Looking for restaurants in San Francisco? Want to know where to eat in the northern California city? olive’s sub editor and drinks writer Hannah Guinness shares her insider tips for the best restaurants in San Francisco, along with where to find the best burnt honey ice cream, xiao long bao, and porchetta and fried egg sandwiches.
olive’s top 10 must-visits for foodies in San Francisco
Commonwealth – for low-key fine dining
Although white brick walls, exposed light bulbs and dried foliage in jars set a casual, relaxed tone at Commonwealth, executive chef Jason Fox’s precise and layered take on modern Californian cuisine has won the restaurant a Michelin star. Dishes might include briny-fresh oysters poached in their shell with a zingy apple and lemon verbena broth, or luscious fat-marbled American wagyu, cooked in smoked beef fat, with earthy turnip cream and fermented ramp. Leave room for desserts such as silky burnt honey ice cream with grassy matcha meringue and crisp chocolate tuile.
Ferry Building Marketplace – for foodie shopping
Once a major transport hub for the city, this 19th-century Beaux-Arts style building now houses a collection of market stalls and shops where you can pick up everything from organic pain au levain loaves at Acme Bread Company to Cowgirl Creamery’s American artisan cheeses (including sweet and mild Wagon Wheel).
Diners also have plenty of choice, from Californian oysters at Hog Island Oyster Co. to dinner at Boulettes Larder, where an Instagram-friendly open kitchen is bedecked with copper pans, bowls of fresh fruit and flowers. Soothing brunch dishes include porridge with poached egg and ghee, smoked wild king salmon with crème fraîche and Meyer lemon toast.
Visit the Ferry Building on a Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday and you’ll also catch the acclaimed Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market, where you can buy fruit and veg, flowers, herbs, meat and eggs from small regional farmers and ranchers.
SPARK Social SF – for street food
A vintage bus guards the entrance to this street-food park in Mission Bay. Inside, discover a colourful warren of food trucks (some 150 from across the Bay Area are regularly rotated), plus a beer and sangria bar. Visit Korean-Japanese fusion outfit Koja for its take on a burger – generous amounts of tender Korean barbecue short rib stuffed into crispy garlic rice buns with katsu aïoli – and kamikaze fries: criss-cut waffle chips loaded with spicy minced beef, kimchi, Japanese mayo and green onion. Drink peach, thyme and rosé sangria, or a local craft beer, while lounging on adirondack chairs in the sun.
Tartine Manufactory – for patisserie and bread
Foodies have been lining up to sample Tartine’s baked goods since the first bakery opened in 2002 and it’s now a global brand, with outposts in LA and Seoul. The company’s second San Francisco branch (there’s a third bakery at the airport) is an ambitious, multifaceted operation in a huge, light-filled space a few streets away from the original site in Mission.
As well as a bakery – where you can still find cult Tartine items including sourdough country bread, croissants and morning buns – there’s also a coffee shop, cocktail bar and restaurant. Start the day with house yogurt and seasonal fruit, bee pollen and granola, or a porchetta and fried egg sandwich with salsa verde. For lunch, or dinner, try steak tartare with pickled celery root, crispy sunchoke and cured egg toast, or chickpea and potato soup with fermented collard greens and orange oil.
Holy Mountain – for casual cocktails
After exploring traditional taquerias and hunting down street art in the Mission district (head to Clarion Alley for some of the best examples), step inside brightly coloured Laotian restaurant Hawker Fare and venture upstairs to discover a low-key drinking den that’s a favourite spot for the city’s off-duty bar tenders. The menu keeps it pithy with just seven regularly changing cocktails (plus a few classic ones), as well as a brief list of beers and wines. Try the Temperance: a punchy, smoky, spicy marriage of Legendario Domino mezcal with hibiscus, chamoy, palm sugar, chilli salt and lime.
Noosh – for Middle Eastern food
Noosh’s teal-hued frontage, on Fillmore Street in Pacific Heights, houses a bright and light space (think chic Santorini vibes) where chefs Laura and Sayat Ozyilmaz – whose pedigrees include Eleven Madison Park and Blue Hill at Stone Barns – have created a fine-dining/casual eating hybrid.
With a DIY approach to ingredients (they make their own halloumi, pitta and preserved lemons), expect an expansive approach to Eastern Mediterranean cuisine, from mezze-style dishes to sumptuous dips (think red pepper muhammara, or warm baba ganoush with kasseri cheese) and lavish stuffed pittas like the Greek po’ boy: tender fried calamari with smoked tzatziki. Don’t miss the Turkish flatbreads, especially the pork soujuk with runny egg, roast garlic and oozy cheese. Drinks include Middle-Eastern tinged classics like the Urfa Manhattan with sour cherry, plus homemade shrubs and Armenian foraged teas.
SF on Tap – for local breweries
San Francisco’s beer scene is booming, and one of the easiest ways to dive in is to book an SF on Tap walking tour. Each one takes four hours but the pace is leisurely, local guides are engaging and full of knowledge about the city and beer, and you can expect lengthy stops at three different breweries, with generously sized taster beers and snacks.
The Celebrate the Haight tour explores one of the city’s most iconic neighbourhoods, Haight and Ashbury, referencing the Summer of Love and visiting the area’s best breweries. These will vary from tour to tour, but may include the sleekly minimalist Black Sands Brewery (try the ultra-stacked burgers), Magnolia Pub – the cooling cucumber and Meyer lemon double IPA is a winner – and Barrel Head Brewhouse (we loved its Cuvée du Satja, an elegant barrel-aged sour with pomegranate).
China Live – for Chinese food
Think of this huge Chinatown emporium as a one-stop-shop for Chinese food, whether you’re seeking tea at Oolong café or fine dining at Eight Tables By George Chen. At Market Restaurant, chefs work in exhibition kitchens that include a charcuterie station stocked with caramel-hued roast ducks and chickens, a traditional charcoal-fired Chinese earthen oven (like an Indian tandoor) for slow-roasting pork and a dumpling station.
Expect a rich array of regional dishes from the (very lengthy) menu – hits include mapo doufu cooked in a clay pot with wobbling cubes of tofu and minced pork, xiao long bao filled with a rich, meaty consomme, blistered spicy green beans, sesame bread ‘pockets’ filled with kumquat-glazed peking duck, and Cantonese garlic chicken with bronzed, moreishly crispy skin. While you’re in the area, make a detour to historic Ross Alley and the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, where fortune cookies are made by hand in a tiny open-plan bakery.
Tacolicious – for tacos
The taco menu at this buzzy and colourfully tiled restaurant in Mission (the company has several other sites across the Bay Area) includes everything from guajillo-braised beef to baha-style pacific cod with the crunchiest of batters, shredded red cabbage and cumin crema. Don’t miss the homemade tortilla chips with made-to-order guacamole and multiple salsas (from mild and fruity tomatillo-avocado to racingly hot yellow habanero). Pair your tacos with a selection of chupitos – punchy shot-style servings including tequila with pineapple, coconut water and lime, and a zingy habanero tequila with passion fruit. Once you’ve filled up, head next door to sister mezcal and tequila bar Mosto to continue the party.
The Riddler – for sparkling wine
Take a break from exploring the hip boutiques of Hayes Valley at this intimate champagne bar, which sets a stylish tone with its marble bar, tumbling greenery, gold embellished ceiling and large black-and-white photograph of a slinky, 60s-era Jacqueline Bisset. There are over 100 champagnes available by the bottle and plenty by the glass, as well an interesting selection of other sparkling wines – we tried a dry, rich and softly bubbly Hungarian furmint on our visit. Check out the quirky bar snacks menu, too, especially the caviar-topped tater tot waffles.
Other places to eat and drink in San Francisco
Avital Tours and Edible Excursions – for hands-on food tours
Avital Tours’ chatty, friendly guides take guests on a ‘progressive meal’ of two appetisers, entrée and dessert – with each course in a different location (tours run across San Francisco, LA and New York). Destinations vary on the Mission District tour, but an evening might include pork belly breakfast tacos, vegan quesadillas, an American cheese flight and homemade churros with chocolate sauce.
Edible Excursions operate across the Bay Area, but we recommend the Japantown tour as an introduction to a part of the city that’s often overlooked by visitors. One of just three remaining Japantowns in the US, San Francisco’s is a treasure trove of hidden restaurants and food businesses – stops during the tour might include creamy sweet potato lattes at YakiniQ Cafe, rich tonkotsu noodles at Ramen Yamadaya, handmade mochi and more.
Eno – for cheese and wine after dinner
This sleek wine bar on Union Square distinguishes itself by its lengthy list of wines, available by the glass or in affordably priced flights. While you’ll find plenty of European vintages on the menu, it’s worth exploring the bar’s impressive collection of Californian and other West Coast wines, preferably with a sumptuous cheese platter or a flight of locally made chocolate alongside.
Lord Stanley – for date night
This minimalist Michelin-starred restaurant in fashionable Russian Hill has some serious talent in the kitchen. Co-owners and chefs Carrie and Ruper Blease have worked at the likes of Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and Per Se, and deliver simple yet refined plates of food with British and European influences – think fat, golden seared scallops with peas, sunflower seeds and a gentle curry broth, or nutty buckwheat and green garlic waffles topped with salty pearls of salmon roe and tangy cultured cream. Try and get a table on the more intimate mezzanine level.
Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar – for rum cocktails
No trip to San Francisco is complete without a visit to a tiki bar. Set in the basement of the lavish Fairmont Hotel, the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar is the work of a Metro Goldwyn Mayer set designer who, in 1945, transformed the basement (and its 75-foot swimming pool) into a delightfully over the top Polynesian-themed playground. Order a (dangerously strong) mai tai and watch a live band play on a thatch-covered barge in the middle of the lagoon, complete with periodic rain and lightning ‘thunderstorms’.
Where to stay in San Francisco – Hotel Emblem
Located between the Theatre District and the opulent Victorian homes of Nob Hill, this new Beatnik-inspired hotel is replete with thoughtful and creative amenities, from eco-friendly filtered water stations on every floor (limiting the need for plastic bottles) to welcome cocktails on arrival and even a book butler – an on-demand cart filled with Beat Generation literature curated by San Francisco’s famous City Lights bookstore. The hotel also comes with a slinky, low-lit Obscenity Bar & Lounge, which offers Kerouac-themed cocktails and runs weekly poetry slam nights. Rooms have a sleek retro, mid-century vibe, with writing desks and mini libraries.
For more information visit sftravel.com
Words and photographs by Hannah Guinness