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Swan's Oyster Depot

26 Classic Restaurants Every San Franciscan Must Try

The best old-school dining establishments SF, Oakland, and Berkeley have to offer

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Swan's Oyster Depot

Restaurant history runs deep in San Francisco, a city that coined iconic dishes from cioppino to the Mission burrito, and which even has a city project dedicated to identifying and preserving historic dining establishments.

What makes a restaurant classic? The ground rules: must be a full restaurant (no bars or one-item spots like ice cream places and coffee shops), and must have opened before 2000 (we've got a few modern classics in here as well, dating as late as the '90s). This list has clubby wood-paneled rooms, seafood joints, diners, taquerias, Cal-cuisine icons, and anything else a lover of old-school dining could want. Check out these 26 restaurants that have unquestionably impacted the Bay Area dining scene.

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Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.

1. Cliff House

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1090 Point Lobos Ave
San Francisco, CA 94121
(415) 386-3330
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With its staggering views of the coastline and the ruins of the Sutro Baths, this SF icon has undergone a long series of fires, rebuildings, shutters, and reopenings to achieve its current crown-jewel status. It's a little oasis at the end of the world.

2. Tommy's Mexican Restaurant

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5929 Geary Blvd
San Francisco, CA 94121
(415) 387-4747
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Home of the Tommy's margarita and the city's best tequila selection, this Richmond favorite also puts out solid Yucatecan fare. It's still owned by the Bermejo family, who are always quick with a warm welcome.

3. Delfina

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3621 18th St
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 552-4055
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Home of the original tattooed server, this Mission classic (founded 1998) sparked a restaurant revival that began with its once-gritty block and has now expanded into its entire neighborhood. It's still one of the city's best for simple Cal-Ital food, and the neighboring Pizzeria Delfina has become a mini-empire.

4. House of Prime Rib

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1906 Van Ness Ave
San Francisco, CA 94109
(415) 885-4605
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No San Francisco carnivore has truly lived before eating a juicy slice of prime rib off the cart in this '50s throwback, where the cocktails come with their own shakers, the salad is spun tableside, and the baked potatoes are always at least 50% sour cream.

5. Hayes Street Grill

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320 Hayes St
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 863-5545
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A 40-year-old Hayes Valley institution, Hayes Street Grill has seen the neighborhood through its growth spurts over the years. Its owners, including former SF Chronicle food critic Patty Unterman, opened it as an option for theatre-, opera-, and symphony-goers; it’s still a mainstay, serving sustainably sourced fish served with fries and choice of sauces (beurre blanc is always a winner), produce from local farms, and a remarkably good warm goat cheese salad. The carpeted dining room is a great place to catch a glimpse of local SF flavor.

6. Tommy's Joynt

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1101 Geary Blvd
San Francisco, CA 94109
(415) 775-4216
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One of the Bay Area's last remaining old-school hofbraus, Tommy's is known for low prices, free-flowing beer, and meat aplenty. Local and organic it is not, but for rib-sticking basics, it's hard to beat, especially late-night when regulars flow in for carved roast beef and other delights.

7. Zuni Cafe

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1658 Market St
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 552-2522
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This former Southwestern restaurant (opened in 1979) became a Cal-cuisine icon under the hands of the late Judy Rodgers, who joined on in 1987 and became widely known for her burgers, Caesar salad, bloody marys, and of course, the famous roast chicken for two with bread salad. It's still one of the city's most beautiful and delightful rooms for whiling away an afternoon.

8. Acquerello

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1722 Sacramento St
San Francisco, CA 94109
(415) 567-5432
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One of the first SF restaurants to serve authentically regional Italian food, Acquerello has only continued to grow since 1989, moving into an increasingly fine-dining direction while maintaining its commitment to Italian wine and local products. It now holds two Michelin stars, a distinction that chef Suzette Gresham (who's been there since the beginning) shares with only two other women in the entire U.S.

9. The Buena Vista

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2765 Hyde St
San Francisco, CA 94109
(415) 474-5044
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Though mostly (and justly) known for its Irish coffees, the Buena Vista Cafe also has a decent breakfast and lunch offering, with views of the Bay. It’s right off the Powell-Hyde cable car’s last stop, making it a tourist destination for many; locals, however, still flock there regularly for a boozy, caffeinated pick-me-up, clam chowder in bread bowls, and old-school vibes purveyed by white-jacketed bartenders. (It opened in 1916, though its famous beverage didn’t come along until 1952, according to the restaurant).

Ellen Fort

10. Swan Oyster Depot

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1517 Polk St
San Francisco, CA 94109
(415) 673-1101
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Founded in 1906 (and in its present location since 1912), this seafood counter is as delightfully old-school as it gets, with the charming characters behind the bar cracking crabs, shucking oysters, dishing out chowder, and pouring Anchor Steams for a dizzying line of tourists and locals alike. Plan ahead, as the line often winds down Polk Street.

11. Foreign Cinema

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2534 Mission St
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 648-7600
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Along with Delfina, this modern classic (since 1999) was Mission-cool before the Mission was cool. It still delights with its big open-air central patio, movies screening nightly, and elegantly executed menu. Even in the daylight it’s a stunner, with fans flocking to brunch each weekend.

12. El Faro

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2399 Folsom St
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 647-3716

Modern burrito aficionados cycle endlessly between the three poles of Cancun, Farolito, and La Taq, but a shoutout is in order for this Mission classic (since 1961), home of the very first Mission burrito. Were it not for El Faro, we might never have had what's arguably the iconic San Francisco food.

13. Big 4

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1075 California St
San Francisco, CA 94108
(415) 771-1140
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A recent renovation didn't change the soul of this clubby restaurant in the Huntington Hotel, named for the Bay Area's railroad pioneers. It's full of cocktails, grizzled bartenders, California memorabilia, and a hefty dose of live piano music.

14. The Tonga Room

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950 Mason St
San Francisco, CA 94108
(415) 772-5278
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The height of faux-Polynesian kitsch, the Fairmont Hotel's basement bar can be counted on for rum-heavy drinks served inside pineapples, pu-pu platters, and rain shows every half hour in the central pool, complete with a live band playing oldies on a floating barge. Long may it reign.

15. Original Joe's

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601 Union St
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 775-4877
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There are numerous iterations of the "Joe's" concept across the Bay Area, but the best might be Original Joe's, which the Duggan family moved to North Beach after the original Tenderloin location suffered a catastrophic fire. It's the kind of place where steaks commingle with Italian-American fare, and the clientele has plenty of war stories.

16. St. Francis Fountain

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2801 24th St
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 826-4210
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This classic soda fountain and luncheonette (since 1918) has changed with the times, now drawing a hipster clientele — vegan ice cream has now infiltrated the menu. But for an old-school diner breakfast complete with a milkshake, it still draws lines. Grab some candy and vintage trading cards on your way out.

17. Sam's

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618 Broadway
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 391-1539

North Beach drinkers turn to this glorious dive for booze relief, with old-fashioned burgers and fries served up on paper plates for crazy-reasonable prices. Atmosphere is nil and the specter of drunk shenanigans looms large, but it's the kind of place where those things are less important than sustenance.

18. Cafe Jacqueline

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1454 Grant Ave
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 981-5565
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Escargot. Belgian endives with Roquefort and bacon. Onion soup. All are examples of the classic French dishes served on the short menu at this white-table-clothed cafe in the heart of North Beach. The main attraction, however, is the selection of soufflés artfully prepared by 82-year-old Bordeaux native Jacqueline Margulis since 1979. Each cloudy entree is made for two diners, with options like crab, lobster, brie and broccoli, or simply leek. Then, end the meal with a trembling and lovely dessert soufflé (chocolate is recommended).

19. John's Grill

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63 Ellis St
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 986-0069
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A setting in The Maltese Falcon and a favorite for politicos, this wood-paneled spot will transport you to an earlier era. Order up some petrale sole, chicken Jerusalem, or the Sam Spade special (chops, baked potato, sliced tomato) and soak it all in.

20. Tosca Cafe

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242 Columbus Ave
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 986-9651
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A bar for much of its history, this clubby Italian charmer (dating to 1918) recently got a pricey facelift and a return of its kitchen, now under the purview of chef April Bloomfield. It serves high-end Italian fare, but the big brass steamer still turns out house "cappuccinos" (actually hot chocolate with brandy).

21. Tommaso's Restaurant

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1042 Kearny St
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 398-9696
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You likely owe your favorite hip pie joint to this historic basement restaurant, which boasted the West Coast's very first wood-fired oven all the way back in 1935. These days, it's a family-run throwback with lots of charm, and the pizzas, while not transcendent, remain very solid.

22. Sam Wo

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713 Clay St
San Francisco, CA 94108
(415) 989-8898
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The self-proclaimed “oldest restaurant in Chinatown” was built after the 1906 earthquake. In another big shakeup, it was closed in 2012, eventually reopening in 2015 after a move from its original location at 813 Washington Street to 713 Clay Street. Luckily it’s still serving bowls of jook, tomato beef chow mein, and barbecue pork rice noodle noodle rolls to its loyal customers til 3 a.m.

Sam Wo

23. Yank Sing

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49 Stevenson St
San Francisco, CA 94105
(415) 541-4949
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The Chan family has owned this palace of dim sum since 1958, expanding to a second location with its refined takes on pork buns, soup dumplings, and sesame balls. All these years later, you can still expect lines, but the contents of those steamer baskets are worth it.

24. Tadich Grill

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240 California St
San Francisco, CA 94111
(415) 391-1849
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Founded in 1849, this isn't just San Francisco's oldest restaurant, but California's as well, and it has the old-school atmosphere to go with that laurel. White-coated waiters, a menu boasting local classics from hangtown fry to cioppino to sand dabs, and a bumping central bar all add to the pleasure.

25. Red's Java House

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551 The Embarcadero
San Francisco, CA 94105
(415) 777-5626
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There's nothing quite like a burger and a beer at this outdoor spot on the Embarcadero (since 1955), preferably consumed before heading over to the ballpark for a Giants game. It's not to be confused with the similar, equally historic Java House, which is also worth a visit.

26. Chez Panisse

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1517 Shattuck Ave
Berkeley, CA 94709
(510) 548-5525
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Little more can be said about this Berkeley icon, which is responsible for the introduction of California cuisine to the national lexicon. It bounced back with a lovely renovation after a 2013 fire, and continues to provide the Bay Area with an unending pipeline of talented chefs with an affection for local ingredients.

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1. Cliff House

1090 Point Lobos Ave, San Francisco, CA 94121

With its staggering views of the coastline and the ruins of the Sutro Baths, this SF icon has undergone a long series of fires, rebuildings, shutters, and reopenings to achieve its current crown-jewel status. It's a little oasis at the end of the world.

1090 Point Lobos Ave
San Francisco, CA 94121

2. Tommy's Mexican Restaurant

5929 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94121

Home of the Tommy's margarita and the city's best tequila selection, this Richmond favorite also puts out solid Yucatecan fare. It's still owned by the Bermejo family, who are always quick with a warm welcome.

5929 Geary Blvd
San Francisco, CA 94121

3. Delfina

3621 18th St, San Francisco, CA 94110

Home of the original tattooed server, this Mission classic (founded 1998) sparked a restaurant revival that began with its once-gritty block and has now expanded into its entire neighborhood. It's still one of the city's best for simple Cal-Ital food, and the neighboring Pizzeria Delfina has become a mini-empire.

3621 18th St
San Francisco, CA 94110

4. House of Prime Rib

1906 Van Ness Ave, San Francisco, CA 94109

No San Francisco carnivore has truly lived before eating a juicy slice of prime rib off the cart in this '50s throwback, where the cocktails come with their own shakers, the salad is spun tableside, and the baked potatoes are always at least 50% sour cream.

1906 Van Ness Ave
San Francisco, CA 94109

5. Hayes Street Grill

320 Hayes St, San Francisco, CA 94102

A 40-year-old Hayes Valley institution, Hayes Street Grill has seen the neighborhood through its growth spurts over the years. Its owners, including former SF Chronicle food critic Patty Unterman, opened it as an option for theatre-, opera-, and symphony-goers; it’s still a mainstay, serving sustainably sourced fish served with fries and choice of sauces (beurre blanc is always a winner), produce from local farms, and a remarkably good warm goat cheese salad. The carpeted dining room is a great place to catch a glimpse of local SF flavor.

320 Hayes St
San Francisco, CA 94102

6. Tommy's Joynt

1101 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94109

One of the Bay Area's last remaining old-school hofbraus, Tommy's is known for low prices, free-flowing beer, and meat aplenty. Local and organic it is not, but for rib-sticking basics, it's hard to beat, especially late-night when regulars flow in for carved roast beef and other delights.

1101 Geary Blvd
San Francisco, CA 94109

7. Zuni Cafe

1658 Market St, San Francisco, CA 94102

This former Southwestern restaurant (opened in 1979) became a Cal-cuisine icon under the hands of the late Judy Rodgers, who joined on in 1987 and became widely known for her burgers, Caesar salad, bloody marys, and of course, the famous roast chicken for two with bread salad. It's still one of the city's most beautiful and delightful rooms for whiling away an afternoon.

1658 Market St
San Francisco, CA 94102

8. Acquerello

1722 Sacramento St, San Francisco, CA 94109

One of the first SF restaurants to serve authentically regional Italian food, Acquerello has only continued to grow since 1989, moving into an increasingly fine-dining direction while maintaining its commitment to Italian wine and local products. It now holds two Michelin stars, a distinction that chef Suzette Gresham (who's been there since the beginning) shares with only two other women in the entire U.S.

1722 Sacramento St
San Francisco, CA 94109

9. The Buena Vista

2765 Hyde St, San Francisco, CA 94109
Ellen Fort

Though mostly (and justly) known for its Irish coffees, the Buena Vista Cafe also has a decent breakfast and lunch offering, with views of the Bay. It’s right off the Powell-Hyde cable car’s last stop, making it a tourist destination for many; locals, however, still flock there regularly for a boozy, caffeinated pick-me-up, clam chowder in bread bowls, and old-school vibes purveyed by white-jacketed bartenders. (It opened in 1916, though its famous beverage didn’t come along until 1952, according to the restaurant).

2765 Hyde St
San Francisco, CA 94109

10. Swan Oyster Depot

1517 Polk St, San Francisco, CA 94109

Founded in 1906 (and in its present location since 1912), this seafood counter is as delightfully old-school as it gets, with the charming characters behind the bar cracking crabs, shucking oysters, dishing out chowder, and pouring Anchor Steams for a dizzying line of tourists and locals alike. Plan ahead, as the line often winds down Polk Street.

1517 Polk St
San Francisco, CA 94109

11. Foreign Cinema

2534 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110

Along with Delfina, this modern classic (since 1999) was Mission-cool before the Mission was cool. It still delights with its big open-air central patio, movies screening nightly, and elegantly executed menu. Even in the daylight it’s a stunner, with fans flocking to brunch each weekend.

2534 Mission St
San Francisco, CA 94110

12. El Faro

2399 Folsom St, San Francisco, CA 94110

Modern burrito aficionados cycle endlessly between the three poles of Cancun, Farolito, and La Taq, but a shoutout is in order for this Mission classic (since 1961), home of the very first Mission burrito. Were it not for El Faro, we might never have had what's arguably the iconic San Francisco food.

2399 Folsom St
San Francisco, CA 94110

13. Big 4

1075 California St, San Francisco, CA 94108

A recent renovation didn't change the soul of this clubby restaurant in the Huntington Hotel, named for the Bay Area's railroad pioneers. It's full of cocktails, grizzled bartenders, California memorabilia, and a hefty dose of live piano music.

1075 California St
San Francisco, CA 94108

14. The Tonga Room

950 Mason St, San Francisco, CA 94108

The height of faux-Polynesian kitsch, the Fairmont Hotel's basement bar can be counted on for rum-heavy drinks served inside pineapples, pu-pu platters, and rain shows every half hour in the central pool, complete with a live band playing oldies on a floating barge. Long may it reign.

950 Mason St
San Francisco, CA 94108

15. Original Joe's

601 Union St, San Francisco, CA 94133

There are numerous iterations of the "Joe's" concept across the Bay Area, but the best might be Original Joe's, which the Duggan family moved to North Beach after the original Tenderloin location suffered a catastrophic fire. It's the kind of place where steaks commingle with Italian-American fare, and the clientele has plenty of war stories.

601 Union St
San Francisco, CA 94133

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16. St. Francis Fountain

2801 24th St, San Francisco, CA 94110

This classic soda fountain and luncheonette (since 1918) has changed with the times, now drawing a hipster clientele — vegan ice cream has now infiltrated the menu. But for an old-school diner breakfast complete with a milkshake, it still draws lines. Grab some candy and vintage trading cards on your way out.

2801 24th St
San Francisco, CA 94110

17. Sam's

618 Broadway, San Francisco, CA 94133

North Beach drinkers turn to this glorious dive for booze relief, with old-fashioned burgers and fries served up on paper plates for crazy-reasonable prices. Atmosphere is nil and the specter of drunk shenanigans looms large, but it's the kind of place where those things are less important than sustenance.

618 Broadway
San Francisco, CA 94133

18. Cafe Jacqueline

1454 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133