Tapas spots were seriously trendy in the 90s, and the trend gave way to the craze of small-plates-heavy menus of every variety that we see across town today. (The debate rages on, by the way, about whether this style of dining is still fun, or just a ripoff and too chaotic.) But few restaurants stuck to the authentic Spanish tradition of legitimately small cocktail bites to be enjoyed before dinner, choosing instead to adapt the idea into a style of eating that constituted a full meal. Here in SF we still have a few of those stalwart spots leftover from the initial wave, like Esperpento and Zarzuela, as well as some newer ones like Canela and Coqueta, where you're likely to have an experience that feels authentically Spanish, and where you can just drop in for a drink and a tapa and move on, if you like.
A tapas/cocktail stroll is called a tapeo, and in a place like Madrid you're likely to go somewhere specifically just their ham, or just for their excellent croquetas, and move on to have a couple of drinks at different establishments before settling in for dinner. In SF, our best tapas spots are a bit spread out, but with the help of Uber, or a bike, you could probably create your own tapeo with our list below.
Bask: This one-year-old spot in North Beach has a wide selection of warm, cold, and fried tapas, including fire-roasted mushrooms, Spanish tortillas, Serrano and Bellota hams, and four kinds of croquettes. They ostensibly focus on the French-influenced Basque region, though this can mostly only be seen in a few items, like the baked Camembert. And every Tuesday you can bounce in and out for under $20 with a selection of $6 tapas to choose from. 42 Columbus Avenue
Canela: Up in the Castro, Canela has been serving an array of Spanish plates–which come in either tapa or racion portions–since 2011, but they've lately been refining their menu and adding more seasonal stuff. Especially good are their croquettes, flatbreads, and garlicky gambas (shrimp, their take on gambas al ajillo), doused in a garlicky tomato sauce. And also don't miss special items like the tuna salad crostini with capers and arugula (pictured below). 2272 Market Street
Coqueta: The newest entry on the tapas scene is Michael Chiarello's high-profile Embarcadero spot with its extensive menu of pinxtos, tapas, and family-style Spanish dishes. The pintxos (cocktail snacks) are most in the spirit of traditional tapas, and are typically single skewered bites for about $3, best enjoyed with one of the bar's excellent Spanish-style gintonics. But we also recommend the Spanish tortilla (more like a layered potato omelet), and the excellent, though expensive, grilled Iberico Secreto ($22). Pier 5 on the Embarcadero
The pintxos case at Coqueta.
Esperpento: Opened way back in 1992, Esperpento was at the forefront of the tapas trend, which spread across the country in that decade and beyond. It remains a Mission birthday favorite, in large part because prices have stayed low and plenty of sangria flows. Definitely order the grilled quail, the plancha-grilled, thin-sliced artichokes, and the deep-fried anchovies. 3295 22nd Street
Lolo: This place remains sort of under-the-radar for those who aren't in the neighborhood or don't know it's there, but Lolo is still one of our favorite cheap-date spots in town. Things are less traditionally Spanish here, veering more toward Mexican influence, but you'll find great stuff like their beef tongue mini-tortas, 'gambas bravas,' and oxtail empanadas, as well as a good wine list. 3230 22nd Street
Honorable mentions: Gitane on Claude Lane has shifted away from the tapas thing in recent years, moving toward more involved and ambitious Spanish plates, though you can still get great cocktails, excellent ham, and some solid pickled sardines to pique your palate. And Zarzuela remains a favorite of many and a pretty romantic space, but we haven't been back in too long a time to evaluate it.