It's such a cliché to say, "I hate to eat out alone." What's to hate? True, it's different from eating at home in your pajamas with a Scarface DVD for company, but when you're on the go, you're on the go, and there comes a point when grabbing another soggy sandwich at the corner market just won't do. Sometimes you have to sit down, regroup, and eat something hot that doesn't come out of a microwave or a cellophane packet. Peruse the latest Stop Smiling, or, god forbid, meet new people. Here's a short list of a few places where eating alone doesn't feel like an excerpt from No Exit and the only hell involved is choosing just one entrée.
While I was living in Madrid, solitude was hard to come by. Everyone went out in large groups, and day or night the streets were never empty. It was in the lively corner cafés of Lavapies that I honed the ability to be alone despite being constantly surrounded gleaning respite within the chaos. Sometimes I like to relive those gloriously jumbled evenings of unfamiliar faces, clattering platters, and a graciously retiring waitstaff. At Esperpento, as in Lavapies, I can camp out in the corner with a dog-eared book, sipping a second fino, nibbling my boquerones, patatas, and olives (Spanish comfort food) as the Missionista jet-set ebbs and flows around me.
3295 22nd St., SF. (415) 282-8867
OK, I admit it. I have something of a fetish for erratic Eurostyle dining. Much like Esperpento, Café Prague never lets me down in this regard. There's ABBA on the radio. The cooks are frequently having uncomfortably loud discussions in the back that sound like they would be a lot of fun to eavesdrop on, if only I spoke Czech. The place is almost invariably out of the soup I want (though it does have more than 10 to choose from). What it boils down to for me, though, is that Café Prague serves my favorite spinach salad in town. Bigger than my head, it comes adorned with an entire hardboiled egg, chunks of addictive bacon, a slab of focaccia, veggies, and chunky blue cheese dressing. I wouldn't call it an authentic central European spinach salad by any means, though Café Prague has the hookup on goulash and strudel too if you're into it. But I am into spinach, and this is where I eat it.
584 Pacific, SF. (415) 433-3811
It takes a certain gumption to force your hungover self out of the homestead on a Sunday morning for a solo brekkie. But sometimes the cupboard is that bare, and it's times like these when places like the Golden Coffee fulfill a need you might not even have known you had for example, the need to eat a $6 steak, or the need to drink half a dozen coffee refills over a plate of crispy, golden hash browns (or chow mein!) cooked to greasy perfection by the middle-aged Asian grill master to the lilting strains of classical music. Seated elbow to elbow around a horseshoe-shaped countertop, the patrons of this landmark greasy spoon may not always agree on sports teams, career paths, or politics but we can all agree that breakfast is a very important part of our day.
901 Sutter, SF. (415) 922-0537
One reason to come here alone is because it's so impossibly tiny that if you try to enter with more than one (short) friend, you might not make it beyond the front door. By yourself, you have half a chance of finding an empty bar stool eventually. While you wait, nursing a juicy sangria, there is plenty to feast your eyes on, as every available surface of the place is decorated with a Dali-esque array of limbless misfit toys with mohawks, loteria cards, doctored lithographs, and dioramas containing giant rubber insects. Being social is more than just the name of the place: it's the entire point. So leave your homework at home where it belongs and strike up a conversation with the Cuban expat beside you while plowing into a satisfying plate of black beans and rice or nibbling on a crispy chicken empanada.
1109 Valencia, SF. (415) 824-7659
After a long, hard afternoon shopping at Amoeba Records, you might find yourself in the awkward position of needing an immediate noodle transfusion (don't scoff, it happens). Too cramped and clattery to be a good venue to bring anyone with whom you might want to have a conversation, the Citrus Club, a pan-Asian noodle house, is a great place to fly solo while you down some hot and sour soup from a bowl big enough to bathe in afterwards. A bit of a hipster magnet, it has vegan options and sake cocktails too. Best of all, the inevitable lines can be easily circumvented by sitting at the counter an action that delivers its own smug reward.
1790 Haight, SF. (415) 387-6366*