Welcome to San Francisco: A Newcomer's Eating Tour
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Newcomer’s Eating Tour of San Francisco
San Francisco has been a dining destination since the Gold Rush, when prospectors would spend their cash on “hangtown fry,” a decadent omelet with oysters and bacon. Today the varying cuisines and outstanding produce available year-round (thanks to favorable climate and terrain) make it a haven for chefs and diners alike. Innovation and creativity are rewarded, and the San Francisco touch often means a combination of the best produce available and the freedom that comes from not being bound by tradition. We consulted with some local food experts to compile this list of 10 great places to hit on your newcomer’s eating tour.
By Amy Sherman
“Because my job requires me to always be on the lookout for the newest restaurants, I rarely return to the same spots. However, I go back as much as I possibly can to Contigo in Noe Valley," says Sara Deseran, San Francisco magazine editor-at-large and a restaurateur. "The Cal-Spanish menu is executed perfectly, the space is great, and the Spanish wine list is perfection. Take a seat at the wine bar if you can nab one."
Must-Try Dishes at Contigo
“There’s always a seasonal variation on squid a la plancha that I order without fail,” says Deseran. A summer version of the squid comes with fresh cannellini beans, Nardello peppers, sea beans and aioli.
Perhaps the most-exciting thing about the San Francisco food scene is that it defies trendiness or expectations. Stones Throw is a little neighborhood restaurant that has modern dishes with European, Asian and Mexican influences, as well as other dishes that simply cannot be categorized at all, except to say they are delicious.
Must-Try Dishes at Stones Throw
The puffed potato with eggs, cauliflower mousse, chives and crispy chicken skin has a combination of textures, which makes it irresistible: Bite into the crunchy croquettes and they ooze egg yolk.
The highly regarded and award-winning bakery has inspired a whole new wave of bakeries. “I love their bread; the country loaf is my favorite. And of course a cup of Four Barrel Coffee," says Suzette Gresham, executive chef and co-owner of Acquerello restaurant.
Must-Try Dishes at Tartine Bakery
According to Gresham, “Any of their sandwiches are great — they all come with pickled carrots on the side.” The hot-pressed sandwiches are served starting at 11:30am every day. The spicy turkey with peppered turkey breast, melted provolone and creamy broccoli rabe pesto is so large it’s cut into three pieces, and it is something you should easily share. After all, you’ll want to save room for pastries afterward.
“Fine dining isn't usually my thing, but I can find my bliss at Benu. Chef Corey Lee has a real Asian way about his cooking. He can also make food that's at once finely tuned to perfection but somehow comforting all the while. And he particularly kills it with seafood," says Deseran.
Must-Try Dishes at Benu
The current offering is a tasting menu only. “You’re lucky if his take on xiao long bao (soup dumplings) is on there,” says Deseran.
Opened by a pastry chef with fine-dining chops, this elegant yet friendly boutique has everything from pastry to elegant plated desserts, cakes and specialty Viennoiserie such as the sweet, salty and buttery kouign amann and bostock. “All of the pastries are fantastic,” Gresham says.
Must-Try Dishes at b. Patisserie
Gresham’s favorite is the 10-Hour Apple Tart, a staple and always on the menu. It's made with Fuji apples that are cooked low and slow for about 10 hours and combined with fresh Granny Smith apples for tartness and crunch. It’s finished with an almond streusel.
“It's no secret that I'm married to a restaurant owner and my husband, Joe, just opened a restaurant called Chino. Of course I'm biased, but it's the restaurant of my dreams — I'm a total Asia-ophile," says Deseran.
Must-Try Dishes at Chino
Deseran recommends the "spicy, chewy Korean rice cakes with braised pork and greens. And the chicken wings. And the Shanghai Buck cocktail made with fresh pressed ginger juice." You also can't go wrong with the dumplings.
Ice cream has taken San Francisco by storm. Lines are a given, and everyone has a spot they loyally follow. In fact, one local shop has a staggering 283,000 followers on Twitter. For Gresham, Bi-Rite is “gotta have it,” plain and simple. It’s located on a busy block in the Mission District that has become a true culinary destination.
Must-Try Dishes at Bi-Rite Creamery
Indulge in a scoop, an ice cream sandwich, a Popsicle, or a signature sundae such as the Dainty Gentleman with honey lavender ice cream, hot fudge, blood orange olive oil and Maldon sea salt. Each day you’ll find two different flavors of soft serve. But the flavor that made the shop famous is salted caramel and it remains their best-seller.
A favorite among chefs like Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski, chef proprietors of State Bird Provisions, this contemporary Thai spot does not have the typical menu that goes on for pages and pages. Each one of the dishes features a unique and homemade chili jam, curry paste or sauce.
Must-Try Dishes at Kin Khao
Brioza and Krasinski’s pick is the Khun Yai’s Green Curry with Rabbit, which they say is “beautiful and has a lot of flavor.” It starts with a base of Kiew Wan curry paste and gently braised rabbit loin and saddle, plus tender rabbit meatballs, Thai apple eggplants, Thai basil, and bird’s eye chili. They recommend trying it with noodles and a cold beer.
This bakery made a splash for offering $4 toast (which is actually only $3.75). Crowds form for pizza night on Monday, when many restaurants are closed. The Mill, a bakery where they actually do mill their own grain, makes just one type of vegetarian pizza each Monday night from 6 to 9pm. It’s made with “impeccable ingredients,” say Brioza and Krasinski, and has “a taste that takes us somewhere happy and our son loves it too.” There’s outdoor and communal seating, making pizza night feel very much like a pizza party.
Must-Try Dishes at The Mill
Stand in line for a massive $3 slice or a whole pie with toppings such as beets and arugula or leek and potato. The crust is made from their country bread dough, so it’s more satisfyingly chewy than it is crusty.
San Francisco is known for taquerias, but Nopalito goes beyond the standard fare using fresh organic ingredients in dishes like empanadas, ceviche, enchiladas and stews. The flavors are rich and satisfying while the setting is easy and informal.
Must-Try Dishes at Nopalito
The soups are particularly homey, especially the pozole rojo. It’s made from pork shoulder, hominy, ancho chile and cabbage, and it comes with toppings of radish, lime, onion, oregano and tortilla chips. According to Brioza and Krasinski: “It’s so comforting and delicious it keeps you warm and very satisfied. We crave it!”