Bars with the Best Mac & Cheese in SF
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It’s a pretty simple formula: a shot and a beer plus mac and cheese equals happy human. It doesn’t take much, really. Add to that some good scenery, perhaps a sportsball game on the ole boob-tube, some decent tunes, and you’ve got a pretty darned good way to pass some time and satiate both appetite and soul.
Most of these joints serve beer, booze, and food. They’re all more bar than kitchen, relatively low-stress places where you’ll never need a reservation. They’re casual to divey, come-as-you-are places to unwind.
Note: Some of these spots don’t meet the questionable requirements of beer, liquor, mac and cheese, but rules – like diets and ukuleles – were made to be broken.
MOST MAC FOR YOUR MONEY
Fully kick-your-ass, yelp-it-if-you-wanna-cause-no-one-gives-a-fuck, old-school-SF-hold-out rock-and-roll bar with a giant, Chinese-style “To-Go” box full of creamy, noodly goodness.
Bicycle down to this Mission hang and grab a Pliny or a PBR, then stroll over to the joint’s tiny kitchen. Their Mac is a traditional, home-style, floury mix of elbow pasta and stringy cheese. There’s a ton of it, too. It was enough for a full lunch the next day.
You can add chicken, bacon or a fried egg. After taking the dietary high-road and adding spring veggies and a three-dollar tip, it came to $15.
“Wait,” you say. “A three dollar tip on twelve bucks? That’s over twenty percent!”
Look: do you want macaroni made with compassion and care or do you want noodles prepared by someone underpaid and overworked like your mom used to make?
MAC LIFE LESSON:
Tip well = eat well.
This place at the base of Potrero Hill is a full-on liner between a bar and restaurant. It’s got a ton of tables, but it’s got a ton of taps and TVs… Don’t worry about it and order a ramekin of chipotle mac, paired with “The Hill” special (a shot of Bulliet bourbon and an Anchor Steam for $9).
Or maybe it’s best to go with the Industry special, sipping the Fernet to help digest…
The cheese they use is instantly recognizable by its its uber-natural orange hue. Yep, it’s that color that looks like tasty, that guilty, creamy, undefeated champion of the Noodle Wars: Velveeta. This is shells and cheese with chipotle sauce for $6. No dishes to wash, no water to boil. Just a bellyful, a boiler-maker and a ball game. And a single tear…
Parmesan-sprinkled bowl of happiness with a side salad at in a historic Soma music hall. They use a tubular, twisted pasta called Cavatappi for their mac. Super cheesey, yet somehow not that stringy, it’ll fill the belly without breaking the budget. You can get a PBR tall boy, a shot of Jameson and a bowl of noodles for $20 before tips and tax – about what you’d spend on a burrito and a cola in some other spots in this town – yeesh!
BEST ROCK AND MAC
This ornery Excelsior bar is a dart and pool-shooting joint for real drinkers. They’ve got Fernet on tap for $6 and a banging kitchen in the back with $9 mac.
“Mondo Bongo” by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros plays on the stereo. Then Metallica, Morphine and Alice and Chains. The dimly lit room is mostly black and red, but also shows games on the TV with blue and gold and orange and black. The hoodies for sale on the wall read: “I’m Your Drinking Problem Now.”
Their noodles have great texture – just a lil’ al dente. The bacon is crunchy and the broccoli ain’t soggy. And it’s the perfect mix of creamy and cheesy. This is probably San Francisco’s best bar for mac and cheese – at least as far as this rock-n-rollin’ word-typing, booze-monkey is concerned. But you gotta find your own best mac…
THE TEE-OFF (CLOSED!!!)
MOST IMPOSSIBLE TO GET
A neighborhood dive bar with baseball memorabilia, pinball machines and a damn fine eclectic food menu… THAT IS NOW CLOSED!!
This was the first joint that we went to, had the mac and said: “Hey, I bet some other humans would enjoy this sort of silliness. I wonder where else construction workers, couples on dates and delivery dudes all belly up to a bar and sip adult beverages while consuming what is ostensibly and children’s food dish…”
R.I.P. Tee-Off. Your scene was funky, your patio smokey, and your kitchen flavorful. Perhaps one day the bar will reopen and we’ll see the “Return of the Mac.”
MAC LIFE LESSON:
Strike while the ramekin is warm!
Ramekin (raməkən): noun a small dish for baking and serving an individual portion of food.
“The term is derived from the French ramequin, a cheese- or meat-based dish baked in a small mold. The French term comes from early modern Flemish rammeken, which translated to ‘toast’ or ‘roasted minced meat’, itself apparently from ram ‘battering ram’ + -kin ‘diminutive.’”
The lightest mac! It features “House Bacon” which is like fluffy, less spicy Al Pastor, reminiscent of quarter-inch thick slices of pork brisket. While it was far from the cheesiest of the macs, it was still tasty and didn’t render a bloated desire to shout: “Doctor! Fernet! Stat!”
It paired well with the brewery’s Kölsch (one of the lighter ales that people drank on sunny days before American macro-breweries perfected flavorless lagers). It all seems to jell with their well-lit patio vibe and a side of barbecue sauce could moisten things up if need be.
The menu also described the mac with fancy, culinary-type terms, too, which led to life-type learning:
MAC LIFE LESSON: Béchamel (bā-shə-ˈmel): A white sauce that first appeared in Italian cookbooks but is now considered one of the Mother sauces in French cuisine.
Makes one ponder the true differences between French and Italian culture. Flowery languages, plenty of smoking, drinking, and two-wheeled transportation. Hmmm…
The most moist mac. It’s like a cheesy swamp. The gooiest, runniest ramekin of noodles and cream. A bayou of broccoli and pepper jack. Forking bites of this dish left macaroni mountainsides sliding into a sea of cheese. At $11, it’s pretty reasonably priced, too, considering its location on Russian Hill (adding broccoli was only $1, and you can also choose jalapeno, chorizo or ham).
Their nice wooden back bar and well-lit, eclectically decorated room make for a soothing environment. It is a collar and tie sort of joint, though. Not exactly my cup of tea, but I only got a couple odd looks from other customers when I showed up on a motorcycle while wearing a hoody. The staff was friendly and the food was prompt. Match that with an A’s game and an Anchor Steam, and it’s all all-right.
Social Kitchen Brewery is the type of place that, when you say you’re going there, people offer beer recommendations.
“Ooh, get the Colliding Neutron Stars! It’s a two-year, barrel-aged ale. I think they only made one keg of it.”
“Social Kitchen, nice. Get the Smell.”
This place has come a long way since it opened, bucking the trend of turn-over-businesses in its location with sticktoitiveness, award winning beers, and a stellar menu.
Their “Original Truffle Mac and Cheese” is no exception.
“Anything with truffle in it’s gotta be fancy,” says my buddy as we sip beer and watch the Warriors game. “I mean, how much are one of those truffle-sniffin’ pigs? Probably as much as a meteor – I don’t know!”
Remarkably, it’s only $10 (for the mac and cheese, we’re still looking into the mushroom-hunting porker). Paired with a one of their $10 Boiler-maker specials, you can have a Rapscallion with a shot of Bulleit Rye and still get out for under $30 including tip and tax.
If you feel like treating yo’ se’f, add bacon for $2. When we started this review, we tried going for purism, ordering plain mac as it was presented on the menu. But really, if you don’t choose to add bacon, you’re either adhering to religious beliefs, on a diet, or a raving lunatic.
MAC LIFE LESSON: Get the bacon!
Social Kitchen’s cheesy noodles come with a spoon because, well, let’s be honest, you want to shovel in as much chewy, crunchy, bread-crumb-encrusted goodness as possible. It’s stringy but not clumpy (one more reason to go spoon-style) and is a tad dry at first, but gets creamier as you go.
At the end of it, we were scraping our bowls.
“You got a noodle on the side of your bowl there.” I say.
“Oh yeah, I do” he says, spooning it up. It’s an appetizer, so it’s not full belly meal, but considering how many calories are in cheese, cream and carbs, it’s probably a good thing. That’s more room for beer, anyway!
MOST STOCK OPTIONS
This amazing pub has been serving suds and spuds since 1886. Their mac is one of the best deals out of the bunch, coming fully stocked with bacon, asparagus and sun-dried tomatoes at $12.75 for a “half order.” You can get the “full order” for three more bucks, but we still had a box of leftovers from the smaller portion.
It came out piping hot in a large bowl and was super stringy. It also came with a spoon because, hey, are we fooling around here? No. The sun-dried tomatoes made for a truly unique and outstanding texture and tanginess not found in any other mac. Three cheers for five kinds of cheese.
On top of all that, the bar sells most of it’s beers and shots for around $6 each. It’s also right next door to the Mystic Theater. Consider visiting on December 29 and 30, when local Bay Area Bluegrass legends The Brothers Comatose will be performing.
This swanky-casual Tenderloin establishment is a ridiculous beer-haven with a solid menu. Their mac is right down the middle, bread-crumbed, not overly cheesy but not dry. While it may not be the most amazing, if you find yourself in the Mid-Market neighborhood, you could do a lot worse than stopping in here.
Did we mention they have literally hundreds of beers to choose from?
(Beer and Wine)
This may be the best mac and cheese in the known universe. These sons o’ guns are straight-up cheese junkies and know more about pairing fermented lipids and processed curds with wine or beer than the average human can begin to fathom.
They also chose a wacky noodle called “campenelle” that is kinda like a scroll that they fill with butter and cheese. It’s basically a bowl full of micro-quesadillas. Just the right amount of stringy and cheesy, it can be scooped out with crostini.
They are more restaurant than bar and mostly a wine bar at that (no hard liquor), but they get a pass because of their super-saiyan cheese powers.
MAC LIFE LESSON:
Campanelle: a type of pasta shaped like a cone with a ruffled edge. Translates to bellflowers or little bells. Mmmm…bells….gaaahhh…
(Beer and wine)
MOST MIND-BLOWING MAC
Ok, so this is another instance of no hard booze, but it felt wrong to ignore the fact that they do a MACARONI AND CHEESEBURGER. Yep, that’s right. A grilled patty of clumpy, creamy, golden-brown-bread-crumb encrusted elbow noodles laid atop a beef hamburger. And they have beer. And it’s mostly patio. Nuff said.
MAC LIFE LESSON:
The only limit is your imagination!
Well, that and your pocketbook… and your colon. Seriously: we are not responsible if you try to eat all of these in one week.
Good luck! Have fun and tip well!