Back when the term “vegetarian” conjured visions of tofu and bean sprouts and not much else, San Francisco restaurants were already breaking the mold, creating innovative meatless cuisine that had even diehard carnivores setting down their steak knives. Now that there’s a farmers’ market in practically every neighborhood and a wide choice of vegetarian restaurants, meat-free menu options have become as commonplace as burgers and burrata. Whether you’re a lifelong veggie devotee, or adopting a healthy diet is among your resolutions, peruse our top picks for places that dedicate most or all of their menus to plant-based cooking.
To take a guided tour of all of San Francisco's best vegetarian spots, click here.
San Francisco’s best vegetarian restaurants
This farm-to-table pioneer almost singlehandedly exploded the alfalfa sprouts-and-tofu stereotype of vegetarian cooking more than 30 years ago. Chef Annie Somerville continues to turn out a wildly inventive and flavorful menu at her waterfront restaurant, winning carnivore hearts and minds with dishes such as warm cauliflower salad with crisp capers and pine nuts; coconut risotto cakes in red curry; and wild mushroom and caramelized onion gratin with fromage blanc custard. With the Golden Gate Bridge as a backdrop, Greens is a popular special-occasion destination, but 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 Merguez poached eggs with vegetable ragout.
Many of the complaints about vegan cooking revolve around limited options or dishes that try to mimic (often unsuccessfully) chicken or beef. Cha-Ya suffers from neither of these disadvantages. The vegan Japanese restaurant offers more than 40 original items—none of which feels like it would benefit from the addition of meat. Dishes such as curry udon with vegetables in a hearty broth; stuffed eggplant, tofu and mushrooms with miso-dengaku glaze; and taka-sui—gyoza dumplings with vegetables and noodles in broth—are richly flavored, supremely fresh and satisfyingly filling. The generous sushi menu features creative specialties such as the Cha-Ya Roll, filled with asparagus, avocado, yam and carrots, then lightly battered and fried, tempura style, and topped with a house sauce.
Hefty portions of spicy, flavorful and inexpensive South Indian food make this Mission District staple one of the most popular vegetarian restaurants in the city. Udupi is known for its dosas and uttapams—rice-lentil crêpes and chewy pancakes stuffed with everything from masala-spiced potatoes and spinach to peas, paneer cheese and house-made coconut chutney. The menu also features an assortment of fiery curry dishes and traditional sweet drinks such as mango lassi.
White tablecloths, fishnet chandeliers made from recycled paper bags, faux-lizard leather booths, and a zinc-topped bar set the tone for the city’s most elegant fine-dining vegan restaurant, located in the heart of the theater district. Owner/chef Eric Tucker’s colorful, creative and elaborately presented cuisine has a toe on every continent, with main courses veering from India to the Mediterranean and Central America. The menu varies with the seasons, but may include dishes such as celery root uttapam with coconut saag, sunchokes and cauliflower; and Bastilla—pastry filled with Merguez seitan “sausage,” quince and squash, served with saffron-carrot-tomato tagine. The extensive all-organic and/or sustainable wine list offers a number of great selections by the glass, and the cocktail menu features house-made infusions.
Mexican and vegan seem like an unlikely pairing, but Gracias Madre has not only married these ideas, it’s done so with spectacular success. Antojitos (street food–inspired starter snacks) such as grilled potato-masa gorditas topped with salsa verde and cashew cream, and sweet potato and caramelized onion quesadillas stuffed cashew cheese and pumpkin-seed salsa are full of piquant flavor and meaty textures, and don’t suffer in the least from their lack of animal ingredients. Main plates such as Nopales (prickly pear cactus) topped with pico de gallo, cashew cheese, and served with black beans, rice and handmade tortillas, and heirloom masa tamale stuffed with seasonal veggies may leave you rethinking your preconceived notions of vegan food.
A longtime standby for vegetarians and vegans, Herbivore offers a wide variety of global cuisine—from tacos and chili to ramen, lasagna, Indonesian noodle salad and seitan Philly “cheese steak.” The popular weekend breakfasts are hearty affairs, featuring overflowing plates of crêpes, French toast and pancakes, as well as savory options like grilled corn cakes with black beans, tomato chipotle salsa, guacamole, sour cream and house potatoes. The diverse menu makes this a good compromise eatery if your companions are omnivores.