From Mission-style burritos to soup dumplings to sourdough bread bowls the size of a kiddie pool, there’s no shortage of archetypal dining experiences to be had in this foggy city by the bay. And even if you’re committed to the idea of tying on a plastic bib and digging into a bowl of cioppino at one of SF’s over-the-top tourist traps, we’ve got resources to help. But for those discerning diners who want to find where locals really eat, this guide unearths the city’s true treasures.
Welcome to San Francisco
The elegant red lines of the Golden Gate Bridge have long served to welcome newcomers to San Francisco and the West, where myriad cultures commingle and coexist in this 7-by-7 metropolis. The result? A culinary wonderland crammed into a remarkably small space — a place where you can marvel at La Taqueria’s iconic rice-free burritos in the Mission, and be not more than four miles from the oldest Chinatown in America, complete with both Michelin-starred Cantonese fare and century-old institutions. In North Beach, family-run Liguria Bakery still serves massive sheets of focaccia 106 years after it first opened its doors, and just a couple of miles away in the shadow of the Japantown’s Peace Pagoda, pristine sushi, chewy mochi doughnuts, and steaming bowls of ramen abound. This is a city with vibrant Burmese dining options, exquisite croissants, and Moroccan fine dining.
Where to Start on Eater SF's Top Maps
As you know, Eater puts out tons of maps detailing the best places, food, and drink in the Bay Area. Below, we cherry-pick the top one or two points on our most popular maps to help time-starved eaters prioritize which spots to visit.
Hot Restaurant: Of all the new restaurants to enter the SF dining scene in recent months, the most ambitious may be Empress by Boon from chef Ho Chee Boon. Prior to opening the grand upscale Cantonese restaurant in Chinatown, Boon cooked all over the world with Hakkasan restaurant group. Now, diners should don their sharpest attire to swoon over both the spectacular views and prix-fixe menus featuring shrimp dumplings topped with caviar and hand-pulled noodles with a trio of lacy mushrooms.
Essential Restaurant: And if you need to narrow down the Essential 38, don’t skip dinner at Rintaro, a buzzy (but not overly so) Japanese restaurant hidden in plain sight in the Mission, where smoky yakitori and silky tofu shine. Mister Jiu’s brings California vibes to a menu of Chinese dishes like Dungeness crab cheong fun and Dutch crunch barbecue pork buns. For a old school experience, head over to House of Prime Rib, where chefs in toques carve meat in carts roaming the dining room and martinis are the “specialty cocktail.” And don’t forget to lunch at Zuni Cafe for the single most classic dining experience in town.
Pizza: Pizzetta 211 is the gem of the pizza map. If you can’t get there when they open to snag a table, Pizzeria Delfina is the San Francisco classic you shouldn’t miss. Down in North Beach, Golden Boy offers excellent Roman-style slab pies — though the pandemic has shortened business hours to noon to 8 p.m. daily.
Ice Cream: If you must narrow down the ice cream map, hit up Smitten for the unparalleled creaminess of liquid nitrogen ice cream, or Bi-Rite for OG seasonal treats. In the Mission, Humphry Slocombe rocks the more esoteric flavors, including “secret breakfast,” made with bourbon and corn flakes. Want to enjoy your dessert outside? Don’t miss the adorable as heck parklet at Joe’s Ice Cream in the Richmond.
Sushi: The most essential sushi spot on our sushi map is Akiko's, which is finally reopened for dine-in, including the option to enjoy an omakase menu if you snag a reservation at the sushi bar. If you're looking for a more wallet-friendly and neighborhood-y option, try Saru Sushi Bar. For a San Francisco take on sushi, complete with local fish and a hip interior, check out Robin in Hayes Valley
Beer: If you only go to one Bay Area brewery, know that Cellarmaker is the San Francisco microbrewery aficionados return to again and again. Lupulandia Brewing pours a small but interesting selection of housemade beers in the Mission — plus offers a menu of Tijuana-style food — or try Park Chalet Coastal Beer Garden for oysters and local brews.
Bar: Head to Kona’s Street Market at Third and Market Streets if you want to try one of SF’s hottest bars or opt for a more classic experience at House of Shields, a more than 100-year-old institution. Looking for something with more style? ABV in the Mission serves top-notch and creative drinks plus a menu of small plates.
Outdoor dining: And since we’re now in the era of permanent parklets in San Francisco, there are a handful worth going out of your way to see. The cable car-themed creation at Sutter Street Tavern wins points for being classic and kitschy, while you’ll enjoy more elegant environs on Cotogna’s rustic, intimate outdoor space or San Francisco Wine Society’s outdoor living room.
San Francisco Food 'Hoods to Know
For a city that’s only seven miles by seven miles, San Francisco has so many amazing neighborhoods, each with a slightly different food scene. But here are a few particularly tempting areas to start — complete with what to eat and drink in each.
Despite its well-deserved reputation as a historic “Italian immigrant” food neighborhood, you’re not going to find the city’s best pasta in North Beach (hit up Flour + Water for that). But North Beach has nooks to explore and old-school charm to spare. Stop for a coffee at Caffe Trieste, a cannoli at Stella Pastry, and a beer at the Saloon, which claims to be the oldest bar in SF. If you come hungry for Italian-American fare, get the cioppino at Sotto Mare or the pizza from Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. If you crave over-the-top steak with a side of ravioli and creamed spinach, Original Joe’s is a guaranteed good time. Also: you will not find focaccia better than the freshly baked slabs coming out of Liguria Bakery. Finally, 15 Romolo is a cocktail destination, while Vesuvio Cafe and Specs’ across the street from each other are both oddball and bohemian.
In the late 1990s, Mission dining was just getting onto the map with new places like Delfina and the original Slanted Door. Now, the Mission’s exploding dining scene is home to our city's most renowned restaurants: Places like Tartine Manufactory, AL's Place, Lolo, and Foreign Cinema. Not to mention taquerias. Walk down 24th Street to get a taste of the neighborhood's Mexican foundation. Stroll Valencia Street to bask in hip-yet-pricey chocolate bars, smoothies, and cocktails. The ideal day starts with a morning bun or some croissant variation at Tartine Bakery, continues on with a taco from one of the spots in our handy sidebar, includes a stop at True Laurel for a cocktail and fried mushrooms with dip, and wraps up with a dinner of smoked duck at the Morris, plus a drink at a very excellent neighborhood bar like Lone Palm.
The oldest and largest Chinatown in the country, SF Chinatown attracts throngs of tourists through the Dragon’s Gate, and it’s a true food destination. Grant Avenue is the main pedestrian thoroughfare, and while you wander around the shops, munch on barbecue pork buns from Washington Bakery or egg tarts from Golden Gate Bakery (stand warned, they have famously erratic hours). For classic Chinese-American restaurants with white tablecloths, lazy susans, and dim sum carts, try Sam Wo, Z & Y, or City View. But there have also been several new-school restaurants to open in recent years: Michelin-starred Mister Jiu’s, massive emporium China Live, and the new Empress by Boon with an upscale tasting menu and sweeping views of the city.
The Richmond & the Sunset:
“The Avenues,” as locals refer to the Golden Gate Park sandwich made by these two adjacent hoods, are beloved holdouts from “old San Francisco” — before Square, Facebook, and Uber were running everyone's lives. Here, you will find another excellent enclave of Chinese food, along with pockets of classic Russian, Korean, and Japanese foods. In the Richmond, north of the park, fans of dim sum should troll Clement Street with a portable dumpling from Good Luck Dim Sum in hand, hit Cinderella Bakery for meaty piroshki, or sit down for dinner at Pearl 6101 for cocktails and handkerchief pasta. In the Sunset, south of the park, Um.ma has ultra crispy and saucy Korean fried chicken, Palm City is a Philly-style hoagie destination, and Trouble Coffee has the original cinnamon toast that started it all.
San Francisco Glossary of Terms
A flour tortilla wrapped around various and (sometimes) sundry combinations of meat, cheese, beans, and rice. Always wrapped in tin foil. Usually a gut bomb.
The first San Francisco brand to apply French bread technique to the region’s native sourdough yeast (c. 1849), Boudin now makes loaves in the shapes of lobsters and crabs for San Francisco beginners to ogle on Fisherman’s Wharf. Mostly in malls, airports, and other touristy places, they make a mean soup bread bowl too.
Hometown hero Brandon Jew is, of course, the name behind Chinatown fine dining destination Mister Jiu’s but he also offers up Mamahuhu, a counter service spot where he gives Cantonese-American classics like sweet-and-sour chicken and beef and broccoli the care and quality ingredients they deserve. To dine at Michelin-starred Mister Jiu’s is to fall in love with America’s oldest Chinatown.
Since opening her three-Michelin-starred namesake, Atelier Crenn, the French chef has shot to stardom. She has since filmed an episode of Chef’s Table on Netflix, opened her casual restaurant Petit Crenn, and debuted Bar Crenn, an upscale wine bar serving the recipes of French masters next door to Atelier Crenn. For the time being, Petit and Bar Crenn remain closed, but diners can secure reservations for either a 14-course tasting menu or a “moveable feast” at the Atelier.
Little-known outside of Northern California, this is a prized sandwich bread among locals. It’s dense and doughy with a crunchy, crackly top — the result of a coating of rice flour, butter, sugar, and yeast before it’s baked. The result is a semi-sweet, crisp exterior with a fluffy interior that’s perfect for any and all sandwich combinations.
If you’ve been here for more than a minute you’ve probably noticed one of these structures sitting in a parking lot or spilling out from the sidewalk and into the street. These outdoor dining and drinking spaces started as an emergency measure during the pandemic but are now allowed to exist permanently thanks to Mayor London Breed’s Shared Spaces program.
The woman behind Michelin-starred Kin Khao and the larger contemporary Thai restaurant Nari came to stardom in a roundabout way. Techamuanvivit attended grad school at the University of California, San Diego; worked in corporate America; and authored a book before turning her attention to cooking and leaning on recipes she learned from her family in Thailand.
Yes, Red Bay started in an Oakland garage. But these days Keba Konte’s intentionally approachable coffee company has five locations including one at the tourist-friendly Ferry Building. If you’ve ever felt intimidated by craft coffee, then Red Bay is for you. Konte built the company to marry the ideals of sustainability and inclusivity in what the company calls the “fourth wave” of coffee.
Starting with the original Tartine Bakery on Guerrero Street, co-founders Chad Robertson and Liz Prueitt are expanding their empire in the Bay Area and beyond (a bakery in Seoul now serves morning buns in Korea). Tartine Manufactory is the biggest and brightest so far, with beautiful breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and bread, pastries, and coffee all day.
Xiao Long Bao:
These little dumplings, also known as soup dumplings, are thin-skinned darlings filled with meat and broth. Most frequently served at dim sum restaurants, they’re a Bay Area favorite from Chinatown to the Inner Richmond and beyond. One of the city’s favorites is Yank Sing, though many argue that China Live is the new XLB hot spot. Here’s a list of dumpling destinations around town.
Reservations to Make in Advance:
Follow the Stars
Though Michelin stars aren’t always the end-all, be-all of restaurant ratings, they’re still a good indication of what’s hot and high-quality. Northern California is glittering with stars, with 62 Michelin-starred restaurants awarded in 2019 and shining around the region. Of course, there were no awards in 2020 and it remains to be seen how things will shake out in 2021 but you can find plenty of bright spots in our guide to 45 Michelin-starred restaurants that are open right now from Sacramento to Carmel.
Head Out of Town
If San Francisco is only one stop on your itinerary, here are some guides to help you find gems in Half Moon Bay, Sacramento, Santa Cruz, Monterey, and Carmel. Of course, wine country is also just a short drive away and whether you’re looking for a laid-back spot in Sonoma to sip the afternoon away or a wine tasting that comes with an excellent dining experience, we’ve got you covered. Don’t miss Napa Valley’s impressive restaurant scene, the drive-worth dining in Sonoma, or the backroad wineries and eateries of the Russian River Valley.
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