Lunchtime: Souvla in Hayes Valley

Souvla / 517 Hayes Street, San Francisco, 94102 / (415) 400-5458

Hayes Valley is a spot I’ve spent way more time in than I ever would have predicted. My first experiences in Hayes Valley were as a film production assistant doing things like office work at a coordinator’s Victorian terraced house on Page Street or working on a shoot at a fancy office above the little Blue Bottle Coffee kiosk. Unfortunately for me, these memories aren’t necessarily all good. They’re often stress-filled and a little weird, like going to Arlequin Cafe just reminds me of the time I lost my FitBit while picking up lunch for a couple crew members, or having what felt like a gallon of red curry spill down the front of my jeans only halfway through a shoot as I walked a sh*t ton of to go containers from Bai Thong Thai over to a set, or steaming costume after costume in the upstairs recesses of Dark Garden. Fun times.

But more recently, my visits to Hayes Valley have been for leisure, not indentured servitude—I mean PA work. I kid. I promise. Souvla is one of those restaurants I’ve passed by a couple of times on nice, warm days and been like, “Wow, look at all those healthy people sitting outdoors in the sunshine while eating huge salads out of gimongous bowls.” It looked absolutely idyllic. And I don’t even like most salads.

When I finally gave Souvla in Hayes Valley a try this week, it was not a nice, warm, sunny day, but damp, dark, and chilly. So no outdoor seating for me and the two friends I went with, instead, we sat inside on stools at the counter towards the back of the restaurant, facing the rotisserie, because it was already quite crowded when we arrived just a little before noon. For better or worse, Souvla’s setup is order at the counter, get a number, and find yourself a place to sit in a relatively small space. Let’s put it this way, when it’s crowded and there are two people chit chatting over a single, finished bowl of soup with their laptops out and party of one diners taking up room at tables for four, I can’t help but wonder why people are so…oblivious. To put it politely. Aside from being wedged in the back with two of us on tall stools and one of us on a short stool, which really wasn’t that bad in the grand scheme of San Francisco restaurant experiences, I enjoyed the clean, bright atmosphere of Souvla.

The menu at Souvla is one-sided and straightforward, which is something I always appreciate because that means less time agonizing over what to order. Your choices are quite simple; you can pick pork, chicken, lamb, or vegetarian and you get to decide if you want to have your option as a sandwich (more like a pita wrap) or a salad. They’ve also got sides and Frozen Greek Yogurt that sounded interesting, but the word “frozen” put me off since it was such a dreary day. A salad wasn’t really what I needed on a dreary day either. But I got it anyway. The staff was efficient and friendly, and the food came out fairly quickly considering just how packed the restaurant got, though I think we lucked out and had put our order in just before the real rush at about 12:10.

I think what really drew me to this place when I first saw people eating their huge salads outside on sunny days was actually the dishware that Souvla uses, which I find to be super aesthetically pleasing: white with dark blue edging. I didn’t know it was possible for dishware to remind me of architecture, but apparently it is. Their dishware took me right back to Santorini watching the sun set over white and blue domed houses. And to top off their aesthetically pleasing dishware, my Lamb Salad and Greek Fries with Granch and Harissa-Spiked Greek Yogurt Dipping Sauce was really, really good. I guess that’s more important than waxing poetic about dishware, however, no-frills, yet well-thought out meal presentations earn points in my book.

When I get lamb dishes, I usually expect it to be a little bit tough and gamey (for some reason I still like it anyway, maybe it’s my Shepherd ancestry at work), but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the lamb in my dish was tender, chopped quite finely, was mild in taste, and seasoned well. I’m not sure I’ve had lamb quite this good since a trip to New Zealand (aka Lamb Central) in 2012. The salad itself was feta cheese, radish, pickled onion, cucumber, kale, and lettuce tossed with a Harissa-spiked dressing; everything was chopped or thinly sliced in ways that made knives unnecessary, and for that, I was extremely pleased. There’s nothing I hate more than having to cut up salad or awkwardly try to cram full lettuce leaves in your mouth while trying to have a conversation. Okay, I might be exaggerating a little, but it is the reason why I usually don’t like salads. That and if they’re wilty. Souvla’s salad wasn’t—it was nice and fresh and crunchy. And their Greek Fries? Well, I love fries. And I loved these ones even more than I usually love fries. Their crispy, finger-sized fries were dressed with olive oil, lemon, parsley, and a light sprinkle of cheese and were good enough to eat without any dipping sauces, but who am I kidding? I love a good dipping sauce too…I’m not going to lie, I’d go back to Souvla just for the fries.

Price-wise, this wasn’t an inexpensive lunch. If I’d dialed it back and just gotten the Lamb Salad ($14), it would have been more reasonable, but I definitely had a moment of FOMO when I saw someone else with tasty-looking fries in front of them and so I ended up splitting the Greek Fries ($8 for two orders) and dipping sauces ($1 each) with my two friends. I will say from previously living and working in San Francisco, I’m painfully aware that it’s a challenge to find a place where you pay less than $15 for lunch, especially in Hayes Valley. So I can’t say that I was surprised at spending about $20 on lunch at Souvla, and I did think that based on the quality of the food, atmosphere, and big portions, it was well worth it. I’ll definitely go back for another lunch if I happen to be in Hayes Valley, I just hope that next time I’ll get to fulfill my dream of being one of those people looking all healthy and sunlit while happily eating their salad outside of Souvla—but unhealthy or not, I won’t be skipping the fries.

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