100 Spinnaker Dr., Sausalito (See Map Below) 415-332-1500
Open for Lunch and Dinner. Entree price range (for Dinner) at time of most recent review: $14-$32.50. Lobster etc. prices are not listed ("M.Q." or "A.Q.") and will be quoted by your server.
Website and reservations are here. (Click on the "More" icon under "Reserve" for the reservations link -- it may not seem obvious at first glance.) Free valet parking.
#5 on our Heat Top TenTM list of the most-discussed restaurants in Sausalito for Winter, 2013
#7 on our Long Memories Top TenTM list of the best special occasion restaurants in Sausalito for Winter, 2013
#1 on the OurSausalito.com Best Restaurant Views List for 2013
Fast Forward SummaryTM: One of the enduring Great View Restaurants in all of Northern California, and a Grand Dame of Sausalito. Not the right choice for everyone: this is a more old school, dignified dining spot rather than an edgy scene, though there is no dress code and many diners are casual. You really want to get a reservation here, and tell them if you're willing to wait for a window table, perfectly suited to special occasions and romantic dinners. Great for lunch for Ferry riders who come in from San Francisco and enjoy the great view after sailing right past the restaurant windows as the ferry approaches the pier. One of the places where the locals bring family from out of town and where local business people impress visiting clients.
The Spinnaker: The Details
If people ask me to recommend a place in Sausalito one of the first questions I ask is, "Does a great view of the Bay matter a lot to you?" If the answer is yes, I put Spinnaker at the top of the list, with Horizons and Scoma's in second place. One local friend tells me that this has been the "take out-of-town guests here" restaurant for their family for a couple of generations.
If you're looking for a place with a Michelin Star or that's on Michael Bauer's lists and the view is secondary, Spinnaker won't be #1 on your itinerary. If it's not a special occasion or celebration and you're looking for a casual experience the same is true.
Key to Having a Good Time: Always make a reservation if you plan to eat here, and arrive a little early to maximize your enjoyment. The views are spectacular and the restaurant can get very busy during vacation times and holidays. During busy times people who walk in with no reservation can easily wait for an hour or more for their table, and some of them get impatient -- not the way to have a good time.
Spinnaker is built on top of a pier jutting out into San Francisco Bay, a location that no one would be allowed to build on today. The pier faces east, so...
- If you look to the south you get the San Francisco skyline,
- If you look east you see the mansions of Belvedere Island,
- To the north is a beautiful view of Mt. Tamalpais,
- The tops of the Golden Gate Bridge towers are in the southwest.
Fog Alert: You can check this nearby webcam any time to see if morning fog persists or the afternoon fog has decided to visit. Fog on the Bay is most common in the summer, and the skies are most clear in September-October. Sometimes it's completely clear, sometimes the San Francisco skyscrapers can be seen above the fog, and sometimes what you see is the fog. You can even get those days pictured on postcards where you have dramatic visions of wisps of fog curling around the Sausalito hills.
Some of my favorite things about the Spinnaker, once your jaw stops dropping halfway to your knees when you first see the views from the windows:
1. Caesar salad made table-side for two or more people. Watching the servers make the dressing largely from scratch in front of you is fun, although their performance is dignified rather than flamboyant. And the salad itself is fabulous and tasty.
2. If sunset aligns with your dinner plans during your visit, make a reservation for a half hour before the sun goes down and watch the San Francisco city lights slowly twinkle into place on the horizon. For some visitors this can be a highlight of a week-long trip... if the fog cooperates that evening!
3. Fresh seafood. A wide variety of items, and each item may be offered in two or three different preparations. The clam chowder is great, especially during the winter when it warms you up.
4. Arrive early for your reservation and have a drink by the window in the bar, where the view is as good as in the dining area. More time to take in the scenery and relax, and you're more likely to get a window table by waiting. Even when it's busy, you can usually hear each other talk without raising your voice. Note: I hear they have now instituted a $10 per person minimum in the bar area if you are not also having a meal.
5. The restaurant is a three minute walk from the Ferry pier that connects Sausalito to Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco (Blue and Gold Fleet) and to the Ferry Building in San Francisco (Golden Gate Ferry). But be careful: the ferries do not run that late at night, especially on the weekends. Our complete guide to the Sausalito Ferry is here.
6. If you're here on a budget do NOT pass up on these views. At lunch in the dining area they have a minimum charge of $14 per person ($15 at dinner). There are sandwiches for about $11-$12 and Fish and Chips for $13.75, and I've seen less food with less flavor for twice the price elsewhere in the San Francisco area. Add a soft drink and you're over the minimum but you haven't spent that much. (All prices as of our last review in 2009).
7. Autumn and Winter: On a rainy windy day it's hard to beat a big bowl of New England clam chowder and a slab of French bread at a window table here. It's like a Moby Dick ride at Disneyland, only you're dry and warm and everything you see is real.
8. Shrimp Louis salad. Crab Louis salad. Really good, and at prices below what I've seen in San Francisco. Oh, and one of the competing stories of the creation of Louis dressing has it being invented in San Francisco in 1908.
9. Ferry boats come and go, by day or night. After dark tour boats come by with their Christmas lights all aglow. Kayakers paddling right beneath your window. Sailboats going by and people waving.
10. The dessert cart looks fabulous, though I try not to indulge. The carrot cake does call my name in such a sweet voice, though.
11. Sing it with me, "Free valet parking!"
Other comments and notes:
Many times at night there will be one or two herons standing patiently on the rocks below the restaurant window. Every so often their head will dart down when they think they see a meal. Once in a great while I've seen a seal or sea lion stick its head up nearby to check out the goings-on. There's even a picture of one in an (excellent) blog post about Spinnaker here!
Even the tables one row back from the windows here have a fabulous view. Just past the Maitre D' stand there are a series of tables against the wall where two people sit side-by-side looking directly at the San Francisco skyline. They're not window tables, but for guests who like the side-by-side aimed-right-at-the-view alignment they're a great alternative if the wait to be "on the glass" is going to be a long one.
Servers here work at the dignity thing, although they are pleasant. It works well for special occasion meals, but some people who like their service casual and laid-back find it less appealing. If you look around you there are likely to be people celebrating anniversaries, birthdays and other special events. It's a place business people have dinner meetings with clients they want to impress.
If you ask your server to take a picture of your group with the view in the background, they will jump at the chance to do it. So don't read my comments as saying the service here is not pleasant.
If you're local, give the view to the north of the restaurant a try after you've been here a few times. Everyone flocks to the San Francisco skyline, but Mt. Tamalpais seen across the Bay is fabulous.
Google Map Instructions: Use the "+" and "-" buttons to zoom in and out, the arrow keys to scroll the map, and the SAT button to see the satellite view.
Something else that people should know about the Spinnaker? Have you seen Elvis piloting one of the sailboats that like to buzz the east end of the building? Disagree with any of our suggestions? Please leave a comment below so our readers get the full story.