These are unusual times, and the state of affairs can change quickly. Please check the latest travel guidance before making your journey. Note that our writer visited pre-pandemic.
More insider guides for planning a trip to San Francisco
San Francisco is often hailed the best food town of the United States and is home to the much-hyped ‘Bay Area cuisine’. Chefs wax poetic about the regional produce grown on surrounding small farms, resulting in lots of fresh, clean flavours, with most ingredients artisanally reared and sustainably sourced. Establishments tend to be casual – this is true even for most of the 35 Michelin-starred restaurants within this small city’s limits. Prices, though, are high: it’s not unusual to pay $15 (£11) for a sandwich, and good luck finding a glass of wine for under $14 (£10). Picking just 10 places to eat here is difficult: the restaurant scene is diverse and dynamic, ranging from cheap Chinatown institutions to 15-course fine dining feasts. Eating out is a citywide obsession, so reserve a month ahead, or prepare to queue.
Lazy Bear, a sort-of supperclub in a Mission district warehouse, isn’t your everyday Michelin-starred affair. Firstly, you can’t reserve: instead, ticket sales are announced on Twitter every month. Chef-owner David Barzelay (Lazy Bear is an anagram of his surname) begins the evening with cocktails and canapés on the mezzanine – decked out like a living room with mismatched sofas and chaise longues – before diners are seated at long, communal tables, set by an open kitchen. Chefs personally present each of the 15 courses, which change frequently, but have in the past included morels with egg yolk fudge, favas and ramps. Fine dining has seldom been this fun.
Contact: 00 1 415 874 9921; lazybearsf.com
Opening times: Tues-Sat; two seatings per night, 6pm and 8.30pm
Nearest metro: 16th St. Mission
This perennial favourite was around long before The Mission got cool. It’s not only one of the city’s best restaurants, but probably its best-looking, too. Set inside a former movie theatre, the cavernous interior is all beautiful simplicity – brick walls, fireplace, artfully-arranged plants – while the covered patio is rightly coveted for its fairy lights and old films projected on the back wall. Brunch is ridiculously popular, but listen close: dinner is much better. Though the changing menu is widely described as Mediterranean, it travels the world: recent dishes include Marrakech roast chicken with salsa verde. Go explore.
Contact: 00 1 415 648 7600; foreigncinema.com
Opening times: Mon-Wed and Sun, 5.30pm-10pm; Thurs-Sat, 5.30pm-11pm. Brunch Sat-Sun, 11am-2.30pm
Nearest metro: 24th St. Mission
Flour + Water
Scoring a reservation at this Cali-Italian restaurant has been nigh on impossible since it opened in 2009. Founding chef Thomas McNaughton worked with nonnas in a Bolognese pasta factory before launching this ode to housemade regional varieties – cavatelli, maltagliati, tonnarelli – dressed up in Bay Area ingredients. Good news: the restaurant leaves 75 per cent of seats open for walk-ins, so you can usually get a table if prepared to wait. Once seated in its warmly-lit interior — all dark walnut and candle-flicker — it’s only polite to order the regularly-changing, seven-course tasting menu. Though you could be forgiven for being led astray by the scent of wood-fired pizza.
Contact: 00 1 415 826 7000; flourandwater.com
Opening times: Mon-Sun, 5.30pm-11pm
Nearest metro: 24th St. Mission
Reservations: Walk-ins preferred
Swan Oyster Depot
This institution has been slinging seriously fresh seafood at its 18-seat counter since 1912. Hand-painted menus tacked on the walls – between framed sports jerseys and creased foreign currency – tout half-cracked crabs and oysters. Better still is going off-menu: ask for ‘Sicilian sashimi’ (creamy raw cuts of salmon, tuna, and yellowtail drizzled with olive oil, lemon juice and capers). A ‘half-dozen eggs’ – scallops dotted with spicy Sriracha in a pool of fizzy ponzu – should make the cut, too. Despite the wait (expect to queue around an hour), the banter-happy staff never rush you, and make reliable recommendations. Note it’s cash-only.
Contact: 00 415 673 1101
Opening times: Mon-Sat, 10.30am-5.30pm
Reservations: Walk-ins only
After peddling their Neapolitans around town from a distinctive, glass-walled food truck, the folks at Del Popolo decided brick-and-mortar was in order – and it’s now the city’s best place for pizza. Once you’ve become accustomed to the swaying stools at the communal wood tables, you’re free to focus on the short menu of seasonal pizzas, with toppings changing according to what’s fresh (winter might bring chestnut cream, and you can bet on pumpkin in autumn). The real treat, though, is the crust – blending Naples’ pillowy tradition with San Francisco’s signature sourdough.
Contact:00 1 415 589 7940; delpopolosf.com
Opening times: Tue-Thurs and Sun, 5.30pm-10pm; Fri-Sat, 5.30pm-11pm
House Of Prime Rib
For old-school cool, no one does it better than this long standing landmark, where throwback booths and wood panelling recall a charmingly retro good-old-boy’s club. Compounding the effect is the chefs, tall toques propped on bonces, who scuttle around the maze of dining rooms pushing steel carts hung with slabs of roast beef. The only option for dinner is meat carved tableside, served with mashed potatoes, creamed spinach and Yorkshire pudding. Any English person dubious that the Americans can get this right should taste it to believe it – every element of the plate is perfection. Don’t miss the green apple martinis – the shaker proffers enough for two glasses.
Contact: 00 1 415 885 4605; houseofprimerib.net
Opening times: Mon-Thurs, 5.30pm-10pm; Fri, 5pm-10pm; Sat-Sun, 4pm-10pm
State Bird Provisions
Alright, it’s another impossible reservation, and the queue for walk-ins starts an hour before opening. But this is proper event dining – albeit in trademark casual style – that draws international chefs and local foodies alike. The kitchen serves playful, California-sourced small plates that are wheeled around on dim sum carts in an industrial dining room with pocked concrete walls and metal pillars. Dishes change constantly, but you can (and should) always order the flagship state bird: a rich, deep-fried quail offset with tart lemon, onions and rosemary. Other dishes might include guinea hen dumplings or sourdough pancakes with pecorino, sauerkraut and ricotta.
Contact: 00 1 415 795 1272; statebirdsf.com
Opening times: Sun-Thurs, 5.30pm-10pm; Fri-Sat, 5.30pm-11pm
House of Nanking
It’s easy to spot an amateur in this no-frills dining room, where celeb guests like Jamie Oliver grin from the walls: they’re consulting the menu. Anyone who’s braved the queue to get in here before knows the staff are in control. Gruff servers bark dishes at you, not the other way around; asking for something they’re not pushing is often met with a blunt “no”. Thankfully, the large platters of accessible Shanghainese cooking – best shared family-style – rarely miss the mark. Plus, not tolerating diners who dither keeps lines moving. Exceptional dishes include sticky-sweet sesame chicken and giant prawns in a rich, creamy white sauce.
Contact: 00 1 415 421 1429; houseofnanking.net
Opening times: Mon-Fri, 11am-10pm; Sat, 12pm-10pm; Sun, 12pm-9.30pm
Reservations: Walk-ins only
Liholiho Yacht Club
Even the biggest San Francisco snobs can’t resist coming to gritty downtown for this still-sizzling original, loosely based on the dishes of chef-owner Ravi Kapur’s Hawaiian upbringing. The restaurant, inspired by his home islands, feels like a summer party: from sea-blue tiles spelling out ‘Aloha’ at the entrance, to a sun-yellow open kitchen. People chatter about the house-made spam with fried rice, but don’t leave without tasting melting beef tongue on an impossibly airy poppy seed bao bun. Save room for the ‘Baked Hawaii’ — caramelised pineapple ice cream encased in swirly, expertly toasted meringue.
Contact:00 1 415 440 5446; liholihoyachtclub.com
Opening times: Mon-Thurs, 5pm-10.30pm; Fri-Sat, 5pm-11pm
Brenda’s French Soul Food
Despite a less-than-lovely location on a grubby block of the notorious Tenderloin, the pavement outside this buzzy eatery is always packed with hopefuls hankering for brunch. The Cali-Creole menu by chef Brenda, a Louisiana native, is worth the wait. Inside, spare décor features an array of junk-shop mirrors on the walls. But it’s the food you came for: crawfish beignets, oozing cheddar and dusted with cayenne; decadent slabs of pork belly in thick, cheddar-topped grits. True, this place isn’t shy about calories. But pair your meal with a mango bellini and you’ll forget to fret.
Contact: 00 1 415 345 8100; frenchsoulfood.com
Opening times: Mon-Tues, 8am-3pm; Wed-Sat, 8am-10pm; Sun, 8am-8pm
Reservations: Walk-ins only