Ok, we're not trying to disprove the "there's no such thing as a free lunch" mantra. But at some of San Francisco's bars and restaurants, you can eat for semi-free—just stop by during one of these five free-food happy hours. A glass of wine or a beer (usually at special prices) will get you access to a spread of snacks, ranging from hearty Italian dishes to Asian-fusion finger food.
Russian Hill eatery Amarena lays out a huge Italian antipasti buffet on Thursdays, featuring different pasta dishes like pesto lasagna, plus onion focaccia bread, salad, and more. Expect a warm welcome from owner Paolo and lots of families at this neighborhood favorite—try one of the Italian or California wines from their superb wine list, and then fill up your plate. 2162 Larkin Street, 415/447-0441, every other Thursday 6:00–9:00 p.m. Call ahead to double check dates.
Namu in Inner Richmond offers up free food on Monday nights. This happening scene draws major crowds with buffets of Asian-inspired food, a DJ spinning background music, and family-style seating. The menu features seasonal, local ingredients that change daily—a recent Monday-night spread included chicken tempura, house-made beef jerky, fried pork belly, and rice with pork, seaweed, and fish eggs. Belly up to the bar and order one of 30 sakes and wines by the glass to take care of the one-drink minimum. 439 Balboa Street, 415/386-8332, Mondays 9:30 p.m.–midnight.
As long as you order two drinks per table, the servers at North Beach's Palio D'Asti will bring you a free pizza on weeknights before 7 p.m. Even pizza purists can appreciate gourmet toppings like Berkshire pork and fennel sausage, fire-roasted peppers, arugula, or asiago cheese. Try a Prosecco or a Napa Valley wine from the extensive wine list. 640 Sacramento Street, 415/395-9800, Monday–Friday 4–7 p.m.
Rollicking Friday nights at Mission dive bar El Rio start off with free oysters at 5 p.m., followed by a barbecue. Try bacon-wrapped hot dogs (a favorite food in the Mission) or grilled chicken, with sides like homemade potato salad and fresh spinach salad. Friday is also Red Hot Burlesque Night, so expect scantily clad ladies in corsets and fishnets mingling in with the crowd. 3158 Mission Street, 415/282-3325, Fridays beginning at 5:30 p.m.
Sugar Lounge, a small, swanky spot in Hayes Valley, serves a smorgasbord of snacks for free on weekdays, such as lumpia, veggies with dip, teriyaki chicken, shrimp tempura, fried sweet potatoes, and eggrolls. Get there early—Sugar Lounge tends to fill up with a hip, very young crowd as eager to drink pink cocktails as munch on the free food. 377 Hayes St., 415/255-7144, Monday–Friday 4:30-7 p.m.
Want more? I attempted to eat for free for two weeks—read about it here.