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15 Classic Restaurants Every San Franciscan Must Try

The most colorful old-school dining establishments in SF

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Though San Francisco is a town focused on the next big new thing, its also a place that clings tight to its history, packing its longest-standing restaurants even as buzzier, hotter places come and go.

For this list, some ground rules were established: Each spot must be a full restaurant (no bars or one-item spots like ice cream places or coffee shops), each must have opened before 2000, and each must offer something special (a significant bit of history, a spectacular view, or a standout dish, for example). In the end, there’s a classic SF restaurant for every mood, ranging from seafood joints, diners, taquerias, clubby wood-paneled rooms, and anything else a lover of old-school dining could want.

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Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.

1. Louis’

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902 Point Lobos Ave
San Francisco, CA 94121
(415) 387-6330
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Louis and Helen Hontalas opened Louis’ at the top of an Ocean Beach cliff back in 1937, and these days it’s up to their grandkids to keep their dream alive. Louis’ combination of mid-century decor, jaw-dropping views, and focus on organic (yet still diner-style) foods and sustainable practices makes the 82-year-old spot feel timeless.

2. Khan Toke Thai House

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5937 Geary Blvd
San Francisco, CA 94121

Open since 1976, Khan Toke says that it’s one of San Francisco’s first Thai restaurants. It’s also one of the city’s fanciest, as diners are required to remove their shoes before they’re led to low, hand-carved tables. The menu’s got over 100 items, so savvy diners ask the white-jacketed waiters “what’s good tonight?” to make sure they get the kitchen’s best and brightest.

3. Tommy's Mexican Restaurant

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5929 Geary Blvd
San Francisco, CA 94121
(415) 387-4747
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Since 1965, Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant has been owned by the Bermejo family, who are always quick with a warm welcome. It’s home to the Tommy’s margarita and the city’s best tequila selection, but this Richmond District favorite also puts out solid Yucatecan fare.

4. The Gold Mirror

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800 Taraval St
San Francisco, CA 94116
(415) 564-0401
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The Di Grande family bought the Gold Mirror in 1969, transforming it from a one-time speakeasy to a restaurant serving dishes from their hometown of Augusta, Sicily. Its interior is a castle-meets-statue-garden fantasy, and the service is of the old-school lady-killing variety. Its best menu items are in the standard red-sauce vein, and its Caesar salad is one of the city’s best.

5. Greens

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Fort Mason Center, Landmark Building A, 2 Marina Blvd
San Francisco, CA 94123
(415) 771-6222
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The landmark vegetarian restaurant opened in 1979 as part of the SF Zen Center. Not only is Greens a California classic, it’s a big and beautiful space, with views of the bay and Golden Gate Bridge. Chef Annie Somerville has been in the kitchen from the beginning, turning out local tofu, heirloom beans, pasta, and polenta, all showcasing seasonal vegetables grown on nearby farms.

The dining room at Greens Greens

6. 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 percent sour cream. Open since 1949, the House of Prime Rib stretches across five rooms and 148 seats, and serves over 500 diners a night.

7. Zuni Cafe

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1658 Market St
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 552-2522
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Zuni Cafe began in 1979 as a Southwestern-themed restaurant, but became a Cal-cuisine icon under the leadership of the late Judy Rodgers, who entered its kitchen in 1987. She built Zuni’s reputation with 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 to while away an afternoon.

8. 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 fare 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

9. 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), Swan Oyster Depot’s seafood counter is as old school as it gets, with the charming characters behind the bar cracking crabs, shucking oysters, dishing out chowder, and pouring Anchor Steam beers for a dizzying line of tourists and locals. Plan ahead, as the line often winds down Polk Street.

10. El Faro

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

Burrito historians claim that the first-ever Mission-style burrito was assembled in 1961 at El Faro, then a grocery store owned by Febronio Ontiveros. It’s since evolved into a fairly standard taqueria, albeit one that claims that it invented the Super Burrito, among other landmarks. It’s worth a trip, just to say that a visit has been made to where it all (allegedly) began.

11. Tú Lan

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8 6th St
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 626-0927
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Since 1977, this cash-only Vietnamese spot has served Sixth Street locals, tourists, industry veterans, and luminaries like — this has been verified — Julia Child. Health code violations prompted the spot’s closure for nearly a year back in 2012, and when it reopened with a freshened-up facade and dining room, its lengthy lines returned as well.

12. 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, the wood-paneled walls of John’s Grill 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.

13. Sam Wo

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713 Clay St
San Francisco, CA 94108
(415) 989-8898
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Sam Wo, 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 noodle rolls to its loyal customers til 3 a.m. on the weekends.

Sam Wo

14. Tadich Grill

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240 California St
San Francisco, CA 94111
(415) 391-1849
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Founded in 1849, Tadich Grill isn't just San Francisco's oldest restaurant, but California's as well, and it has the old-school atmosphere to prove it. 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.

15. 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. Red’s Java House is not to be confused with the similar, equally historic Java House, which is also worth a visit.

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1. Louis’

902 Point Lobos Ave, San Francisco, CA 94121

Louis and Helen Hontalas opened Louis’ at the top of an Ocean Beach cliff back in 1937, and these days it’s up to their grandkids to keep their dream alive. Louis’ combination of mid-century decor, jaw-dropping views, and focus on organic (yet still diner-style) foods and sustainable practices makes the 82-year-old spot feel timeless.

902 Point Lobos Ave
San Francisco, CA 94121

2. Khan Toke Thai House

5937 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94121

Open since 1976, Khan Toke says that it’s one of San Francisco’s first Thai restaurants. It’s also one of the city’s fanciest, as diners are required to remove their shoes before they’re led to low, hand-carved tables. The menu’s got over 100 items, so savvy diners ask the white-jacketed waiters “what’s good tonight?” to make sure they get the kitchen’s best and brightest.

5937 Geary Blvd
San Francisco, CA 94121

3. Tommy's Mexican Restaurant

5929 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94121

Since 1965, Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant has been owned by the Bermejo family, who are always quick with a warm welcome. It’s home to the Tommy’s margarita and the city’s best tequila selection, but this Richmond District favorite also puts out solid Yucatecan fare.

5929 Geary Blvd
San Francisco, CA 94121

4. The Gold Mirror

800 Taraval St, San Francisco, CA 94116

The Di Grande family bought the Gold Mirror in 1969, transforming it from a one-time speakeasy to a restaurant serving dishes from their hometown of Augusta, Sicily. Its interior is a castle-meets-statue-garden fantasy, and the service is of the old-school lady-killing variety. Its best menu items are in the standard red-sauce vein, and its Caesar salad is one of the city’s best.

800 Taraval St
San Francisco, CA 94116

5. Greens

Fort Mason Center, Landmark Building A, 2 Marina Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94123
The dining room at Greens Greens

The landmark vegetarian restaurant opened in 1979 as part of the SF Zen Center. Not only is Greens a California classic, it’s a big and beautiful space, with views of the bay and Golden Gate Bridge. Chef Annie Somerville has been in the kitchen from the beginning, turning out local tofu, heirloom beans, pasta, and polenta, all showcasing seasonal vegetables grown on nearby farms.

Fort Mason Center, Landmark Building A, 2 Marina Blvd
San Francisco, CA 94123

6. 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 percent sour cream. Open since 1949, the House of Prime Rib stretches across five rooms and 148 seats, and serves over 500 diners a night.

1906 Van Ness Ave
San Francisco, CA 94109

7. Zuni Cafe

1658 Market St, San Francisco, CA 94102

Zuni Cafe began in 1979 as a Southwestern-themed restaurant, but became a Cal-cuisine icon under the leadership of the late Judy Rodgers, who entered its kitchen in 1987. She built Zuni’s reputation with 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 to while away an afternoon.

1658 Market St
San Francisco, CA 94102

8. 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 fare 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

9. Swan Oyster Depot

1517 Polk St, San Francisco, CA 94109

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

1517 Polk St
San Francisco, CA 94109

10. El Faro

2399 Folsom St, San Francisco, CA 94110

Burrito historians claim that the first-ever Mission-style burrito was assembled in 1961 at El Faro, then a grocery store owned by Febronio Ontiveros. It’s since evolved into a fairly standard taqueria, albeit one that claims that it invented the Super Burrito, among other landmarks. It’s worth a trip, just to say that a visit has been made to where it all (allegedly) began.

2399 Folsom St
San Francisco, CA 94110

11. Tú Lan

8 6th St, San Francisco, CA 94103

Since 1977, this cash-only Vietnamese spot has served Sixth Street locals, tourists, industry veterans, and luminaries like — this has been verified — Julia Child. Health code violations prompted the spot’s closure for nearly a year back in 2012, and when it reopened with a freshened-up facade and dining room, its lengthy lines returned as well.

8 6th St
San Francisco, CA 94103

12. John's Grill

63 Ellis St, San Francisco, CA 94102

A setting in The Maltese Falcon and a favorite for politicos, the wood-paneled walls of John’s Grill 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.

63 Ellis St
San Francisco, CA 94102

13. Sam Wo

713 Clay St, San Francisco, CA 94108
Sam Wo

Sam Wo, 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 noodle rolls to its loyal customers til 3 a.m. on the weekends.

713 Clay St
San Francisco, CA 94108

14. Tadich Grill

240 California St, San Francisco, CA 94111

Founded in 1849, Tadich Grill isn't just San Francisco's oldest restaurant, but California's as well, and it has the old-school atmosphere to prove it. 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.

240 California St
San Francisco, CA 94111

15. Red's Java House

551 The Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA 94105

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. Red’s Java House is not to be confused with the similar, equally historic Java House, which is also worth a visit.

551 The Embarcadero
San Francisco, CA 94105

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