Dining in the off-hours

San Francisco's best late lunches
Photo by Felix Busso

LATE LUNCHES One of the things that makes Don't-call-it-Frisco such a fine place is the disproportionate ratio of successful slackers to office drones who live here. You know the type: they sleep in until 10, read the whole newspaper over a bagel and coffee, get some sort of exercise, and then spend the rest of the day creatively earning money. I'm one of them — hell, you're probably one of them. Waiters, bartenders, freelance mortgage brokers, writers, graphic designers ... there are all sorts of creative types doodling around the city during off hours, working after the sun goes down and eating their meals whenever they please. The only problem? When you finish breakfast at 11 a.m., you want lunch around 3 or 4 p.m. — and many power-lunch spots serving the corporate world close between 2 and 5 p.m., when the earliest cocktailer trickles in. So where do late lunchers eat? For those of you who think outside the cubicle, here are a few restaurants that'll serve you no matter what time the lunch urge strikes.

Everything about Bar Bambino (2931 16th St.; 701-8466, www.barbambino.com) is carefully rustic. In the restaurant's front window, a rough-hewn community table seats 10 and a soft white Italian marble bar reaches all the way back to an open section of the kitchen, displaying cheeses and charcuterie. A few scattered indoor tables give way to a quiet, heated outdoor patio. The menu shows owner Christopher Losa's love for northern Italy, where he lived for several years: the food is simple, traditional Italian, like the polpetti, pork-and-veal meatballs in a rich tomato sauce with dark chard. There's nothing superfluous on the plates (order some sides for that), and the dishes are affordable. "I'm all about gastronomic progression, but how many times a week can you eat peppered sardines in cilantro foam?" laughs Losa. "Sometimes you just want a plate of really good pasta." The highly polished Italian wine list offsets Bar Bambino's simple food.

If you want to know where the really good meals are, follow the chefs. When San Francisco's culinary heroes have slept off last night's shift (and postshift drinks) and finished their coffee, they head to Sunflower (506 Valencia and 3111 16th St.; 626-5022) for cheap and authentic Vietnamese eats. Sunflower has two locations: a tiny (like, four tables tiny) space on Valencia and a larger dining room around the corner on 16th Street. Both locations share the same kitchen, which speedily produces hangover-curing dishes like sticky wontons (stuffed with pork, rolled in rice, and deep-fried) and all kinds of pho, with the requisite Mission vegan options available. The industrial-strength Thai iced tea or coffee is sweetened by plenty of condensed milk and will keep you buzzing long into the evening. The produce is fresh and the meat is nondubious, something of a rarity for a pho restaurant.

Absinthe (398 Hayes; 551-1590, www.absinthe.com) hasn't gotten a lot of press in the past couple of years, but that's not because the restaurant has slipped any. The Yelpers and the new-restaurant junkies may have gone to feed on fresh prey, but good ol' Absinthe remains a staple of opera diners and cocktail connoisseurs. The bar's lounge area stays open through Absinthe's lunch rush, dinner rush, and the post-opera blitz. Sure, you'll drop some coin on a meal at Absinthe (a decadent lunch for two plus cocktails runs about $100), but you'll eat, and be treated, like royalty. Forget about the tired waitstaff dying to drop the checks so they can go home — the service here is as good as the Chartreuse cocktails and the fresh crab.

Restaurant Lulu (816 Folsom; 495-5775, www.restaurantlulu.com) is a total find in the restaurant wasteland that makes up this part of the SoMa corridor.