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.
This three-level restaurant is teeming with all kinds of delicious Cantonese fare, but is best known for a single dish: the salt and pepper, deep-fried Dungeness crab (battered and deep-fried legs and claws with tender morsels of crab meat, seasoned with a secret salt and pepper sauce and served with the carapace for effect). In addition to their iconic dish, try the special R&G beef, lobster sticky rice, and oxtail, seafood or vegetable clay pots.
A San Francisco staple, Mission Chinese gives traditional Chinese fare a modern twist with dishes like lamb and squid ink pappardelle, tiki pork belly, and thrice-cooked bacon with rice cakes. There are some classics on the menu—pork or mushroom mapo tofu and steamed market greens, for example—but you can't go wrong with anything from this Mission gem. Be warned though, it will be spicy!
Legendary chef Jacqueline Margulis, now in her 80s, makes each soufflé herself at Cafe Jacqueline in North Beach. Behind mountains of eggs in the tiny kitchen, Margulis has worked with the same prep cook for over 30 years, while the head waiter has been there nearly as long. Her textbook perfect soufflés—including crab, lobster, Gruyère and mushroom and lime and Grand Marnier for dessert—have not changed for decades. We wish she could live forever.
Philippe Gardelle has maintained a welcoming spirit (complete with a handshake or kiss on each cheek) and authentic French bistro fare since 1996 Regulars return for perfect veal sweetbreads, bouillabaisse, cassoulet and stellar soups like French onion and the seasonal yellow roasted corn in white truffle oil. The early bird prix fixe is a steal—$40 for 3 courses served from 5–6pm.
Montesacro, the country's first pinseria opened in 2015, introducing the U.S. to the joys of the ancient Roman flatbread. The oval, pizza-like breads are made of a soy, rice and wheat crust, and come laden with different toppings direct from Rome. The restaurant even boasts a 100-year-old oven.
Pizza master Tony Gemignani nails Chicago-style pizza at Capo’s. In the brick-walled, red-boothed, Prohibition-era North Beach dining room, the restaurant also serves an amazing baked clams casino, quattro forni breads, sweet-spicy house Calabrese sausage and mostaccioli and conchiglie pastas baked in a wood-fired oven.
This cozy Noe Valley restaurant showcases the cuisine of Chef Massimilliano Conti's homeland, Sardinia, paired with a thoughtful Italian wine list. Don't miss longtime greats like the octopus stew or spaghittusu cun allu ollu e bottarga (spaghetti in spicy oil and bottarga).
A downtown standby for over 30 years, this family-owned restaurant specializes in rare fish, creatively prepared. The space is moody and modern, with exposed brick walls, slatted wood ceilings, and imported rosewood floors underfoot. Ray Lee took over the restaurant from his parents in 2011, introducing a slew of new dishes alongside chef Naoyuki Hashimoto. The menu is divided into leaner white fish and fatty “vibrant” fish—diners are encouraged to pace their meal accordingly. The fish can be ordered as nigiri, sashimi, or sushi, but the optimal approach is to order the omakase. Akiko’s seasonal nama menu changes daily, sourced domestically (from Alaska to Boston) and from Tsukiji Market. On a given night, the menu might include delicacies like madai (while black sea bream), aodai (blue fusilier), or kinki (thorny head), interspersed with sea urchin, shrimp, or awabi—Japanese black abalone. Choose from a selection of over 30 sakes.
This hip newcomer serves contemporary, local omakase in a bright, chic setting—from the fuchsia and rose mosaic tiles behind the bar to the camel-hued leather seats and watercolor blue wallpaper. Chef-owner Adam Tortosa trained under Katsuya Uechi in Los Angeles and previously worked at Akiko’s. The seasonal omakase-style menu progresses from lean to fatty fish; guests can expect standouts like starry flounder served with Meyer lemon, shiso, and blood-orange kosho and a bluefin shoulder marinated in poblano soy. The fish is interspersed with more hearty dishes like hand-pulled noodles covered in shaved black truffles and Japanese chimichurri and a milk bread toast topped with uni, uni butter, smoked maple-soy, and citrus.
The fish is taken seriously at this decade-old Mission sushi bar, but the ambiance is unintimidating and fun, from the pop art mural to the greeting shouted by staff when you enter. After expanding to a larger location up the street in 2014, executive chef Tim Archuleta and his partner, Erin Archuleta, went back to their roots, reopening in their original 21-seat Mission Street location in early 2017. Tim trained in Japantown before honing his skills at Ace Wasabi and Tokyo Go Go. The fish selection changes daily—look for specials like Japanese golden eye snapper. While the menu emphasizes nigiri, omakase service is available. The fish is deftly complemented by a variety of citrus, salts, and house-made ponzu in flavors like garlic ginger and yuzu. Trust us, you won’t miss the soy sauce.
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).
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.
Decked in lush tropical wallpaper and checkerboard tile by San Francisco design guru Ken Fulk, this buzzy oyster bar is modeled after the glam cocktail lounges of the ‘50s. Start with the Leo’s Plateau: two tiers of oysters, shrimp cocktail, and snow crab claws. Entrees are rich and decadent like the warm buttered lobster roll glistening with uni butter and champagne-steamed mussels, served with a side of frites and dijon.
Terry and Roseann Grimm have owned this Castro seafood spot and fish market for more than 40 years. It’s known for oysters, of course, as well as sustainably caught shellfish, crab, and fish. The starters are simple and classic, like salads topped with shrimp, crabmeat, and prawns (or a combo of all three) or a perfect shrimp cocktail. The golden-brown crab cakes are served with house-made tartar; order it as an entree and it comes with a cup of Boston clam chowder. But the specialty is the the cracked Dungeness crab, available seasonally.
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.
The ambiance is colorful and informal at this Michelin-starred Thai restaurant, from the decor to the bold curries. Kin Khao—which translates to “eat rice”—is the passion project of chef Pim Techamuanvivit, who was born and raised in Bangkok. (Her stated mission: “To liberate her beloved Thai cuisine from the tyranny of peanut sauce.”) All Techamuanvivit’s produce, mushrooms, meat, and seafood is sourced from local Northern California purveyors, from Half Moon Bay to Napa. The menu is separated into bites, meats, seafood, greens, and curries. The dishes are shareable and generously spiced, from the “Pretty Hot Wings” glazed with fish sauce, garlic marinade, tamarind, and Sriracha to the dry-fried Duroc pork ribs in a turmeric curry paste. Don’t miss Kin Khao’s modern spin on curries, like the rabbit green curry or the mackerel gaeng som sour curry.
Chef Chai Siriyarn opened the first Marnee Thai in 1986, well before Thai food became the takeout staple it is today. Siriyam grew up in Bangkok and learned how to cook from his mother; her influence is evident in the traditional flavors and bold spices of his dishes. Today, Siryam’s two restaurants—one in the Inner Sunset, the other in the Outer Sunset—specialize in aromatic, tongue-tingling dishes from Central Thailand. Specialties include the kao soi chicken and mussamun chicken curry.
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.