It all started with an ad in the Bay Guardian for Bender's sushi happy hour. I had always known about it in the back of my head, as well as another sushi night at the Knockout in the Mission, both run by the same guy, but I had never gone. It seemed crazy that two of my favorite bars offered cheap sushi and I hadn’t been to either. Hell, I should be going once a week.
I tore out the ad as a reminder and started thinking about all the other bars that serve happy hour food – not just beer nuts and pretzels, but real meals. I had stumbled upon a few by chance and heard rumors of others, but had never made a real effort to hit them up. It dawned on me that, especially as a freelance journalist in the recession, I needed to step up to the plate. I started making a list, asking bartenders and friends for recommendations, checking out Yelp, alt weeklies, and various blogs.
Turned out that the sushi night at the Knockout was replaced by Vietnamese food, and Bender's was now serving BBQ. But even more exciting than the cheap food options was the plethora of absolutely free food out there for the taking. I compiled about 15 names. I gave myself a challenge: two weeks, 14 happy hours, and every dinner for free.
Day 1: I figured I should start off right with the free pizzas from Palio D'Asti. Hidden in the no man’s land between North Beach and FiDi, Palio D'Asti is a generic looking place you’ve probably walked by. Inside, it’s a classy Italian joint; so classy, in fact, that you order your free pizza – with toppings like Berkshire pork fennel sausage and fire roasted peppers, or arugula and asiago – from a waitress. As long as you keep two drinks between you and a friend, the pizzas keep coming. If this was the norm, the challenge was going to be easy.
Day 2: Maya's website promised “botanas,” bite-size appetizers served throughout Mexico. But when I got to the upscale Mexican restaurant, instead of the tamales, quesadillas, or flautas I’d imagined, said botanas were only chips and dips. The chips were freshly made and the salsa spicy, but dinner they were not. I tried eating the bean dip with a spoon (pretending it was black bean soup), but it felt weird. A dinner of chips is a recipe for feeling sick, not full. When my friends and I asked for a third round of chips (there were six of us squished together at the table) the waiter grumbled that he would have to ask the cook. Eyeing the $2 taco menu (snapper! pork belly!), my mouth watered. But it was too soon to break down.
Day 3: Salad! Oh, beautiful salad! Bartenders think you want wings, but even after only two nights of bar food, the greens beckoned me. At the Russian Hill Italian wine bar Amarena, the staff wholeheartedly invited us to dig into their spread of salad, pesto lasagna, foccacia, rice, and vegetables. We had a glass of wine, but there was no drink requirement – as the family with young kids getting seconds seemed to know. As we left, the place filled up with pre-partying flirty fashionistas. Why hadn’t anyone told me about this place before?
Day 4: The fifty-something guy at El Rio, a Mission dive bar, told me that half the fun of its free food night is getting to talk to the other people in line on their huge backyard patio. I wasn’t so sure about that – perhaps he was having more fun than me ogling the women in the burlesque outfits gearing up for the evening show. For me, the payoff for the 45-minute wait was the moist chicken, homemade potato salad, and fresh spinach salad. If I had timed it right, I could have started off at 5 p.m. with oysters, making it a long night of free food and cheap-ass booze.
Day 5: I think of Delirium as a place where twenty-somethings drunkenly hook up after a late night of sweaty dancing – not as a dinner spot. But I’d heard people rave about its Saturday and Sunday barbecues. They had set up a grill outside on the sidewalk. Got there at the tail end, but still managed to score some free grub. The sign announcing in large letters, TWO DRINK MINIMUM, made me wonder if they had had to prevent the 16th street panhandlers from seeing the spread as a free for all. The BBQ chicken drumsticks weren’t half bad, but the hot dogs were more than overdone, the potato salad was a disappointing supermarket-style tub. Maybe it was an off day on the grill, but more likely I was getting too picky about my free grub.
Day 6: Sundays are a smorgasbord of free barbecue options, especially in the summer when dive bars set up smoking grills on the sidewalk cooking up hot dogs, sausages, and burgers. Pop's, Dirty Thieves, Bender's, and the Attic Club have free food – and that’s just in the Mission. Entering the back door of Dirty Thieves (the old Treat Street bar) placed me right next to plate of fresh oysters and a sampling of different types of sausages and homemade toppings ranging from fresh salsa to cucumber salad. I slurped down an oyster, grabbed a sausage with fresh tangy slaw, and before the bartender could offer me a drink, I was out of there. I felt guilty, but also full and ready to return to the sun.
Day 7: Namu in the Inner Richmond has, in my opinion, the best free food in the city – and people know it. I had to elbow my way through the crowds of hipsters, but the eats were more than worth it. There was a sense of frenzy as DJs played and people mobbed the counter. The chicken tempura, house-made beef jerky, fried pork belly, rice ball with hints of salmon wrapped in seaweed, and rice with pork, seaweed, and fish eggs fed us all.
Day 8: The ambiance at Kyo-ya sushi bar at the Palace Hotel was the complete opposite – it was quiet and serene. There were plenty of people, but between the darker couches in the lounge area, the barstools and small tables in the light airy room near the large windows, no one was crowded. Zen music wafted over the speakers, the decor minimalist. Even the tofu bites with cucumbers were chilled. It was there that I met Brandon and his wife, who were also doing the free-food circuit. By comparison I was an amateur, but we swapped notes and agreed that El Rio was stellar. They suggested I head across the lobby to the more upscale Pied Piper for my next meal.
Day 9: Following the advice of my new free-food mentors, I hit the Pied Piper. Perusing the drink menu, I asked my friend if the $15 price was really for a glass of the Cabernet and not for a bottle. Looking at the wood paneling, mosaic tiled floors, and well-heeled clientele, I realized the answer was yes. So, this is how the other half lives. But the free food did not live up to its decadent décor: wasabi peas, cheese sticks, and Asian mixed crackers. I guess this kind of crowd doesn’t need free food. Luckily, I knew we were close to Dave's, a dive I used to visit as a starving intern. Their spread was basically a lower-class version of Maxwell’s: Ritz crackers, Kraft cheese, canned black olives, and pepperoncini. The bartender told me to come back on Fridays for their free meatballs, which sounded amazing. But for regular people (who aren't relying on free food as their main form of sustenance) the offerings at both spots are more than enough.
Day 10: Next up was Sugar Lounge, a small, swank, Marina-esque spot in Hayes Valley. According to Yelp reviews, the place offers a smorgasbord of lumpia, veggie platters, teriyaki chicken, shrimp tempura, fried sweet potatoes, and eggrolls. I had been looking forward to Sugar’s happy hour, but so had the Haas students finishing exams two blocks away. I had called ahead, but there’s no guarantee against a random influx of buffet vultures. The ratio of food quality to campus proximity worked against me. The only food left was a few celery sticks and a martini glass of dip. I accepted partial defeat in my quest, but swore to return.
Day 11: I started to feel like my luck with bar food was running out. It was time to get creative. Luckily, Larry Flynt came through for me. Turns out the blue-lit Hustler Club scented with strawberry oil is home not only to thong-wearing pole dancers, but an amazing free buffet. The pulled pork and smoked salmon even managed (at times) to distract my male friend from the hotties. There was fresh salad, tomatoes with balsamic dressing, fried chicken, hummus, pitas, fruit salad, pecan pie squares, and two types of brownies. I didn’t even get to try the turkey croissant sandwiches. Like a true American buffet, it’s a multi-trip two-plate affair. Warning though: The only available water costs $5. They always get you on the drinks in those places.
Day 12: Looking down my list, I still had to hit Liverpool Lil's free pub fare near the Presidio, check out the soup and spaghetti at Argus, try The Attic’s sporadic burgers and ribs, and visit Clooney's and The Tempest’s free lunches – not to mention swinging by multiple dive bar sidewalk grills. I realized sometimes there can be too much of a good thing. I just wanted to eat a normal, paid-for meal with a cold glass of water. I was getting too old for so many happy hours. It’s possible to eat for free for two weeks in San Francisco, but it takes stamina. Like I said – it’s the drinks that always get you in those places.
For the ultimate in free, all-you-can-eat happy hours, check out the Inner Sunset’s hip Asian Fusion joint, Namu, the Thursday Italian food at Amarena’s wine bar, or order a gourmet pizza off the menu any weekday at Palio D'Asti. If you’re looking for a little hanky panky with your free lunch, head straight for the Hustler Club’s huge free buffet on Friday afternoons. And if these don’t strike your fancy, there’s no shortage of other options ‘round town, as you can tell from my “research.”