The Ultimate Guide to Eating, Drinking, and Killing Time at San Francisco International Airport

A terminal-by-terminal guide to the best pre-flight meals and activities.

Busy San Francisco International Airport
Photo courtesy of San Francisco International Airport
Photo courtesy of San Francisco International Airport

San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is genuinely one of the best airports for gourmandism in the country. That means you’re out of luck if you’re looking for standard airport fare like pretzels from Auntie Anne’s or a Cinnabon cinnamon roll. In fact, the only mainstream fast food is a Burger King in Terminal 3 and a Wendy’s in the Main Hall of Ed Lee International (pre-security). But that’s all fine because you will find all sorts of restaurants that most people would love to eat at even when not embarking on—or in the midst of—an adventure. From dim sum to freshly baked sourdough, classic burgers to tapas, there’s truly something for every palate at this airport—especially if you’re craving fried chicken, which you can find in some form in nearly every terminal. There are also coffee “shops,” wine bars, and sports bars.

But that's not all SFO has to offer. If you’re just looking for a way to kill some time, there's permanent artwork and temporary exhibitions in more than 20 galleries throughout the airport and even more opportunities to eat, drink, and chill out. Keep reading four our terminal by terminal guide to getting the most out of your time at the airport, which may just happen to sway your decision about where to fly next. 

San Franpsycho
San Franpsycho | Photo courtesy of San Francisco International Airport

Harvey Milk Terminal 1B

Closest Gate: B7/B8
Chef Michael Mina’s Bourbon Pub is the spot to go if you want to watch the game on big-screen TVs. The menu is heavy on comfort food classics, like a crispy buffalo chicken sandwich, an over-the-top burger on a brioche bun with caramelized onions and mushrooms, bacon, smoked gouda, and truffle aioli; beef chili with cheddar and Fritos, and a side of cornbread; and mac and cheese with cheddar, broccoli, and garlic bread crumbs. For morning flights (until 11 am), there’s also comfort food in the form of breakfast fare, like an English muffin breakfast sandwich with thick-cut bacon, egg, and cheese, as well as some lighter options, like a Greek-inspired avocado toast. Diane Mina’s famous Bloody Mary, which was served initially during 49ers parking lot tailgates, goes with it all and shouldn’t be skipped if you enjoy a breakfast cocktail with a kick.

Closest Gate: B3
This local Vietnamese sandwich eatery is a fantastic choice if you want something fast, fresh, and flavorful. The playful takes on banh mi sandwiches are great to “grab and go” before you board the plane, and there are even a few breakfast options (bacon and egg banh mi—yes, please) in case your flight is in the AM. (Flying out of Terminal 3? There’s another Bun Mee near Gates F11 to F22.)

Closest Gate: B6
Vegetarians will be stoked to know they can eat anything on Amy’s Drive Thru menu, but even omnivores will enjoy this fancy plant-based fast food joint where the ingredients are all organic and non-GMO, and every item can be made vegan upon request. But just because it’s good for you doesn’t mean it doesn’t also taste good. The go-to order is the double patty veggie burger with double cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, and a secret sauce, but there are a few other options, like mac and cheese, chili, and fries, that can be eaten separately or together (obviously get them together with cheese).

Closet Gate: B13
You can bring one of Starbird’s chicken sandwiches on the plane with you, but to do so would be cruel to your seatmate, who will have to hold back their drool while you savor the crunchy crispy chicken on freshly baked bread with whatever toppings you desire (the classic with slaw, avocado, and mayo is a stalwart, but the Korean and Nashville versions also hold their own). And even though it’s technically fast food (in SF terms, anyway), you can feel good about what you’re eating because the chicken is all locally raised, sustainably farmed, and antibiotic-free. We love the chicken sandwiches, but Starbird also has chicken tenders, salads with local vegetables, tacos, and wings, most of which can also be made with grilled chicken or a plant-based protein.

​​Closet Gate: B9
If coffee is more than just a drink you require to function, stop by Illy for a cup of “gourmet” java, as well as baked goods, salads, and paninis.

Closet Gate: B Gates Security Checkpoint
If you want local coffee, Ritual is the best place in SFO. All of the coffee is sourced from smallholder farmers who are paid double to triple the commodity market value for specialty grade coffees, and you can all the staples: espresso, lattes, drip, and pour over. The SFO location also has cold-pressed juices, acai bowls, sandwiches, and wraps.

Closet Gate: Departures level, curbside, near Door #1
Off the Grid has a curbside spot on the Departures level for rotating weekday food trucks from 11 am to 2 pm. The program is pretty much geared toward airport employees looking for a more affordable dining option, but there’s no reason you can’t get in on the action. The trucks will rotate, but you’re basically guaranteed a good meal no matter which vendor is in the parking spot.

Closet Gate: B9
Forget to pick up an SF souvenir? San Fran Psycho has you covered with laid-back SF-inspired clothing and accessories that locals actually wear.

Little Skillet service counter
Little Skillet | Photo courtesy of San Francisco International Airport

Terminal 2: Boarding Area C and Boarding Area D

Closest Gate: D9
Cat Cora, the first-ever female Iron Chef, has a bunch of airport restaurants, and this one is similar to those with lots of small plates, including lamb meatballs, grilled cheese, and spicy tomato soup (a fancy version, of course), and a “hearty burger.” There’s also a decent Northern California-focused wine list and a full bar with specialty cocktails. The vibe is casual lounge, or as much as one can get a casual lounge vibe at an airport anyway.

Closest Gate: C4
It was a tough day for all San Franciscans when Farmerbrown shuttered its Tenderloin locations, so if we find ourselves flying Delta or Alaska, we make it a point to get there early so we can sit down and enjoy a plate of chicken and waffles and a bourbon iced tea. Pro-tip: get a piece (or two) of the house-made honey butter cornbread to enjoy on the plane.

Closest Gate: D1
You’ll need a decent amount of time if you want to enjoy the food at this upscale (for an airport) sit-down grill known where you’ll find pub standards like wings, fish tacos, a turkey club, and a grass-fed burger. And since you’re sitting down, you might as well enjoy a specialty cocktail (or wine and beer) with your meal. Lark Creek Grill also has a bunch of breakfast options, including a breakfast sandwich (or wrap), pancakes, and a couple of scrambles. Just FYI: Lark Creek Grill has pared down its offerings in recent years, so there are no more sizzling steaks or giant ice cream sundaes; if it’s been a while since you’ve been there, be sure to check the menu first.

Closet Gate: C4
We hit up the SoMa location of Little Skillet on the regular, so of course, the airport version is on this list. All there really is to say is: hot fried chicken and fresh waffles and speedy service. There is other stuff on the menu, but that is not why you are going here. If you want a quick breakfast, Napa Farms is your spot.

Closest Gate: D Gates (and International Terminal G near Gate 3)
This artisanal “farm-to-flight” market is your best option for grab-and-go food in the airport as you’ll find food from local well-known favorites like Equator Coffee, Tyler Florence Fresh, Cow Girl Creamery Cheese, Acme Bread, Vino Volo, and Kara’s Cupcakes. The market focuses on organic, sustainable, and local ingredients and also has plenty of gluten-free and vegan options. The menu differs slightly between terminals, but highlights include the decadent deli sandwiches and the pesto chicken pizza. Breakfast options include a yogurt and granola bar, a robust bagel bar, and a few breakfast sandwiches. This is also the perfect place to pick up a gift for your host, like gourmet chocolates, locally-made soaps, olive oil, and wine.

Closet Gate: Pre-security
Stretch your legs and get some fresh air and a view of where all four runways intersect atop Terminal 2, which is open to the general public from 10 am to 6 pm every Friday through Monday.

Closet Gate: D Gates (There is also a Yoga Room in Terminal 3)
This is pretty self-explanatory, but if you’re looking for a place to practice yoga or meditation, this is where you want to go. It’s free of charge and quiet, which is sometimes exactly what you need during a layover.

SF Uncork’d
SF Uncork’d | Photo courtesy of San Francisco International Airport

Terminal 3: Boarding Area E and F

Closest Gates: F11 to F20
The name for this spot is pretty self-explanatory, and the menu is similar to the location in Cole Valley/Ashbury Heights, but if you’re looking for suggestions, our favorites are the bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich, the classic breakfast burrito, and the bacon cheeseburger. Oh, and this location has one thing we wish the other one had: Milkshakes.

Closest Gates: F11 to F22
Koi’s Palace’s dim sum is legendary in the Bay Area, and this kiosk is the perfect quick stop to get your fill of siu mai, har gaw, bbq pork bao, xiao long bao, and lots of cooked-to-order meals, like beef chow fun, pork fried rice, and stir-fry xo spicy char-siu udon. It’s not quite the same quality as the Daly City original (which is amazing), but if you just remind yourself that you’re eating delicious dim sum in an airport, you won’t care for even a second.

Closest Gates: F11 to F22
Proposition Chicken’s sandwiches are the stuff chicken sandwich dreams are made of. We like our chicken fried, but you can also get it flipped (grilled) or fake (crispy BBQ tofu) and comes with spicy slaw, mayo, and a side of sage potato chips. You can also get your chicken in salad form but why when you can get it in sandwich form?

Closest Gate: F13
Giants fans will love this restaurant for the memorabilia and orange and black vibe, while sports fans of all kinds will be hyped about the huge wrap-around digital wall showing all of the games. Not into either of those things? Well, the baseball-inspired menu will probably win you over because the Clubhouse knocks it out of the, ahem, airport with a menu that includes sandwiches, burgers, a classic dog, crispy shrimp tacos, and, of course, the famous garlic fries, which is a REAL choice if you’re about to get on a plane.

Closet Gate: F16
Obviously, this isn’t a wine bar in the traditional sense in that there’s no low lighting, and you’re probably not going there on a second date (although if your second date involves plane travel, well done!), but for an airport wine bar, it does what it needs to. In that it has wine. No, seriously though, there’s a good selection of California wines, craft beers, champagnes and sparkling wines, plus a fairly extensive menu of nibbles (popcorn, Marcona almonds, a hummus trio, etc.), cheese and meat boards, and a bunch of salads, sandwiches, sliders, and pizzas (it may “just” be a wine bar but it has one of the most extensive food selections you’ll find in this terminal). You can even get a breakfast sandwich or frittata to pair with your breakfast wine.

Gott's Roadside food court
Gott's Roadside | Photo courtesy of San Francisco International Airport

International Terminal A: Boarding Area A

Closest Gate: A2
Visiting family or friends? A loaf of sourdough from this classic SF bakery is an excellent gift. For you, may we suggest the classic clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl if you’re planning to sit down and eat and any of the sandwiches (save for the dips) if you’re grabbing something for the plane? There are also sourdough pizzas and, if you’re traveling in the morning, some good breakfast options.

Closest Gate: A13
Whether in Napa, at the Ferry Building, or even at SFO, Gott’s is always a solid dining option. The move here is one of the burgers—classic, Impossible, turkey, or veggie. There are a bunch to choose from (though not as many if you go to a Gott’s NOT in an airport), but you really can’t go wrong with a classic cheeseburger. Make it a double and add bacon if you’re extra hungry. The chicken tacos and breakfast options also hit the spot, and there’s a full bar, which is always a good thing in an airport.

High-end Retails Stores

Closet Gate: Varies
If you’re a shopper who likes to splurge, this is the terminal for you. Stores include Burberry, Gucci, Hermes, Saint Laurent, and Swarovski.

Mustards Bar & Grill busy eatery
Mustards Bar & Grill | Photo courtesy of San Francisco International Airport

International Terminal G

Closest Gate: G3
Mustards Grill is a Napa Valley staple for good food and amazing wine, and the SFO outpost does the restaurant justice, although, to be fair, it feels more like a sports bar than a charming bistro. Menu favorites include the fish and chips and the lamb burger, both of which will wow you when you remember that you’re eating in an airport, as will the exceptionally friendly service and excellent wine selection.

Closet Gate: G7
A few years ago, SFO declared an initiative to reduce background noise—one that staff estimates has eliminated more than 90 minutes of unnecessary announcements each day in the International Terminal alone—which helps Tomozaku feel like the zen-like Japanese restaurant it is. Enjoy that serenity as you take in the light wood seating, clean design, and sushi chefs doing what they do best: making you fresh and delicious sashimi, nigiri, and rolls. (There are also teriyaki rice bowls and udon, soba, and ramen noodles.)

Closet Gate: End of Boarding Area G
If you have a little one who loves planes or need some fresh air between flights, head to this observation deck with comfortable seating and 180-degree views of the airfield.

Shower Facilities
Shower Facilities | Photo courtesy of San Francisco International Airport

International Terminal Main Hall

Closest Gate: Entrance to G Gates (pre-security)
Last chance (or first chance if you’re arriving) for fairly authentic made-to-order Mission-style burritos, tacos, and bowls. If you’ve ever eaten at a legit Mission taqueria, this will be a bit of a letdown, but if, for some reason, you weren’t able to hit one up on your trip, this will do a pretty good job of scratching the itch.

Closest Gate: Entrance to G Gates (pre-security)
Small plates and beer sound good to us, but this is another one that’s pre-security, so you either need to be willing to go through security again or get to the airport fairly early before your flight. If you do, you’ll find a full bar and small plates for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Closest Gate: Entrance to G Gates (pre-security)
Open 24/7, this is the place to go when you’re suffering through an agonizing delay and are in desperate need of a shower or a nap. A 30-minute “Deluxe Shower” will run you around $30, while a three-hour nap (the minimum) will cost $150, but the price of feeling human again: priceless. Add a shower or another person (ooh la la!) for an extra $25 each.

Closest Gate: Entrance to G Gates (pre-security)
Open every day from 10 am to 4:30 pm, the collections in this free museum focus on the history of commercial air transport (including a model of a DC-3), the airline industry, and San Francisco International Airport. Plus, the museum is an architectural adaptation of the Airport's 1930s passenger lobby, so you’ll get to travel back in time. Sort of.

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Daisy Barringer is a San Francisco-based freelance writer with over 15 years of professional experience as a copywriter and editorial journalist. Her areas of expertise include hamburgers, road trips, the 49ers, and anything and everything NorCal. She grew up in San Francisco and has a BFA in Dramatic Writing from New York University and an MFA in Creative Writing from UNC Wilmington, the latter of which she commonly refers to as “the time she spent three years at creative writing summer camp.” Follow her on Instagram @daisysf, where you’re guaranteed cute pics of her 160-pound Saint Bernard named Monkey.