An incredible variety of culinary styles fall into the “American” category, from classic burgers-and-brunch spots to upscale eateries serving New American and California cuisine. Some of the city’s best American restaurants draw on a variety of influences, including French at Gary Danko and Eastern European and Japanese at Bar Tartine. Of course, the farm-to-table movement continues to thrive—at spots like Greens and Zuni Café, to name a few.
Since 1993, this Belle Epoque restaurant has been a consistent favorite: From the service to the cooking, there's seldom a misstep. Always busy, it attracts locals and visitors with waterfront views and hearty classics. James Beard Award-winning chef Nancy Oakes specializes in New American dishes such as wood-oven-roasted Berkshire pork chop with sweet potatoes and aprium in wild ginger and brown sugar.
A pioneer of farm-to-table vegetarian cuisine for more than three decades, Greens almost singlehandedly exploded the stereotype of vegetarian cooking as a variation on alfalfa sprouts and tofu. The restaurant has a prime waterfront location, with the Golden Gate Bridge as backdrop, and chef Annie Somerville's wildly inventive and flavorful menu continues to win the battle of carnivore hearts and minds. Dishes such as warm cauliflower salad with crisp capers and pine nuts; coconut risotto cakes in red curry; or wild mushroom and caramelized onion gratin with fromage blanc custard, could have you swearing off meat altogether. If you can't get a dinner reservation, go for brunch, when the kitchen dreams up some of its most imaginative offerings, such as spiced carrot cake pancakes and ciabatta French toast or Merguez poached eggs with vegetable ragout, grilled polenta and goat cheese.
The fooderati's current “it” restaurant, Michelin-starred State Bird Provisions has garnered such a cult following, it has foodie hackers trying to game the online reservation system. For those without a programming degree, getting there early (5:30pm) is your best bet for snagging one of the coveted spots—including seats at the chef's counter—that are set aside for walk-ins. The menu is divided into Provisions, Pancakes, and Commandables—the latter two served as a la carte items, such as the signature CA State Bird (crispy fried quail with pickled sautéed onions) and sourdough pancakes with sauerkraut, pecorino and ricotta. But the real fun comes with the Provisions—nightly dim sum–style rolling carts, where dish after dish of inventive small bites emerge from the kitchen, from duck liver mousse with almond cakes to smoked trout-avocado “chip & dip”.
Eating at Gary Danko is like dinner and a night at the theater rolled into one. The superstar chef, winner of numerous culinary awards including a Michelin star, is a fanatic about details—from the perfectly spaced white-clothed tables, arrangements of fresh flowers, and amazingly well-informed and attentive staff, to the flawless presentation of signature dishes such as his trademark glazed oysters with lettuce cream, salsify and osetra caviar. Danko's French-California cuisine changes seasonally, but often includes variations on juniper-crusted game, lobster salad and desserts flambéed tableside. It's pricey, but worth ponying up for the five-course tasting menu—a gastronomic spectacular that includes a swoon-inducing cheese cart (wine pairings extra). Reservations are essential.
After more than 30 years, Zuni has developed a dedicated following as a destination restaurant that's on a par with Berkeley's Chez Panisse. One of a handful of restaurants that helped define San Francisco's fresh, seasonal and regional style back in the 1980s, it's still considered one of the best in the city. There's simply no equal for Zuni's signature Caesar salad and brick-oven roasted chicken for two. The French- and Italian-inspired cuisine also includes a fabulous burger, fresh pasta and, at lunch, heavenly pizzettas. The art-filled space comprises four separate dining rooms and can be quite a scene before and after symphony and opera events.
One of the most exciting new restaurants to open in the past couple of years in a town full of exciting new restaurants, Rich Table melds San Francisco's famed farm-to-table credentials with a marvelous mélange of unique flavors and ingredients. Adding to the buzz is a location in the heart of Hayes Valley, a stone's throw from the Opera House, Davies Symphony Hall and the SFJAZZ Center. Starters such as house-made wild fennel levain bread, delicate sardine chips with horseradish dip, and dried porcini doughnuts will make you wonder why no one thought of these dishes before. Main courses change constantly according to what's on market, ranging from pasta with Dungeness crab and sea urchin to black cod with mustard greens, mango and chanterelles. Reservations, as you'd expect, are worth their weight in gold, and can be made as far as 30 days in advance.
After 20 years, this quintessentially neighborhood restaurant still draws crowds from all over the city for homey, impeccably fresh fare such as grilled green tomato gazpacho with black bean corn patty, and the signature Fried Chicken of Your Dreams with mashed potatoes, gravy, collard greens and “damn fine” buttermilk biscuit. There are always a number of excellent vegetarian selections and special menus for the Jewish holidays. Owner/chef Brad Levy has also recently added gluten-free preparations to the mix. Warm, romantic and utterly charming.
If you haven't tried the brussels sprout chips, burger and poulet vert at Marlowe, you may be the only one in town. The cozy South of Market hotspot has relocated to larger digs at 4th and Brannan Streets, giving fans many more opportunities to experience chef Jennifer Puccio's winning menu of inventive American food. Toasted pistachios with bourbon, maple, and smoked salt, and those crispy, addictive brussels sprout chips (fried with meyer lemon and sea salt) are appetizer highlights. Among the mains, don't miss pork chops with nettle pesto risotto, poulet vert (chicken marinated overnight in a mash of basil, parsley, tarragon, and other herbs), and the near-mythical Marlowe burger—a combo of beef and lamb, with caramelized onions, cheddar, bacon and horseradish aioli.
For all its multicultural prowess, San Francisco has never done Jewish deli successfully. All that changed in 2012 with the opening of Wise Sons, and you can hear the echo of a million Jewish mothers shouting “mazel tov.” Evan Bloom and Leo Beckerman have not only nailed it, but done so in a uniquely Northern California way with reinterpreted classics such as house-smoked pastrami on rye with handmade pickles, just-salty-enough chopped liver, and rich, veggie-filled matzo ball soup (self-deprecatingly described as “not as good as your bubbe's”). The amazing burger, made with a mix of ground chuck and pastrami, is schmeared with beet-horseradish spread and served on a challah bun. For brunch, try the L.E.O.—scrambled eggs, lox and caramelized onions with a bagel from Oakland's Beauty Bagels. And don't leave without a sample of the chocolate babka, made with Guittard chocolate.
Deep in the Outer Sunset district, a sleepy haven for resident surfers and fog lovers, Outerlands has sparked a cultural renaissance in what has long been a culinary backwater. Amid salvaged fence-wood walls, crocheted afghans, beer in mason jars, and the Pavlovian scent of simmering soups and baking bread, diners tuck into dishes like fennel a la plancha in mussel vinaigrette, pressed roast chicken, and cast-iron-grilled cheese sandwiches made with heavenly house-baked bread. A recent expansion and a new chef have only enhanced the cozy and convivial scene. At brunch, don't miss Dutch pancakes baked in a cast-iron skillet, or “eggs in jail”—hollowed-out housemade levain toast with eggs fried in the hole—and the array of delectable pastries.
At the restaurant arm of Liz Pruiett's and Chad Robertson's revered Tartine bakery, co-chefs Nick Balla and Cortney Burns give an Eastern European and occasional Japanese spin to seasonal dishes such as cheese dumplings in nettle sauce with bottarga, and lamb sausage with creamed purslane on toast. The menu capitalizes on fresh, local ingredients pickled, fermented and aged in-house, accompanied with amazing breads from the bakery. At lunch, the restaurant becomes a café with a to-die-for selection of sandwiches served on house-made Danish rye and other European breads, and a smorgasbord of sides such as chilled beet and asparagus soup and garlic-pickled mushrooms.
Fifteen years in, Foreign Cinema is now something of a venerable elder on the Mission hipster scene. Chef/owners Gayle Pirie and John Clark refuse to rest on their laurels, however, and the restaurant arguably improves with each passing year. The interior features an open-air courtyard where classic foreign films are screened against the back wall (there are tableside speakers for those who want to listen). But the focus is still the exceptional food, a seasonal selection of locally interpreted Mediterranean dishes such as lamb mixed grill with couscous, chickpea and lentil tagine, house-cured anchovies, and more than 20 varieties of oysters. At the hugely popular brunch, the organic fruit “pop tarts” are a must. Or try happy hour at cool adjacent bar, Laszlo.
The ‘wow' factor here is not necessarily on the menu, but in the festive atmosphere that prevails at this mainstay North Beach brunch spot, run by the Sanchez family for more than 50 years. Even the (sometimes epic) weekend queue is part of the fun. Once seated, you'll be faced with such temptations as a giant made-to-order 'm'omelette', huevos rancheros, or the Monte Cristo, a gargantuan sandwich of ham, turkey, cheddar, and gruyere dipped in egg batter and grilled. Service is swift and familiar.
Superstar chef Michael Mina created a stir when he uprooted his Union Square restaurant and relocated back to the spot in the Financial District where he got his start (the former Aqua). He hasn't lost a step. His menu approach has scrapped the signature three-way preparations in favor of French-influenced food made with Japanese ingredients. Less frou frou than its predecessor, it's still dining on a grand scale (and at a grand price), but one taste of the ahi tuna tartare, Maine lobster pot pie, or Wagyu shabu shabu and you'll whip out your credit card without a second thought.
One of the hottest restaurants in town, Nopa's attractions include the wood-fired oven and the late hours—unusual in a city where many kitchens pack up at 10pm. Italian- and Med-inspired (“urban rustic”) dishes offer inventive twists with local, seasonal ingredients—Moroccan vegetable tagine and house-made pappardelle with lamb sugo, for example. Others are more classic—the likes of country pork chop with fresh beans and grilled peaches. Desserts such as cornmeal honey crępes with plums, raspberries and burnt honey ice cream are worth saving room for. Weekend brunch is hugely (and deservedly) popular.
Anna Weinberg and chef Jennifer Puccio are the winning team behind Park Tavern, the second in their successful trio of San Francisco restaurants, each imbued with a pitch-perfect sense of culinary and neighborhood identity. In the heart of North Beach overlooking Washington Square Park, the Tavern is a boisterous brasserie that manages to keep its large space intimate. Every item on the appetizers menu is a must-have—from the now-legendary brussel sprouts chips and addictive lemon chips with burrata, to the smoked deviled eggs with bacon and pickled jalapeńo. Among the main options, the tender grilled pork chop, Marlowe burger (an always-in-demand import from its sister restaurant) and poulet vert—a whole herb-stuffed chicken served standing up on a cast-iron plate, are standouts. If possible, save room for dessert, which includes a monthly rotating “birthday” cake.
Range is consistently rated among the city's top restaurants, and for good reason: The concise and constantly changing menu never fails to have something on it that you want to eat—egg noodle pasta with roasted sweet tomatoes and goat's milk ricotta, or coffee-rubbed pork shoulder with creamy hominy and collard greens, for example. For dessert, the goat cheesecake with spiced pecan spelt shortbread and lemon curd is everything you'd expect.
Offering a little slice of New Orleans, chefs Mitchell and Steven Rosenthal and legendary front-of-house man Doug Washington cultivate a chummy loyal crowd for their Southern-inspired classics. Highlights include cornmeal fried oysters, barbecue shrimp, buttermilk fried chicken with smashed potatoes, and house-smoked St. Louis ribs. The bar is known for its specialty cocktails, including an excellent Sazerac.
Not since the giddy days of the dotcom boom has San Francisco seen anything this glamorous South of Market. The name refers to the address—down an obscure alley in a 1917 meat-processing warehouse. Inside, the huge bi-level space combines original brick and exposed timbers with glass and polished metal. A slick bar and lounge with steel ski-lodge fireplaces occupies the lower floor; upstairs diners view the kitchen through glass panels, where chef Matthew Dolan crafts intricately composed plates of local, seasonal ingredients. If you can tear yourself away from all the fabulousness around you, try offerings such as seared ahi tuna with radish gazpacho, foraged mushrooms, arugula and smoked eggplant. The extensive bar menu includes a Bavarian soft pretzel Gruyčre fondue and crispy duck wings.
With an artisanal cocktail list that's as extensive as the food menu, you'll be hard-pressed to choose between a Monkey's Gland (gin, citrus, absinthe and grenadine) or another order of the marinated anchovies or pig's head fritters with pickled black radish. Go for it all—and while you're at it, try the grilled quail with peaches and mashed beets and any other of the exquisitely seasonal, impeccably fresh plates, as you sip your slavishly crafted cocktail (even the ice is tailor-made for each drink). Undoubtedly the biggest thing to splash down on the 11th Street club corridor in recent years, Bar Agricole feels at once earthy and ethereal—with walls made from old barrel staves and light fixtures made from hundreds of glass tubes that look like windswept waves. Belly up to the bar, tuck into a booth, or try brunch on the sunny, enclosed front patio.