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 in year-round access to an unparalleled bounty of local organic produce, seafood, free-range meats, and wine, along with restaurant-obsessed residents and a vibrant chef community, and you’ve got one of the world’s top foodie destinations. It’s virtually impossible to get in and out of San Francisco without having some kind of gastronomic epiphany—or at least a few dining experiences that make you feel that you’ve left your stomach, as well as your heart, in San Francisco.
With more than 4,400 restaurants within its 7 square miles, San Francisco has more dining establishments per capita than any other U.S. city—which creates a heck of a lot of competition. With the rising costs of doing business and staying “relevant” in this trend-conscious city, dining rooms are now finding it harder and harder to keep their doors open (which is why those who survive are charging higher menu prices than ever before). Still, there’s far more to enjoy than you’ll be able to tackle on even a month-long visit here.
While this guide barely scratches the surface of the city’s culinary delights, I’ve included can’t-miss favorites across a wide range of cuisines, price ranges, and neighborhoods (one of the best ways to get to know a city is to sample its neighborhood restaurants). Some are new, yet already earning coveted awards; others have been around forever—for good reason. They range from white-tablecloth establishments that present their culinary masterpieces with warm formality, to others so casual they practically toss you your food, a paper plate, and a napkin.
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 of 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 few weeks ahead even for weekdays.
- If you can’t get a reservation at your favorite restaurant, don’t hesitate to put your name on a waiting list. I have received "that call" from 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 visible in your car while dining, particularly in or near high-crime areas such as the Mission, downtown, or Fisherman’s Wharf. (Thieves know tourists with nice cameras and trunks full of mementos are headed there.)
- 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 $20 for valet service, if the restaurant offers it.
If you’re downtown and can’t decide what you want to eat—or find yourself hungry and without reservations—head to any of these dining smorgasbords, with multiple options all under one roof or along one street. Your toughest decision will be which establishment you want to try.
A litany of spectacular tastes await at the Ferry Building Marketplace (ferrybuildingmarketplace.com), the city’s top culinary destination, overlooking the bay on the Embarcadero at the foot of Market Street. You’ll need a reservation to dine at Slanted Door, but there are many other dining options in this long marketplace flanked with incredible food—perhaps you’ll settle down for oysters, wine, and more at a patio table at Hog Island Oyster Co., or dive a fork into exceptional, unexpected Japanese “deli” items at counter-service-only Delica. Any respectable burger, fries, and shake craving is conquered at Gott’s Roadhouse, while gluten-free diners may actually cry tears of joy over the sandwiches—or just the unbelievably bread-like bread—at Mariposa Baking Company. Grab picnic provisions from various shops selling cheese, caviar, wine, dessert (try Dandelion Chocolate!), and other foods. The best part? With so many options, every budget and taste are accommodated here. Open Monday through Friday 10am to 7pm, Saturday 8am to 6pm, and Sunday 11am to 5pm.
Just a few blocks from Union Square, the Financial District’s charming, foot-traffic-only street Belden Place is flanked with European restaurants and sidewalk seating, making it an appealing place to loll away the afternoon, perhaps with a chilled bottle of white wine and a bowl of mussels (with a side of fries, of course), or some paella. The food is hit-and-miss, but in a pinch, you’re sure to find a seat and something to eat. Restaurant hours vary but most are open for lunch and dinner. See the website (belden-place.com) for details.
When I find myself hungry while shopping in Union Square, I always head to the basement food court at the Westfield San Francisco Centre (westfield.com/sanfrancisco). Along with plenty of junky fast-food options, you’ll find everyday-sustenance sure-things like Chipotle, Loving Hut Vegan Cuisine, and Starbucks. But my favorite stop is the gourmet grocer, Bristol Farms, which has incredible hot and cold prepared foods ranging from pizza to sushi to pasta. Open daily 10am to 8:30pm.
Chinatown—So Many Choices!
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest Chinese enclave outside of China, so it follows that we have lots of Chinese restaurants, most of them in the inexpensive category. 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. 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.
R&G Lounge, 631 Kearny St. (tel. 415/982-7877; www.rnglounge.com), is a very popular—and pricy—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; http://houseofnanking.net), 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 popular with locals for its wicked hot-and-sour soup, and “Succulent Bread”—baked and then slightly deep fried.
The delicious, wonderfully spicy Sichuan dishes at Z & Y Restaurant, 655 Jackson St. (zandyrestaurant.com; [tel] 415/981-8988) top all the food critics’ hit lists. Expect a long wait to taste why.
One of the hottest recent restaurant openings, Mr. Jiu’s, 28 Waverly Place (misterjius.com; [tel] 415/857-9688) combines Chinese flavors and cooking sensibilities with California’s farm-to-table practices to create an elegant, must-try menu offered in a modern, streamlined dining room.
Another newsworthy recent opening, casual and loud Market Restaurant at China Live, 644 Broadway (chinalivesf.com; [tel] 415/788-8188), is connected to a Chinese gourmet emporium. The well-priced dishes served in moderate portions tend to be on the sweet side . . . kind of like a gourmet P.F. Chang’s.
San Francisco’s trendiest culinary adventures—3+ hours for a multicourse farm-to-table feast—may be beyond your scope, when traveling with little ones who want nothing more a quick bowl of buttered noodles. Still, San Francisco is one of the best cities in the world to visit with children, and we have lots of places where you can painlessly expand their culinary horizons.
Kids and adults can both be satisfied at the Richmond District’s Ton Kiang, a dim sum restaurant where lazy susans in the center of the table make it extra fun to access your pork bun; 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. Downtown, more expensive Yank Sing delivers the same style of deliciousness and fun, though it’s in a much larger and more posh environment.
Farallon, with its jellyfish lamps and kelp rising from the floor, is an underwater fantasy perfect for budding marine biologists and Little Mermaid fans; ordering from the a la carte menu means dinner does not have to be a 3-hour affair. Or, for more old-school seafood options, both Scoma’s and Pier 23 offer handy kids menus.
SoMa StrEat Food Park is a happening place to grab lunch with the kids, with a variety of food trucks guaranteeing something for even the pickiest tot. 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 a 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.
Online Resources for Dining
Want to book your reservations online? Go to www.opentable.com, where you can reserve seats in real time.
Marcia Gagliardi’s local food blog Tablehopper (tablehopper.com) posts smart, gourmand observations every Tuesday and Friday. To see what else is hot during your visit, check Eater SF (sf.eater.com).
For an epic culinary scavenger hunt, see 7x7.com’s annual Big Eat list, which shows photos of specific dishes to hunt for. Also don’t miss the San Francisco Chronicle’s annual Top 100 Restaurants list (sfchronicle.com), which will point you to a diverse selection of local flavors.
Food truck fans should check out 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 offthegridsf.com/markets for information. They also line up trucks for Presidio Picnic, held on summer Sundays around a grassy expanse in the—you guessed it—Presidio. If it’s a sunny day, there’s no better place to be, especially given trucks like Nopalito (a fantastic Mexican restaurant with California flair, serving up amazing tacos) and the glistening bay as the backdrop. Otherwise, Roaming Hunger (roaminghunger.com) lists locations of food trucks, based on Twitter feeds.
Menus here generally tend to offer good vegetarian options, and in the listings below we’ve singled out a few restaurants that are exclusively vegetarian. For vegan eats, consult Happy Cow (happycow.net). Gluten-free is also big here, too.