Whether you’re hunting for home-style recipes, street food specialties, or inventive twists on the classics, San Francisco’s best Indian restaurants deliver. Their chefs have honed their skills in North and South India, in Michelin-starred restaurants and in their grandmothers’ kitchens. The result is a happy hodgepodge of deftly-spiced, slow-simmered deliciousness spanning Pac Heights to West Portal. Here’s where to find the best bone-warming curries, fresh-baked naan, and authentic tandoori dishes in the city.
SF’s best Indian restaurants
The vibe at Udupi is cheery and low-key, with colorful string lights and a smattering of Indian instruments decking the walls. Though the spot’s South Indian cuisine is strictly vegetarian, it’s flavorful and filling, drawing veg-heads and carnivores alike. That’s mostly due to the two-foot-long dosas: Indian crepes made with rice flour, stuffed with fillings and served alongside sambar and coconut, tomato and ginger chutneys. (The uttapam, a thicker lentil and rice pancake topped with vegetables and chutney, is equally satisfying.) First-timers can opt for the South Indian Thali, a sampler platter that includes rice, various curries, soup and dessert.
This funky, 10-year-old spot is helmed by chef Mohammed Aslam, a North Indian cook who cut his teeth at Indian Oven in the Haight. Aslam specializes in tandoori dishes cooked in a traditional clay oven, whether chicken, prawns, fish or lamb. Start with the pakoras, chickpea fritters stuffed with seafood, vegetables or chicken, and any combination of fresh-baked breads. Here, the naan goes beyond basic garlic, instead infused with ingredients like goat cheese, fruit, nuts, basil and peppers. Regulars swear by the curried lamb chops, which are slow-cooked with ginger, onions, saffron and garlic. Cap off your meal with a mug of cardamom-, cinnamon- and fennel- spiced homemade chai.
Amber India Restaurant embodies the spirit and essence of fine Indian cuisine. Located in the heart of downtown San Francisco, Amber India Restaurant takes Indian cuisine to a new culinary level, while still holding true to its traditional nuances. Much like the ambiance within the restaurant, Amber India’s cuisine is a mix of modern style with traditional roots. The delectable cuisine, the well paired wines, and the exotic cocktails are sure to indulge anyone’s senses. The split-level three-story restaurant can easily accommodate 140 people, with a private dining room in the back for up to 25 people. With its vaulted ceilings, stylish décor, and a constant LED light show behind the bar, Amber India Restaurant is truly a feast for both the mouth as well as the eyes.
Business partners and brothers Sohel, Zoaib and Moiz Subedar grew up around the stove—their father opened the original location of this Pakistani restaurant in the ‘80s. Though it’s situated on a rather dreary strip near Civic Center, the spot is warm and vibrant inside, lit by candles and swathed in multicolored stripes and Indian movie posters. The menu spans meaty and vegetarian curries, rice dishes, kebabs and over a dozen varieties of naan. (Try the spicy flecked with minced jalapeño.) Don’t miss the faluda for dessert, an Indian-style milkshake made with rose syrup, coconut jelly, sweet basil seeds, cream and Mitchell’s mango ice cream.
After a childhood spent cooking alongside his grandmother in India, chef Srijith Gopinathan graduated from culinary school and honed his skills at a series of upscale hotels in India. Since arriving in the U.S., he has expanded his repertoire to encompass what he calls “Cal-Indian cuisine,” imbuing farmer’s market ingredients with traditional Indian spices. The result is an exotic, high-end spin on Southern Indian cuisine—one that earned him two Michelin stars in 2016. The Spice Route prix fixe menu features dishes like Maine lobster in a curry broth, duck breast with rhubarb and basil, and slow-cooked lamb served over basmati rice, snap peas and cumin-lime yogurt. (The lamb and game bird dishes are cooked in an authentic tandoori oven.) The overall experience is decidedly high-end, from the extensive wine list to the glittering chandeliers overhead.
This no-frills mini-chain (there’s a second location at 501 O’Farrell St) is cheap, quick and authentic. Order at the counter and wait alongside the rowdy masses until your order is called, then snag a table and chow down. What Pakwan lacks in ambiance, it makes up for in well-executed classics, from tandoori barbecue to lamb biryani and saag paneer to butter chicken. Both the heat and the portion sizes are generous. Fortunately, it’s BYOB, so you can douse your tingling tongue with a beer or three.
West Portal isn’t typically known as a foodie destination, but Roti is an exception. The spot prides itself on its attention to detail, from the homemade garam masala (they toast and grind whole coriander, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and more by hand) to the daily-baked bread basket overflowing with onion kulcha, garlic and basil naan and tandoori roti. The seasonally rotating menu is sourced from local suppliers, like lamb delivered from Half Moon Bay. One sometime-special was such a hit that it earned a place on the permanent menu: the tandoori game hen, which is marinated with garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, chili, spices and yogurt, then skewered and roasted in the mesquite tandoori oven.
Offerings like a white truffle masala dosa or a shikampuri kebab slider may not be traditional, but that’s not stopping the hordes who line up to eat here every weekend. Husband-wife team Anjan and Emily Mitra unveiled the original location in the Mission (995 Valencia Street) in 2005; they opened the larger, fancier (not to mention pricier) Fillmore space three years later. Both restaurants are architecturally striking, featuring floor-to-ceiling windows, ornate wall coverings inspired by Indian patterns, leather banquettes and glinting chandeliers. Chef Dinesh Kumar is best known for his seasonal, four-course tasting menu ($55), but the menu also features a dozen dosas, half as many uttapam and a range of a la carte specials that might include a Bengali fish curry or a Hyderabadi chicken biryani. Entrees are skillfully paired with the spice-driven cocktail menu: Here, a gimlet is made with curried nectar and lime and a gin and tonic boasts house-made fig and cardamom tonic.
This bright blue storefront off a busy stretch of Divisidero might appear unassuming, but the cooking within is tongue-tinglingly bold. It’s run by Ajeet Mehta and his father-in-law, chef Ganesh Bankoti, who honed his culinary chops at the Taj Hotel in New Delhi. The low-lit, narrow restaurant barely seats two dozen at one time; as a result, the spot does a brisk take-out business. The menu features all the classics—curries, dosas, rice dishes and more—but the highlight is the chicken achar: pickled boneless chicken in a spicy, tangy sauce.
In contrast to its hectic Mission counterparts, this year-old gem is serene and inviting, offering white tablecloths, fresh flowers, candlelight and attentive service. All meals start with complimentary pappadam, served alongside a spate of chutneys and dipping sauces. The sampler platters favor the indecisive: the vegetarian special includes pappadam, a samosa, saag paneer, dal makhani, rice, naan, raita and kheer ($34.95 for two), while the Tara Special offers a samosa, chicken tikka masala, saag paneer, tandoori chicken, boti, rice, naan and kheer ($42.95 for two). Wash it down with a 22-ounce Indian beer by Taj Mahal or Flying Horse.