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Are There Any Affordable Places Left to Eat in Downtown SF?

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No one is going to mistake downtown San Francisco for a food desert, but lately, getting just about any meal at a remotely reasonable price in the area is becoming as rare as a condo for under a million bucks.

In the past few months, the Financial District saw the demise of the Taco Bell at 7 Drumm St., Rubio’s in 4 Embarcadero Center, and Togo’s at 570 Battery St. Yes, there’s still Subway, McDonald’s and Chipotle, but inexpensive options are getting more limited all of the time. You might be saying, “So what if a bunch of crappy fast food joints shut their doors?”

First, it’s a problem for anyone who works downtown and doesn’t pull down a hefty salary. It’s generally not in the average office drone’s budget to shell out $12 to $20 a day for lunch, which is the going rate for a sandwich or salad with tax and tip at an alarming number of places.

Taco Bell is no más on Drumm Street. Photo credit: Geri Koeppel

I hear some of you: “Just pack a lunch, lazy ass.” It’s fine to carry leftovers or a sandwich and some snacks sometimes or even most days, but every freaking day? It’s heavy, it’s inconvenient, and it’s soul-crushing.

Next, you have a huge contingent of food and beverage employees who put in long hours in the FiDi at the mid-price and upscale restaurants. Where do they eat? The majority of not-so-expensive soup/salad/sandwich shops close by 5 or 6 p.m. Chipotle and McDonald’s close at 9 p.m. Subway on Drumm Street is still open until 11 p.m. weekdays; 8 p.m. weekends.

You’d think most restaurant workers get a free meal on shift, but not all do, and oftentimes, the staff meal, or “family meal,” as it’s called, is garbage—especially compared to what the workers are preparing for the customers.

One restaurant worker told me he finds deals at the Ferry Building, despite its reputation as overpriced. He fills up on a couple of steamed pork buns ($3.50 each) at Out the Door, the to-go little sister of tony Slanted Door. I personally like Golden Gate Meat Company’s hot deli. It has excellent house-made chili, pot pies, rotisserie chicken, salads, ready-to-heat meals and more for less than $10. However, they often sell out of deli items well before closing time.

Another observation: It’s not just fast food getting squeezed out. We keep losing downtown favorites where it used to be possible to hit happy hour after work and get full, both booze-wise and food-wise, without spending a C-note. Chaya on the Embarcadero (now the über-pricey Angler, home of the $17 White Russian) had an all-night happy hour until close with $8 cocktails and small plates for $8 to $14. For all of its faults, Fuzio in 1 Embarcadero (still vacant nearly a year after it closed) was a go-to for its super cheap happy hour drinks and half-off appetizers.

The former Fuzio, RIP. Photo credit: Geri Koeppel

Meanwhile, prices continue not just to climb, but pole vault. Osha Thai in 4 Embarcadero Center used to be one of my stalwarts for takeout, but with a bowl of pumpkin curry at $17.95 ($3 extra for beef; $5 extra for prawns), it’s a slap in the face. We go to other neighborhoods—or over to Oakland—and we don’t get bent over nearly as bad. One woman I know who works in the FiDi said she can get a full sandwich and soup in Oakland for $8, but in the FiDi, half a sandwich and cup of soup is $12 if you’re lucky. She said it’s easily $18 for a salad with tax and tip near her workplace, which is simply out of her budget.

Restaurant owners blame part of the nosebleed prices on labor costs, but why are labor costs so high? Because it costs too damn much to live here, of course. Minimum wage is $15. Jobs like dishwashers or counter often pay more than $15, according to a quick scan of Craiglist ads. For owners to make their profits, they have to charge more to pay those wages along with their own ridiculous rents. It all flows uphill to the greedy landowners, just as it always has.

Meanwhile, the folks making more than $15 an hour, or even the blessed wait staff who earn minimum wage plus tips, or even many full-time office workers, can’t afford to eat where they work or anywhere near it.

Know of any cheap eats in the FiDi? Don’t be shy—leave them in the comments.

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Geri Koeppel

Geri Koeppel

Geri Koeppel is a journalist, hedonist, gadfly and gal-about-town. She loves animals, despises hypocrites, and will do almost anything for good pierogis.