San Francisco's endless hills can be daunting, especially across several days of sightseeing. How does one stay energized in this challenging touristic landscape? Sugar, of course! And coffee! Here our our favorite pit stops all over the city.
Union Square, Financial District, and Chinatown
The chameleon Sugar Café (679 Sutter St., near Taylor St., 415/441–5678) is a smart breakfast and lunch spot by day and a sleek, savvy cocktail lounge and dessert destination by night. In the luxe bar, complete with film screenings, customers sip a ginger martini or Bacardi mojito while enjoying a slice of chocolate espresso cake or roasted baby bananas with rum raisin–caramel and vanilla ice cream. If your sweet tooth strikes midday, you can still get the decadent desserts but not the libation.
In contrast, Chinatown's Eastern Bakery (720 Grant Ave., near Sacramento St., 415/982–5157) doesn't change, and hasn't for decades. It's the neighborhood's oldest bakery and best-known outpost for traditional mooncakes, in some two dozen styles, from winter melon to yellow bean to coconut. If you're not tempted by mooncakes, try the tiny egg custard tartlets or the coffee crunch cake, with coffee-flavor pastry cream between the sponge-cake layers and crunchy toffee on top.
Soma, Civic Center, and Hayes Valley
For high-style desserts in Hayes Valley, head to Citizen Cake (399 Grove St., at Gough St., 415/861–2228), where star pastry chef Elizabeth Falkner turns out such creative concoctions as upside-down pineapple parfait and rosebud crème brûlée. For a quick sweets fix, cruise the small pastry counter next door and then grab a seat and enjoy your cookie, cupcake, brownie, or wedge of cake with a potent coffee.
If you don't have time to sit, head to the nearby Miette Confiserie (449 Octavia St., near Hayes St., 415/626–6221) and sample their ladylike cakes—try the best-selling gingerbread cupcakes topped with a swirl of cream-cheese frosting, or get a couple of their cream-filled macaroons to nibble as you stroll.
SoMa's Patisserie Philippe (655 Townsend St., between 7th and 8th Sts., 415/558–8016), good for both walkabout and sitdown, is no slouch either when it comes to perfect French macaroons—or to tarts, cakes, pastries, and more, for that matter.
If you're a fan of cupcakes and the color pink—pink walls, take-out boxes, frosting—you'll find a rosy spot at Kara's Cupcakes (900 North Point St., Ghirardelli Sq., 415/351–2253), where a long glass case holds about a dozen different kinds of the frosted mini-cakes, including chocolate velvet (chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream), java (chocolate cake with espresso buttercream), coconut (vanilla or chocolate cake with coconut cream-cheese frosting), and sweet vanilla (vanilla cake with vanilla frosting). Kara has thought of the perfect beverages to accompany your cupcakes, too: cold milk or hot French-press coffee.
Or, go traditional and stop at the Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop (900 North Point St., Ghirardelli Sq., 415/474–3938) where you can first see equipment that was used to make chocolate in 19th-century San Francisco and then sit down to a luscious hot fudge sundae, banana split, or cup of hot cocoa topped with whipped cream.
North Beach, Nob Hill, and Russian Hill
Jacqueline Margulis makes only one thing at her small, charming Café Jacqueline (1454 Grant Ave., between Union and Green Sts., 415/981–5565): tall, airy, gorgeous soufflés, both savory and sweet. She changes the menu regularly, offering such irresistible classics as bittersweetchocolate, strawberry, or Grand Marnier, all of them with creamy centers, in the classic French style.
And speaking of creamy, grab a buttery scoop of gelato at the venerable Gelato Classico (576 Union St., between Stockton St. and Grant Ave., 415/391–6667), a slim spot with just a counter and no place to sit. The gelato is thick and soft and scoops perfectly into little cups to ease eating as you walk. Every flavor—and there are many—looks delicious, and the patient staff hands over a taste to curious customers—which, face it, is everyone. The coppa mista, a wild swirl together of vanilla, chocolate, pistachio, and rum gelatos, is a house specialty, and a good way to satisfy the craving for multiple flavors.
The Mission, The Castro, and Noe Valley
The Mission has ice cream in every flavor imaginable. Bombay Ice Creamery (552 Valencia St., near 16th St., 415/861–3995) dishes out dreamy cardamom or pistachio.
Bi-Rite Creamery (3692 18th St., near Valencia St., 415/626–5600) balances orbs of salted caramel or coffee toffee in organic cones. And the venerable Mitchell's (668 San Jose St., at 29th St., 415/648–2300) has been scooping out creamy lemon custard and Mexican chocolate for over 50 years.
For something baked, you'll find plenty of choices at Tartine Bakery (600 Guerrero St., at 18th St., 415/487–2600), where the staff pulls devil's food cakes, lemon bars, banana cream tarts, brownies, and shortbread from the oven daily.
And if doughnuts and coffee are your thing, don't waste a minute getting to Dynamo Donut & Coffee (2760 24th St., between Potrero and York Sts., 415/920–1978), where you can kick the classics up a notch and dunk a dulce de leche doughnut in a cup of French-press coffee.
Pacific Heights, The Marina, and Japantown
It seems like everything at the utterly French Pâtisserie Delanghe (1890 Fillmore St., at Bush St., 415/923–0711) is wonderfully light, buttery, and/or crispy—the croissants, the Danishes, the macaroons, the strawberry cakes with whipped-cream frosting, the éclairs. You can't linger here—there's only a chair or two—so nab something portable.
Or, if you want to rest your feet, continue up Fillmore Street to Bittersweet (2123 Fillmore St., between Sacramento and California Sts., 415/346–8715), a chocolate emporium-café where you can sit and enjoy a drink, a pastry, or a confection, every one of them delivering a healthy dose of chocolate.
You can also get a chocolate fix at the lively Mamacita (2317 Chestnut St., near Scott St., 415/346–8494), a modern Mexican restaurant that serves a rich budin de cocoa ahogado en cajeta (chocolate pudding with candied peanuts, caramel sauce, and dulce de leche gelato) and cinnamon-and-sugar-dusted churros with hot chocolate.
Haight, Richmond, and Sunset
Out in the Richmond, you would be hard pressed to find a longtime resident who didn't spend some of his or her youth in the truly kitschy Toy Boat Dessert Cafe (401 Clement St., between 5th and 6th Aves., 415/751–7505), where Double Rainbow ice cream competes with a battalion of vintage toys.
No toys compete with the scoops at the funky Joe's Ice Cream (5351 Geary Blvd., at 18th Ave., 415/751–1950), and no Joe is there now, either. But Mutsuhiko and Aki Murashige have been keeping Joe's name honest since 1979, when they bought the business. They fashion thick milk shakes, make a mean banana split, and put together their own It's-It, San Francisco's iconic ice-cream sandwich—all with their house-made ice cream.