Today's query comes from J.S.:
So, the girlfriend's parents and my parents are both flying out to San Francisco to meet each other for the first time. We'd like to take them all out to dinner, but here's the thing: My father is deaf in one ear, and her dad doesn't hear so well either, so we need someplace reasonably quiet. Plus, we'd like to pick up the check at the end of the meal, so something that doesn't break the bank would be appreciated. Both our parents are NPR-listening, would-be foodies, so adventurous and spicy is fine. Any ideas? Also, we live in Hayes Valley and are both bicyclists. Imagine we'd be taking public transit or cabs, so something in Marin headlands might not be so great.
A quiet restaurant is generally harder to find than an affordable one. Well, to be more specific, quiet + affordable + good enough to draw a devoted clientele = not common at all. Operating under the assumption that you hope to spend $20 a person maximum, I have a few suggestions:
If your parents want spicy but you don't want them to think you're being cheap for cheap's sake, I'd suggest one of two Thai restaurants: Lers Ros, in the Tenderloin, does a brisk business, but rarely grows deafening. I've only worked my way through a tiny portion of the giant menu so far, but have enjoyed the salads, pork belly, and anything pad ped. Bonus: The soups are served in a hotpot that spits flame out the center, which makes everyone feel like they're living on the edge. And the N will get you out to Chabaa, the quietest and most attractive of the restaurants I'm recommending. If you order off this translated Thai-language menu in addition to the more Americanized Thai menu, you'll find the roasted pork neck, salads, and Lao sausages are standouts, and the servers couldn't be friendlier.
Chinatown's not known for quiet restaurants, but if you're interested in wandering around the neighborhood first, you might end up at Bund Shanghai, which is clean, placid, and an easy sell. Everyone loves Shanghai-style soup dumplings, the eel and eggplant are good, and my predecessor raved about its red-cooked pork leg.
If you're a little less concerned about the appearance of the room, for $100 you can cover a table in Turkish kebabs, stuffed pies, dips, and salads at Ala Turca; see if they'll seat you on the mezzanine, which often feels like a private dining room. I'm also guessing your parents don't live in a part of the country with Burmese restaurants, so you could introduce them to tea salad, crispy split-pea "tofu," chicken curry, and sour vegetable with prawns at the serene Burmese Kitchen, which won't cost you more than $75. And if they're willing to bring a change of clothes, my favorite Pakistani restaurant right now is tiny, tandoor-smoke-filled Lahore Karahi, where the meat and vegetable curries are fresh and vivid, the sound level never reaches thundering, and the tandoori fish justifies its legendary status, meal after meal.