Outerlands is the kind of restaurant that you dream about stumbling upon. Ironically, I've lived in the Bay Area for years now and I just recently met a friend at Outerlands for the first time. And then went back. And then went back again. It's the kind of place you don't want to tell too many people about but at the same time you can't stop gushing anytime someone asks you where they should eat in they city. And so it's come to be, quickly: Outerlands is my favorite restaurant in San Francisco. Hands down.
I've noticed a funny thing happens when I try to explain why I love Outerlands to people. I become vague. There are hand gestures and lots of "seriously, just trust me's." You walk in the front door and feel immediately at home in the space and at home in the neighborhood that is the Outer Sunset. The restaurant itself has beautiful salvaged fence-wood walls, a long bar with tangled driftwood pieces hanging here and there, and a small smattering of tables. All of this adds up to an undeniably warm and rustic ambiance. It reminds me, in that way, of Big Sur Bakery. There aren't many restaurants around that make you feel so comfortable and so at home so quickly.
If you're not familiar with the Outer Sunset neighborhood, it's s a foggy little enclave pretty far removed from downtown San Francisco--not necessarily in miles but in mood and certainly in weather patterns. It's a hop away from Ocean Beach and hosts a few other great spots to check out, including Trouble Coffee,Polly Ann Ice Cream and Devil's Teeth Baking Company. There are surf shops, music shops, bigger apartments, and wider streets. And there's bread. Oh, is there ever bread.
You can't talk about the food at Outerlands until you mention the bread. David Muller and Lana Porcello set out to open a warm, inviting cafe with simple, beautiful food and Muller's bread is very much at the centerpiece of that. He learned the technique for his Levain loaf from Tartine's Chad Robertson, and I think it actually differs a great deal (in a good way). Muller's loaves are dark on the outside with a surprisingly tender crumb on the inside. They somehow straddle the line between the best sourdough you've ever tasted and a really nice loaf of whole-wheat bread. The folks at Outerlands serve it in fat wedges alongside soups and salads. It's also, obviously, the foundation of many a sandwich. Or order it straight up with a bit of homemade butter or Cowgirl Creamery Mount Tam cheese. I'm not sure it gets much better than that.
While I can't speak to the brunch at Outerlands, I can say that I've heard rumors that the Dutch pancake and the open-faced egg sandwich are worth traveling distances for. Dinner is similarly worth traveling for. What to order? Every time I've eaten at Outerlands I always order soup. It's something they do very, very well and fits perfectly into any meal whether you're at a cozy indoor table or under the heat lamps outside. The first time I ordered a potato leek soup that our waiter mentioned he'd made that night with a bunch of different odds and ends they had in the kitchen (a little of this, a little of that). He was very proud of it; I couldn't not order it. The soup was exquisite. So when I returned recently, I ordered the broccoli soup which was equally fantastic. Not at all too creamy or heavy. We sopped up the remaining few spoonfuls with a hunk of bread and butter. That, in and of itself, could be a lovely little meal.
Beyond the soup and bread though, there are a few different ways to approach dining at Outerlands. I generally share a few small plates with my dining partner although you could certainly go the more traditional entree route as well. Their salads are all simple and beautiful. They generally have one featuring bitter greens which I love and appreciate, but which-- I've learned--not everyone feels the same way about. On a recent trip, I had a wonderful mustard greens salad with figs and walnuts. We also ordered the local sardines with quinoa and pole bean salad served with tomato jam. The menu changes often, but you can always count on a soup, a few salads, special side plates, and a few more substantial entrees and seasonal desserts.
Outerlands opens for dinner at 6 p.m.; the list begins filling up promptly at that time. If you don't feel like waiting (although I find waiting and lingering around the block to be quite lovely), plan on getting there close to 6. They have a nice, small beer and wine list in addition to their new-ish cocktail program that begins at 6 p.m. and runs until 10:45. The three nightly drinks all feature a different spirit. For example, the night I was there recently, they were serving tequila, rum, and gin-based cocktails--all with interesting herb and botanical complements that make actually choosing just one rather difficult. After dinner, be sure to order a pot of Sightglass coffee to share with your tablemate.
Each time I've been to Outerlands I've run into an old friend. The first time I was there it happened to be an old high school friend I hadn't seen for years. Most recently, it was a writing friend that lives up in Portland. Both times we hugged each other and stared in shock, asking one another what the heck we were doing. And both times, the answer was a silent look around the room, a look back at one another, and a nod in recognition that there really couldn't be a better place to spend an evening in San Francisco.
4001 Judah Street
San Francisco, CA 94122
Phone: (415) 661-6140
Hours: Tues.-Sat. Lunch: 11am-3pm; Dinner: 6pm-10pm
Sunday Brunch: 10am-2:30pm
Closed Sunday evenings and all day Monday