Dining Guide: San Francisco
Find out where to dine in the food mecca of the western world
Home to some of the best restaurants in North America, San Francisco is rightfully coined the food mecca of the western world. Whether you’re headed there for business or pleasure, you’ll find that it’s rather impossible to not pamper yourself with the food indulgences that await you.
When I decided to deliciously devour my way through California, I knew I’d be guilty of some seriously gluttonous behaviour. Gluttony, for lack of a better word, means excessive indulgence. And when you head to San Francisco, rest assured, the scrumptious sinning doesn’t stop.
Nestled beautifully in the bay, San Francisco’s cooler Northern California temperatures allow you to dress in layers; many come to learn that it’s warm in the sun, but most definitely colder in the shade. Conveniently, as you make your way to your must-try restaurants and bars, layering makes the pilgrimage you are most destined to take monumentally easier, stripping layers off as you trek up and down San Francisco’s infamous hills.
If your food travels bring you to the Hayes Valley, where it’s mostly flat and trendy, a pleasant restaurant called Zuni Café will surprise you. Zuni Café won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant in America in 2003, and in the following year its founding chef-owner, Judy Rodgers, was named Outstanding Chef in America. Her legend lives on at Zuni Café, as their mouthwatering, flavourful, out–of-this-world chicken is still the most desired item on the menu. Waits times have been known to extend to an hour, just because everyone is ordering the roasted chicken. The crisp golden skin, tender and juicy meat is the best you’ll taste and that in itself, is worth the wait
Smitten Ice Cream is a couple of blocks away – about a 9-minute hike – and worth the digestive walk there. Their ice cream is made to order. And by “made to order” I mean they freeze flavoured cream with liquid nitrogen in front of you. Suffice to say, it’s not your typical ice cream shop. Kelvin (the machine they use to freeze your cream) makes your order in about 60 seconds (on a rare day with no wait lines). The result is nitrogen-frozen ice cream that’s creamier, smoother and more San Francisco-y, only local and organic ingredients are used and that makes everyone feel good. Prices are hefty, but better than any magic trick I’ve seen. They’ve miraculously made ice cream before your very eyes and worth much more than any magician show in Vegas.
Photo courtesy Zuni Café
Keeping with the low-level cardio momentum, Mission is a great culture-filled area that takes up most of your day but won’t leave you breathless (unless it’s because you’ve eaten too many tacos). Speaking of tacos, if you’re going to try one while strolling around, be sure they’re from Tacolicious.
Generally, I avoid kitschy things ending in “licious” (Jerseylicious, Bootylicious and Fergilicious, I’m looking at you!) but Tacolicious is anything but tacky. In fact, it’s down right delicious. It was in the Mission that I stumbled upon a restaurant – no name in sight – with only an orange taco sign to decipher it from the rest of restaurants on the Valencia Street. I have since then gladly revised my rule if it meant having made-to-order guacamole, flaky, moist, fried rock cod tacos and shots of tequila, prickly pear, and citrus in my life.
Once stuffed full of tacos and authentic Mexican Cuisine, switch things up completely and satisfy that sweet tooth of yours with Tartine Bakery. From croissants to coconut cream tarts, they have it all. They have so much, that you’ll have trouble deciding what you’d like to try and finally decide to sample as much as your stomach can handle. If you’re feeling confident, try the double pain au chocolat, pain au jambon, and a gigantic croque monsieur. The pain au jambon is a croissant stuffed with ham and gruyere. Picture the airy, buttery taste of a fresh croissant, and now add ham, gooey cheese, and happiness to that. If you have to ask what a croque monsieur is, then that’s further proof that you must order it, for you’ll never want to eat a mediocre sandwich ever again after you’ve tasted a croque monsieur.
It’s dinnertime, and you’ve spent a considerable amount of time taking in the sights (and burned a few calories no doubt). Maybe you’re craving something memorable, a unique experience, perhaps? Foreign Cinema is one of those experiences. The restaurant boasts a lovely outdoor space, equipped with vintage streaming lights, heaters, and old movies playing on a white brick wall at the back of the courtyard-like seating area. If the ambiance isn’t enough to have you swooning, the food definitely will. Ideally I would have recommended the baked goat cheese with olive tapenade, lavender oil, walnuts and crostini as a starter, but taking a look at the menu, I would say that the Santa Barbara smoked salmon, little chioggia beets & Santa Cruz farm egg toast or the Brandade gratin, blended salt cod, potatoes, garlic, olive oil, Thai green chillies and house pickles are also great starter choices. Even the Warm Fermier Brie cheese baked with pecans, poached cranberries, pear, and baguette toasts sounds delicious and sure to satisfy the wicked foodie in you.
The Mission has some great nightlife, but if you’re in the mood for visiting another famous district, the legendary Castro District is close by and bustling with energy. Not only is people watching fabulous, but Chile Pies boasts a famed green chilli apple pie everyone should experience. It’s the kind of sweet-savoury combination that sets this apple pie aside from the rest, flaunting a flaky crust, topped with a walnut crumble, and crisp apples with just the right amount of green chilli kick. Be sure to check out the famous Castro theatre and maybe taste test the options at the Crème Brûlée Cart always stationed off Castro and Market. Don’t feel too bad about stuffing your face, you’re about to start walking up hill soon enough.
Tartine Bakery. Photo courtesy Postcard PR
Huddled in an alleyway between Union Square and the Financial District, Gitane boasts some of the most amazing dishes I’ve had to date. The decor – downright vampy – creates the perfect ambiance for what’s about to happen to your mouth! Not to mention, it’s a great date spot. Available on the bar menu, Gitane is famous for it’s Bacon Bon Bons: dried prunes, stuffed with goat cheese, wrapped in bacon, and smothered in a port glaze. You don’t have to be a bacon-lover to be salivating at the mere thought of popping a few of those in your mouth. When seated in the dining area, the menu won’t list them, so be sure to ask your waitress so you don’t miss out. Gitane’s stylish interpretation of Spanish dishes will have you loving every last bite, especially with dishes like Suckling Pig Confit, pancetta wrapped rabbit loin, grilled rabbit and pork sausage, and the roasted duck breast. You can’t go wrong, unless you don’t go here.
Making you’re way back past the Financial District and past Union Square, you’ll begin to notice that SF hills are no joke. Say what you will about the Tenderloin but a brisk 3-5 minute slow-jog up a block and you’ve got some pleasant surprises waiting for you in the Tendernob. Aside from the great neighbourhood bars, they’ve got some real sweet spots. Sweet spots like Sweet Woodruff. At Sweet Woodruff there isn’t room for too many people to be seated, 20 to be exact. The kitchen space is bigger than the seating area and the island where the chefs prepare leaves any wanna-be chef jealous every time they visit. It’s what I love most about this place –the focus in on preparing the food and not on fancy distracting décor. Great for brunch, lunch, dinner, and dessert, their menu changes often, but everything you see at Sweet Woodruff is prepared using local fresh ingredients & prepped before your very eyes. It’s that kind of thing that makes Sweet Woodruff unlike any place you’ve ever been to and it’s the reason you’ll have a sweet spot for it too.
Moving upwards towards the apex of your voyage, picturesque Nob Hill is quant, classy, and seems like it’s on top of the world. Olea is a neighbourhood restaurant featuring organic, fresh, and almost always local produce from surrounding California farms. Olea will bring you to your latest escapade in gourmandizing in the form of French toast. The challah custard toast, tastes more like a brioche - dense, sweet, and decadent. It’s topped with cinnamon sugar, poached pear, and real maple syrup! I should warn you, the wait-time for Olea is beyond ridiculous, but it’s a small place that’s insanely popular with the locals, especially on the weekend. It’s not uncommon to find hoards of people already waiting outside – boasting crowds that you’d only see outside a trendy nightclub or bar. But don’t let the 45 minute wait deter you, instead go early with a party no bigger than four, I promise the toast is worth the wait.
Over and in between the hills you will find more trendy, food focused neighbourhoods like Hayes Valley, Russian Hill, North Beach, Marina & Cow Hollow, Pacific Heights, Panhandle and even way out in the Richmond. Each area is home to dozens of memorable dining experiences just waiting to be explored. As my culinary adventure continues, I invite you to get the map out and embark on your own. The journey, I’ve discovered, can be scrumptious.
More Dining Hotspots
Park Tavern - 1652 Stockton St.
Plant - Pier 3, The Embarcadero
The duck confit pizza is out of this world
Scoma’s - 47 Al Scoma Way
Toursity, but always the best seafood you’ll have at the Wharf
Marina & Cow Hollow
Umami Burger - 2184 Union St
Best Burgers. Ever.
Fat Angel - 1740 O'Farrell St.
Order the Mac n’ Cheese and the Chicken Pot Pie
Pacific Heights & Japantown
Statebird Provisions - 1529 Fillmore St
Named the “Best restaurant in America”
Civic Center & Hayes Valley
Absinthe - 98 Hayes St
Cool drinks, cool ambiance
Rich Table - 199 Gough Street
You need the porcini donuts
Nob Hill, Tenderloin, Russian Hill
Brenda’s French Soul food - 652 Polk St.
Go for brunch, always get the beignets
Sons & Daughters - 708 Bush St
For the culinary adventurous
Twenty Five Lusk - 25 Lusk St
Super trendy new American cuisine
Zero Zero - 826 Folsom St
Great pasta, awesome pizza
Flour + Water - 2401 Harrison St
Hard to get a seat, but worth the wait