Last year, the Michelin Guide bestowed praise upon Lane 33 Café, an unassuming taqueria hiding in plain sight inside a bowling alley. Suddenly, Napa’s “best-kept secret” had received a nod from the same folks who recognize The French Laundry and Kenzo. And no wonder, chef Alex Soto gained his chops at the acclaimed Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena.
Soto’s diner, which shuttered in October 2022, was just one of many highly regarded, “hidden” eateries, tucked within other businesses around the Bay Area. Expanding on the coverage of pioneering culinary critics like Jonathan Gold—who championed top-notch taco trucks and strip mall gems—contemporary food writers have recently turned their attention to unconventional dining destinations, such as gas stations and dive bars.
The Standard embarked on a treasure hunt, and here are our top 10 hidden gems.
The name sort of says it all. Since opening in 2020, the Hidden Spot mini-chain has opened a total of four locations throughout the Bay. Their why-didn’t-I-think-of-that? concept: Taking over the kitchens of neighborhood bars and serving elevated and innovative pub food. Their bar bites include wagyu burgers, karaage (Japanese fried chicken) and tricked-out “hottie totties,” which are smothered in a sriracha and chili mayo.
Blink once and you might miss this subterranean sushi destination entirely. Your only visual cue for Sushi Time, which operates on the concourse level of a Castro shopping complex, is a small neon sign with an arrow pointing downward. An island of misfit toys—Kewpie dolls, cat figurines and other tchotchkes—add character to the place, with Hello Kitty, Barbie and Teddy Bear maki named to match the decor.
It’s impossible to not feel lucky at this under-the-radar Filipino and Chinese restaurant inside the Lucky Chances Casino. Open 24/7 to serve the gambling house’s all-hours clientele, you can’t go wrong with breakfast (see: Longaniza sausage and egg platter), lunch (pancit Canton is a must) or any of the dinner plates. I can’t say enough about the bansilog milk fish, a particularly hard-to-find dish.
Bender’s is a punk and metal dive that, along with maintaining a killer jukebox, has a grill serving perfectly messy bar food. The “Sloppy Mofo” is a vegetarian sloppy joe made with tofu and habanero. Upon request, the tater tots get the same treatment.
Big ups to Elena Kadvany at The Chronicle for devoting an entire article to gas station food. Across the country, some of the best international food can be found at the pump. Inshallah Mediterranean Cuisine is a prime example, a shawarma and gyro mainstay inside an otherwise anonymous Exxon station.
Lower Nob Hill
Finders Keepers is a true Russian nesting doll. It’s the glowy underground cocktail and tapas lounge below Members Only, a supper club that’s anything but exclusive. As Eater reported, the leasing agent evidently had no idea the subterranean space existed when the previous tenant rented it out, so owner Phil Chen christened it Finders Keepers. The pink sign’s neon glow illuminates rows of bottles on the bar shelves and the esoterica that adorns the walls.
Behind many great dive bars is the Platonic ideal of a greasy spoon. Tempest, a storied standing bar, is home to an unpretentious grill serving something they call “quarantine cuisine”—fried pickles, lengua tacos and an Impossible meatball sub are among the offerings. There are also a few surprisingly healthy options, like the beet and citrus salad. You can feast on your spoils standing up or find any spare surface within the rest of the bar.
This clandestine drinking den in The Basque Hotel may look like one of the many prefabbed speakeasies in the city, but 15 Romolo actually has a pretty cool history. As Basque settlers began to rush into San Francisco for gold, boarding houses sprung up to room newcomers who spoke a common language. The space that 15 Romolo now inhabits was alternately a restaurant, a speakeasy and a brothel. Today, it’s a solid option for out-of-town guests looking to be dazzled by flaming cocktails, fancy hamburgers and a period piece vibe.
Ocean Beach is one of the dreamiest places to be at dusk—it’s no accident that the Sunset is called the Sunset. If you’re looking for somewhere to eat while you take in the refracting sky, Italian mainstay Fiorella’s rooftop dining room will fit the bill. And if you keep walking down the corridor beyond Fiorella, you’ll find Bar Nonnina. It’s neither a password-protected speakeasy nor a themed gimmick—just an elegant place for a sunset cocktail and a round of oysters. The food offerings are an extension of Fiorella’s, only lighter. Top things off with a Mandarin sorbet cocktail with prosecco.
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📍 Various Locations
Let’s end things on a sweet note. Uji Time delightfully capitalizes on the Japanese taiyaki soft serve trend. Though there are locations throughout the Bay, most in malls, the San Mateo shop is truly a hidden gem—nestled inside a Japanese-American bakery called Mochinut. Named for a city south of Kyoto known for its green tea, the folks at Uji Time dispense matcha, black sesame and ube flavors into fish-shaped cones.
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