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The interior of Tosca Cafe with red-and-black floors and art hanging on the walls above a wooden table Patricia Chang

15 Classic Restaurants Every San Franciscan Must Try

The most colorful old-school dining establishments in San Francisco

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Though San Francisco is a city focused on the next big new thing, it's 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.

Health experts consider dining out to be a high-risk activity for the unvaccinated; the latest data about the delta variant indicates that it may pose a low-to-moderate risk for the vaccinated, especially in areas with substantial transmission. The latest CDC guidance is here; find a COVID-19 vaccination site here.

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Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.

1. Scoma's Restaurant

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1965 Al Scoma Way
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 771-4383
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Whether it’s your first visit to Fisherman’s Wharf or your first this week, there’s no better bayside dining experience to be found in the infamously tourist-clogged destination than Scoma’s. The long dining rooms are bedecked in warm woods and leather, with low slung ceilings making it feel like you’re deep in the bow of a boat. On the menu expect SF classics including cioppino, local King salmon, and notoriously strong Manhattans. 

A plate of Dungeness crab Scoma’s

2. 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. Since the beginning the restaurant’s had a long history of women leaders including founding chef Deborah Madison, Annie Somerville, and current chef de cuisine Katie Reiche, who continues the legacy of showcasing seasonal vegetables grown on nearby farms.

The dining room at Greens Greens

3. 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

4. Tosca Cafe

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242 Columbus Ave
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 986-9651
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Tosca may have new owners and fresh damask, but make no mistake: this more-than-100-year-old joint is still every bit as dimly lit and historic as ever. The gold-lettered double doors swung back open in mid 2021 after two years of pandemic-era closures, meaning SF residents and tourists can once again belly up to the bar for a house cappuccino (no coffee involved) and a plate of pasta with a side of house made focaccia. The parklet is a superb setting for outdoor dining but be sure to step inside to get a peek at the iconic red-and-black floors. 

The interior of Tosca Cafe with red-and-black floors and art hanging on the walls Patricia Chang

5. 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.

Sam Wo

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 more than 500 diners a night.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. 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.

10. 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.

11. 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.

Exterior neon sign of Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in the Richmond neighborhood

12. 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.

13. 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.

14. 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.

15. 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.

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1. Scoma's Restaurant

1965 Al Scoma Way, San Francisco, CA 94133
A plate of Dungeness crab Scoma’s

Whether it’s your first visit to Fisherman’s Wharf or your first this week, there’s no better bayside dining experience to be found in the infamously tourist-clogged destination than Scoma’s. The long dining rooms are bedecked in warm woods and leather, with low slung ceilings making it feel like you’re deep in the bow of a boat. On the menu expect SF classics including cioppino, local King salmon, and notoriously strong Manhattans. 

1965 Al Scoma Way
San Francisco, CA 94133

2. 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. Since the beginning the restaurant’s had a long history of women leaders including founding chef Deborah Madison, Annie Somerville, and current chef de cuisine Katie Reiche, who continues the legacy of showcasing seasonal vegetables grown on nearby farms.

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

3. 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

4. Tosca Cafe

242 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133
The interior of Tosca Cafe with red-and-black floors and art hanging on the walls Patricia Chang

Tosca may have new owners and fresh damask, but make no mistake: this more-than-100-year-old joint is still every bit as dimly lit and historic as ever. The gold-lettered double doors swung back open in mid 2021 after two years of pandemic-era closures, meaning SF residents and tourists can once again belly up to the bar for a house cappuccino (no coffee involved) and a plate of pasta with a side of house made focaccia. The parklet is a superb setting for outdoor dining but be sure to step inside to get a peek at the iconic red-and-black floors. 

242 Columbus Ave
San Francisco, CA 94133

5. 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.

713 Clay St
San Francisco, CA 94108

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 more than 500 diners a night.

1906 Van Ness Ave
San Francisco, CA 94109

7. 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

8. 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

9. 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

10. 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

11. Tommy's Mexican Restaurant

5929 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94121
Exterior neon sign of Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in the Richmond neighborhood

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

12. 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

13. 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

14. 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

15. 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

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