Food & Drink

The 15 SF Restaurants You Need to Eat at Before You Die

Published On 12/14/2015 Published On 12/14/2015
Zuni Café | Flickr/Jurriaan Persyn

San Francisco boasts more restaurants per capita than any other city in the country, so the likelihood of getting to them all is pretty slim. But whether you live here or are just visiting, definitely make sure you make it to these 15 SF institutions before you die.

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Nopa

Western Addition

This neo-SF classic basically does everything well. Brunch? It’s the best one in the ‘hood and one of the best in the city. Dinner? The fare is elevated and refined, yet you can get one the city’s best burgers for just $17. Great date spot? You betcha. Good for groups? Check! Great cocktails? Well, just ask SF’s best bartenders. Late-night eats? The kitchen is open until 1am for a full dinner. Yeah, this place wins at everything.

Flickr/Krista

Tadich Grill

FiDi

As the oldest restaurant in all of California, Tadich Grill has had more than 100 years to perfect its seafood-centric menu (definitely get the cioppino). Not only was Herb Caen a regular here, but it’s probably still your best bet at scoring a celebrity sighting (like Joe Montana) in the city.

Ben Chrisman Photography

Delfina

Mission

While not 100 years old, Delfina did help put the Mission on the map as a hub of dining before the zip code was a realtor’s wet dream. The menu is wonderfully simple and undeniably satisfying -- think spaghetti with plum tomatoes, garlic, and pepperoncini -- which is probably why, after 17 years, it beats out exciting newbies as one of the places you absolutely need to eat at in SF.

Flickr/T.Tseng

La Taqueria

Mission

Home to the best burrito in the country. It’s science. Ask for the burrito “El Dorado-style” to get this juicy, rice-less bundle of goodness thrown on the grill until the tortilla is a crispy, golden brown and everything inside has melted and mingled to perfection.

Flickr/John Pastor

House of Prime Rib

Russian Hill

A mid-century oasis that hasn’t changed since it opened in 1949, this institution is the place to go for… wait for it… prime rib (sliced at the table) and a perfectly chilled martini. Dick Whitman would approve.

Flickr/Chris Neuman

Swan Oyster Depot

Nob Hill

As charming as it is old (>100 years), this narrow spot, with just 18 bar stools lining a single counter, always draws lines for its Dungeness crab, oysters and clams on the half shell, $5 bowls of chowdah that rival anything in Boston, smoked trout, and whatever else the friendly fish slingers could catch that morning. Pro tip: if you come here solo, you’ll likely be able to cut ahead of the line as the owners like to keep every stool occupied during the daily lunch rush.

Flickr/Lynn Friedman

Golden Boy Pizza

North Beach

Are you in North Beach? Is it last call? Then head straight to Golden Boy Pizza where thick squares of focaccia-like Sicillian-style pizza await to save you from a (worse) hangover tomorrow. Know that when you wait in line under the giant neon hand that points you to your saucy pizza destiny, people have literally been doing the exact same thing since 1978. You are part of history. You are legend.

Turtle Tower

Outer Richmond

Everyone’s got their favorite pho in town, but we’re standing by the Outer Richmond’s Turtle Tower for its homey vibe, fast service, the fact that coconut water is served with chunks of coconut meat, and most importantly for its clean, yet flavorful, broth that we’re pretty sure can solve all your problems. Hungover? Turtle Tower. Hangry? Turtle Tower. Sunday scaries? Turtle Tower. Male-pattern baldness? Turtle Tower. Note: your hair won’t grow back, but guaranteed you’ll leave happier than when you went in.

Flickr/Tom Spaulding

The Cliff House

Outer Richmond

San Francisco’s shape has often been compared to a clenched fist -- and under that metaphor, The Cliff House is the diamond rock on SF’s thumb just cuz it’s badass like that. In other words, it’s the gem of outer, outer Richmond, perched on the edge of the continent, and affords staggering views of the Sutro Bath ruins and rugged coastline as far as the eye can see (when it’s not foggy), otherwise you’ll feel suspended in a cloud, which is arguably even cooler! The California cuisine is decent, but you’re really coming here for the $5 Irish coffees or an elegant mimosa brunch and the breathtaking experience of being on the edge of the world.

Flickr/Smiley

Yank Sing

FiDi

Dim sum is an SF brunch rite of passage and because there are precisely one gajillion places to get dumplings served from carts in the 7x7, from the hole-in-the-walls to the super-fancies, it can be hard to decide where to drag your beleaguered self come Sunday morning. San Francisco’s chefs have a lot of opinions on the matter (and they’re all super legit), but if you’re looking for the iconic experience visiting relatives will enjoy, head to Yank Sing in FiDi. It’s not the most cost efficient, but it is iconic and delicious. Runner up: Inner Richmond’s Ton Kiang.

Dol Ho

Chinatown

Clear on the other end of the dim sum dining spectrum is this cramped, no-frills Chinatown haunt that’s a hangout for the neighborhood’s oldest -- and wisest -- residents. Go here for cheap shrimp & chive dumplings, chicken rice, jasmine tea, and other dim sum necessities, as well as some of the best people-watching in the city.

Flickr/T.Tseng

Zuni Café

Hayes Valley

You know a place is good when you ask 15 SF chefs where you should eat and practically all of them mention this culinary talisman and its impeccable Caesar salad and roast chicken. It’s a special occasion-type spot, but there’s nothing more “San Francisco” than sipping a Ramos Gin Fizz at this pie slice-shaped restaurant while you watch folks on Market St pass by.

Flickr/Yuichi Sakuraba

Tartine Bakery

Mission

It’s been eight years (and a handful of cookbooks) since owners Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef, and yet Tartine Bakery is still one of the hottest tickets in town for its bread, morning buns, and hot-pressed sandwiches. Luckily thanks to its recent partnership with Blue Bottle, you’ll soon be able to snag the award-winning pastries at several locations throughout the city, but that shouldn’t stop you from visiting the original sometime before you bite the dust.

State Bird Provisions

State Bird Provisions

Fillmore

If you can score a reservation or successfully beat the system, like so, State Bird will likely be one of your most memorable meals thanks to the fact that creative Northern California-inspired small plates come around on carts ala dim sum. Oh, and it’s got a Michelin Star, yet with plates ranging from $3 to $20, it’s still pretty affordable if you know when to tap out.

Flickr/Gina Collecchia

Foreign Cinema

Mission

Not only is the food impeccable and a pillar of farm-to-table excellence, but you can enjoy your meal in front of a movie that plays on the covered outdoor patio, affording plenty of opportunity for lip sync battles with your date.

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Amy Copperman is a regular Thrillist contributor. She KNOWS she left your favorite SF restaurant off the list -- tell her about it on Twitter @acoppergirl.

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1. Nopa 560 Divisadero St, San Francisco, CA 94117 (Alamo Square)

Nopa is a San Francisco institution that does everything really, really well. It's the best brunch in Western Addition and one of the best in the whole city. Its burger is perfect with pickled onions and French fries, especially when eaten at the bar. It's a one-stop-shop for a date, a birthday dinner, or dinner with your parents. Plus, the kitchen is open until 1 AM for a full dinner. Yeah, this place wins at everything.

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2. Tadich Grill 240 California St, San Francisco, CA 94111 (Financial District)

Tadich Grill isn't just SF's oldest restaurant, it's California's oldest restaurant. Everyone from Jack Nicholson to Joe Montana has dined there (Herb Caen was a regular in his day), but no matter who you are or how important you think you are, there are no reservations and everyone waits in line. Tadich Grill is known for its seafood -- get the oysters Rockefeller, the pan-fried sand dabs, or the seafood cioppino -- and never disappoints when you're in the mood for a delicious throwback meal.

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3. Delfina 3621 18th St, San Francisco, CA 94110 (The Mission)

Open since 1998, Delfina is credited for putting the Mission on the map as San Francisco's epicenter for innovative, critically-acclaimed dining. The Italian menu is wonderfully simple and undeniably satisfying. Case in point is the signature dish: spaghetti with plum tomatoes, garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, and pepperoncini. The unassuming small space is packed to the brim every night with neighborhood regulars and culinary-minded tourists.

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4. La Taqueria 2889 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110 (The Mission)

This no-frills taqueria is home to the best burrito in America. The Mission-style burrito has a healthy dose of meat, cheese, beans, homemade hot sauce, salsa, and no rice. The place has been around for 40 years and if the daily long lines are any indication, they're doing something right. Ask for your burrito "El Dorado-style" to get your rice-less bundle of joy thrown on the grill until the outside is golden brown and the inside has melted to perfection.

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5. House of Prime Rib 1906 Van Ness Ave, San Francisco, CA 94109 (Nob Hill)

The original House of Prime Rib opened in 1949 and has since become a San Francisco institution known unsurprisingly for its 21-day aged prime rib. Every dinner order comes with a bevy of accompaniments: tossed salad, mashed potatoes or a baked potato, and Yorkshire pudding. The English-style dining rooms have fireplaces and cozy leather banquettes, making this space as intimate as it is iconic.

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6. Swan Oyster Depot 1517 Polk St, San Francisco, CA 94109 (Russian Hill)

Swan Oyster Depot, open since 1912 in Nob Hill, is a raw fish institution. The seafood is unbelievably fresh, and the menu includes everything from clams, oysters, and Dungeness crab to sashimi platters and sea urchin. The clam chowder, a buttery and briny both made with the day's clams, is awesome, as is the twice-cracked crab. Basically, everything here rocks. The narrow space has only 18 bar seats, and it's a great option for a solo lunch since parties of one can usually bypass the long wait.

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7. Golden Boy Pizza 542 Green St, San Francisco, CA 94133 (North Beach)

Golden Boy Pizza has been slinging grab-and-go slices since 1978. Their claim to fame is the Garlic Clam Pizza, and most fully loaded slices can be had for the price of $4.25. For those who like thicker dough and corner crusts, Golden Boy offers Sicilian slices. If you feel like sticking around to enjoy your pizza there, you'll find beer and wine on tap to pare with it.

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8. Turtle Tower Restaurant 645 Larkin St, San Francisco, CA 94109 (The Tenderloin)

The Larkin St outpost from SF's beloved go-to for piping hot bowls of pho and all things Northern Vietnamese is also the biggest location yet, accommodating hungry hordes clamoring for the aforementioned noodle bowls in impossibly flavorful broth, banh mi, and other delicacies that seem like they ought to be way more expensive.

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9. Cliff House 1090 Point Lobos Ave, San Francisco, CA 94121

With jaw-dropping views of Ocean Beach, the craggy coast-hugging Land’s End, and the wild, blue Pacific, Cliff House is a classy brunch or dinner spot perched on aon the edge of a cliff on the lip of the Pacific Ocean. Sit by a window to experience the dizzying, romantic effects of feeling on the edge of the world and don’t forget to order a $5 Irish coffee. This is the ultimate place to start a Sunday day date with a mimosa brunch or take in a sunset on a clear/clear-enough evening.

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10. Yank Sing 101 Spear St, San Francisco, CA 94105 (Embarcadero)

Yank Sing is the most celebrated (hello, James Beard classic award) and most gold standard-setting of dim sum joints in the Bay Area for good reason -- these guys know dumplings. The Shanghai soup dumplings are essential and the shrimp har gow alone should be as revered for perfection in texture and timing as Zuni’s roast chicken. Yes, the cart action is intense, and its reputation and proximity to the Embarcadero and FiDi drive in locals and tourists at record speeds, so plan accordingly and go on a weekday or be smart and reserve. Yes, yes, you can reserve a table -- a rarity in dim sum. Another rarity? Peking duck, slid into a DIY taco with sweet hoisin and green onions.

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11. Dol Ho 808 Pacific Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133 (Chinatown)

This is one of the best dim sum spots in Chinatown, with fantastic dishes like their shrimp & chive dumplings (which you can order from their take-out window and they'll deliver in a plastic bag).

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12. Zuni Cafe 1658 Market St, San Francisco, CA 94102 (Soma)

A culinary talisman for over thirty years, Zuni Cafe on the ever-bustling Market Street continues to serve New American cuisine with French and Italian influences. With a menu that changes daily, the element of surprise is never lost -- all while using the freshest, most sustainable ingredients.

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13. Tartine Bakery 600 Guerrero St, San Francisco, CA 94110 (The Mission)

Country Bread from this well-known bakery and cafe is the original Cronut-like craze. Each day, 240 loaves are made, and within an hour, they are GONE. The bread pudding is also a mainstay at this justifiably-packed carbohydrate haven, and if you're planning on grabbing some sweets to-go, try the chocolate-rye tart with snowy meringue and a chocolately lattice.

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14. State Bird Provisions 1529 Fillmore St, San Francisco, CA 94115 (Fillmore)

State Bird Provisions opened in the Fillmore in 2013, won the James Beard Award for best new restaurant, earned a Michelin star, and has been one of city's hottest spots ever since. After you score a reservation, State Bird will likely be one of your most memorable meals ever thanks to the fact that creative Northern California small plates are served from dim sum carts. The atmosphere is fun, the food is affordable (plates range from $3 to $20), and the dining experience is anything but ordinary.

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15. Foreign Cinema 2534 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110 (The Mission)

The Mission's Foreign Cinema projects movies every night and serves a Californian menu with an oyster selection for the books. Where else can you find date-worthy dinner, one of the best brunches in the city (hello, house-made pop tarts), patio seating, and screenings of classic movies all under one roof? Trust us: this James Beard-nominated restaurant is one of the most important places you need to eat at in your lifetime.

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