In a city that’s been at the center, if not the birthplace, of innumerable nationwide culinary trends ranging from slow food and pop-up restaurants to fusion, farm-to-table, and artisanal toast, it’s a wonder that chefs in San Francisco restaurants continually find ways to raise their game. But this is a town that loves—and is occasionally required—to reinvent itself, never feeling satisfied to just rest on its (bay) laurels. On any given night, you might find yourself dining on American dim sum, 900-degree-oven-fired Neapolitan pizza, smoked meat by-the-pound, and just about every hybrid ethnic cuisine you can imagine—Asian-Italian and Hungarian-Japanese to Cal-Moroccan, French-Japanese, and Korean burritos. There are further culinary riches in the best bars in San Francisco, many of which lay on restaurant-caliber snacks and small plates to accompany the creative cocktails.
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.
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.
Henry and Diana Chung started this local chain of Chinese restaurants in 1974, introducing the spicy, smoky dishes of their native Hunan province to San Francisco. It's been a love affair ever since, with locals flocking to their downtown and neighborhood locations for the Marty's Special (hot and spicy smoked ham and chicken with vegetables in black bean sauce), cold noodle salad (shredded chicken, cucumbers and peanut sauce), deep-fried onion cakes, hot and sour soup, and Diana's legendary meat pie—ground pork in garlicky chili sauce topped with shredded lettuce sandwiched between circles of flaky fried bread. In recent years, grandsons Jeff and Eddie have opened branches in the Excelsior and Noe Valley that cater to a more health-conscious crowd, with lighter sauces, less oil, lean meats, and options such as brown rice. If you're averse to spicy food, make sure you specify “mild” when ordering.
This beautiful, whimsically designed restaurant (it's meant to resemble an overturned champagne glass) is one of the best high-dollar special-occasion establishments in the city. Located a short walk from Davies Symphony Hall and the Opera House, it delivers a menu as opulent as the decor. Chef Traci Des Jardins continues to seek out the best local ingredients for a menu that features caviar, oysters, black truffles, duck breast confit, diver scallops, and bacon-wrapped rabbit. For an extra-special occasion, spring for the prix fixe menu with wine pairings—and the cheese course. The wine list includes an extensive selection of champagne and sparkling wines.
This is one of the few truly French restaurants that has never bowed to the whims of fashion. For 26 years, Chef Roland Passot has enjoyed a passionate following. Opt for the five- or seven-course tasting menus and you'll understand why: meticulously prepared updated classics such as frog legs with trumpet mushroom ragout and butter-poached lobster with carrot sauce. The Provençal decor and attentive staff add to the charm of this delightfully haute but not at all haughty establishment. The adjoining Green Room is a good option for intimate dining.
Though Flour + Water's menu has recently been expanded with two to three meat, poultry and fish options, pasta and pizza are still the stars of the show. The kitchen staff slaves over every ingredient, cultivating and coddling textures and flavors until they meet the restaurant's exacting standards. Melt-in-your-mouth pastas are house-made daily, as is the salumi—whole animals are butchered on site and each part is used, from snout to tail. Pizzas from the Italian wood-fired 900-degree oven take exactly two minutes to cook, and arrive exquisitely thin with perfectly blistered crusts, topped with delicacies like fior di latte, squash blossoms, house-made pork sausage, and calabrian chili. The $65 five-course pasta tasting menu is worth the splurge. Book as far in advance as you can—the place is ridiculously popular. Or get there at 5:30pm and try for one of the walk-in spots.
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.
Chef/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 liberty duck ragů and pancetta-wrapped rabbit saddle. Stoll's casual Pizzeria Delfina (415-437-6800) 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.
In the pretty seaside village of Sausalito just across the Golden Gate Bridge, Sushi Ran has been turning out what many consider to be the Bay Area's best sushi for nearly 30 years. The sushi menu is executed by 2013 World Sushi Cup–winning chef Taka Toshi and Michelin-starred chef Seiji Wakabayashi, who together deliver impeccably fresh, maki, nigiri and sashimi dishes that are miniature works of art. The equally delightful non-sushi side of the menu is worth a look, with specialties such as kaffir lime–roasted sea bass, scallop-chive dumplings and wagyu beef carpaccio with arugula and micro red cabbage.
Tonkatsu—broth made from pork bones cooked for 20 hours—and house-made ramen noodles topped with chashu (thin-sliced pork), bamboo shoots, marinated eggs, pork belly strips and other delicacies, are the hallmark of this immensely popular LA transplant, set on the second floor of the Japantown Center complex. The menu looks deceptively simple, but the complexity of flavors in their soups is anything but. Try the level 1-2-3 spicy or the Yamadaya. There's also an extensive sushi menu and bento box meals with karaage chicken and katsu curry.
When Raymond Ho and Kin Lui opened their tiny 26-seat eatery in Pacific Heights in 2009, it was the first entirely sustainable sushi bar in the U.S., serving only fish available and caught using environmentally friendly methods. Others have since joined the movement, but Tataki is a standard-bearer—not just for its green credentials, but for its fresh, flavorful and inventive fare. Light, delicate arctic char often substitutes for salmon in signature “tataki” dishes such as seared and marinated char with capers in yuzu reduction, and in hand-rolls such as the 49er—masago (smelt roe) and avocado topped with char and lemon. Other fish on the extensive sushi and sashimi menus might include Atlantic mackerel, wild Thai snapper, skipjack, pole-caught albacore, and sablefish. The duo has since expanded their menu and locations with two additional restaurants that feature grilled yakitori and kushiyaki skewers and housemade ramen, in addition to sushi.
An offshoot of the acclaimed restaurant Nopa, Nopalito offers authentic, from-scratch Mexican dishes 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: The carnitas dish is slow-cooked and braised in orange, bay leaf, milk, cinnamon and beer and the 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 the tangy, tender nopales (cactus leaves), frequently found inside tamales or in dishes such as queso flameado con chorizo y nopales (flamed Oaxacan and jack cheese with grilled cactus and chorizo).
At Tacolicious, traditional Mexican street food—tacos, enchiladas, sopes, tostadas—is interpreted with local, seasonal and supremely fresh ingredients. Sit at one of the tall tables, belly up to the bar, or bask under Paul Madonna's cityscape mural on the patio in the company of bearded hipsters discussing their latest DIY projects. Whether you order albacore tuna tostadas with crispy leeks and chipotle mayo, or one of a dozen taco offerings like guajillo-braised beef short ribs, all come with three kinds of salsa (the habanero with turmeric and rice vinegar may require one of the 100 specialty tequilas to cool you down).
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.
Established in 1849, Tadich is the city's oldest restaurant, and still one of its most popular. Power-lunching politicians, techies and tourists alike belly up to the classic mahogany horseshoe bar and tuck into old-school San Francisco dishes such as crab Louis, shrimp a la Newburg, Hangtown Fry (oysters and eggs), and giant bowls of San Francisco cioppino (shellfish stew) accompanied by a big hunk of sourdough bread. If you prefer more private seating, let one of the white-coated waiters usher you into a wooden booth (with service bell). No reservations are accepted and there's invariably a line out the door, but it's worth it to experience a bit of Barbary Coast San Francisco.
One of San Francisco's steakhouse veterans, Harris' offers classy old-style dining, with big steaks, big martinis, and big bills at meal's end. Sink into your booth, start with a strong cocktail, then proceed with a textbook Caesar salad (put together at your table), a prime piece of carefully aged steak (from Harris' own ranch) and a baked potato with all the trimmings. Hefty desserts follow.
The first destination restaurant to be built on the Embarcadero waterfront in decades, Epic Roasthouse and its adjoining sister, Waterbar, co-opted a pristine piece of real estate with spectacular views of the Bay Bridge for their haute surf and turf. Out of the wood-fired oven come daily procured selections of dry aged ribeye, côte de boeuf, porterhouse, prime rib and filet mignon, which you can augment with your choice of béarnaise, madeira, chimichurri or horseradish. Accompany your steak with sides such as späetzle gratin, sautéed spinach and fried green tomatoes.
With a menu of more than 50 items (not including the daily specials), Marnee Thai offers a deep dive into regional cuisine. Chef Chai Siriyarn's menu focuses mainly on Siamese fare from Central Thailand, but he also covers specialties from the north and south, including turmeric- and ginger-seasoned noodle curries and Indonesian-style chicken satay. Local favorites include green papaya salad, Tom Ka Gai (sour-spicy coconut chicken soup), Hor Mok (steamed snapper in curry mousse with cabbage in a banana leaf bowl), pad Thai, and curry dishes. If it's on the menu, don't miss the morning glory—a delicate spinach-like green—sautéed in soy bean and garlic sauce.
Be sure to book in advance at Thep Phanom—and once you're there, be sure to order the tom ka gai (coconut chicken soup) as a starter. The “angel wings”—fried chicken wings stuffed with glass noodles, grilled prawns stuffed with crabmeat, and prawn and pumpkin curry—are universally popular choices. After more than 25 years, chef Pat Parikanont's neighborhood fave is still going strong, often touted as one of the top Thai restaurants in San Francisco.
Other international cuisines
Aziza is the perfect marriage of Moroccan flavors with Northern California ingredients, suffering from none of the clichés of either. With a Michelin star and an Iron Chef championship under his belt, chef-owner Mourad Lahlou has risen to the ranks of the city's elite, but Aziza remains firmly grounded, turning out dishes such as branzino with eggplant, mustard greens and peppers, and short ribs with carrot jam, mustard soubric and dates that continue to surprise and delight. A destination in its own right, the bar serves cocktails made with hand-muddled herbs, fruits and vegetables and imaginative combinations such as reposado tequila with wild arugula and turmeric root.
Thin rice and lentil crepes and flatbreads (dosas and uttapams) stuffed and topped with everything from sweet potatoes and chickpea masala to spicy potatoes, fennel and spinach are the focus of this southern Indian eatery. Their slightly more upscale Mission location has been augmented with a larger space in the Fillmore District, which packs in theater and nightlife crowds into the late hours. In addition to dosas, the restaurant offers a wide array of chaat, small plates, and curries.
This small, wildly popular eatery falls geographically and gastronomically somewhere between Thailand and India, sharing ingredients and spices with both, but interpreting them in uniquely Burmese ways. Lines start forming a half-hour before opening for house specialties such as tea leaf salad, a deliciously crunchy combo of dried tea leaves, fried yellow beans and garlic, sesame seeds, tomatoes and dried shrimp; samusa soup; and pumpkin pork stew slow-cooked with kabocha squash and ginger. Expect a wait at this no-reservations spot—the best bet for immediate seating is to get there at 5pm for dinner.
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 lemon) or octapodi salata (mesquite-grilled octopus in red wine vinegar) and work your way up to traditional moussaka—a rich, creamy baked casserole of eggplant, lamb ragout and béchamel—and kotopoulo souvlas, roasted lemon-oregano chicken.
One of a handful of local eateries specializing in Peruvian food, this chic, packed, low-lit hotspot serves a culture-bending menu of traditional dishes creatively infused with influences ranging from China and Japan to Spain and Africa. Dishes such as Crispy Ceviche (petrale sole and yucca with a shot of leche de tigre) and lomo saltado (beef stir-fried with french fries, tomatoes and onions) are popular, but it's the rotisserie chicken that's made Limón a household name—marinated and slowly roasted over an open flame to a garlicky, lemony goodness.