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The best restaurants in San Francisco

From fine French dining to the best taqueria, here are 25 San Francisco restaurants everyone needs to visit

Photograph: Courtesy Octavia

In a city rife with some of the country's top Chinese, French and Italian restaurants, how on earth can you choose San Francisco's best dining destinations? It can be difficult to highlight the city’s constantly changing culinary landscape while representing solid Cali classics (we're looking at you, La Taqueria). But we were up for the challenge, and after doing some research we culled our list down to 25 of the very best. Consider this your San Francisco checklist of the top restaurants to visit, whether you’re a local or just stopping by for the weekend.

Top 25 restaurants in SF

1

Benu

Chef Corey Lee, former chef de cuisine at the French Laundry, has created one of the most important fine dining restaurants in the country, earning three Michelin stars and an AAA Five Diamond rating through his intense focus, talent and pursuit of excellence. His inventive tasting menu is laced with Korean and Chinese influences and culinary references, like his famed xiao long bao (currently filled with lobster coral) and his version of a thousand-year-old quail egg. The custom dishes play a large part of the experience, with every detail of the guest’s meal carefully considered. The dining room has a minimalist style, forcing diners to really focus on the cuisine (which they naturally do anyway, as each course is so captivating). Wine pairings are a worthy investment, since beverage director Yoon Ha has plenty of fun tricks up his sleeve.

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2

Saison

Three Michelin stars, a #27 spot on the World’s 50 Best list and the most expensive tasting menu in San Francisco: those are the things most people know about this unique SoMa restaurant. Walking into the industrial space, your eyes will be naturally drawn to the open kitchen, full of cooks intently working at their stations. Chef Joshua Skenes understands luxury and is dedicated to the finest sourcing, but is not a fan of a stuffy dining room, so expect to feel relaxed and engaged during the meal. His contemporary and clean cooking has many Japanese influences, and the ingredients are simply about getting the best of the best. Mark Bright has assembled one of the best wine cellars in the city, and Burgundy fans are richly rewarded. Krug will be popped. There is also a chic cocktail bar and lounge.

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3

Atelier Crenn

Dominique Crenn opened this chic and natural oasis in an unexpected part of town, but it only adds to the feeling of calm once you step inside from the busy bar scene nearby. Her two Michelin star restaurant is in homage to her father, an artist, and her menu is delivered to guests in an envelope as a poem. Crenn’s highly personal menu unfolds with exquisite seafood, paying homage to the little jewels of the sea, and many of the following dishes are interactive and offer a bit of a tableside show. Ingredients are clean and bright and alluring, and the dessert courses from Juan Contreras are unlike any you have had before (it’s like taking an edible nature walk). There is so much whimsy and beauty in a meal here, filling diners with delight (and their glasses with beautiful wines). Can't make it to Atelier Crenn? Crenn’s sister restaurant in Hayes Valley, Petit Crenn, is more casual, and offers an affordable prix-fixe menu. 

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4

State Bird Provisions

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 à 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.”

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Fillmore District
5

Liholiho Yacht Club

Chef Ravi Kapur came up in San Francisco’s seminal Boulevard kitchen, but at his popular Lower Nob Hill restaurant, he’s cooking soul food inspired by his Hawaiian roots, with a NorCal ingredient-driven spin. Get your “ohana” (family) together and feast on an appealing menu full of flavor, like the tuna poke on nori chips and the beef tongue with kimchee in house-made poppy seed buns (and then there’s the off-the-menu house-made Spam). The menu will keep you returning again and again, because it’s impossible to make your way through it in a couple visits. There’s a full bar (plus the reservations-only Louie’s Gen-Gen Room downstairs) and a smart wine list, and the space has a lively vibe with an open kitchen, exposed brick and ever-busy bar with walk-ins lingering and hoping to score a table.

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Nob Hill
6

The Progress

The sister restaurant to the wildly popular State Bird Provisions next door, chef-owners Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski have another hit on their hands. The lofty space feels very California craft, with handmade wood tables and lights, and full of plants and pottery. The menu is designed to be a banquet feast: you choose the dishes, and depending on the size of your group, the meal is served family-style on beautiful platters and bowls. The dishes feature influences and ingredients from around the world (like pork and morel tonkatsu broth with fermented farm vegetable kimchi, toasted sesame and chile oil), but are always loaded with flavor and ever-changing, depending on what the kitchen is inspired by and what’s freshest at the market. Desserts are often a touch savory and always exciting and unique. Couldn’t get a table? There's a stylish bar and lounge, where you can come by and order dishes off a bar menu and à la carte off the main menu.

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7

Al's Place

Aaron London has created a quintessential San Francisco restaurant, and a very Mission one at that. The lines out the door continue (winning Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurant in 2015 will do that to a place), but the new outdoor seating for walk-ins is helping to alleviate some of the crowds (but check the website to see if the outside seating is open—the weather is in charge). The atmosphere is casual and very lively, and even though it has a Michelin star, you won’t find tablecloths here. London’s food blazes with creativity, uber-fresh ingredients and a focus on vegetables. Radishes and salads taste like you have never had them. Check out their clever low-ABV cocktails, plus a wine list full of food-friendly wines.

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8

Octavia

Melissa Perello’s second restaurant in Lower Pacific Heights is as personal as her beloved Frances—it has a welcoming residential style, with touches like reclaimed wood tables, cozy lighting and beautiful pottery. Perello’s menu has a strong California base but branches out with some Mediterranean touches, like her deviled egg covered in Marash pepper or pappardelle with seasonal vegetables. Her dishes feature height-of-the-season ingredients, like summertime Sonoma duck breast with roasted stone fruit panzanella, almond and chile romesco, and it’s best to share so you can enjoy more plates together. Definitely save room for dessert—they are something special here. The wine list features appealing vermouths to start with, and many international selections by the glass and bottle. It can be tough to score a table but so worth it.

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9

Acquerello

This 26-year-old restaurant strikes an amazing balancing act: it is one of the most refined dining rooms in the city, with Old World European-style service that is a special and rare thing to experience, yet offers an elevated Italian cuisine that is contemporary and innovative. Chef-partner Suzette Gresham is a master of pasta (the ridged pasta with foie gras is a decadent wonder), and her seasonal tasting menu is full of unexpected touches, like a Fontina budino with roasted red pepper and bitter chocolate. Partner and GM Giancarlo Paterlini runs the dining room like a smooth ship, and his lovingly assembled wine cellar is full of treasures. This is the kind of place that is ideal for special occasions, but it’s such a memorable experience that any lover of Italian cuisine shouldn’t let the lack of something to celebrate keep them away—a meal here is an occasion in and of itself.

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10

Californios

This Mission restaurant from chef Val Cantu is truly a hidden gem. Cantu's cuisine pays homage to his Mexican roots and culinary traditions, while reflecting his ethos as a chef who is always innovating and pushing. The tasting menu is as beautiful as it is delicious, and a fun twist is that you never know what’s coming—the menu isn’t presented until the end. Other twists: there are white tablecloths and refined service, but the vibe is urban, with distinctive artwork and a cheeky soundtrack. The dining room itself is also stylish and a pleasure to dine in. Have beverage director Charlotte Randolph manage the pairings for you since you won’t know what dishes are coming next—kind of like Cantu’s ever-evolving cooking, it keeps you coming back to read the next chapter.

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11

SPQR

The spirit of both Northern California and Italy shine through in this small, lively dining space. SPQR (an acronym for Senatus Populesque Romanus) has hit new heights under chef Matthew Accarrino, garnering a Michelin star and several James Beard nominations. His menu reflects a philosophy that is at once modern and traditional, with every detail of texture, flavor and presentation bearing a personal stamp. Raves are rightly earned for antipasti such as caramelized sweet onion panna cotta with sturgeon bacon and accarrino caviar, and for any of his handmade pastas (the meyer lemon fettuccini in an albalone alfredo will bowl you over). Pair them with owner/sommelier Shelley Lindgren's spectacular Italian wine list and it'll be an evening to remember.

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Pacific Heights
12

Quince

Chef Michael and Lindsay Tusk have created one of the most gorgeous dining rooms in the city, with stunning artwork, flowers and linens, and exquisite care paid to their highly polished level of service. The tasting menus feature elevated Italian cuisine with a California sensibility, and are very much in sync with local ingredients and seasonality. Tusk’s pastas are especially notable, and the luxurious touches on the menu always make a meal feel extra-special. Note that during the week (Mon–Thu), there is a seasonal menu that costs a touch less than the Quince tasting menu. Wine pairings from their deep cellar are impressive and spot-on. There is also an adjoining posh salon with a nightly menu of canapés, caviar and dishes from the tasting menu that can be ordered á la carte.

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13

Akiko's Restaurant & Sushi Bar

Any San Franciscan who really loves sushi gets their fix at this Financial District counter. The restaurant has been around for 30 years; Ray Lee took over for his parents and has really brought it into the next era with an updated look and exquisite seafood sourcing (along with a deep and rare sake collection). Be sure to reserve at the sushi counter for omakase (chef’s choice), where you can explore some really unique and highly seasonal selections, depending on what your wallet will bear. Uni lovers will definitely want to explore the different kinds here. The sushi chefs have some playful flourishes, each bite perfectly seasoned and presented to you—no soy sauce needed.

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14

Zuni Café

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.

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Hayes Valley
15

Cala

Chef Gabriela Cámara, of famed Mexico City restaurant Contramar, has brought her brand of refined seafood-focused Mexican to an airy Hayes Valley space. Cala has garnered buzz for dishes like the trout tostada with chipotle, avocado and fried leeks (the California counterpoint to Contramar's beloved tuna tostada); the ling cod salpicon; and a dish of cactus and eggplant cooked inside a corn husk. The salpicon and corn-and-eggplant dish are served with house-made corn tortillas for DIY taco-ing. Cocktails like the Horchata Colada (spiked with rum) and the Martini Oaxaqueño (an unusual concoction containing mezcal, citrus and olives) play with Latin American bar staples. There's brunch on Sundays and, for weekday lunch, Tacos Cala (located in the alley near the restaurant's back entrance) offers tortillas stuffed with several stewed fillings of the day for takeout or a quick bite.

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Civic Center
16

Bar Tartine

This Mission restaurant is all about the celebration of craft: co-chefs Nick Balla and Cortney Burns make everything in house, whether it’s pickled, fermented or aged. The menu has a globetrotting style, with Eastern European, Danish and an occasional Japanese provenance to seasonal dishes, all featuring fresh and local ingredients—many from the farm they have a relationship with. The way to go is the friends and family tasting menu for the ultimate tour de force. It’s especially fun with a small group (the main menu feels a bit lean in comparison, unless you just want a bite to go with your glass of wine). Saturday or Sunday lunch is another tasting menu affair, and a fun way to while away an afternoon at the table. Solo diners can sometimes find a perch at the bar, while the low-lit room is quite perfect for a date.

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Mission
17

Kokkari

Kokkari serves Hellenic cuisine—essentially an inventive and seasonal update of traditional Greek—that may indeed qualify as “food of the gods,” as it’s described. Start with marithes tiganites (crispy smelt with garlic-potato skordalia and lemon, or “fries with eyes,” as some folks affectionately call them) or some of the best grilled octopus in town. Then work your way up to traditional moussaka—a rich, creamy baked casserole of eggplant, lamb ragout and béchamel—and their famed lamb chops. Get the galatkoboureko and loukoumades for dessert—you saved room, didn't you? The restaurant has a rustic and welcoming feeling; it’s always popular for lunch and dinner, and fantastic for groups and celebrations (get a large fish for the table). It’s one of those San Francisco classics that always feels right, no matter the occasion.

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Financial District
18

Nopa

One of the hottest restaurants in town, Nopa's attractions include a wood-fired oven and 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.

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NoPa
19

Swan Oyster Depot

Opened more than a century ago as a fish market-cum-lunch counter, Swan's has been dishing up fresh, no frills seafood—filleted, cracked and shucked before your eyes—ever since. Belly up to the marble counter and start with a bowl of clam chowder, served with a hunk of fresh San Francisco sourdough. Move on to a plate of fresh-cracked Dungeness crab, thinly sliced smoked salmon, half a dozen Miyagi oysters, or mixed seafood cocktail/salad topped off with a dollop of cocktail sauce or house-made horseradish. Accompany everything with a pint of local Anchor Steam beer and you can scratch authentic SF seafood experience off your bucket list. Cash only.

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Russian Hill
20

Delfina

At Delfina, chef and owner Craig Stoll favors simplicity over whimsy and tradition over fashion. Yet his food is never ordinary: Fresh pasta, fish and braised meats find the perfect balance of flair and flavor. The menu changes daily, reflecting Stoll's desire to stay on his toes. Recent standouts include garganelli pasta with guinea hen ragu, Berkshire pork spare ribs and California white sea bass. Stoll's casual Pizzeria Delfina is next door, serving some of the best thin-crust pizzas in town. The clam pie with cherrystone clams and hot peppers is a perennial favorite.

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Mission
21

Yank Sing

The aromas coming from the steamed and fried dumplings at Yank Sing are so tantalizing, you'll likely gobble them down before finding out what's in them. Exceptionally fresh and flavorful dim sum is undoubtedly what keeps this longtime restaurant thriving in an unlikely corner of a massive office complex. Ordering is half the fun: Just point at what looks good as the waiters roll their carts past your table. Favorites include shanghai dumplings with pork, scallion, ginger and a shot of hot broth, stuffed crab claws, and goldfish dumplings filled with crunchy shrimp and bamboo shoot tips.

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Financial District
22

Nopalito

A offshoot of the popular, acclaimed Nopa restaurant, Nopalito offers authentic, from-scratch Mexican cooking made with local, sustainable and organic ingredients. This is the antithesis of slapped-together street food. Dishes are carefully composed with subtle flavors to create deliciously complex interpretations of traditional Mexican meals: carnitas is slow-cooked and braised in orange, bay leaf, milk, cinnamon and beer; mole coloradito con pollo is made with toasted chiles, almonds, Ibarra chocolate, dried plums and a huge array of spices. Don't miss any version of tangy, tender nopales (cactus leaves), frequently on the menu in the form of tamales or in dishes such as queso flameado con chorizo y nopales (flamed Oaxacan and jack cheese with grilled cactus and chorizo).

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Inner Sunset
23

Una Pizza Napoletana

There are quality pizzas all over the city, but when it comes to the most consistent pizza, you can’t beat Una Pizza Napoletana—because this level of consistency is what happens when the same person makes the dough and fires the pizzas every day. Anthony Mangieri keeps things simple: just five pizzas, all variations on tomato and cheese, and Saturdays feature a big departure with the Appollonia pie, made with salami and eggs. Ingredients are tops, from the San Marzano tomatoes to the flour he uses. The pizzas are molto Neapolitan, so look for an elastic and leopard-spotted crust from the blazing Acunto oven, a style that demands a fork and knife. The menu is very simple, featuring just pizzas, wine, Italian beer and espresso. When the day’s batch of dough is gone, the shop closes, so don’t come by too late.

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24

La Taqueria

The Mission burrito, as iconic to San Francisco as fog and cable cars, is the star at La Taqueria, a stalwart of the Mission District for more than 40 years. While some quibble over the exclusion of rice, no one argues over the tastiness of their behemoth foil-wrapped burrito bombs, filled with beans, cheese, salsa and meats ranging from carne and pollo asada to carnitas, chorizo and lengua. The tidy, no-frills spot also features tacos, quesadillas and a full selection of aguas frescas. Whatever your preference, start off with a basket of chips and the super-fresh guacamole.

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Mission
25

House of Prime Rib

When the call for a steak is strong, this San Francisco classic knows how to deliver. House of Prime Rib is definitely a throwback to another era (it dates back to 1949), but that’s the foundation of its charm. Big booths, a spinning tableside salad show—it all leads up to the main event, the stainless steel beef cart that looks like a zeppelin. After being wheeled up to your table, a server in a chef’s toque will carve off your preferred cut of prime and aged beef, along with a T. Yorkshire pudding and creamed spinach on the side. And if you somehow have room at the end of your meal, they will serve you seconds, gratis. The room is always packed with a hodgepodge of tourists and a crowd that spans all ages—the appeal of a perfect and old school prime rib dinner knows no bounds.

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Comments

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Rose J
Rose J

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