Ask a San Franciscan. Local food-lovers in the know would suggest that visitors hop aboard a cable car to find their way to Zarzuela in Russian Hill for a truly authentic San Francisco experience. Rarely does a small neighborhood restaurant on a leafy tree-lined street deliver such tasty dishes in addition to a charming setting and terrific service. Yet, Zarzuela has been doing just that for 20 years.
One of the first restaurants to introduce Spanish small plate dining to America, the dining style sparked a flame that set off a hot trend. Any meal will have lots of star dishes as appetizers, such as tortilla española, marinated roasted peppers, grilled calamari with just the right hint of garlic, poached octopus with paprika served over potatoes, meatball stew and more than three dozen other starters served hot or cold. At Zarzuela, as is common in Spain, diners will start off with the complimentary warm bread, olive oil and mixed olives brought to the table. This is tapas dining, designed for sharing and conversation.
Paella and Praise
Main course specialties of the house include a well-known chicken and seafood combination Paella Valenciana, practically irresistible according to Zarzuela’s many fans. Among those fans is the notoriously tough food critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, who gives it three stars out of three and says this is one of San Francisco’s Top 100 Restaurants. TripAdvisor reviews have earned it a Certificate of Excellence for 2014 and Yelpers are clearly smitten. According to the Zagat restaurant guide, Zarzuela “sets the standard for tapas in San Francisco.” Few, if any, disagree, enthusiastically naming this their favorite San Francisco restaurant in persuasive numbers.
Exposed brick and stucco walls, earthy tones and welcoming smiles set the scene at the somewhat rustic, unpretentious eatery.
Alas, no reservations are accepted at this 50-seat spot, so it’s first-come, first-served.
Three blocks from the ‘crookedest street in the world,’ avoid the difficulty of looking for parking along the picturesque streets of Russian Hill. Come, by all means, but don’t drive. Right here, at the corner of Hyde Street and Union Street, there’s a cable car stop and the Muni bus lines 41 and 45 from downtown drop you off in front.
You’ll be settled in at a cozy table by the window, sipping from a carafe of nicely blended sangria and watching the Powell-Hyde Cable Cars pass by clanging their bells instead of searching for a parking meter.