As someone who has been living in and eating her way through San Francisco for more than 20 years, I have far too many favorite spots that I love and adore to list in a small article like this one.
I also understand what a traveler is looking for when they come to San Francisco. They usually want a seafood experience, some California cuisine, maybe a dim sum feast, and a hidden gem or two.
They want to know what’s good, what are the classics, and some new spots too. And of course some of our fantastic sourdough needs to be eaten. So let’s do this!
There is an exciting movement of New California cuisine happening in the city, which is a bit freestyle, pulling from different cuisines and cultures.
One of the most inventive places is ~BAR TARTINE~ in the Mission, where chefs Nick Balla and Cortney Burns do all kinds of pickling, fermentations, dehydrations, and more. Every time I eat there, the menu has some new finds, from Mediterranean dishes to Japanese flavor profiles. And big bonus: you get to enjoy the incomparable bread from Tartine Bakery, some of which is baked on-site. It’s also a popular spot for weekend brunch.
Everyone needs to pay a visit to the inimitable ~ZUNI CAFE~ at least once in their life, and once you have the famed roast chicken with bread salad, you’ll be a customer for life.
The Caesar, anchovies with celery, gnocchi, and oysters on the half shell are other fantastic standards on the menu.
~FOREIGN CINEMA~ in the Mission has one of the nicest sheltered patios in the city and also packs a great oyster list, enticing appetizers, and phenomenal fried chicken. Brunch on the terrace—with their unique egg dishes (and quality Bloody Marys)—is an SF institution.
The Hot Ticket
Everyone wants to eat at ~STATE BIRD PROVISIONS~, and for good reason: there is nothing like the globe-trotting dishes that Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski create—it’s chef food on another level.
It’s also incredibly fun: dishes come by on a dim sum cart, or a server offers something hot from the kitchen on a tray. It’s food for people who have adventurous palates and love appetizer-sized portions.
Don’t miss the SBP classics: CA state bird with provisions, any of the savory pancakes, and the duck liver mousse with almond biscuits. The rest is fair (and very delicious) game.
It’s worth lining up and trying to get a table at their first seating (doors open at 5:30pm), or come by on the late side (9pm) and see if you can nab a spot. They’ll do everything they can to seat you and keep you updated.
If you couldn’t score a seat at SBP and now you’re starving, you can walk a block up Fillmore Street to ~DOSA ON FILLMORE~ for flavor-packed South Indian dishes made with sustainable ingredients (and there’s a full bar).
Don’t miss the vada pav, a killer bar snack if you’re waiting for a table.
You can also head farther up Fillmore to ~SPQR~ for some of the most exciting soigné Italian cuisine in the city, where you’ll enjoy beautifully made pastas by chef Matthew Accarrino (and there’s a wine bar and kitchen counter where you can perch and taste your way through their extensive wine list).
Never been to ~SLANTED DOOR~? Locals prefer to go to ~OUT THE DOOR~, a sister restaurant, which is also nearby. You can enjoy many SD Vietnamese faves (shaking beef, daikon rice cake, Dungeness crab and cellophane noodles) plus their amazing fried chicken in less of a madhouse and more of an easygoing neighborhood vibe. (OTD is a great breakfast/brunch spot too.)
Okay, so you came to SF and you want to do it up? Then you need to get yourself to ~SAISON~, which is THE honcho in the high-end game in SF. The tasting menu will put you back $248, but you’ll experience some of the finest ingredients, treated with such creative finesse by chef Joshua Skenes and his team.
You should also pony up for the wine pairings, because Mark Bright is one of the best somms in the city. The custom dishes, glassware—everything is top notch. Enjoy the ride.
Another four-star pick is Corey Lee’s ~BENU~, especially if you are a fan of Asian ingredients and flavor profiles.
The room is quite plain, so don’t expect much in the way of atmosphere, but the food, service, and choice wines will demand and hold your full attention. (Ditto the beautiful plates—they’re as beautiful to look at as to eat off of.)
If you want to go the high-end route, a favorite is the elegant ~ACQUERELLO~, with choose-your-own tasting menu options (their menus during truffle season are especially smashing) and a very deep wine cellar too.
Another place noted for refined service and cuisine is the inimitable ~QUINCE~, with an eye-catching and très chic dining room that was recently updated, where you’ll find beautiful stuffed pastas and a posh crowd.
If you have a business lunch or dinner, ~PERBACCO~ is your spot (don’t miss the agnolotti dal plin and the excellent salumi).
On the opposite end of the spectrum (i.e., getting more casual here) is the neighborhood favorite ~LA CICCIA~, featuring the cuisine of Sardinia. Downtown is ~54 MINT~, with authentic Roman dishes (their cacio e pepe is a winner) and a patio that’s ideal on warm evenings.
Quince’s casual sister, ~COTOGNA~, falls more into the Cal-Italian realm (their sformato and the raviolo with egg are legendary), as well as the touchstone ~DELFINA~ (best spaghetti in town)—there’s also their Roman offshoot ~LOCANDA~ (there’s a full bar). The hip and casual ~FLOUR + WATER~ (quality pastas) is also in the Mission.
San Franciscans loooove their pizza, and you’ll find a variety of styles all over the city.
For those who want to experience an artisan-made pizza napoletana and won’t mind the bare-bones experience, you have to pay a visit to ~UNA PIZZA NAPOLETANA~ in SoMa (and be sure to have a cocktail at nearby Bar Agricole before or after). For more of a lively scene, ~TONY’S PIZZA NAPOLETANA~ totally rocks and has so many kinds of pizza on the menu, you won’t believe it. They’re also faithfully researched, like the napoletana and the Jersey tomato pie, a favorite of mine.
If you want true deep dish, head to Tony Gemignani’s other enterprise in the neighborhood, ~CAPO’S~. There are also a couple of ~PIZZERIA DELFINA~ locations in the city, which are always busy and have an excellent purgatorio (with an egg), a clam pie, and the chilled tripe is a killer appetizer (get a cannolo for dessert). ~RAGAZZA~ is a fun neighborhood spot, with beautiful salads and I live for their amatriciana pizza.
San Francisco has some classic steakhouses, starting with ~HARRIS’ RESTAURANT~, which has some incredible dry-aged beef (get the Harris’ Steak, a bone-in New York, or the porterhouse), but their rib-eye (not aged) is also notable.
If you’re a prime rib fan, then the old-school experience at ~HOUSE OF PRIME RIB~ is over the top. For a more modern steak experience, ~ALEXANDER’S STEAKHOUSE~ sources phenomenal beef (hello, A5 wagyu from Japan) and their wine list is also extremely dialed.
For a true slice of SF late night, visit ~NOPA~, which has its kitchen open until 1am nightly. This casual urban spot has a long bar, a communal table, and two levels of seating, which are all usually packed to the gills.
You’ll find California ingredients at their peak of season, and their burger, chicken, and pork chop are justifiably famous. Great wine list. Nopa also serves one of the city’s best weekend brunches.
Oh, and if you’re looking for a party, ~CHINO~ in the Mission has a cocktail-fueled scene, with an eclectic menu of Asian favorites (killer wings, braised lamb noodles, and dumplings). Kitchen open until 1am!
If you like Szechuan heat, head to Chinatown to experience ~Z & Y RESTAURANT~, while more sensitive palates will prefer the cuisine (and xiao long bao) at ~BUND SHANGHAI~.
Another Chinatown classic is ~GREAT EASTERN~ (you can get dim sum during the day and Cantonese dishes until late), and one of my favorite dim sum spots on the weekend is ~HONG KONG LOUNGE~ (there are two locations on Geary), but be prepared to wait—trust, the Peking duck is so worth it. If you want to stay near downtown, ~YANK SING~ has quality dim sum, and really good XLB (but it comes at a price).
All hail ~SWAN OYSTER DEPOT~, which is the true heart and soul of San Francisco. The Sancimino family will make you feel like an old friend as they shuck fresh oysters.
It’s especially great to come here for Dungeness crab when it’s in season (the season starts in November).
There’s always a line, so come for a very early or late lunch. ~HOG ISLAND OYSTER COMPANY~ at the Ferry Building Marketplace has oysters galore and local seafood, plus a view of the water. If you have to eat at the Wharf, I enjoy the old-school vibe at ~SCOMA’S~ (get the lazy man’s cioppino).
You can’t come to San Francisco without experiencing a super burrito. I’m a fan of the al pastor version at ~CANCÚN~, and there’s nothing like a late-night burrito at ~EL FAROLITO~.
The off-menu taco dorado at ~LA TAQUERIA~ is tops (get the carnitas), and the tacos off the ~TONAYENSE~ trucks are always damn good. (Ditto the tacos from the El Norteño truck in SoMa.)
Try the tortas at ~LA TORTA GORDA~ (I prefer the tinga, although they are known for their pierna enchilada version), and chilaquiles at the family-style ~SAN JALISCO~ are a fave (and served all day). A visit to ~LA PALMA MEXICATESSEN~ is another top choice.
For a fun scene, don’t miss the colorful ~LOLÓ~ for dinner in the Mission—and their cocktails are fabulous. Over closer to Golden Gate Park is ~NOPALITO~, serving some of the best-made Mexican food in the city, with epic carnitas (and margaritas).
This is one area where SF lags a bit, but fortunately there’s ~AKIKO’S~, which has some of the finest seafood in town, and it’s beautifully handled (ditto the rice). Another downtown spot is newcomer ~PABU~ from Michael Mina and Ken Tominaga, which offers a chic omakase experience at a very long counter.
Don’t miss the Happy Spoon as part of your night, and the sake selection is tops. For a hot and happening sushi experience, head out to Bernal Heights to ~ICHI SUSHI~, which will have hip-hop going and a fun crowd, with quality seafood handled in creative and innovative ways.
Food Trucks and Pop-Ups
If you want to graze on a bunch of tasty bites from some food trucks all at once (mash-ups like a tikka masala burrito from Curry Up Now, and sisig nachos from Señor Sisig), hit up the various truck gatherings around town, like ~OFF THE GRID~ and ~THE SOMA STREAT FOOD PARK~, plus there’s the ~MISSION DISPATCH~ pod. Want to check out a pop-up dinner? ~NAKED KITCHEN~ in the Mission has a rotating roster of quality chefs each week.
San Francisco is obsessed with coffee. Like, really obsessed. You’ll find all kinds of third-wave roasters and their associated cafés in every neighborhood. For espresso lovers, a visit to the petite ~LINEA CAFFE~ in the Mission is a must.
Also in the Mission: a stylish location of ~SIGHTGLASS~, the hipster-flooded ~FOUR BARREL~, and for those who appreciate a light roast, check out the new location of ~RITUAL~.
Pay a visit to the ever-busy ~THE MILL~ on Divisadero, where you can enjoy Four Barrel coffee and a variety of house-milled and baked breads by Josey Baker (the black pepper and Parmesan loaf is a fave).
Just Because They Are Totally Delicious…
– ~MERIGAN SUB SHOP~ makes some crazy-good subs, like their chicken Parm and Italian combo on locally baked bread.
– ~KIN KHAO~ features a completely unique Thai experience since the dishes have a California ingredient spin. The flavors pop, and the cocktails are also fun.
– ~4505 MEATS~ is making some of the best damn barbecue in town (their ribs rock) and their burger has quite the fan club.
– If you have a sweet tooth, you’ll want to check out the elegant sweets at ~B. PATISSERIE~, while ~TARTINE BAKERY~ is a gold standard for good reason.
– Heading to (or from) the beach? Plan a pitstop at ~MARLA BAKERY~ for breakfast, lunch, a snack, dinner, whatever—you’ll find a homey space with excellent baked goods, from bagels to bread.
Cocktails (and Wine)
SF is a boozy town. There are far too many options for excellent drinks, but here are a few I love:
– ~COMSTOCK SALOON~ in North Beach for an authentic saloon feeling (their cherry bounce and Martinez are two of my faves).
– Also in North Beach, ~TOSCA CAFÉ~ is busy busy but the vintage 1930s atmosphere and Trouble in Paradise make it worth it. The late-night menu is also a bonus.
– ~TONY NIK’S~ is a great spot in North Beach for a Boulevardier when everything else feels too busy and new.
– ~TROU NORMAND~ is a handsome new addition downtown, with fab cocktails (and some of the best salumi in town).
– ~TRICK DOG~ in the Mission is absolutely packed all the time, but try to get a table upstairs to eat and enjoy their cocktails throughout dinner.
– I have been going to ~DALVA~ on 16th Street for years, and their backroom bar, The Hideout, has some notably delicious cocktails (try the Gin and Celery).
– Just across the street is newcomer ~ABV~—their lighter to midweight cocktails are great (and priced right), and you can’t beat their fantastic bar bites (served until 1am).
– Tequila lovers have to make a pilgrimage to ~TOMMY’S~ for one of Julio Bermejo’s stellar margaritas, which never stop at just one.
If you want to experience some quality wine bars (with great food!), visit ~LES CLOS~ (especially if you’re a Burgundy fan) or ~LA NEBBIA~ for Italian wine (and Champagne) lovers. ~20 SPOT~ in the Mission has a cozy neighborhood vibe.
This is by no means a totally comprehensive list, and there are many more quirky and offbeat places to visit, but it’s a good place to start.
All photos from Marcia Gagliardi except where noted otherwise.