San Francisco is one of my favourite places to eat in the world. I love the variety of food you can get: there’s every type of cuisine and the best food can be found everywhere from food trucks to Michelin star restaurants. It’s been quite a few years since I was last there (so long ago it was pre blog) but I still remember eating the most amazing Italian meal at a little Italian bistro on Nob Hill. This time I had a week in San Francisco and San Jose for a work trip and I crammed in every spare minute eating and drinking my way around the city. Having already visited most of the main tourist sites on my last visit, this time I decided coffee, tacos, pasta and pastries were going to be my city landmarks.
A few tips from my visit are that if you want to go to the top restaurants like Chez Panisse, Saison and Benu you have to book a long time in advance (a few months in most cases). This is a case of do what I say, not what I do because I was a bit disorganised and ended up stuck on a non moving waiting list for Benu. But, lots of San Francisco restaurants have a couple of tables or the bar area set aside for walk ins and if you get there when they first open (which works well with jet lag) you can usually snag something. This tactic even worked at so-hot-right-now State Bird Provisions which is essentially impossible to get into.
So here are my nine favourite places to eat in San Francisco:
1. State Bird Provisions
I got to State Bird Provisions just on its opening time of 5.30pm and got the last remaining seat at the bar overlooking the open kitchen (people had been queuing outside for two hours). In my book a seat overlooking the kitchen is the best in the house anyway, particularly at State Bird Provisions where a lot of dishes are “off menu” and it helps to spy them being cooked. Plus I made a friend at the bar – so winning all round.
Food at State Bird Provisions is all about small plates and sharing. There’s an incredible array of off menu dishes which are wheeled around almost like yum cha. I loved State Bird’s take on fried rice complete with big chunks of pork and meaty mushrooms and the ‘state bird’ itself ($9), a deep fried crispy quail nestling on gently sautéed onions and leeks with shards of salty Parmesan. Desserts also hit the mark especially the olive oil cake served on strawberries and topped with a dollop of mascarpone. My meal at State Bird Provisions was revelatory. It serves up fine dining food in a riotous, fun atmosphere. If you can: go.
Details: State Bird Provisions, 1529 Fillmore St, San Francisco (Ph (415) 795-1272)
Damage: Pricey. My bill came to $96 for one with two glasses of wine.
Despite the passing of Judy Rodgers Zuni is still going strong and it really epitomises all that is good about eating in San Francisco. There are a few tables for walk ins in the sunny downstairs dining room and I tackled a Sunday lunch of half a dozen oysters followed by Zuni’s legendary Caesar salad.
The food is simple and pared back, letting the produce shine. So the Caesar salad here has no gloopy dressing instead just crisp Romaine leaves, huge crunchy croutons, slivers of anchovy and copious tiny tendrils of Parmesan with just a dash of lemony dressing. My one regret is that I was travelling solo and so couldn’t order Zuni’s famous roast chicken. Looks like I’ll have to go back.
Details: Zuni Cafe, 1658 Market Street between Franklin & Gough, San Francisco (Ph 415-552-2522)
3. Tosca Cafe
April Bloomfield has taken this old school San Francisco Italian restaurant and pretty much left it exactly as is. The atmosphere oozes from the place and it feels like there are decades of food aromas and cigarette smoke painted onto the walls.
There are walk up tables at the bar which has a real party atmosphere courtesy of the skilled bartenders and Tosca’s signature boozy “house cappuccino”. I kept things simple and ordered a bowl of the bucatini ($16): just perfectly al dente pasta with a rich tomato and chilli sauce spiked with hunks of salty guanicale. So, so good.
Details: Tosca Cafe, 242 Columbus Ave, San Francisco (Ph (415) 986-9651)
4. Craftsman and Wolves
San Francisco’s most innovative bakery could be an art gallery with each baked good displayed as a tiny, exquisite sculpture. Craftsman and Wolves is famous for its “rebel within” egg filled muffin but I went for the strawberry verrine.
The verrine ($6.75) is like a deconstructed strawberry shortcake. Delicate and tangy laced with “sprinkles” of elderflower it tasted like spring in a bowl.
Details: Craftsman and Wolves, 746 Valencia St, San Francisco (Ph (415) 913-7713)
Tacolicious started life as a food truck at the San Francisco Farmers Market. The popularity of this light and fresh take on Mexican food has spurred four Tacolicious’ in San Francisco. Famously Obama has eaten there.
I hope Obama had a margherita because Tacolicious’ version is great. Although I sort of want to hate Tacolicious because it’s a chain with a corny name the fish tacos converted me. They’re crisp thanks to a light beer batter and have lots of crunch from the colourful slaw that accompanies them.
Details: Tacolicious, 741 Valencia St. (at 18th St.), San Francisco (Ph (415) 626-1344)
Tartine is San Francisco’s most famous bakery and has the queues to prove it. The gruyere tart certainly delivers with burnished pastry and just set eggy filling rich with cheese. The downside is any ambience of the bakery has been lost by the never ending queue snaking its way around the store.
Details: Tartine, 600 Guerrero St, San Francisco (Ph (415) 487-2600)
7. Gracias Madre
How much more San Francisco can you get than a vegan organic Mexican restaurant? Gracias Madre is peak San Francisco with its own farm supplying the restaurant and cheese made from cashews topping the tacos. Butternut squash quesadillas ($10) are super sweet thanks to the filling of roasted squash and caramelised onions. Toasted pumpkin seeds add crunch with lots of creamy guacamole.
Details: Gracias Madre, 2211 Mission St, San Francisco (Ph (415) 683-1346)
Chino serves up Chinese fusion food in a chilled Mission setting garnered with rows of fairy lights and paper lanterns. Dumplings are made on site and watching the dumpling chefs at work in the open kitchen is mesmerising.
Chicken wings ($10) are tender and doused in a sweet and sour sauce while Chino’s pork potstickers ($10) have a delicate flavour, and are nicely crisped on the base.
Details: Chino, 3198 16th St, San Francisco (Ph (415) 552-5771)
9. Bi-Rite Market
It’s a little strange to add a grocery store into a list of top places to eat but Bi-Rite market is legendary in San Francisco. It’s a grocery store complete with a kitchen and a wander through includes the best free tastings. Produce is local and sensational. I loved the Pot De Cremé ($6)- a chocolate pudding with bitter chocolate shavings on top. Plus don’t miss Bi-Rite creamery for seriously good ice-cream.
Details: Bi-Rite, 3639 18th St, San Francisco, (Ph (415) 241-9760)
Damage: Such a bargain my mother would approve. Free to browse and eat samples but if you want to buy your evening meal hee you’ll probably spend a lot.
The white subway tile lined bar at Marlowe is pretty packed day or night thanks to the quality cocktails and comfort food US style. On the menu is what’s been rated San Fran’s best burger, shrimps and fried chicken. The crispy fried chicken sandwich ($16) comes with bacon, because everything is better with bacon, and a dollop of aioli. Close but no cigar.
Details: Marlowe, 500 Brannan Street, San Francisco (Ph (415) 777-1413)
Gourmet Travel Tips
- I stayed at Hotel Vitale which is in a great location right on the waterfront.
- In San Francisco I recommend hiring a bike and cycling across the Golden Gate bridge to Sausalito, visiting Alcatraz (book your ticket online a few days in advance as it sells out), checking out the farmers market and doing a food walking tour of the Mission.
- I flew with United from Melbourne to San Francisco. The flight was $1300 return.