Between legendary institutions and innovative new eateries, it can be hard to know where to direct the appetite you earned on San Francisco’s steep hills so we picked the quintessential drinks and dishes to top your epicurean bucket list.
San Francisco is famous for the Golden Gate Bridge, its cable cars, steep hills, and fog and infamous for its incredible food scene. From burritos that are big enough to feed a small army, the oldest Chinatown this side of the Pacific, farm-to-table restaurants that triggered a world-wide movement, to the highest concentration of Michelin Stars, a humble seafood stew, and coffees, beers, and breads with cult followings, you could be forgiven for skipping the selfies at that big red bridge to focus on food porn.
Named for San Francisco’s Mission District, the Mission Burrito is the quintessential, gold-standard burrito in America. Those jumbo burritos being sold by giant corporations like Chipotle? Yep, basically Mission-style knock offs. It comes down to three key identifiers: the size (gigantic), the variety of ingredients inside (including rice, which was considered unusual at the time these first became popular), and the fact that they’re packed tight and tend to weigh a ton.
Who makes the best Mission burrito in San Francisco? Well, as you might expect, that’s a topic of intense local debate. What can be said is that Taqueria La Cumbre claims to be the inventor of the Mission burrito, so if you’re looking for a burrito with a backstory you can start there. Another must is El Castillito in Castro where you’ll find perfectly tender meat and melted cheese wrapped up in the perfect tortilla … need we say any more? Of course, the right way to answer this important question of the best burrito is to eat as many Mission burritos on your visit as possible, comparing the beans, the roasted tomatoes used in the salsa, and the ratio of cheese and avocado to shredded meat or chicken as you go. There are hundreds of places selling burritos in the nearly 1.5 square miles of the Mission so pace yourself!
Farm Fresh Produce
Being told to eat your vegetables might remind you of childhood battles with your parents, but in San Francisco, it’s a gift, not a threat! There’s a reason California’s cuisine so often involves simply prepared fruits and vegetables, and it’s that the state is a cornucopia of agricultural delights. Few culinary delights beat eating something a short distance from where it was grown. This can be as simple as visiting a farmer’s market; the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) organizes several in San Francisco and Oakland, including at Ferry Plaza. “Farm-to-table” isn’t just a buzzy culinary term here, it’s an ethos widely (and proudly) embraced by a multitude of chefs, from Alice Waters at the world-famous restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley to food trucks parked at the curb.
INSIDER TIPSpeaking of vegetables, as you might expect, San Francisco offers a number of vegetarian-friendly establishments for those who prefer a plant-based diet. Greens Restaurant is a particular standout. Situated in Fort Mason Center, less than an hour north of the city and with sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands, this restaurant has been nominated for multiple major awards and has managed to consistently provide delicious, creative food over the course of its almost forty-year-run.
Dungeness Crab (and Other Fresh Seafood)
Dungeness crab, which live and grow in the waters off the West Coast are a San Francisco specialty. The season begins in November and technically ends in early summer, but by the time the spring rolls around the crab supply
is basically tapped out, so you really need to sample them as early in the season as possible. There are a variety of places you can do this in the Bay Area but you’d be hard pressed to find somewhere more revered than Swan Oyster Depot. It’s great place to get your crab fix, or really any other seafood you might want. There will almost certainly be a line for a seat at the counter (but you won’t be rushed once you sit), so plan accordingly.
San Francisco’s claim to sourdough bread greatness dates back more than a century to the time of the Gold Rush, when migrant miners started baking breads in the area. It was thought that San Francisco’s foggy climate cultivated a specific type of yeast that gave their bread its sour taste, and while science has since disproven this theory (and that the same bacteria is present around the world), just try telling your tastebuds and belly that this isn’t the best sourdough bread you have ever tasted! Boudin Bakery and Acme are great places to sample San Fran’s quintessential tangy, fermented loaf.
INSIDER TIPIf you’re in town for a few days, why not plan a Bread Baking class at Sour Flour? Up your artisan baker cred while learning all you’ve ever wanted to know about using and maintaining a wild-yeast to make a yummy sourdough flatbread.
Anchor Steam Beer
Operating since 1896, San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Co. is an American craft beer pioneer, turning out craft beers long before the phrase and trend existed. The brewery is best known for its iconic Steam Beer, which derived its name from the days before mechanical refrigeration when beer was fermented in open pans on San Francisco’s rooftops and across the Wild West. The foggy night air naturally cooled the fermenting beer so that the pans gave off steam as the temperature dropped. The recipe hasn’t changed substantially in the last century and the cooling of the boiling malt and hops mixture is still done by the cool, San Francisco air (though the process has been refined somewhat since the days of Gold Rush brewers guarding their vats under the moonlight), so Anchor Steam Beer is an essential San Fran drink and a must for beer lovers and home brewers.
INSIDER TIPAnchor Steam is available at most bars in San Francisco and at major beer retailers nationwide but when in Rome/San Fran, why not treat yourself to a tour at Anchor Steam Brewery which ends in the cozy taproom where you can sample 12 Anchor brews.
On the more experimental end of the San Francisco beer spectrum is Brut IPA, a new style of beer whose creation is credited to Kim Surdavant, the brewmaster at Social Kitchen and Brewery. These days it’s extremely unusual to see a truly new style of beer emerge but Brut IPA–a sparkling beer designed to mimic aspects of champagne–is pale, hoppy, and bone dry, and the latest phenomenon on the craft brewing scene. Brewers far and wide are buzzing about it and adding it to their lineups, experimenting with technique and flavor but if you want to taste the original Brut IPA, you’ll need to head to Social Kitchen, just a few blocks from Golden Gate Park in the lively neighborhood of the Inner Sunset.
One of the great joys of San Francisco’s food world is the fact that it has experienced such an incredible confluence of cultures. Not only does this make the city a vibrant place to live and visit, but it also means that you get dishes like cioppino, which is essentially the Bay Area’s version of bouillabaisse. The creation of the dish is credited to Italian immigrants who came to California and began fishing in its generous waters. With a broth made from tomatoes and red wine, this seafood-filled soup is a warm, delicious meal worth seeking out. The city’s signature dish is widely available which is no surprise in a city full of seafood joints, but there are a few places that distinguish themselves from all the other fish in the sea to offer up a classic San Francisco seafood stew with a cult following: Sotto Mare in the heart of North Beach; Anchor Oyster Bar; Swan Oyster Depot; and Woodhouse Fish Co. in the Castro.
Michelin Star Cuisine
It’s not hard to find four-dollar-sign fine dining, but few cities have managed to cultivate the level of culinary intensity and creativity of San Francisco. There are 315 restaurants in Michelin Guide’s 2019 selection, including eight with three stars, six with two stars, 43 with one star, 68 Bib Gourmand establishments, and 191 restaurants designated with a Michelin Plate. Restaurants like Atelier Crenn, Benu, Saison, and Manresa have made names for themselves as restaurants worth traveling across the world to dine at. To be sure, there are an untold number of restaurants serving earth-shatteringly wonderful dishes for wildly less money than you’d have to pay to enter these Michelin-starred gastronomic temples, but if you’re the type of person who follows the careers of chefs, collects prestige cookbooks with recipes you couldn’t possibly execute in a home kitchen, or who wants major bragging rights on Instagram, you’ve come to the right town.
Soufflés at Cafe Jacqueline
We often refer to restaurants as “institutions” but in San Francisco, Cafe Jacqueline may be that category’s grand dame. A tiny, charming restaurant in North Beach, Cafe Jacqueline is known for its fluffy savory or sweet soufflés, and for the celebrated chef-owner, Jacqueline Margulis, who has been whipping them up to order since 1979. Soufflés are not specific to San Francisco but these specific, perfect soufflés will capture your heart … and this understated spot will become an essential pit stop every time you return.
San Fran’s Chinese Food
San Francisco’s Chinatown is known for being one of the oldest and most vibrant ethnic neighborhoods in the entire United States. Like similar communities across the U.S., the number of regions represented is significant, as are the number of restaurants. San Tung in the Sunset District is a destination though, and their dry fried chicken wings are a particular highlight. Sure, it’s not exactly the most “authentic” dish you could have in Chinatown, but it’s authentic to San Francisco’s Chinatown and the reason the restaurant is perpetually packed. For another dish you won’t find on your local Chinese takeout menu, try the salt and pepper crab at the R & G Lounge’s three-level Cantonese eatery. For an elegant east-meets-west experience, check out Brandon Jew’s Mister Jiu’s. For Dim Sum, head to Yank Sing.
San Francisco’s coffee scene is so good that chains like Blue Bottle Coffee (from Oakland) and Philz (from the Mission District) have built cult followings across the country. Cult chains aside, there’s no shortage of talented baristas, or expertly roasted beans in San Francisco so do yourself a favor and support small coffee shops by stopping in whatever neighborhood you are wandering in to sample their local brew.
Wine in San Francisco
“Drink Californian wine” may seem like a bit of a no-brainer, but sometimes you have to state the obvious. San Francisco sits smack dab in the middle of California’s best wine-producing regions: to the north is Napa, Sonoma, and the Russian River Valley; to the northeast lies the Sierra Foothills; and to the south, the Central Coast. It’s wine paradise and you should drink deep. Tip: Chardonnay is a major product of the area.
Check out our list of Top Napa Wineries to get you started.
Soul Food in Oakland
Thanks to authors like Toni Tipton-Martin and Michael Twitty, America has begun to more fully recognize the incredible cultural debt that is owed to African American cooks, and Oakland, which is home to a longstanding and historic African American community, offers all the classic comforts as well as updated renditions of the classics and altogether some of the best soul food you can find on the west coast. Head to Brown Sugar Kitchen for cornmeal waffles with buttermilk fried chicken; Lena’s Soul Food for fried fish and mac and cheese, and Everett and Jones for BBQ and soul food with a side of Collard Greens. Top it all off at Lois the Pie Queen for Sweet Potato Pie.
Japantown (known as Nihonmachi) is only six square blocks, but found within its compact borders is one of the oldest Japanese enclaves in the country. The neighborhood’s traditional Japanese architecture makes it a fun place to visit while its restaurants, which offer dishes like ramen, sushi, and shabu-shabu (Japanese hot pot) make it a great place to eat. Check out Kui Shin Bo (which means “ a person who likes to eat”) for sushi and ramen and Nijiya Market, a food heaven filled with Japanese candies, the freshest selection of fish, and delicious bento boxes and Be sure to visit the Japan Center, a 5-acre complex filled with noodle houses and sushi joints, a destination bookstore, the Kabuki Springs & Spa, and the Miyako Mall where you will find a Japanese dollar store filled with novelty items.
INSIDER TIPSure, Indian street food in Japantown sounds a bit odd but who cares how it sounds when it tastes as good as Dosa.
Bi-Rite Ice Cream
The first thing to know about Bi–Rite Ice Cream, a scoop of ice cream heaven on the corner of Dolores Park, is that good things come to those who wait. The second thing to know: You can get pints to go! Yes, there will be a line, but unlike other super-trendy places, this ice creamery (started by two bakers who wanted to create intensely flavored ice cream made with local ingredients) lives up to the hype. Think: salted caramel, peach cobbler, balsamic strawberry, soft-serve stuffed donuts, ice cream bars, and vegan flavors.