Improvements, but also reduced expectations prowling the alleys of the Financial District in search of something decent for lunch:
Sai's. I've been here a few times, and it comes close to what I want in a regular place. Although the food is only so so, and it's not that cheap. Okay goi cuon, decent huge bowls of pho tai, adequate banh xeo (crepe) but it's no Lotus Garden. Big portions, lots of vegetarian options, real table service, free tea.
Happy Donuts on Battery. Thanks for recommending. I've had the green curry with chicken rice plate for $5, and I think they may have meatball bahn mi. Simple food, served with love. Fresh cut up fruit to take away--watermelon, etc.
Cafe Madeleine has become a regular mid-afternoon coffee break for their very tempting cookies. The almond tuile is my favorite so far, although a friend swears by the soleil. George didn't share his tiramisu. I found the sandwiches disappointing. Roast beef on baguette had overly large onions, and the baguette was soggy.
Cafe Venue on the Leidesdorff alley. Half a plate of pasta and ravioli with freshly tossed salad for $6-7. Comfy, self-serve, good. Glorified cafeteria food, but likely to become a regular spot. There's a small market next door.
Il Massimo Lounge on a sunny Friday afternoon, enjoying a cappuccino while the DJ plays. Huge, tasty greasy pressed sandwiches (half with your choice of salad for $6.75). Chowhound raves for ristretto posted on the wall by the sugar and nutmeg. Sorbet from Tango Gelato; try cassis or lemon basil. Plus they have happy hour drink specials (soju cocktails, prosecco, beer, plates of pretzels) with mellow music, and the furniture is stylin'. Roger was so right.
Cafe Algiers on Beale near Mission, where it's been since the 90s, maybe longer. Good fresh sandwiches made to order. Fluffy, thinly sliced turkey for $4. Fine coffee and baklava assortment.
Cafe Tomo on 1st between Stevenson and Mission. Finally, a score. Vietnamese and Japanese specialties in a clean, quiet environment with real plates for there and a big take-out business. Christine enjoyed veggie udon with shoyu--a delicious broth. We shared an order of goi cuon (no pork, fresh shrimp, lots of lettuce) while we waited. Another time I had bi bim bap, the daily special, served with brown rice, a salad, and delicious white miso. I also tried their pork bahn mi, which was cha (fancy pork) rather than bbq pork; the beef the guy next to me was eating looked better. Inexpensive, even at $3 for a sandwich and $3 for Vietnamese iced coffee. Jook for breakfast. Ask for a frequent diner's card.
Natoma Cafe on Natoma west of New Montgomery. Went looking for it twice before I found it. We shared #10 curried chicken on noodles and the ginger salad. Cozy place, takes credit cards, fresh lemonade, comfort food, perfect on a blustery day. The food was hearty and homemade, big portions, only a slight kick. Ginger salad was traditional but mixed in with half a head of romaine.
Wildflower Cafe on Battery. The best vegetarian option in my radius: enormous salad bar with lots of cooked vegetables and hunks of turkey. ~$6-7 depending on what you choose. I hate salad bars as a rule and as a health hazard, but steamed asparagus were juicy and other options included bitter greens, pasta with tuna, and haricot verts with soybeans.
Yank Sing on Stevenson. A bit greasy. An ambush of plates. Tofu wrapped in seaweed, enormous pork buns, scallop and veggie dumplings, so so panko-encrusted asparagus (too thin and limp). After we were full, a Peking duck, carved to order went by. And a fantastic looking soft shell crab. Hard to decipher the pricing structure. High-end teas for $1.40 each. Service was friendly but not attentive--they offered to refill our tea when we were leaving. Plates should have been changed. $40 plus tip for two. Nice waterfall around the corner, walking toward Mission, although not as cool as the bamboo forest and kinetic sculpture a block west.
Zebulon on Natoma is a great space, as in previous incarnations. Lunch is okay. I had a Cobb salad, my friend got a salad with goat cheese. Order at the counter and wait. No sweet potato fries at lunch. I prefer the vibe there after work, or next door at Varnish.
Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market (Tuesdays, and they're starting up Thursday nights again). Lunch from Donna's tamales, $3.50 each and vegetarian (where cherries are $6 a pound). I tried an asparagus-cheddar tamale, one of the few without beans. It was light and fluffy. Julia had a burrito. Lots of fun but too mild salsas plus a curtido for the pupusas that we helped ourselves to. I also got a sweet tamale, made with pumpkin, coconut, and cinnamon, which I liked better in concept than actual flavor ($2). Why doesn't the market have any recycling containers outside? Stopped at Acme for real pumpernickel and Ciao Bella for mushy but delectable blackberry cabernet sorbet. (What's with the grapefruit campari? I love bitters but this is vile--a waste of good grapefruits). Kettle corn livened up a few meetings.
House of Shields on New Montgomery. Owned by an old friend, so I'm biased but it's a swell bar. Live jazz some nights. And reportedly access to underground tunnels to the Palace across the street. Okay, not a lunch spot unless you consider a Bloody Mary nutrition.
Soup Freaks. I walk in, I can't figure out what to order, I walk out. I've done this more than once. $4 for a bowl of soup?
repeat visits: Happy Sushi truck. I like the Okinanawa soba, small for $2.75, plus a spider roll. Soup comes with strips of marinated ginger.
S&M: stick to the blueberry madeleines (75 cents). Pecan sticky buns for $2.75 were ordinary.
Torrefazione sorbet is cheap and good. They're hopeless about mixing up coffee orders but serve in nice cups if you sit there. Alfajores look like plump flying saucers--but chocolate covered?