San Francisco and chains have something of a complicated relationship. Actually, that's not right. The relationship is actually quite simple: Our city has declared war on franchises, big box stores, fast food emporiums, and 'marts of every ilk. From kitty litter to leg warmers, our civic preference is for Mom and/or Pop. (Although those titles are probably a little too heteronormative...)
Thus the challenge of this article: Are there any good examples of chain restaurants here in the city? Some corporate outposts that nevertheless offer a special, San Franciscan twist on the bland familiarity that we have sought so ardently to banish from these 46.9 square miles?
I'll admit, I know that I won't convince every reader to visit the discoveries listed below. After all, San Francisco is crowded with local purveyors of delicious food, incredible coffee, fine booze, slick design, and so forth. I mean, come on! With so many options to enjoy authentic Mexican cuisine made from fresh ingredients, why would anyone ever "Make a run for the border?” Fair enough, this one isn't for you.
But for all of you out there who sometimes crave the forbidden fruit of corporate food – whether as a reward, a hangover helper, or a matter of convenience – here's where to go to get your fix.
We're starting gently, with a local chain that actually serves up pretty solid food and drink. Anyone with an appreciation for the ability to follow up their coffee with an alcoholic beverage knows why La Boulange is a wonderful place. But what makes this version of the café particularly nice is its location right at the edge of the Yerba Buena Gardens. On a sunny afternoon, the patio offers a perfect respite from the sound and fury of downtown traffic.
I know I am not the first to point this out, but La Boulange's preposterously well-stocked condiment bar is mother's milk to anyone looking to catch a snack on a budget. From Nutella to cornichons, if it fits on a cheap piece of freshly baked bread, then it's all yours, friends.
Given its proximity to the many office buildings in the area, this location can get pretty busy during lunch. Better to save it for a perfect coffee break or – better yet – a morning of playing hooky.
Amid its relatively calm surroundings, this hybrid beast is an amazing eyesore; a Yum! Brands chimera dropped to earth in a sleepy neighborhood of single-story houses and Chinese markets. And yet, those brave few who venture inside will be rewarded with an upstairs dining area that features a pretty decent view. Enjoy your tacos and biscuits – or whatever, no judgment here – while gazing out at the spire of the Park Presidio United Methodist Church.
Basically just the view, although this spot would also seem to offer a surprising amount of privacy. The afternoon I dropped by to visit, the room was completely empty despite it being prime luncheon time.
I will withhold any further statements about the food. That said, anyone who loves the smell of KFC's professionals “F"-ing their "C" will be thrilled. And though the view really is nice, the windows are covered in a film that can be nothing but a result of the aforementioned odors.
As a kid, a trip to IHOP was a rare treat that featured an orgy of syrup and whipped cream, with a side of pancakes. Now, the appeal of this International House comes not from its food, which is decidedly less interesting without an excess of dessert toppings, but what lies outside its windows. And even though its address features enough maritime imagery to decorate a Red Lobster, this IHOP is oriented such that the view is not of the Bay, but rather Coit Tower rising up out of Telegraph Hill.
Apparently the bacon revolution has just reached IHOP. So if you've been waiting for a non-ironic way to enjoy a bacon sundae, then welcome home, buster. Also, the waitstaff here is so amazingly no-nonsense that it's ridiculous, if that makes any sense.
Please don't order the coffee. Just wait and get some later. I promise.
Simply put, there is no place better to enjoy the hustle and bustle, tourist trap, parking clusterfuck that is the intersection of Kearny and Jackson than the second floor of this fine establishment. Add in one of the ubiquitous Taiwanese tapioca empire's refreshing beverages and you're verging on an embarrassment of riches. My favorite is the shockingly amaranthine taro boba milk tea, which is sweet enough to make you wince with pleasure.
"What would a moon base built in the '60s look like today?" The hilarious décor answers the question: threadbare and far out, in that order. Additionally, that wonderful second floor aerie also provides a sanctuary from the hordes of teens that swarm the register area.
The "Kobe Bento" aspect, which is another "concept" in the Quickly family, adds another layer of complexity to the already convoluted menu, creating a Moebius strip of options that seems to extend into infinity. What's more, nothing about the lunch boxes or limp banh mi looked particularly appetizing. Stick to the sweet liquids, please.
Every other establishment on this list merely offers a little twist on the usual fare. But, as we should have expected, the Castro has taken Starbucks and made it utterly and completely its own. Known affectionately as either "Bearbucks" or "Starbears," this location of the Seattle coffee shop is a hub of the big, hairy subculture. It even has its own Facebook page. It's the place to be whether you're a cub, a polar bear, or someone who enjoys friendly, furry fellas.
Seriously, this might be the friendliest Starbucks I've ever visited. (Full disclosure: My beard probably helped.) The able staff seemed to know virtually every customer's name and order. And free Wi-Fi!
It's actually very small – only a few hundred square feet. That, combined with the location’s perennial popularity, means that seating is at a serious premium. The equally tiny outdoor area is usually packed as well.
Visit La Boulange on the edge of Yerba Buena Gardens in SOMA. There are many KFCs and Taco Bells in the City. But the one with the best upstairs view is in the Inner Richmond. Put the water at your back and head to the IHOP near Fisherman's Wharf. Escape the crowds in Chinatown at the Quickly Kobe Bento. And every San Franciscan should make at least one visit to Bearbucks, in the Castro.
Got a favorite chain location I missed? Let me know about it in the comments below.