Food & Drink

The 16 Best Places to Get Chowder in SF

Published On 01/19/2015 Published On 01/19/2015
Amy Copperman

From a bowl of Boston clam, to a cup of Manhattan, to an it-doesn't-even-matter-what-it-is-as-long-as-it's-in-a-bread-bowl, San Francisco is pretty flush with chowder options -- enough that it would be a challenge to taste them all and put together a list of the best ones in the entire city. A challenge that we accepted. Here they are, the 16 best chowdah bowls in the city:

Amy Copperman

Gigi’s Sotto Mare Oysteria & Seafood

North Beach
Price: $5 cup; $8.50 bowl
The clam chowder at this San Francisco institution tastes like a hug feels, thanks to stick-to-your-ribs consistency, finely chopped clams, and bacon. But you're gonna have to wait for it, probably more than an hour (but at least you'll get to do it while holding a beeper that's shaped like a lobster). The wait staff at this charming, narrow restaurant is almost as salty as the chowder -- but in a good-natured, we’ve-been-here-forever way that kind of completes the experience.

Amy Copperman

Swan Oyster Depot

Nob Hill
Price: $2.75 cup; $5 bowl
This 100-year-old fish market obviously serves a mean clam chowder -- this shouldn't surprise anyone. What should, though, is the fact that a bowl is a mere $5 (the price of some lattes less than a mile away). Also kind of awesome: one of the friendly fish-slingers will personally chop up the day's clams (likely brought in that morning), tossing them in a chowder that's thin -- buttery and briny -- rather than thick and creamy, but still comes with 1) a flavorful punch and 2) a loaf of bread and butter for a dollar more.
Pro tip: there’s always a line for this spot, but if you come alone, chances are you’ll be able to cut ahead. When you do finally score a seat at the counter, definitely add Dungeness crab and oysters on the half shell to your order.

Amy Copperman

Crab Station

Fisherman's Wharf
Price: $5.50 cup; $6.50 bread bowl
Fisherman’s Wharf probably has more crab stands than it does fishermen at this point -- which can make things overwhelming. Skip the first stand on the wharf and head to the almost-identical Crab Station next door. You’ll especially enjoy this rendition if you like your chowder on the thinner side and super clammy (we counted 14 pieces of clams in a single cup).
 

Nick's Lighthouse

Fisherman’s Wharf
Price: $6.95 cup; $9.50 bread bowl
If clams aren’t your thing, then... uh... why are you reading this article? Oh right, for the tasty crab chowder at this stand. It has the consistency of super-thick (almost pudding-like) New England chowdah, but it tastes totally different, and has a slightly greener color. It's filled with rock crab (so it’s not fresh), but it is flavorful. The whole kernels of corn also lend it a pleasant sweetness.

Amy Copperman

Alioto’s

Fisherman’s Wharf
Price: $5.50 cup; $6.50 bread bowl
Alioto’s is THE place to hit on the Taylor and Jefferson strip -- and not just because they throw in a Budweiser for only $3 more. It’s got Goldilocks-level thickness and is particularly heavy on the clam flavor. The guy behind the counter let us in on a little secret: the stand gets the soup from the fine dining portion of the operation upstairs, so unless you’re dying for full service, grabbing a bowl at this stand gives you the biggest bang for your buck. The clams are fresh, large, and chewy, and the broth has a nice bay leaf flavor.
 

Fisherman's Grotto

Fisherman’s Wharf
Price: $5.50 cup; $6.50 bread bowl
Stand number nine makes this list for its super-herby flavor. While the chowder is still as salty as your typical example, Fish Grotto doesn’t skimp on the other spices, so you enjoy a rounder, more robust taste that's milder on the clams and slightly thicker than Alioto’s.

Amy Copperman

Scoma's

Fisherman's Wharf
Price: $9 cup; $11 bowl
You can get cheaper chowders at one of the stands a few blocks away, but here you’re treated to views of actual fishermen (a rare sight on the wharf) and an Old San Francisco vibe. The chowder is delicious, too -- as thick as it gets and loaded with four different kinds of fresh clams.
 

Woodhouse Fish Co.

Duboce Triangle
Price: $6 cup; $10 bowl
For every 15 New England-style chowders in this town, there’s one Manhattan-style -- Boston-style’s lighter, tomato-y sister soup. And even harder to come by is Hartford Chowder, which -- you guessed it -- is a mixture of the two. But you can get all three at this casual eatery with a New England fish-house vibe. The New England chowder comes with a splash of white wine, which brightens and rounds out the flavor. And the Manhattan is delightfully tangy -- a great choice if you’re looking for something a little less rich.

Amy Copperman

Dante’s Weird Fish

The Mission
Price: $5 cup; $7 bowl
Flecks of flavorful scallions and colorful slivers of carrots offer a subtle twist on the classic. The soup is right in between thick and thin, and the rustic potatoes with the skin still on them are hearty and perfectly cooked (read: not too mealy). There’s generally no wait at this funky, hidden spot on Mission St and you can get bottomless mimosas for $10 on weekends until 3pm.
 

Mission Street Oyster Bar

The Mission
Price: $4.25 cup; $6.25 bowl
Medium-thick broth + mild, herby flavor = this tasty classic. Bonus: if you like a little soup with your oyster crackers, they've got extra packets up for grabs in massive shells on the bar. DOUBLE bonus: they also happen to have a killer happy hour everyday from 3-6pm with $2.50 draft beers and $1 oysters.

Amy Copperman

Anchor Oyster Bar

Castro
Price: $4.25 cup; $6.50 bowl
This casual, nautical Castro institution is so popular taht people show up a full 30 minutes early to write their name on the chalkboard, specifying down to the minute when they arrived. Overkill? Maybe. But also a testament to how fresh and perfectly simple the dishes are. The chowder is no different -- classic, mild, creamy, and served with both oyster crackers and a few pieces of sourdough. In a feat of chowder engineering, the celery pieces manage to still have a slight crunch to them.
 

The Ramp

Dogpatch
Price: $5 cup; $7.50 bowl
We like this outdoor spot for its live music, Bloody Marys, and general merriment, but we LIKE like this place for its more-than-decent chowder that’s peppery, herby, and filled with big chunks of clams and potatoes. Plus, something about being on the waterfront among actual fisherman just makes this chowder taste better.

Amy Copperman

Bar Crudo

Divisadero
Price: $8 cup; $16 bowl
The most creative take on chowder comes from Bar Crudo on Divis. The broth is impossibly rich and tangy, with a creamy tomato base, and comes loaded with fish, squid, muscles, and thick pieces of smoked bacon. It’s kind of a nice place, so maybe don't lick the bowl?
Pro tip: Snag seats at the bar during happy hour (5-6:30pm) when a cup of the chowder goes for $6 and you can pair it with $1 oysters and other discounted specials.
 

Boudin Bakery

Fisherman’s Wharf, Financial District
Price: $8.95 bread bowl
Relatively light on the clam flavor, cream and potatoes are the star of this super-thick, gloriously white rendition, making it perfect for the seafood newbie who’s wary of anything too fishy. The flagship bakery hall on Jefferson St is the spot to take visitors (they have a tour on-site), while the Market St location will satisfy mid-week chowder cravings. Either way, get the sourdough bread bowl because, sourdough bread bowl.

The Old Clam House

The Old Clam House

Bayview
Price: $7.95 cup; $10.95 bowl
This recipe is as old as the restaurant it’s served in (154 years!), making it one of the original San Francisco chowders and completely worth the trek to Bayview. Homemade clam sauce and fresh clams are simmered in a rich broth and served in a sourdough bread bowl made fresh daily -- it doesn’t get much better. Can’t get enough clams? You’re treated to a shot of clam juice as an aperitif no matter what you order.
 

Hog Island Oyster Bar

Embarcadero
Price: $14 bowl
While $14 is a little steep for a bowl of something you can get for half the price elsewhere, Hog Island sets its clam chowder apart thanks to the loads of Tomales Bay clams in the shell loaded on top. Plus, it’s the Ferry Building and you’re partly paying for the tourist-friendly views of the Bay Bridge and fresh sea air. Treat yo’self.

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Amy Copperman is a freelance writer in San Francisco. She is blaming her winter weight gain entirely on this assignment. (So worth it.)

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1. Sotto Mare Oysteria and Seafood Restaurant 552 Green St, San Francisco, CA 94133 (North Beach)

This aggressively nautical North Beach seafood sanctuary is a San Francisco institution, with some of the best chowder-filled bread bowls in a city full of them, $1.50 oyster specials on Mondays and Saturdays. The wait can be long and the waitstaff can be salty (but in a charming "we've been doing this a while" kind of way), but once you have a bite of velvety, bacon-y, clam chowder you won't be thinking about anything else.

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2. 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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3. Crab Station 2803 Taylor St, San Francisco, CA 94133 (Fishermans Wharf)

Fisherman’s Wharf probably has more crab stands than it does fishermen at this point -- which can make things overwhelming -- but not all of them are created equal. In a district that is far from hurting for options when it comes to chowder in a bread bowl, Crab Station stands (!) out for those who prefer theirs slightly on the thinner side with plenty of clam hunks in every bowl.

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4. Alioto's Restaurant 8 Fishermans Wharf, San Francisco, CA 94133 (Fishermans Wharf)

Experience a slice of San Francisco history at Alioto’s Restaurant, a Fisherman’s Wharf seafood gem. Sicilian immigrant Nunzio Alioto opened his first fish stall in 1925, which turned into a full-fledged restaurant by 1938. Here, you’ll find famous San Francisco clam chowder served in a bread bowl (which you can grab from the counter below the restaurant, too), fresh pastas, lobster thermidor, and seafood towers. Enjoy views of the Bay as you feel like a tourist in this quintessential San Francisco restaurant.

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5. Fisherman's Grotto 9 Fishermans Wharf, San Francisco, CA 94133 (Fishermans Wharf)

This tiny waterfront shack is ladling out some super herby flavor. While the chowder here is still as salty as classic versions, they don’t skimp on the other spices, so you enjoy a rounder, more robust taste.

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6. Nick's Lighthouse 2815 Taylor St, San Francisco, CA 94133 (Fishermans Wharf)

You can get some tasty crab chowder at this stand. It has the consistency of super-thick (almost pudding-like) New England chowder, but it tastes totally different and has a slight green color. They use Rock Crab (so it’s not fresh), but it is flavorful. The whole kernels of corn lend it a pleasant sweetness.

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7. Scoma's 1 Al Scoma Way, San Francisco, CA 94133 (Fishermans Wharf)

You can get cheaper chowders at one of the stands a few blocks away, but here you’re treated to views of actual fishermen (a rare sight on the wharf) and an Old San Francisco vibe. The chowder is delicious, too -- as thick as it gets and loaded with four different kinds of fresh clams.

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8. Woodhouse Fish Co. 2073 Market St, San Francisco, CA 94114 (The Castro)

Whether you find yourself in the Castro or Lower Pac Heights, Woodhouse Fish Co. is your go-to for New England-style seafood in a nautical setting. Nosh on packed-to-the-brim lobster rolls, three styles of clam chowder, and dollar oysters all day on Tuesdays. Although this casual joint doesn’t demand attention, you’ll still find superb cioppino and perfectly cooked fish that rival those at Woodhouse’s fine dining counterparts.

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9. Boudin Bakery & Cafe 160 Jefferson St, San Francisco, CA 94133 (Fishermans Wharf)

This bakery's flagship hall on Jefferson St is the spot to take visitors (they have a tour on site). The sourdough bread bowl is the move: relatively light on the clam flavor, cream and potatoes are the star of this super-thick, gloriously white rendition, making it perfect for the seafood newbie who’s wary of anything too fishy.

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10. Dante's Weird Fish 2193 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110 (The Mission)

There’s generally no wait at this funky, hidden spot on Mission St, and they serve bottomless mimosas for a mere $10 on weekends until 3pm. (We repeat: Mimosas without the wait.) Flecks of flavorful scallions and colorful slivers of carrots offer a subtle twist on the classic chowder at this joint. The soup is right in between thick and thin and the rustic potatoes with the skin still on them are hearty and perfectly cooked (read: not too mealy).

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11. Mission Street Oyster Bar 2282 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110 (The Mission)

This seafood market-cum-restaurant is a known spot for deliciously fresh fare.

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12. Anchor Oyster Bar 579 Castro St, San Francisco, CA 94114 (The Castro)

Cioppani should be among your considerations to order at this seafood spot, whether you see it spelled out on the menu or not(it's always available). The wait will likely be long but having been churning out soju oyster shooters, carb cakes with housemade tartar, and cracked dungeness crab for over 40 years, it's worth it.

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13. The Ramp 855 Terry Francois St, San Francisco, CA 94158 (Dogpatch)

We love this funky, outdoor spot for its live music, Bloody Marys, and general merriment. But we're even more stoked on it since discovering they also offer a more-than-decent chowder that’s peppery, herby, and filled with big chunks of clams and potatoes.

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14. Bar Crudo 655 Divisadero St, San Francisco, CA 94117 (Alamo Square)

If Nopa made the Divisadero neighborhood what it is today, Bar Crudo solidified its status as a golden dining destination. For over a decade, Bar Crudo has been serving up a seriously good happy hour and dinner that’s ideal for family visits. It’s perpetually packed and one of the city’s most underrated restaurants, with a bumping happy hour that features dollar oysters, fish tacos, and sumptuous seafood chowder. Don’t miss the crudo sampler, uni avocado toast, and lobster burrata salad at this small restaurant that packs a punch.

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15. The Old Clam House 299 Bay Shore Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94124 (Bayview)

Anyone who has spent time playing soccer on Silver Ave or driving down Bayshore Boulevard or just living around SF knows the Old Clam House’s iconic sign and that giant clam sitting on the side of the roof and the fact that it’s the oldest restaurant in the same location in SF. But more people should know about their incredible clam bake cioppino and the amazing kettle bread they bring out with hot clam juice and their own “Milwaukee steam beer."

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16. Hog Island Oyster Co. 1 Ferry Building, San Francisco, CA 94111 (Embarcadero)

Hog Island Oyster Bar, located in the Ferry Building Marketplace, does its namesake proud; for those that love oysters, few places do it better. With outdoor seating that truly completes the seafaring experience, a grilled-cheese sandwich with superb word-of-mouth buzz, and cold, IPA brews to complement, Hog Island has serious make-a-day-out-of-it appeal.

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