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Tommy’s Joynt in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, November 17, 2011, has been open since 1947. Photo By Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

17 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; it may pose a risk for the vaccinated, especially in areas with substantial COVID transmission.

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Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.
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Scoma's Restaurant

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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 belly 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

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 executive chef Katie Reicher, who continues the legacy of showcasing seasonal vegetables grown on nearby farms.

The dining room at Greens Greens

The Buena Vista

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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

Tosca Cafe

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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

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

House of Prime Rib

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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.

Red's Java House

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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.

John's Grill

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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.

Tú Lan

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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.

Tommy's Mexican Restaurant

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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

Khan Toke Thai House

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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.

Zuni Cafe

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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.

El Faro

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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.

The Gold Mirror

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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.

Tommy's Joynt

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The California hofbrau may soon be a lost tradition but for now, Tommy’s Joynt carries the torch on the corner of Van Ness and Geary. It’d be hard to miss the restaurant’s vibrant and sprawling signage, which advertises everything from “world famous” sandwiches to satellite TV to cheap beers. Open since 1947, Tommy’s continues to be a destination for meaty meals like carved-to-order hot pastrami sandwiches, an impressive selection of imported beers, and a lively late-night dining scene. 

Tommy Joynt, at Van Ness and Geary, on Route 101, San Francisco, California Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Balboa Cafe

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There’s no denying Balboa Cafe’s place in San Francisco history: in its more than 100 years in business this Cow Hollow restaurant and bar has been the venue for countless first dates, celebrations, and, most recently, rowdy nights out for youthful Marina residents. So, if you don’t mind that these days it’s owned by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s PlumpJack Group, then Balboa Cafe is indeed a venerable place to grab an excellent burger or belly up to the well-worn wooden bar to chat with a bartender over a nitro espresso martini

Far East Cafe

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This century-old Chinatown stalwart is one of the area’s last remaining banquet halls, an enduring dinner option, event venue, and dim sum destination on Grant Avenue. The owners nearly shuttered the business in 2020, citing financial struggles related to the pandemic, but in March 2021 confirmed the restaurant would remain open at least for now. 

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Scoma's Restaurant

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 belly 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

Greens

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 executive chef Katie Reicher, who continues the legacy of showcasing seasonal vegetables grown on nearby farms.

The dining room at Greens Greens

The Buena Vista

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.)

Ellen Fort

Tosca Cafe

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. 

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

Sam Wo

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.

Sam Wo

House of Prime Rib

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.

Red's Java House

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.

John's Grill

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.

Tú Lan

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.

Tommy's Mexican Restaurant

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.

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

Khan Toke Thai House

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.

Zuni Cafe

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.

El Faro

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.

The Gold Mirror

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.

Tommy's Joynt

Tommy Joynt, at Van Ness and Geary, on Route 101, San Francisco, California Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

The California hofbrau may soon be a lost tradition but for now, Tommy’s Joynt carries the torch on the corner of Van Ness and Geary. It’d be hard to miss the restaurant’s vibrant and sprawling signage, which advertises everything from “world famous” sandwiches to satellite TV to cheap beers. Open since 1947, Tommy’s continues to be a destination for meaty meals like carved-to-order hot pastrami sandwiches, an impressive selection of imported beers, and a lively late-night dining scene. 

Tommy Joynt, at Van Ness and Geary, on Route 101, San Francisco, California Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

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Balboa Cafe

There’s no denying Balboa Cafe’s place in San Francisco history: in its more than 100 years in business this Cow Hollow restaurant and bar has been the venue for countless first dates, celebrations, and, most recently, rowdy nights out for youthful Marina residents. So, if you don’t mind that these days it’s owned by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s PlumpJack Group, then Balboa Cafe is indeed a venerable place to grab an excellent burger or belly up to the well-worn wooden bar to chat with a bartender over a nitro espresso martini

Far East Cafe

This century-old Chinatown stalwart is one of the area’s last remaining banquet halls, an enduring dinner option, event venue, and dim sum destination on Grant Avenue. The owners nearly shuttered the business in 2020, citing financial struggles related to the pandemic, but in March 2021 confirmed the restaurant would remain open at least for now. 

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