This neighborhood, less well known to outsiders generally than Union Square, South of Market, Nob Hill etc. should be on any visitor’s map; it certainly is for locals. Creative restaurants and shops have cropped up steadily over the years making this area, once seedy and closed in by the now-removed entrance ramps to the Central Freeway one of the most interesting dining sections of the city. Long time denizens, once outliers, such as the seafood specialist Hayes Street Grill, Zuni Café, famous for its roast chicken, and Absinthe Brasserie & Bar, an early proponent of classic French cuisine and craft cocktails, are still going strong.
Among the newcomers, Petit Crenn, the more casual restaurant owned by Dominique Crenn, the Breton-born chef recently awarded a third Michelin star for her wildly experimental creations at Atelier Crenn, offers a tasting menu that’s as delicious if a bit more down to earth than the one at her flagship. Among the current options: kampachi crudo with chartreuse, pomelo and sea lettuce and cassoulet de la mer with Mr. Lassen trout, Salt Point mussel and seafood boudin.
A few blocks away, another exceptional French bistro is also a more casual outpost of one of the city’s star chefs, Monsieur Benjamin from Benu’s Corey Lee. The atmosphere is relaxed, the décor classic bistro with modern touches—paper tablecloths, dishtowel napkins, an open kitchen in the middle of the floor—and the menu, impeccably executed, slightly reimagined versions of traditional dishes spotlighting local ingredients. So you’ll find displays of West Coast oysters, endive and apple salad with Fourme d’Ambert and walnuts, chicken liver terrine with apple compote and brioche, escargots Bordelaise with mushroom duxelles, quail a la Chasseur, steak frites with sauce Choron and for dessert, palmier ice cream with Calvados caramel along with many others, all of them worth trying.
For a restaurant that really seems to express its sense of place, though, don’t miss Rich Table, an intimate restaurant in a rustic, distressed wood /farmhouse setting that showcases local ingredients in a distinctly California cuisine style. Chefs Evan and Sarah Rich turn out wow food but it’s clear that they just want you to enjoy it, not worship it. Nothing about this place is reverential or stuffy. But the flavors they present are vivid and exciting, such as aged beef agnolotti with Australian black truffle, local King salmon sashimi with daikon and sukiyaki broth and dry aged ribeye with green yuzu kosho chimichurri and onion rings. It’s a tough table to get but worth making the effort.
While in the neighborhood, two dessert places are also worth discovering. Miette has an outpost in the Ferry Building and I always make a stop there for gingerbread cupcakes when I’m in the city but their mothership is here in Hayes Valley. Those cupcakes, cakes and all sorts of other delectable sweets are on display.
I’m generally not a fan of molecular, chemistry based food but the aptly named Smitten is an exception. This ice cream shop has various locations around the area now but its flagship is here. It doesn’t look like a typical ice cream shop: there are no tubs of premade selections. You make your choice and its patented Brrr machine whirs the ingredients—all natural, no fillers—together and blasts it with a fog of liquid nitrogen. The result is so creamy and densely flavored that you’ll never want to eat regular ice cream again.
I’ve been covering luxury/experiential travel and food for the last 20 years, for Forbes since 2004 and previously for Departures. I'm also currently contributing to the Robb Report and Centurion.