from smoked baby back ribs to pulled pork piled over coconut rice. A fermented tea leaf salad tossed with kale is a bit of Burma by way of the Bay Area, while a grilled-portobello rice plate is a Californian on a voyage East. 325 19th St. (near Webster St.), Oakland, 510-817-4413

“Ethnic confusion.” So says the menu. But there’s nothing baffling about it. You match a format (taco, burrito, or bowl) with a filling (Cajun chicken, Caribbean jerk pork, curried lamb, or seasonal veggies), and off you go, shuffling from the cashier to the far end of the counter to collect your food. Though you could quibble with the promise of “faraway flavors” (this is only an adventure if you’re unadventurous), there’s no denying that everything tastes fresh. Dabba also deserves props for the Apple-product ease of its user experience, which allows you to accessorize your order by tacking on such sides as hummus, pappadam, quinoa, and avocado. Ethnic confusion? Nah. Just another measure of how fast and efficient our lunches have become. 71 Stevenson St. (near 2nd St.), 415-236-3984

Decades after the dawn of the food revolution, Locol opened with the promise of a fast-food revolution. For the two figures in charge—the headline chefs Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi—that means fair wages, modest prices, and something more than gnarly filler on a bun. Aside from flipping varied sorts of grass-fed burgers, the kitchen strays beyond the quick-meal same-old, rolling out such farm-fresh dishes as a roasted veggie bowl with celery root, fennel, carrots, and quinoa. The black-and-white interior has a hardened edge, with block-shaped tables and backless cubes as seats, and hip-hop often plays at an unabashed volume. But what really resonates is the heartfelt cooking. 2214 Broadway (near Grand Ave.), Oakland

From the reclaimed wood on its walls to the hyper-local seafood and produce on its menu, Handline may be the most distinctly Northern Californian fast-casual concept on the planet, let alone in Sebastopol. Opened in a former Fosters Freeze in October by local restaurateurs Lowell Sheldon and Natalie Goble, it serves seafood in a variety of guises, from ceviches and a smoked trout salad to rockfish tacos delivered on housemade tortillas. Plenty of the menu doesn’t swim: There are also burgers, fries, and sides like smothered pumpkin, sweet and smoky under a blanket of mole. You order it all from a window, take a seat in the dining room, and wonder at how far counter service has come. 935 Gravenstein Hwy. S. (near Fellers Ln.), Sebastopol, 707-827-3744

Little Gem
Ask not what can be done with refined dining. Ask what refined dining can do without. Dairy, gluten, and refined sugar have all been forsaken at this industrial-chic outpost in Hayes Valley, which does breakfast and lunch over the counter before switching to table service at night. The menu, carried out by Ad Hoc vet Dave Cruz, is Cal-Med and eco-conscious. Seasonal soups and salads are very Alice Waters, while heartier “chef’s plates” include wagyu beef brisket with charred romaine lettuce and gypsy peppers. Little Gem’s big ambitions are reflected in its prices: You probably didn’t realize that counter-service entrées could reach almost $20. Then again, you also didn’t know that chocolate pudding thickened with arrowroot could taste this good. 400 Grove St. (at Gough St.), 415-914-0501

Heritage Eats
At the far end of a sprawling Napa shopping plaza, suburbia gives way to a scene of stylized rusticity. Farm tools hang as artwork, and wood plaques celebrate purveyors of free-range poultry and grass-fed meats: the makings of a globe-trotting street food menu that roams from braised pork tacos to a Jamaican bao that beds jerk chicken on Asian steamed buns, blanketed in pineapple-habañero sauce. Every item gets assembled on the spot, and all the proteins can be had in a salad or a rice bowl. But the must-try here is the banh mi of lemongrass pork with cilantro dressing and Thousand Island–like Boom sauce on a Dutch crunch roll. 3824 Bel Aire Plaza (near El Capitan Way), Napa, 707-226-3287

Born in Los Angeles, Lemonade began a steady proliferation across San Francisco last May when it opened a location next to Yerba Buena. Its concept—essentially, elevated cafeteria food—is filtered through a decidedly SoCal prism: Its decor is bright and sunny, and its roster of salads appears to have been shot in glorious Technicolor. As in a regular cafeteria, you take a tray and push it down the line. Unlike in a regular cafeteria, you find those salads—the pickled-beet-and-melon and the corn-nut-and-roasted-butternut-squash are standouts—as well as white truffles in the mac ’n’ cheese and red miso in the braised beef short ribs. Multiple locations

The Bird
Adriano Paganini, the prolific restaurateur behind Super Duper Burgers and Uno Dos Tacos, has had plenty of success in San Francisco. His way of giving back is by giving us the bird. That’s only insulting if fried chicken sandwiches and crinkle-cut fries offend you. Those are your only savory choices, though the sandwich does come in a spicy version. The chicken is free-range thigh meat; the batter is seasoned with a North African spice blend. And the whole shebang is served on a fresh-baked bun with apple-and-cabbage slaw and pickles. For eight bucks, it’s a bargain. 115 New Montgomery St. (near Minna St.), 415-872-9825

Seed+Salt and Nourish Cafe
Thanks to this pair of (unrelated) cafés, the vegan and/or gluten-free have their own slice of the new-wave counter-service pie. Over in the Marina, Seed+Salt has made its name with hearty beet burgers (on gluten-free buns), smoky eggplant bacon, resplendent salads, and improbably good gluten-free pastries. Out in the Richmond, Nourish has veganized everything from tuna salad (here made with nuts) to ricotta (nuts again) and revealed itself as a strong player in the toast game. Try the version with homemade Nutella; it makes the world look a little kinder. Seed+Salt: 2240 Chestnut St. (near Avila St.), 415-872-9173; Nourish Cafe: 189 6th Ave. (near California St.), 415-571-8780

Limu & Shoyu
You can’t throw a poke bowl in the Bay Area without hitting a poke bar. But while that’s great news for pescatarians, it’s not so good for our stressed-out oceans. That’s one reason to love Limu & Shoyu: Its owners, Casson Trenor, Kin Lui, and Raymond Ho, opened San Francisco’s first sustainable sushi restaurant, Tataki, and have extended that commitment to sustainability to their poke bar, which opened in March. Their arctic char is close-farmed in Washington, their Spanish octopus is trap-caught, and their bigeye tuna is pole-caught in Hawaii. And, not incidentally, the resulting poke bowls are delicious. 2815 California St. (at Divisadero St.), 415-757-0889


Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco 

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