Golden Gate Grub: What to Eat in San Francisco
Whether you're craving dollar dim sum or the finest Michelin-starred experience, here are San Francisco's must-try restaurants.
Photo By: Shannon McLean
Photo By: Kassie Borreson
Photo By: John Storey
Photo By: John Storey
Photo By: unknown
Photo By: John Storey
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 variety of cuisines and outstanding produce available year-round (thanks to favorable climate and terrain) make it a haven for chefs and diners alike.
Standing in line at Tartine Bakery has long been a Bay Area rite of passage, but the buzz has recently shifted to the Tartine team’s latest venture, Tartine Manufactory. The cavernous space in the Mission is divided into a coffee shop, ice cream shop — called Tartine Cookies and Cream — bakery and restaurant. It’s bright and modern, with natural wood and Japanese paper lanterns to soften the space. There are pastries, liege waffles, salads and sandwiches during the day, and a full-service restaurant at night. The bread service is practically mandatory, and includes options like Smørrebrød with 'nduja and chives, stracciatella bottarga, or sea urchin and mustard.
Liholiho Yacht Club
Still a tough reservation to get, Liholiho Yacht Club is San Francisco’s take on Hawaiian paradise. It’s soul food, using local ingredients via the Hawaiian Islands, and somehow it just works. The space buzzes around its open kitchen and is tended by servers who seem genuinely happy. The food is divided into small plates and large share plates. Asian flavors sing in dishes like marinated squid, with crispy tripe, cabbage and peanuts, and twice-cooked pork belly with pineapple, Thai basil and fennel. The signature dessert is the kitchen’s pineapple-infused take on Baked Alaska. It’s not an island vacation, but it might just be the next best thing.
Go to: Liholiho Yacht Club
On the surface, Stones Throw might seem like a quintessential neighborhood restaurant, but it’s so much more than that. The service and food are polished and appealing. Signature dishes include the inventive Puffed Potato and Egg, with contrasting flavors and textures from cauliflower mousse, chives and crispy chicken skin. Pastas also appeal, including gnudi and squid ink conchiglie, with spicy capers, clams, calamari, shrimp and greens. Dessert always offers modern reinterpretations of childhood favorites such as a banana split or peanut butter and jelly donuts.
Go to: Stones Throw
San Francisco is blessed with six three-Michelin-star restaurants, and while each is unique, Benu is perhaps the most-unusual. Though Chef Corey Lee came from The French Laundry and is well-versed in French techniques, he draws on influences beyond the typical fusion with modern Japanese cuisine. Dishes like Foie Gras Xiao Long Bao and Sea Urchin Marinated in Fermented Crab Sauce show a willingness to adapt traditional Asian dishes and ingredients in fresh new ways. The prix-fixe menu is pricey, but the food is divine.
Go to: Benu
Ice cream has taken San Francisco by storm. Lines are a given and everyone has a spot they loyally frequent. Bi-Rite may transcend all competition, though, and has made its busy block in the Mission a culinary destination. Indulge in a scoop, ice cream sandwich, ice pop or a signature sundae such as the Dainty Gentleman, with honey-lavender ice cream, hot fudge, blood orange olive oil and sea salt. Two soft-serve flavors rotate daily. But the scoop that made the shop famous is salted caramel and it remains their bestseller.
Go to: Bi-Rite Creamery & Bakeshop
Elite Café has been a stalwart in San Francisco for several decades bringing a festive New Orleans vibe to Pacific Heights. The old-fashioned booths, long bar and art deco touches preserve the timeless feel. Currently at the helm is Chef Chris Borges, a New Orleans native, and his dedication to the city’s Creole heritage is clear in his takes on the classics. Crawfish etouffee is enriched with uni butter for a California touch, and bananas Foster is adapted as French toast for brunch. On the lighter side, the classic Muffaletta sandwich is reinvented as a chopped salad. Cocktails are particularly outstanding, and would make New Orleans proud.
Opened by Belinda Leong, a pastry chef with fine-dining chops, this elegant bakery serves outstanding plated desserts, cakes, breads, quiches and specialty Viennoiserie such as the sweet, salty and buttery kouign amann and bostock. The 10-Hour Apple Tart is a fan favorite and menu staple. 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.
Go to: b.Patisserie
A favorite among chefs and foodies alike, this contemporary Thai spot consolidates the typical overstuffed menu of Thai classics. Each one of the thoughtfully crafted dishes feature a unique and homemade chile jam, curry paste or sauce. Must-try items include Khun Yai’s Green Curry with Rabbit, with a base of green curry paste, gently braised rabbit loin, saddle and meatballs, Thai apple eggplants, Thai basil, and bird’s eye chile, and Yum Yai Salad, a mix of raw, cooked and batter-fried seasonal vegetables with not-so-spicy chile jam dressing.
Go to: Kin Khao
The Mill once made a splash for offering $4 toast. Today you’ll spend as much as $7 for Dark Mountain Rye toast topped with cream cheese, pesto, pine nuts, salt and pepper. Crowds form for pizza night on Mondays, 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 night (except Tuesday) and serves by slice or pie from 6 to 9 p.m. Inventive past topping combinations have included butternut squash, nigella seed and glazed shallots, or butterball potato, fontina, rainbow chard and fried herbs. The crust is made from their country bread dough so it’s more satisfyingly chewy than it is crusty.
Go to: The Mill
The Cal-Spanish menu at Contigo is deceptively simple, and the Spanish wine list is perfection. Take a seat at the wine bar if you can nab one. There’s always a seasonal variation on squid a la plancha, like a spring take with black rice, chorizo, squid ink, baby artichokes and aioli. The restaurant is also rightfully famous for the avocado toast topped with oven-roasted local sardines. It was on the menu years before avocado toast became so ubiquitous.
Go to: Contigo
San Francisco is known for taquerias and fat, foil-wrapped burritos, but Nopalito goes beyond the standard fare using fresh organic ingredients in dishes like empanadas, enchiladas and stews. The flavors are rich and satisfying, and the setting is easy and informal. The soups are particularly homey, especially the pozole rojo. It’s made from pork shoulder, hominy, ancho chile and cabbage, with toppings of radish, lime, onion, oregano and tortilla chips.
Go to: Nopalito
San Francisco is undergoing a boom in Japanese food, and diners have myriad options, including no-reservation ramen shops, with lines out the door, and exquisite kaiseki and sushi restaurants, with menus costing hundreds of dollars. Omakase fits into the latter category. With only 14 seats, primarily at the bar, the miniscule restaurant prepares prix-fixe sushi with evident skill. Guests spend several hours on a culinary journey tasting sushi prepared under the guidance of Executive Chef Jackson Yu, who has been preparing traditional sushi for nearly two decades. He imports fish from Tsukiji Fish Market twice a week, and procures unusual offerings — like dragonfish — that are unique for the area.