Quintessential Good Eats from San Francisco’s Food Scene
- Christina Mueller
- 3 Min Read
With 55 Michelin-starred restaurants, the San Francisco food scene is chockfull of interesting and noteworthy eats. Since the Gold Rush years, when miners sought meals that showed off their new wealth, San Francisco nurtured a mix of fancy and everyday restaurants. These restaurants brought the best of the Golden State, and the world, to the city by the bay. The city’s unique climate, and the array of agricultural products grown near the city, also plays a part. After all, this is a city known as much for its bread as its commitment to farm-to-table. From haute Italian and Mexican to road-trip-worthy Thai or sushi and some of the best burritos on this side of Mexicali, San Francisco is a food destination in its own right. Here’s what to eat.
Classic San Francisco Dishes for All
Fisherman’s Wharf is mocked by the locals for the kitschy vibe and endless sweatshirt shops (tourists forget about the city’s chilly summer fog). But it is the place to eat one of San Francisco’s most iconic dishes: cioppino. Its components taken from the leftovers of the day’s catch, usually calamari and squid, cioppino is at its best at Alioto’s. It is not a long walk to Boudin at the Wharf, where, in 1849, the alchemy of San Francisco fog and local yeasts yielded a new bread called sourdough.
In the Financial District, you can still get a Hangtown fry at Tadich Grill. The 100 percent Californian dish was, in the 1840s, a gold miner’s most expensive meal of oysters, bacon, and eggs (it was a sky-high $6 for the dish back then, a luxury few could afford). And an order of crab cakes featuring local Dungeness crab has an appeal so enduring, the dish is on restaurant menus all over town.
Hi-Lo Mexican Cuisine
Though the Mission District was once mostly Irish, the more recent wave of Mexican and Latin American residents means some of the best Mexican food is to be found in this neighborhood. Everyone must try California’s most famous culinary invention, the burrito, as any exploration of the San Francisco food scene is incomplete without it. Known locally as a Mission-style burrito, it is large and in charge, stuffed with enough rice, beans, and meat to feed a small family for days. Try it at Pancho Villa Taqueria and thank us later. A few blocks southwest, two-star Michelin Californios is reimagining border cuisine.
Farm-to-Table Is Always a Thing
Gwyneth Borden, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA), confirmed the commitment of Bay Area restaurants to serving meals with outstanding ingredients. “Everyone talks about farm-to-table, but we’ve been doing it for so long, we don’t even talk about it anymore,” Borden said. “We are so close to agriculture and we have a robust farmer’s market culture, restaurant goers are looking for that fresh taste.”
That said, should you wish to experience farm-to-table, seek out any restaurant in the Daniel Patterson Group, where farm-to-table is built into each restaurant’s DNA. Alta celebrates California cuisine with seasonally inspired dishes that feature local ingredients such as Dungeness crab porridge with egg-yolk confit. Alta’s is dressed with jalapeño-daikon slaw and aioli. “Everyone has a fried-chicken sandwich these days,” Borden noted. “It transcends perceptions.” With a nod, perhaps, to the paleo movement, Borden also noted that “eggs are on and in everything.” At Aster, a soft-cooked egg with nori, puffed rice, and bacon is an option on the four-course tasting menu. For a peek at the origins of California cuisine, head across the bay to Berkeley, the home of Chez Panisse. It was here that Alice Waters kickstarted a revolution in how Americans ate, in the Bay Area and everywhere. Patterson and every other chef who cooks farm-to-table stands in Waters’s long shadow.
Asian Flavors Are Always in Fashion
Situated on the Pacific Rim, San Francisco embraces the flavors of Asia (and beyond). Experience new Hawaiian cuisine such as charred-octopus luau with kalo cream and vadouvan roasted almonds at ‘āina in Dogpatch or go for the ultimate Hawaiian comfort food, poke, in a bowl at Blue Hawaii Acai Cafe (you guessed it, the açai trend came to California from Hawaii) in the FiDi or at Poki Time in the Marina.
While Chinese food has been a part of the San Francisco food scene since the years of building the transcontinental railroad, the popularity of dumplings has expanded far beyond Chinatown. Dumpling Time in Potrero Hill has countless regional variations, but do try the King-Dum Xiao Long Bao. It is so big, it comes with its own straw for slurping up the scorching-hot soup inside. SoMa is home to the larger of Yank Sing’s two locations. Its 100 varieties of dim sum, many of them dumplings, make a stop here a must when seeking out the heart of the San Francisco food scene.
But San Francisco’s Asian food scene is not limited by history. The city plays host to every sort of Asian cuisine. This includes micro Asian cuisines such as Guamanian at Prubechu in the Mission, contemporary Sri Lankan at 1601 Bar & Kitchen in SoMa, and Indonesian at Borobudur on Russian Hill. (The ten-dish rijsttafel is not to be missed.) Korean and Japanese restaurants are well established, their ingredients, such as kimchi and seaweed, impacting all corners of the San Francisco food scene. Lately, Indian food has taken off in the area. Anjan Mitra, co-owner of the DOSA family of restaurants, pioneered the casual-upscale model for Indian food in San Francisco. “Indian food has moved far beyond butter chicken and tikka masala,” Mitra said. Driven by the interest that millennials have for spice-driven ethnic cuisine, Indian food “has changed to include hyper-regional and obscure dishes from India that are unfamiliar to most people in the West, served in well-designed, modern settings,” said Mitra.
But perhaps the biggest food trend in the San Francisco food scene at the moment is ramen, Asia’s most popular noodle. Global ramen chain Ippudo recently landed in San Francisco, and Nojo Ramen Tavern brings its farm-to-table izakaya concept (and poke bowls) to Hayes Valley.
The San Francisco Food Scene: What to Eat by Neighborhood
The Financial District / North Beach / Union Square
The newest entrant into the all-things chicken trend is Rooster & Rice in the heart of the FiDi. Poached and organic chicken over fragrant rice is a one-dish meal that is instantly familiar comfort food to half of the world. Steps from Washington Square Park in North Beach, Tacolicious embodies California-style tacos with everything from a pastrami taco or fried-avocado taco to a Baja-style Pacific cod taco. Chef Khai turns Vietnamese on its head, serving a tasting menu that focuses on the agricultural bounty and flavors of Vietnam and, in the process, moving Vietnamese into the fine-dining space. At Kin Khao, new Thai flavors, such as a Mushroom Hor Mok Terrine with curried mousse and crisp rice cakes, are changing long-held impressions of Thai food. North Beach, once mostly Italian, sits cheek by jowl with Chinatown and the most cutting-edge Asian restaurants, such as The House (unagi avocado sandwich) and Pesce e Riso (Emilia roll with prosciutto, tempura asparagus, and sushi rice). And ecologically progressive The Perennial aims to support a, um, perennial food system. Give the Kernza Bread a try for a taste of food’s future.
Known for trendsetting restaurants, the Mission balances the needs of residents with cash-flush hipsters. Known for family style Vietnamese, Slanted Door got its start in the ‘hood before moving downtown. By putting vegetables at the center of the menu and most proteins on the side, Al’s Place embodies the city’s enduring interest in all things vegetable and vegan. And Commonwealth reflects the community’s interest in supporting its own, giving more than $350 thousand to local, food-based charities since it opened. Not yet had your fill of the Mission-style burrito? Give Taqueria Cancun a try. Or try Hawker Fare for regional, Isaan-style Thai.
The small-plates trend may have gotten its start by casting an eye on the Spanish tapas trend. Barcino offers a selection of toasts, tapas, and paellas to suit any appetite. The bubbling up of microbreweries in recent years yielded Biergarten, a family style “brat and a beer” kind of place that is designed for this fast-casual-restaurant moment. For modern Mexican in Hayes Valley, try Cala. It has a takeout window for its now-famous tacos, but dishes like sweet potato with bone-marrow salsa negra are worth sitting down for. 20th Century Cafe serves up traditional European snacks like pierogi or Hungarian chicken-salad sandwich with kohlrabi slaw. And if you have never tried the chicken-under-a-brick at long-running Zuni Cafe, it is not too late to start now.
More Delivery Options
The huge push into delivery in the San Francisco food scene makes ordering from restaurants outside of your neighborhood more accessible. And it is a boon to restaurateurs. “Increasingly we are looking toward expanding incremental business through catering, third-party delivery services, and large-party drop-off events to offset rising costs in labor and rent in San Francisco,” said Andrew Ghetia, area director of 4505 Burgers & BBQ. This is California, though, so Ghetia keeps an eye on packaging, ensuring that “we’re mindful of sustainable, renewable, and efficient packaging for our humanely raised and thoughtfully sourced barbecue.”
Dish by Dish: Exploring the San Francisco Food Scene
1. Avocado Toast
Though it is not unique to the Bay Area, avocado toast—and its attendant price tag—got its start in the Bay Area. Californians love avocado on everything. And fresh bread paired with locally grown avocados sprinkled with a bit of salt or topped with an egg, breakfast could not be easier or more delicious. Try it at the the newly opened Illy Caffe.
Not all “expat” Hawaiians live in the Bay Area but the islands exert considerable influence in the Bay Area. Poke, the pinnacle of fresh, simple street food, is little more than diced fish tossed with seasoning but it has taken the Bay Area food scene by storm. Showing up in bowls and burritos such as at Our Poke Place or Amitis Cafe, poke is the quintessential Hawaiian food that easily glides into our all–things paleo food moment.
Rumor has it that the burrito originated in California. And as a rather contrarian sort of place, San Francisco decided to take it one step further, creating the now-famous Mission-style burrito. Outside the city, it may be known as a super burrito, as it is at Amigos Taqueria, as much for its heft as for its size.
4. Chinese food
The oldest Chinatown this side of the Pacific is in San Francisco. But vegan Chinese food? That is a fresher trend. Try it at Loving Hut and check off another newfangled trend.
Third Wave coffee (treating coffee as artisanal, as you would wine) is not unique to San Francisco (thanks, Seattle!), but locals stand in long lines here for their favorite, freshly made coffee.
San Francisco’s Claim to Fame: Dishes Unique to the Bay Area
Seafood stew is nothing new. Your grandma’s grandma knew how to make it. But San Francisco’s unique location, facing both bay and ocean, means an abundance of fresh and saltwater fish and seafood made regular appearances at the docks. Add some tomatoes, to some leftover poke, and you are onto a good start to making the most famous seafood dish to come out of San Francisco in a hundred years.
2. Mission style burrito
Large and in charge, a Mission-style burrito one-ups the California burrito with the must-have inclusions of rice and beans. Make it “super” with dairy—cheese, sour cream, and the like, or a few avocado slices.
3. Korean tacos
Though San Francisco cannot claim the origin story of the Korean taco (that story belongs to LA’s Roy Choi), the fusion of Asian and Mexican foods is so common everywhere in California that it really does not matter what you call it. File away “bulgogi burrito” and you are onto it.
4. Sourdough bread
The San Francisco food scene would likely not be a scene at all were it not for the local yeasts that aid makers to craft foods with the unique regional flavor of San Francisco. It is most famous and most accessible in the region’s iconic bread, sourdough.
The same yeasts that add “only in San Francisco” flavor to bread are similarly used to make beer. Anchor Brewing, which supposedly used to make “steam beer” by cooling batches of brew on the brewery’s fog-shrouded roof, is the stuff of legend and local flavor. During its time outside, native yeasts would land on the brew, adding distinct local flavor to every drop.