As a rule, I try not to play favorites. Whether we’re talking about animals, flowers, or food, it’s impossible to crown a winner across the board. Different moods and situations call for different preferences. No one thing is ever perfect either. Some might excel at one thing but fall short in another. I say this specifically with restaurants and bars in mind, as I’m frequently asked to weigh in. That’s why I can’t say that Phonobar is my all-time favorite… It’s just that the competition would be tough with that near the top of my list.
Established in the heart of the Civic Center, it’s a true oasis in the city. Rarely can you walk into a sleek, polished bar and feel right at home, as if your glittery high heels had transformed into fuzzy slippers upon entry, though I can’t find any other way to describe the experience. Intimate and comfortable, romantic and seductive, fun and casual; any of these descriptors could fit the vibe. If you want to dance the night away, there’s a sweet lounge area with open space to groove, especially when a DJ or band comes to play. If you just want a chill happy hour, sidle up to the bar or park yourself in the covered outdoor booths on a balmy San Francisco evening.
If you know me, you know my focus is quickly diverted to the menu. This is where the party really starts. Om Sabor is in the kitchen, crafting their distinctive globally inspired fusion fair, leaning strongly into Mexican and Californian cuisine. There’s not a single dish that would disappoint, but I’d highly suggest going for the Enchiladas, stuffed with black beans, to get a taste of their masterful handle on spices, layered harmoniously into every bite.
Soups are ever-changing with the seasons, but if you’re fortunate enough to get French Onion Soup as an option, don’t even think twice: Place your order before you even take a seat. Deeply savory, buttery, and with a hint of natural sweetness, meltingly tender ribbons of caramelized onions swim under the cover of soft bread and gooey cheese, all slowly melting together into one comforting spoonful.
Teriyaki Skewers are one of the top sellers, which chef Luis easily sold me on after facing decision paralysis given the breadth of choices. Thank goodness he tipped the scale in favor of these delicately strung strata of chicken-like protein and vegetables. Deftly grilled to ensure crisp, gently seared edges, it’s a true feat to have everything, from mushrooms to peppers, zucchini to meat, cooked perfectly together, glistening under the greenhouse window panels lining the far wall.
Of course, you can’t leave without indulging in a cocktail or two, or three if you’ve got a ride home lined up. Of course, for nondrinkers, zero proof cocktails (AKA mocktails) are far from an afterthought; these drinks are just as carefully blended, infused, and shaken, so you’ll never end up with another glorified lemonade. You’d barely wait a minute even during the busiest of times; they have the process down to an art and a science.
My favorite cocktail of all time, the Paper Plane, isn’t in the printed menu, but all it took was a tentative request for the perfect blend of spirits to arrive at my table. Balance is the word I keep coming back to, describing how well each ingredient compliments one another, never speaking out of turn or stealing the show. That isn’t easy, especially in the more complex, original cocktails developed and only found here.
The seasonal Walking In The Rain is a must for warm summer nights. It’s genuinely refreshing, light and restorative, gently sweetened with vegan honey, and offset with herbaceous cucumber-infused bitters. Should the weather turn cold, when the fog rolls in and blankets the streets, a Hot Toddy will warm you from the inside out, soothing like a hug from a good friend. There’s something for everyone, to take the edge off a bad day or celebrate a good one.
The fact that it’s all plant-based honestly feels like an afterthought because it’s such a natural fit. No one is going out of their way to force it into a box or cater to a specific crowd. It’s just unassailable food and drinks, in a thoughtfully curated space, that happens to be entirely inclusive on all levels. If you don’t go to Phonobar every chance you get, you have no right complaining about a bad trip. It’s a must stop for me every time I’m in town now, and the kind of place I miss when I’m gone.
So, while I don’t want to call it my favorite… I can’t think of another place that even comes close.