Unexpected touches can distinguish a good meal from a great meal. And they can come in many forms -- whether it is thoughtful wait staff on a special occasion, a chef’s unique take on a traditional dish, or a surprisingly playful or elegant dining room.
Typically, diners find these little surprises at the Bay Area’s many fine four- and five-star restaurants. But there’s one restaurant out in San Francisco’s foggy Richmond District that has been churning out surprises for more than 40 years: Bill’s Place. The surprises start when you walk in the door.
As San Francisco’s eating scene has evolved, cool, hip eateries have replaced many of the City’s old neighborhood gems. Walking into Bill’s Place, though, will take you back a few years and remind you of what it was like growing up in the City and going out to eat as a kid.
A long, eat-at counter with the old-fashioned vinyl, spinning chairs harkens back to classic 1950s diners, and there’s a good chance that this is the original counter and spinning chairs. Whether you sit there sipping a thick, chocolate shake or eating the messy chili cheese fries, watching the frenzied grill chef and wait staff can be a lot of fun.
But don’t forget to look up because that’s where one of the first surprises resides: imported crystal chandeliers. Where else can you enjoy a reasonably priced burger while dining under chandeliers? A presidential plate collection also lines the wall.
At the back of the restaurant is one of those surprises that you’ll appreciate on one of those rare sunny days in the summer, or when your kids decide they need a quick diversion before their milkshakes arrive -- an outdoor patio with a small coy pond.
The restaurant has arranged a number of outdoor tables, some with umbrellas. The sound of falling water and the tranquil surroundings can make you forget for just a few seconds that you’re in the City.
Admittedly, I have eaten at Bill’s for nearly thirty years and have only sat outside on two or three occasions because of the Richmond District’s perpetual fog. But I do make the short walk outside on nearly every trip to see the fish, reminisce a little about years gone by, and share the tradition with my two young boys.
You’ll find a few surprises on the menu too.
Bill’s Place serves up a wide variety of diner-style food at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but I’ve always come for the burgers. You’ll find your standard cheeseburger or patty melt, but Bill’s has taken their burgers to new places and named them after famous San Franciscans of years gone-by -- many of whom San Francisco transplants probably could not identify.
For instance, the “Carol Doda” burger pays tribute to the legendary North Beach stripper with two matching patties topped with olives. My favorite is the “Jack Hansen,” a cheddar cheeseburger served on a toasted English muffin. All of the burgers are grilled to medium rare and are extremely juicy, and oftentimes very messy. Another nice touch, Bill’s will add grilled onions on its burgers, but be sure to ask your waiter.
The accompanying French fries are cooked to perfection. Warm and crispy on the outside, they retain the soft potato inside that I personally enjoy. For an additional cost, you can substitute a healthy portion of curly fries.
The menu also offers a well-priced kids menu. My oldest son, who is a vegetarian and connoisseur of grilled cheese, swears Bill’s has the best sandwich outside of his father's kitchen. Golden brown on the outside with melting cheese oozing out the sides, this one is a winner in most kids' book. My youngest son has gravitated toward the kid’s hot dog. Big enough to feed an adult, the hot dog is split nearly in two and grilled. On my most recent visit, he had a grilled ham and cheese. A nice touch to the kid-friendly meal was two slices of grilled pineapple atop the sandwich. Kids can choose French fries or potato chips with their meal.
Speaking of kids, the restaurant could not be more kid friendly. In addition to the outside patio and solid kids' menu, the staff will provide crayons and paper if you come unprepared. Plus, it’s a diner that does get loud. So it’s not a bad place if your kids are still working on those table manners.
In addition to the burgers, Bill’s regulars keep coming back for the old-fashioned milkshakes. Brought to the table in the old-fashioned stainless steel mixing cups, milkshakes are so thick that the first few sips through the straw can be difficult. I typically split a milkshake between my boys and steal the overflow left in the mixing cup.
You shouldn’t come to Bill’s if you are looking for a fancy, gourmet experience. But if you enjoy a relaxed atmosphere, good diner fare, a reasonable price tag, I highly recommend it.
Over the last forty years, a lot has changed in the San Francisco dining scene. But you can still count on a good burger, fries and shake out in the Richmond District at Bill’s Place.
Occupation: Executive Director of Senior Nutrition Program
Favorite Restaurant: Café Rouge
Reviewed Bill's Place: Thursday, August 17, 2006
Great, fantastic. We were a party of seven: two Japanese, one Caucasian, four African Americans, and everyone had a wonderful burger. The buns were fresh, great ground beef. How can I say great? Well, how about that it's the kind of beef you’ve not had in years, and that’s not because I’m a vegan or anything, I think we forget what really good hamburger meat taste like because we are usually eating in the kind of places you can drive thru. The burger was rare and served on a sesame bun, a VERY FRESH BUN. I also requested grilled Bermuda onions and French fries. Thank God I don’t have to take a cholesterol test for the rest of this year -- it will give me plenty of time to redeem my scores. But all things aside, the burger was over the top for all of us. I’m glad that Bill’s is in San Francisco, because I would be in a world of trouble if Bill’s was any where near my home.
Great shakes, one person ordered the chocolate-banana shake and someone ordered the orange sherbet. Both were rich and thick we all agreed that the French fries were a ten on a scale of one to ten. What is most liked about the place is the décor. Can you imagine a burger place with chandeliers and a lovely patio with small white lights hanging from the trees? The staff was gracious and very efficient. We brought our own birthday cake and when we arrived the server asked if we wanted the cake held behind the counter while we had dinner. The staff came over and sang happy birthday to our party and then took the cake to the back to cut it and then served it to our party. We all left saying we would be back not once, not twice, but three times…
Occupation: Event Planner & Documentary Producer
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Le Colonial
Reviewed Bill's Place: Saturday, August 5, 2006
Bill’s Place at 2315 Clement St. (at 23rd Ave in the Richmond) is a truly American dining experience. It’s basically a diner that has been in this very unique neighborhood of mom-and-pop restaurants since 1959. But…the old gal is showing her age. But if you are looking for a no frills diner in SF with BASIC non-descript food, then this is the place.
Parking in this neighborhood is hard, so either park in a lot down the block or try circling the block a few times. I was seated immediately, and the staff could not have been friendlier; smiles and welcoming looks from all the staff.
I saw that this was a hamburger joint and I best stay with the program and order a burger. The “specials” were just frozen food that was in adequate supply in the freezer that day (e.g., breaded shrimp platter for $9.95). To start, I had clam chowder. I should have passed, as it was thick and nary a clam in sight. Kind of like a flavorful wallpaper paste, if the truth be known. It was served with packaged saltine crackers, which I do kind of love.
Next was a “small” house salad. IT WAS HUGE. Iceberg lettuce chopped with red cabbage and carrots. Sliced tomatoes that were pale and tasteless and the two sliced canned red beets on top were limp and tasted like soil. I opted for the “Italian dressing” which was bottled and gummy.
There are plain burgers and special burgers, so I decided on the Paul Kanter Burger with grilled onions and Thousand Island dressing.
It came and was a small 1/3-pound burger cooked as I requested, medium. The onions were not as grilled thru as I had hoped, but the burger was tasty. It was served with Very Limp and tasteless pickle slices and iceberg lettuce. The French fries on the plate looked great, but alas were soggy and limp. (I hate that.)
When I walked in to Bill’s Place, I had high hopes. Maybe this local joint had the best food and cheap prices, but I was to discover that although they were the nicest folks, the food was bland and most mediocre. I would eat there again only if I really wanted a quick burger for lunch and everything else in the neighborhood was closed.
A funny coda: when it was time to pay, I reached for my wallet, only to find that I left it at home when I did laundry earlier that day. So there I was in a restaurant, having just eaten and no money. I told the waitress about my predicament and how embarrassed I was. She said no problem, and that I could bring the money tomorrow. I drove home and got my wallet and returned in 20 minutes. She said I looked good for the money.