During the Gold Rush, immigrant miners hungry for a taste of home created a demand—and the supply—for small kitchens serving classic dishes from all over the globe. And just like that San Francisco’s restaurant culture was born. Add year-round access to an unparalleled bounty of local organic produce, seafood, free-range meats, and wine, as well as a creative culinary scene, restaurant-obsessed residents, and a still-vibrant and diverse chef community and you’ve got one of the world’s top foodie destinations.
With more than 3,500 restaurants within its seven square miles, San Francisco has more dining establishments per capita than any other U.S. city—and a heck of a lot of competition. While this guide barely scratches the surface of the culinary delights the city has to offer, we’ve included can’t-miss favorites across a wide range of cuisines, price ranges, and neighborhoods. Some are brand new, yet already earning coveted foodie awards; others have been around forever for a reason. Some are white-tablecloth establishments that present their culinary masterpieces with warm formality, while others are so casual they practically toss you your food, a paper plate, and a napkin from out of the side of a truck. Regardless, it’s impossible to get in and out of San Francisco without having some kind of gastronomic epiphany, or at least a few dining experiences that leave you wondering if you, in fact, left your stomach, as well as your heart, in San Francisco.
The restaurants listed below are classified first by area, then by price, using the following categories: Expensive, dinner for $50 or more per person; Moderate, dinner from $35 per person; and Inexpensive, dinner less than $35 per person. These categories reflect prices for an appetizer, a main course, a dessert, and a glass wine.
Although dining in San Francisco is usually a hassle-free experience, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- If you want a table at the restaurants with the best reputations, you probably need to book 6 to 8 weeks in advance for weekends, and a couple of weeks ahead for weekdays.
- If you can’t get a reservation at your favorite restaurant, don’t hesitate to put your name on a waiting list a few weeks in advance. I have received that call from some of the popular places; just make sure to call back quickly—they mean business.
- If there’s a long wait for a table, ask if you can order at the bar, which is often faster and more fun.
- Don’t leave anything valuable in your car while dining, particularly in or near high-crime areas such as the Mission, downtown, or—believe it or not—Fisherman’s Wharf. (Thieves know tourists with nice cameras and trunks full of mementos are headed there.) Also, it’s best to give the parking valet only the key to your car, not your hotel room.
- No smoking. It is against the law to smoke in any restaurant in San Francisco, even if it has a separate bar or lounge area. You’re welcome to smoke outside; make sure to stay 20 feet away from any entryway.
- Plan on dining early. This ain’t New York. Most restaurants close their kitchens around 10pm.
- If you’re driving to a restaurant, add extra time to your itinerary for parking, which can be an especially infuriating exercise in areas like the Mission, downtown, the Marina, and, well, pretty much everywhere. Expect to pay at least $12 to $15 for valet service, if the restaurant offers it.
- If you have to find parking, check out sfpark.org.
Online Resources for Dining
Want to book your reservations online? Go to www.opentable.com, where you can reserve seats in real time.
For local food blogs, Grub Street (www.grubstreet.com) posts daily updates, and Marcia Gagliardi’s Tablehopper (www.tablehopper.com) posts smart, gourmand observations every Tuesday and Friday.
While Los Angeles has “It” celebrities, San Francisco has “It” restaurants. To see what’s hot during your visit, check SF Eater’s Heatmap (www.sf.eater.com/tags/heat-map), updated monthly by popularity.
For an epic culinary scavenger hunt, or simply more dining ideas, see “7x7 Magazine’s” annual Big Eat list. At press time, “The Big Eat 2014: 100 Things to Taste Before You Die,” was online(www.7x7.com/eat-drink/big-eat-2014). The list shows photos of specific dishes to hunt for like chicken clay pot at Slanted Door; Coffee-rubbed pork shoulder at Rang; Karnisio souvlaki at Kokkari; California State Bird at State Bird Provisions; and Whole Wheat Flour Carrot Cake at Farallon. Also don’t miss the annual Top 100 Restaurants list, according to the “San Francisco Chronicle,” which will point you to a diverse selection of local flavors (www.sfchronicle.com).
If you really want to nosh like a tech-savvy local, download the Foodspotting mobile app (www.foodspotting.com), which lets you photograph and tag your favorite foods. Look for 7x7’s “Big Eat” list (and other lists within the app), and tag their recommended items as you eat them. You can also search for dishes others have tagged at restaurants near you to see what looks appetizing.
For a collection of restaurant reviews and suggestions by bloggers, diners, and critics like “Zagat,” “SF Weekly,” and the “San Francisco Chronicle,” check out Urban Spoon at www.urbanspoon.com. Just watch the dates; while most are current, some reviews are 10 years old.
For food truck fans, your best bet is Off the Grid, a daily gathering of a half dozen or so trucks, usually from 11am to 2pm, and 5 to 9pm, occasionally with live music. Check www.offthegridsf.com/markets for information. Otherwise, Roaming Hunger (www.roaminghunger.com) lists locations of food trucks, based on Twitter feeds.
Vegetarians won’t have trouble finding dishes on a typical menu here, and you’ll find a couple of restaurants marked “vegetarian” throughout this chapter. For vegan eats, consult Happy Cow (www.happycow.net). Gluten-free is also big here, too.
The Sun on Your Face at Belden Place
San Francisco has long been lacking in the alfresco dining department, which may or may not have something to do with the Arctic summer fog. But Belden Place—an adorable little brick alley in the heart of the Financial District open only to foot traffic—is a little bit of Paris just off Pine Street. Restaurants line the alley sporting big umbrellas, tables, and chairs, and, when the weather is agreeable, diners linger long after the lunch hour.
A handful of cafes line the little alley and offer a variety of cuisines at moderate prices. There’s Cafe Bastille, 22 Belden Place (tel. 415/986-5673), a classic French bistro with a boho basement that serves excellent crepes, mussels, and French onion soup; it offers live jazz on Fridays. Cafe Tiramisu, 28 Belden Place (tel. 415/421-7044), is a stylish Italian hot spot, serving addictive risottos and gnocchi. Plouf, 40 Belden Place (tel. 415/986-6491), specializes in big bowls of mussels slathered in your choice of seven sauces, as well as fresh seafood. B44,44 Belden Place (tel. 415/986-6287), offers a little taste of Spain, with its revered paella and other seriously zesty Spanish dishes. Brindisi, 88 Belden Place (tel. 415/593-8000), dishes out small plates of Mediterranean fare. Finally, Sauce, 56 Belden Place (tel. 415/397-8800), is the place for large portions of American comfort food.
Chinatown—So Many Choices!
San Francisco’s Chinatown has the largest Chinese population outside of China; so it follows that we have lots of Chinese restaurants. It’s hard to know which place to try—some look clean and inviting, with bright colored photos of yummy delicacies posted outside; others have sun-faded menus peeling off of dirty windows—but looks can be deceiving. Most places in Chinatown fall into the inexpensive category—so how do you choose? We think the following restaurants stand out from the pack.
Brandy Ho’s Hunan Food, 217 Columbus Ave. (tel. 415/788-7527; www.brandyhos.com), is rightly known for its Three Delicacies—a main dish of scallop, shrimp, and chicken seasoned with ginger, garlic, and wine. Most dishes are served hot and spicy; just ask if you want the kitchen to tone it down.
Climb the steps at tiny Hong Kong Clay Pot Restaurant, 960 Grant Ave. (tel. 415/989-2638; http://hongkongclaypotrestaurant.webs.com), and try a signature clay pot filled with meat, seafood, or vegetables. Did you know the clay pots are soaked in water before cooking? When heated up, they release steam, making dishes that are extra moist and delicious. Yum!
R&G Lounge, 631 Kearny St. (tel. 415/982-7877; www.rnglounge.com), is a very popular three-story restaurant with plenty of room for large and small parties; best on the menu are the salt and pepper crab, and R&G special beef.
Great Eastern, 649 Jackson St. (tel. 415/986-2500; www.greateasternsf.com), specializes in dim sum, as well as fresh seafood pulled from tanks lining the walls—Prez Obama stopped in here for takeout.
At House of Nanking, 919 Kearny St. (tel. 415/421-1429), abrupt and borderline rude waiters—half the fun of Chinatown—serve vegetarian dishes as well as perfect sesame chicken. The fish soup is stellar too, though you have to ask for it specially, as it’s not on the English–language menu.
Hunan Home’s, 622 Jackson St. (tel. 415/982-2844), is known for their wicked hot and sour soup, and “Succulent Bread”—baked and then slightly deep fried. This is a locals’ favorite.
Does it make you cringe to think about sitting at a restaurant with your child for 3+ hours for a multicourse farm-to-table culinary adventure when all your little ones really want is a quick bowl of buttered noodles?
Fear not. San Francisco is one of the best cities in the world to visit with children and we have lots of places to entertain and feed our hungry little guests.
Children love Forbes Island for some of the same reasons you do—because you have to take a water taxi to get there, you can climb up the lighthouse to spy on the barking sea lions, and you eat your dinner underwater. What’s not to love?
Kids and adults can also be satisfied at Ton Kiang, a dim sum restaurant where lazy susans in the center of the table can make accessing your pork bun extra fun, simple dishes like fried rice can be ordered off the menu, and when all else fails, there’s always a big bowl of fresh fruit at the ready.
Farallon, with its jellyfish lamps and kelp rising from the floor, is an underwater fantasy perfect for budding marine biologists; ordering from the a la carte menu means dinner does not have to be a 3-hour affair.
SoMa StrEat Food Park is a happening place to grab lunch with the kids, as 13 food trucks means there’s bound to be something even the pickiest tot will like. Let them run free amongst the local dot-com geniuses lunching here. Who knows? Maybe they will make a few future connections.
Kids like getting up close to the sea creatures displayed in the Swan Oyster Depot window. Plus it’s so small, loud, and crowded, if your child accidentally drops their bowl of chowder on the floor, no one will even notice.
One last thought for kids: Take them to one of our city’s colorful Chinese restaurants. My kids’ favorite, partially because they can hop off the cable car right outside, is U-Lee’sChinese. Order the potstickers, which are about the size of your fist (and $1 apiece), and they should be content.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.