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.
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.
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.
The latest trend in San Francisco dining is fast-casual with counter service. Souvla has a short and sweet menu of Greek-inspired chicken, lamb and pork served over salads or in fluffy pita. The rotisserie ensures fresh and juicy meat, and housemade sauces are carefully chosen to go with each selection. There’s even a vegetarian option with white sweet potatoes. The food is fresh, succulent and never fussy. For dessert, frozen yogurt is served with a choice of sour cherry syrup, olive oil and salt, or baklava crumbles and honey syrup. In two locations, it is convenient and delicious enough to be a destination in its own right.
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.
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.
Picky diners will be happy sticking to this downtown restaurant's steak frites, burger and roasted chicken. But those looking to experience more of the local bounty can turn to seasonal and vegetable-forward dishes that rotate with farmers' market inventory and are ideal for sharing. Particularly outstanding are delicate dishes like tuna crudo with avocado, grapefruit and young ginger, and the daily pastas. The star on the dessert menu is the Honolulu Hangover Cake: rum-soaked devil’s food cake with coconut-rum filling, toasted marshmallow meringue and toasted coconut.
Plaj draws on the Swedish heritage of its chef and owner, Roberth Sundell. His dishes showcase the best of Scandinavia, including a Nordic cheese plate with fried Norwegian flatbread; beet-cured gravlax; and tartare of elk and herring. The food is served in a quiet, cozy setting just steps away from City Hall, the Opera House and Symphony Hall, in Hayes Valley.
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.
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.
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.
Every city needs a charming café like 20th Century. Inspired by Viennese coffee houses, it has a simple elegance with marble tables and display of cakes, strudel and cookies. The limited food menu offers perfectly formed savory pierogi served with damson plum preserves, and a Reuben on housemade bread. The piece de resistance is the Russian Honey cake, made from nine layers of delicate cake and a luscious honey-buttercream frosting. It’s a most-civilized place to while away a quiet afternoon or catch up over tea with a friend.
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.
For the best vista of San Francisco itself, a visit to Sausalito is a must. Just across the Golden Gate Bridge, the area offers exquisite views of San Francisco and has the relaxed charm of a Mediterranean village. It’s also got a gem of a restaurant in Copta. Executive Chef Daniel Tellez is a star from Mexico City, who uses the local bounty of the Bay Area in tacos and ceviches that show off the complex and layered flavors of Mexican cuisine. Signature dishes include his 24-Hour Carnitas and chile-spiced brisket. The lunch and dinner menus are 100 percent gluten-free.
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.
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.
San Francisco’s Chinese restaurants are not confined to Chinatown; in fact, some of the best ones can be found out in the Richmond and Sunset neighborhoods. Dragon Beaux is among them. An elegant restaurant, it offers superb dim sum during the day and hot pots at night. The dim sum transcends the pork and shrimp standards with luxurious touches like truffles and XO sauce added to dumplings, and specials like Chinese duck burritos and abalone. At night, the hot pot menu features four kinds of broth and top-quality ingredients like prime rib, kurobuta pork and grass-fed lamb.