It’s completely understandable that hosts at popular restaurants may give you the stink-eye through the phone when you call to ask for a spot the day of, day before or even a week in advance of your visit. But, a month? Planning dinner that far in advance is unheard of! Or so I thought. Dining at Nopa was my introduction to the relationship between San Francisco’s most loved restaurants and weekend nights. I would have to accept that certain places need reservations weeks, months, even years (?!) in advance.
Named after the neighborhood called North of the Panhandle, which is the skinnier end of Golden Gate Park, it’s a farm-to-table; hardly-ever-the-same-menu-two-nights-in-a-row; food-is-art-philosophy kind of place. And everyone really, really likes it.
Here are some tips to help you avoid having to plan your dinners months in advance, and the three hour wait when you don’t. Keep these words close to your heart and hopefully they’re transferrable to any highly admired eatery, to allow you to dine before your hair turns grey.
1. Arrive long before you’re hungry. Since I called Nopa a few times in disbelief, the nice voices on the other end of the phone told me their secrets to getting a spot. Arrive at 5:00, or when the bar opens, to ensure your names a spot at the top of the walk-in list. When they start seating the dining room at 6:00, you should have a good chance of getting a table. It worked! Though by 5:15 the bar was completely full, with people swarming over any last free seats like bees. Geez, this city’s inhabitants are crazy for their food. (Yes, I’m aware I’m one of them).
2. Don’t underestimate the power of the first course. The banana and butter squash soup, the cabbage salad and the quinoa with smoked trout were some of the best parts of the meal. Order one for each of your group and more to share. Really, take your time. Your main dish will wait.
3. Utilize your server. At eateries like Nopa that are proud of what they do, the server is passionate and genuinely wants you to have the best time possible. Ask him or her what dishes s/he prefers, the ideal starter to main dish ratio, and what wine to drink with all of it. You’ll all have a better time when your server is that much more invested in you and your experience.
4. Try the chicken. Places like Nopa put so much thought into every single dish, that it’s sometimes worth it to see what they can do with otherwise bland options. As the saying goes, if they can give the chicken character, you know everything else is good. (I made that up). Now I want you to study the picture above and imagine one flavor: blue cheese. It took me a while to find the ideal bite strategy, but as soon as I got a mouthful of the perfectly cooked meat, creamy melted blue cheese, crispy broccolini leaves and flavorfully-spiced and fried chickpeas, I just about died. Excellence. And my leftovers were even magically better next day. How is that possible? I oddly didn’t try the other main dishes at my table but they elicited happy comments ’round the board.
5. Skip Dessert? I can’t believe I just said that. Hence the question mark of uncertainty. However, while I was satisfied with the dessert, (my favorite part no matter what happens on my plate beforehand) this was the least impressive part of our meal. To be clear, don’t go avoiding dessert at every stellar restaurant. But in this particular case, I advise you go crazy with the starters since they were all so wonderful and unique. Sugar is sugar, (well, more so to me) and this was not the best sugar I’ve ever had. If you need your sweet fix — go for it, but if you’re getting worried about the whole having to pay for this extensive multi-course dinner situation, save the dessert dough for your server’s tip, finish that last sip of wine and be on your merry way.