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|Amber Brooks • 2/02/18|
The Short Version: Food writer Marcia Gagliardi, more commonly known as Tablehopper, churns out fresh restaurant news every Tuesday in her e-column. The San Franciscan’s unabashed enthusiasm for food is clear in her every enthusiastic review of cafes, diners, bars, and other eateries. She loves telling people about new hot spots and hidden gems in the San Francisco area. She even makes personalized restaurant recommendations via her Tip Please service. Her consultations help people enjoy the best the city has to offer in terms of food, service, and atmosphere. If you’re planning a date, Marcia is a knowledgeable guide with invaluable insights on where to go and what to eat.
A San Franciscan single started 2018 with a first date on his calendar, but there was one big problem: He hadn’t been on a date in years. He felt nervous and unsure about where to take his new love interest, whose only request was she wanted to go somewhere dark, so he asked a friend, who just so happened to be a professional food writer known as Tablehopper, for a restaurant recommendation.
Under the name Tablehopper, Marcia Gagliardi has spent decades exploring San Francisco’s eateries. She knows all the best places to enjoy good food, good drinks, and good company, so she knew exactly where to send her friend. She told him to visit the Brazen Head, a dimly lit old-school pub that serves delicious grub in a low-key atmosphere.
He took his date there, and she loved it. They were both thrilled to have a secret spot to discover together. Because The Brazen Head doesn’t have much of a sign out front, only locals who are in-the-know know about this spot. It’s not usually crowded, and it stays open late (until 2.am. all week), so couples can spend hours lingering over their food. For first daters, it sure hits the spot.
Marcia was happy to help her friend have a successful date, and he’s certainly not the only one who trusts her recommendations. She told us she gets at least one text a day from friends and relatives wondering where to eat in San Francisco. In fact, anyone can call her up or send an email to get her opinion on the local dining scene. Tip Please, her premium recommendation service, is like restaurant matchmaking; Marcia considers the individual’s personal preferences and matches them with the right restaurant that’ll give them the type of experience they’re looking for.
On Tablehopper, Marcia writes more generalized columns about new restaurant openings and noteworthy places to go for drinks, appetizers, desserts, and anything in between. The e-column comes out with new content every Tuesday, and its juicy articles whet readers’ appetites for the rest of the week.
“I write Tablehopper like I’m writing to a friend,” Marica said. “I like to focus on the places I think are doing great food, atmosphere, and service.”
You can subscribe to Tablehopper to receive a weekly email newsletter packed with eye-catching morsels of information about restaurant openings, celebrity sightings, bar news, upcoming events, and other fresh pieces of gossip. Marcia said she has a substantial following in New York City, so she gives eateries on the East Coast a shout out once in a while.
“Some people call me a restaurant critic, but really I’m more of a columnist,” she told us. “My whole thing is I want people in our city to have a great night out. Dating is hard enough, so I kind of love being people’s secret weapon.”
When you’re planning a date with someone special, a lot of factors go into picking the ideal date venue. Obviously, restaurants are a go-to date spot, but what kind of restaurant works best? People on first dates might prefer a bistro where they have an easy escape route, while more committed couples might want an upscale place to celebrate a birthday or anniversary.
“Neighborhood places are great date spots,” Marica told us. “A place that’s been open for awhile might not be as impressive as the latest hot spot, but you’re going to have a more enjoyable meal in a more polished and intimate space where you don’t have a million people packed in.”
Below, you’ll find Marcia’s top nine date-friendly restaurants for couples looking to explore the best of San Francisco’s cuisine without breaking the bank.
During the getting-to-know-you phase of dating, Marcia recommends taking a date to 20 Spot. The wine bar has a modern style and accessible bar that makes people feel at home — sometimes literally.
“You feel like you’re in someone’s cool apartment,” Marcia told us. “Plus, they have some really great bar bites that go beyond the usual plates.”
At 20 Spot, you can order steak tartare, deviled eggs, avocado toast, or a cheese plate to share with a date and pair it with a quality glass of wine chosen by the owner Bodhi Freedom. Just remember to save room for tiramisu.
On the other side of town, La Folie Lounge is a popular hangout for people who live near Russian Hill. The contemporary lounge is an offshoot of the expensive and posh restaurant that has been delighting diners since 1988. The swanky and lively setting is great for infusing date nights with conversation and laughter — and some wine.
“When you’re first going out on date, you don’t want the restaurant to be too oppressively romantic or quiet,” Marcia noted. “You want some activity around you, and that’s what La Folie Lounge is like.”
Petit Marlowe is a crowd pleaser, particularly among the ladies, because of its beautiful decor and upscale atmosphere. The Parisian-inspired wine bar and bistro is more on the expensive side, but you can stick with the small plates and partake in the oyster happy hour (from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.) to keep your date on budget. It’s a casual place to sit and eat or drink.
“I love, love, love this place. I could eat here all the time.” — Kristina C. in a Yelp review of Petit Marlowe
Marcia encourages couples on first dates to try low-key places like Petit Marlowe because you don’t have to linger there forever waiting for the meal to be over. It’s not a three-course meal. It’s just little bites and drinks. You could get a glass of wine and an appetizer and be out within an hour. It’s unstructured so you have an easy out should you need it. Plus, the wine at Petit Marlowe can help the evening go more smoothly by keeping you from clamming up.
“Some people find a glass of wine can soothe those first-date jitters. It certainly can help get the conversation going sometimes,” she said. “I think it’s really smart to keep first dates on the casual side because you can always add more dishes or more wine if you think the date’s going well.”
A16, located at the Marina, is a fun wine bar and Southern Italian restaurant for pizza fans and wine lovers in the San Francisco area. You can request seats at the chef’s counter to watch hot, Neapolitan-style pizzas come out of the oven. From the pastas to the pizzas, these indulgent dishes are big enough to share with a date. As Marcia said, “Who doesn’t like Italian food?”
Swing by the A16 for some wine, maybe a couple antipasti, and you can end up hanging out there for hours. Although sitting at the bar offers an intimate experience for daters, you can also request quieter tables in the pizzeria’s back rooms. A16 usually fills up on weekend nights, so call ahead or go online to make a reservation.
Marcia said she’s gone on a lot of fantastic dates at Blue Plate over the years. She typically requests a quiet table in the back seating area so she and her date can get to know one another in a more intimate setting. The menu has a good variety of comfort dishes and eclectic items so pretty much anyone can find something they like.
In the evenings, if it’s not too cold, Marcia loves to sit outside and view the lush garden. It’s a quiet oasis fostering connection and conversation. All in all, she considers Blue Plate a “consistently underrated restaurant that has stood the test of time.”
According to Marcia, “Bix is just sexy.” The elegant decor transports diners back in time to a high-class saloon with Corinthian columns and long white tablecloths. You can try the restaurant’s famous caviar on potato pillows or keep it simple with a black-truffle cheeseburger.
Jazz singers, piano players, and other musicians provide live entertainment and create a lovely atmosphere for anyone going to Bix on a date. You can stay in the action downstairs or get a booth upstairs for a more intimate romantic night.
“It’s like a supper club,” Marcia said. “It’s been around for a while, and it has this old-school glamour that really makes for a great date. If you go to Bix, you’re going to have a blast.”
Located in Hayes Valley, Petit Crenn is one of Marcia’s favorite casual restaurants because it maintains a chic yet approachable atmosphere. What makes it a great spot for daters is the nightly tasting menu that allows them to sample different plates for $79. If you straight-up love to try new foods, this is going to be your jam.
When you get the Petit Crenn’s prix fixe menu, you don’t have to sit there and worry about what to order because everything is pre-selected, and the plates give you something fun to try and experience with another person.
“You’ll smell a hint of smoke and feel the heat from the busy grill in the kitchen, especially if you’re sitting at the counter, where they offer an à la carte menu to walk-ins.” — Marcia’s Tablehopper review of Petit Crenn
If you want a prix fixe menu with less of a price tag, you can go to Trestle on North Beach. “Dating can be expensive, and you don’t have to go out and spend $200,” Marcia said. “What I like about Trestle is you get three courses for $38.”
Sushi is one of most fun things to eat when you’re on a date. It’s elegant, it’s light, and you don’t have to worry about getting something stuck in your teeth. If you and your date are hungry for sushi, Marcia had a few recommendations, but her absolute favorite place is Hamano Sushi in Noe Valley. “It’s just exquisite sushi,” she said, “and a really fun way to impress a date, because you would never think that this extraordinary sushi restaurant is hiding away in such a small neighborhood.”
She also recommended Mission Street’s Ichi Sushi for an affordable and fun sushi meal, and downtown hot spot Akiko’s for a more high-end Japanese restaurant. “You have to sit at the counter,” she said of Akiko’s. “That’s the experience you want, so book it ahead of time.”
Last of all, Marcia had a special recommendation for vegan daters. In Haight-Ashbury, the Alembic is more well-known as a cocktail bar, but it has a side room where it plates up dishes for veggie lovers and meat eaters alike. Whether you’re a vegan or you’re dating a vegan, you’ll love the varied menu at the Alembic.
“It’s the perfect little hideaway spot that everyone can come together and be happy at,” Marcia said. “The chef is fantastic, and the food is all farm fresh and just beautiful.”
When she started writing her Tablehopper column, Marcia would give out restaurant recommendations for free; all she would ask was that people follow up with her and tell her how they’d liked the restaurant. She enjoys sharing her love of food with people and giving little-known, off-the-beaten-path restaurants a boost. However, her recommendations take a lot of time and effort because she personalizes them to individual tastes and needs.
“I wish it was faster,” she said, “but restaurants are very personal. It’s just a matter of finding what’s going to be the right fit.”
To make it worth the time she invests, Marcia now charges $25 for a restaurant consultation by email and $30 by phone. Her Tip Please service is incredibly popular because people want a spot-on recommendation from someone who knows the area and understands different dining needs.
Whether you’re celebrating an anniversary or planning a romantic getaway to San Francisco, Marcia can point you toward excellent dining establishments to suit your needs. In a short-but-sweet consultation, Marcia offers a variety of insider’s tips, including what dishes to order and what tables to ask for.
Over the years, Marcia has compiled her restaurant knowledge and advice in her book: “The Tablehopper’s Guide to Dining and Drinking San Francisco.”
In the pages of this book, you’ll find hundreds of classic restaurant recommendations for every possible occasion. She dedicates an entire chapter to romantic dating spots for couples from all walks of life.
Whatever your budget or time constraints, Marcia can direct you to a high-quality dining experience in San Francisco. Even if you don’t live in the city, you can turn to Marcia to help you create a custom itinerary to make any foodie’s mouth water.
“We all work hard, and a lot of us are out here in this world looking for connection,” she said, “and, for me, there’s no greater place to connect than at a table over food.”
When Marcia’s friend needed a date location, he trusted Tablehopper to take stock of the situation and make a suggestion that would set him up for success. And it worked. He and his date had a fantastic time at Brazen Head because the restaurant’s casual atmosphere, soft lighting, and decadent food is enough to make anyone loosen up and crack a smile.
Marcia knows how powerful a connector food can be, and she loves helping people find romance by indulging their senses at an eclectic or classic restaurant. “I’ve dated some guys where we really just ate so well together,” she said with a laugh. “We had so much fun eating together. It creates this extra layer of connection and passion.”
Whether you live in San Francisco or are just visiting, you can consult Tablehopper’s reviews any time you’re looking to go out to eat in the Bay Area.
“I think that where you go and how you eat does say a lot about who you are, and so you want to find that common ground,” she said. “I really want my readers to have a memorable night at a restaurant that provides this fantastic backdrop for their moment.”