Unexpectedly, the most exciting way to eat right now in San Francisco isn’t sitting down at a downtown destination, but rather ducking into small neighborhood storefronts. Whether you’re into fresh pasta, carnitas tortas, or kimbap and pickles, there’s a shop for that. With a new school of bottle shops, specialty markets, and corner stores, it’s never been more exciting to eat hyperlocal.
Chef Anthony Strong says he’s shaking off first restaurant expectations and is way more excited to be opening a chill pasta shop. The longtime chef from Delfina and Locanda opened his first restaurant Prairie in 2018, which spun into a general store during the pandemic. He got a kick out of selling toilet paper and canned tuna despite the dreary circumstances; in fact, growing up, his parents owned a grocery store in Dubuque, Iowa. But of course, everyone was begging him to make pasta again. Coming back after a hiatus roaming around in a camper van, Strong’s excited to greet customers and play 80s punk rock.
Strong opened Pasta Supply Co. in the Inner Richmond at the end of March, rolling out 30 different shapes of fresh and dried pasta, from squid ink spaghetti to spring pea mezzaluna. There are a dozen housemade sauces, including a lamb ragu, and Cal-Italian pantry staples, such as Montesacro ciabatta, Seka Hills olive oil, guanciale, and anchovies. Strong renovated the 2,000 square feet himself, putting in seagrass blue counters, walnut panels, and band posters. He plans to add counter service with five pasta dishes, all priced under 20 bucks. “I’m just happy not to be doing a full restaurant anymore,” Strong says. “I don’t think I could go back to that.”
Former sommelier and fine dining vet Ramzi Budayr originally wanted to open a wine bar, but decided on a new-school corner store, instead. He comes from top restaurants Marlena, the NoMad, and Eleven Madison Park in New York City, while partner Zach Negin owns Tabula Rasa Bar in Los Angeles. Budayr grew up in Dolores Heights and when he spotted the empty storefront of a historic corner shop, he snapped up the keys. Building records revealed it had been a corner store for a hundred years under the original name of Dolores Deluxe. “A wine bar could still be in our future,” Budayr says, “but the space dictates the concept, not the other way around. And I’m really pleasantly surprised with how much I’m loving it.”
Dolores Deluxe opened in October with black-and-white checkered floors and a wraparound neon sign throwing it back to 1911. The corner store now sells 243 wines and counting, with a focus on natural — but not bougie — wines with 170 of those priced under $30, plus beer, cider, and sake. There’s a sweet pastry selection starring Backhaus sourdough, Tarts de Feybesse financiers, Mitchell’s ice cream, and Budayr’s own chocolate chip cookies. It’s definitely still a corner store, however, fully stocked with veggies and toothpaste, and a space where elementary school kids run in for fresh fruit slushies and TikTok candy crazes like the Slime Licker. Sadly, no wine by the glass yet, but you can get a can of rosé and a bag of chips, and hike just over the hill to Dolores Park.
Emily and Steven Sadri opened a restaurant first in San Diego but went with a bottle shop and specialty market for Tahona Mercado in San Francisco. The couple met while working at Cala, where Steven was a bartender and Emily worked as a manager. “As much as I love restaurants, it sounded so hard,” Emily says. “I don’t envy anyone who has a restaurant right now.” Tahona Mercado opened high on Nob Hill in September 2021 and has become known for showcasing Mexican agave spirits and other special ingredients, specifically from small producers. The shop stocks a wall filled with mezcal and tequila, beer, plus flour tortillas, fresh masa, salsas, and an epic carnitas torta.
Meanwhile, Clara Lee and Eddo Kim started their shop Queens, briefly opened a restaurant Hotline, but went back to focus on their original concept — the superette. “Our thesis has stayed the same,” Kim says. “When we considered doing a food concept in SF, we always wanted to do a smaller market, to share and educate folks on ingredients.” The Korean mini market has become a neighborhood fixture in the Inner Sunset, thanks to housemade kimchi and gochujang; pancake mixes, oils, and vinegars; and ramyun and Turtle chips. There’s also a lunch menu of gilgeori toast, or fluffy egg sandwiches, and veggie kimbap for customers to take home.
There are countless other examples across the city. Palm City Wines is the finest wine slash hoagie shop in the Outer Sunset. Alimentari Aurora in Potrero is a tiny shop dedicated to tinned fish and primo panini. Meanwhile, Dumpling Club is the cool new dumpling shop of the Mission. Even import shops are having a moment, should you wish to stock up on German chocolate at the newly reopened Lehr’s, or pop around for proper British stilton at Willow on the Green.
To be clear, there have always been wonderful old-school corner stores and specialty markets in San Francisco, from Lucca’s ravioli to La Palma’s fresh masa to Good Luck’s steaming dumplings. But it’s interesting to see a new cohort of talented food and drink pros setting up shop and getting creative with what they’re placing on shelves. All of these shopkeepers remarked that they love working during daylight hours, meeting their customers face to face, and having conversations about food.
“In a restaurant or bar setting, at best, you see your regulars twice a week,” Budayr says. “But in a place like this where you have toilet paper, eggs, white Burgundy, and chocolate chip cookies — you can often see people twice a day. Those relationships and that level of intimacy, you just can’t get from a restaurant setting.”