30 Essential San Francisco Foods and Dining Experiences

Get started on them ASAP.

What makes a restaurant, or a dish, essential? Is it the setting, the ingredients, or the vibe you get from the staff? More likely than not, it’s some combination of the three, coupled with the hard-to-define qualities that make it feel like this restaurant or dish could only exist here, in this place, at this time. San Francisco, with its long, storied food culture and equally colorful, indulgent history has no shortage of these places. Some have been around for decades, while others are new, fresh, and just as inextricable from the city’s flavor DNA.

Here is a motley, patchwork list of 30 restaurants, dishes, and foods in San Francisco that we deem essential, drawn from our own experiences and bolstered with recommendations from other trusted food-minded folks. Is this list definitive? Of course not. Is it delicious? You bet. Consider it a heartfelt love letter to just some of the best this city has to offer, and a hit list of spots that we find ourselves relishing all the more these days.

@zunicafe

Split the chicken for two at Zuni

Hayes Valley
If you were to have one meal in San Francisco—EVER—Zuni would be a strong candidate for capturing the city’s food scene at it’s best. And, in this informal poll of essential San Francisco dishes, nearly every one who responded, food writers and food lovers alike, cited The Chicken. The Chicken, of course, is Zuni’s incomparable roast chicken for two, boasting a whole bird cooked to snappy-crisp-skinned, juicy perfection in the restaurant’s wood-fired oven, served atop a currant-studded bread salad plump with drippings and brightened with a bitter-fresh scattering of greens and vinaigrette. The Chicken marries simplicity with skill, comfort, and familiarity with an almost revelatory combination of flavor and texture. It’s magnificent. It also takes an hour to prepare, giving you ample time to sample a selection of West Coast oysters, house-cured anchovies, an actually perfect Caesar salad, the shoestring fries... we could go on. Everything at Zuni is wonderful; it’s the best of California cuisine with none of the cliches. There is no bad seat in the house, but our favorite thing to do is snag a table in the bar area, tucked in the restaurant’s iconic, triangular corner window.
How to order: Zuni is open for outdoor and limited indoor dining. Make reservations here, or call 415-552-2522.

Swan Oyster Depot
Swan Oyster Depot

Stand in line at Swan Oyster Depot

Nob Hill
Waiting in line for a seat at the counter of this pocket-sized seafood shop on Polk Street is basically a required right of passage in San Francisco. It’s also a rare breed of restaurant that is a constant draw for locals and tourists alike. Whatever gets you there, the wait is always worth it. Start with a dozen oysters; move on to the crab back, best sopped up with the ever-present wedges of sourdough bread; consider a Louie salad if you’re feeling classic. The one thing you can’t miss is the Sicilian sashimi, an assortment of thin-sliced raw salmon, scallops, and tuna, drizzled with olive oil and finished with salt and capers. It’s perfect, especially washed down with a cold Anchor Steam.
How to order: Seating is available on a first-come basis. Call 415-673-1101 to order pickup.

Eat Julia Child-approved imperial rolls at Tu Lan

SOMA
Julia Child once dined at Tu Lan, or so the story goes according to the excerpt from legendary San Francisco newspaper columnist Herb Caen, which is scratchily reproduced on the front of the restaurant’s menus. But this no-frills Vietnamese restaurant doesn’t need a celebrity chef endorsement as far as we’re concerned. The food here is outstanding—from the fried fish in ginger sauce to the shatter-crisp fried imperial rolls, bursting with well-spiced pork. Over-order and turn your leftovers into fried rice the next day. 
How to order: Seating is available on a first-come basis. Order delivery here, and takeout here.

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Nopa Burger
Nopasf

Have a late night dinner at the bar or communal table at Nopa

Western Addition
A longtime industry favorite thanks to its late hours—in San Francisco, it can be challenging to find a good meal after 10 pm—Nopa feels, to so many, like so much more than a restaurant. It’s a community hub, an institution, a place for special occasions, and a place to drop in for a cocktail and a burger at midnight. And the food, from the aforementioned burger (salty, rare, perfect) to the tender-brined pork chop or the house-smoked trout atop thick slices of bread or the unctuous bolognese (and don’t even get us started on brunch… that French toast!) is basically perfect. Nopa is the kind of restaurant that always seems to be exactly what you want, when you want it. And while there’s no bad time of day to dine there, late night dinners have a special kind of magic about them. Their takeout game was a bright spot throughout the pandemic, not to mention the introduction of their Morroccan-spiced fried chicken. But there’s no comparison to being back in that dining room, with the evening light slanting through the windows, and the sounds of the city coming back to life all around. The restaurant plans to reopen their dining room for fully-capacity indoor dining as of July 6. 
How to order: Nopa is open for indoor and outdoor dining. Make a reservation here.

Taqueria El Farolito burrito
Taqueria El Farolito

Eat a late night Mission burrito

Mission
The Mission burrito is a legend unto itself, a hand-held meal created to test the biggest of appetites. The form is deceptive simple—flour tortilla, loaded with rice, beans, meat of choice, salsas, guac, and sour cream if you make it super, wrapped tightly and encased in a sheath of foil—but there is art in every step, from the light griddle of the tortilla, rendering it warm and pliant, to the texture and seasoning of the meat, to the flavor of the beans, to the tenderness of the rice, to the quality of the salsas. Everyone has a favorite spot for a Mission burrito, but standouts include La Taqueria (order it dorado for an extra crisp-up on the griddle post-roll), El Farolito, Taqueria Cancun, and El Metate. And while you can make a meal (or two) out of it whenever, polishing one off after a night at the bars is its own kind of San Francisco initiation (get a second one to throw in the fridge when you get home for tomorrow’s hangover).

Tacos El Patron
Tacos El Patron | Marcus Carnero

Go on a taco crawl in the Mission 

Mission
San Francisco may be famous (or infamous) for our giant burritos, but the taco situation is not one to be overlooked. And there’s no better way to explore the buzzing, colorful Mission neighborhood, which, despite rapid gentrification and changing demographics, still maintains its soul. Some favorites include the perfect, flavorful pollo asado at the El Gallo Giro taco truck, the lengua at La Oaxaquena, fish tacos at Lolo, carnitas at Nopalito’s new Dolores Park-adjacent window, and dripping birria tacos from Tacos El Patron. Oh, and anything on a fresh, handmade tortilla from La Palma Mexicatessen.

cioppino
Scoma's Restaurant

Warm up on a foggy day with a giant bowl of cioppino (bib recommended)

Multiple locations
A garlic-heavy, tomato-based seafood stew, cioppino is the product of San Francisco’s long tradition of Italian fishermen, who would “chip in” whatever leftover fish they had from the day’s haul. Now, it’s a must-try when visiting the city, or for anyone looking for soul-satisfying warmth on an ocean-scented foggy day. Try it at Scoma’s, perched on Pier 47; Sotto Mare, a North Beach staple; or Anchor Oyster Bar, a cozy neighborhood joint in the Castro.
How to order: Anchor Oyster Bar is open for first-come, first-serve indoor dining. Scoma’s is open for indoor and outdoor dining, make reservations here. Sotto Mare is open for indoor and outdoor dining, call 415-398-3138 for reservations.

Feast on chicken wings at San Tung

Inner Sunset
An Inner Sunset staple, San Tung is justly famous for their dry fried chicken wings, tossed in a garlicky, peppery sauce. But don’t sleep on other hits on their extensive menu, including homemade noodles in black bean sauce, dry fried string beans, and dumplings.
How to order: San Tung is open for takeout and delivery. Call 415-242-0828 to order.

Dumpling Time
Scallop Siu Mai at Dumpling Time | Photo courtesy of Patricia Chang

Take a dumpling tour of the city

All over
A category that deserves many thousands of words and ample praise, San Francisco’s dumpling scene is strong. How to tackle it like a pro? Sample made-to-order dumplings at Yuanbao Jiaozi on Irving Street, followed by the juicy, lamb-filled Westlake Dumplings at Old Mandarin Islamic on Vicente. Cruise out to Shanghai Dumpling King for pan-fried pork buns, and stop by Bini’s Kitchen for outstanding lamb and turkey momos. Oh, and don’t forget Dumpling Time’s marvelous creations, including a tom yum-inspired soup dumpling. Or Z&Y Restaurant’s spicy dumplings. Or any single dumpling available at Mister Jiu’s. Or Red Tavern’s pelmeni. 
How to order: Yuanbao Jiaozi and Bini’s Kitchen are open for takeout. Z&Y is open for indoor and outdoor dining, make reservations here. Shanghai Dumpling King and Dumpling time are open for first-come, first-serve dining and takeout and delivery. Old Mandarin Islamic is open for first-come, first-serve indoor and outdoor dining, or call 415-564-3481 for reservations. Mister Jiu’s is open for indoor dining, make reservations here. and Red Tavern is open for outdoor dining, make reservations here.

Dragon Beaux Restaurant
Dragon Beaux Restaurant

Stand in line for Sunday dim sum

Richmond, Embarcadero
“... but what about the amazing shumai and pork buns and potstickers at [insert name of your favorite dim sum joint here]?” GREAT QUESTION, hungry reader: We couldn’t bear killing our darlings in this already fraught list of favorites, so we’re making dim sum its own damn entry. And there’s nothing like a dim sum feast on a Sunday, alongside multigenerational families stretching the brunch hour deep into the afternoon. Some favorites include Hong Kong Lounge and Dragon Beaux for sit-down feasts, Good Luck Dim Sum for takeaway, and Yank Sing on the Embarcadero for Peking duck and xiao long bao followed by a walk on the water.
How to order: Hong Kong Lounge is open for indoor dining, make reservations here. Dragon Beaux is open for indoor and outdoor dining, make reservations here. Yank Sing is open for indoor and outdoor dining, make reservations here. Good Luck Dim Sum is open for takeout.

The Morris
The Morris

Drink a Chartreuse slushy at The Morris

Dogpatch
It’s a special kind of restaurant that makes every meal feel like a convivial, memorable dinner party. The Morris does just that, if your dinner parties tend to involve magnificent platters of housemade charcuterie, Dungeness crab-topped rice porridge, whole roasted ducks, and one of the funner, better wine lists in the city. But the one must is kicking things off with a chartreuse slushy, the restaurant’s signature drink, a seriously sophisticated sipper masquerading as a crushable party drink. Then again, why can’t it be both? The Morris is proof-positive that we don’t have to choose. 
How to order: The Morris is open for outdoor dining. Make reservations here.

Nari curry
Nari_sf

Try all of the curries at Nari 

Japantown 
It’s no exaggeration to say that some of the most thrilling Thai food in the city can be found at Nari, chef Pim Techamuanvivit’s stunner of a restaurant in the Hotel Kabuki in Japantown. Notably, her deeply complex curries, each a masterpiece of flavor and texture, have been known to cause near-religious experiences for some diners. The curries are musts, but everything else on the menu exemplifies no-holds-barred Thai flavors and standout technique. Nari’s stunning space is easily one of the most gorgeous dining rooms in town, too. 
How to order: Nari is open for indoor dining. Make reservations here.

Burma Superstar
Burma Superstar

Eat the tea leaf salad at the Original Burma Superstar

Inner Richmond
This sweet spot in the Richmond has been a San Francisco staple since opening in 1992, and still draws crowds for it’s flavorful menu of Burmese cuisine. Everything is delicious but the textured, flavor-filled tea leaf salad has become San Francisco canon for a reason. The rainbow salad, moh hinga, and samosa soup are hard to pass up, too.
How to order: Burma Superstar is open for takeout and delivery. Order online here

Bike out for fresh fish by the beach at Hook Fish Co.

Outer Sunset
A beachside seafood shack centered around sustainably caught, traceable seafood, Hook is a neighborhood joint, beloved by local surfers, that has caught the attention and adoration of the city at large, as evidenced by the long lines of bike-toting patrons on weekends. Sampling the fresh-grilled catch of the day in taco, sandwich, or burrito form is always a good call, especially accompanied by fresh-fried tortilla chips and guacamole. That said, it’s hard to beat the poke burrito—sesame oil-rich albacore is layered with black beans, slaw, avocado, radish, and pico de gallo made even better with ample use of the housemade carrot habanero hot sauce.
How to order: Hook is open for takeout and first come first serve outdoor dining. Order online here.

Toyose
Toyose

Have a 1 am feast at Toyose

Outer Sunset
Housed in a converted garage on a sleepy stretch in the Outer Sunset, Toyose is legendary for its late hours, spicy fried chicken wings, and massive bottles of Hite beer. It may specialize in a kind of Korean drinking food, but Toyose’s flavors stand very much on their own. Still, there’s nothing better than tucking into a cozy booth on a cold, foggy night. Beyond the standout wings, the japchae, kimchi fried rice, and kimchi pancake are all excellent (and yes, do go very well with beer and soju). 
How to order: Indoor and outdoor seating is available on a first-come basis.

Tony's Pizza Napoletana
Tony's Pizza Napoletana

Embrace the lack of San Francisco-Style Pizza

North Beach, Bernal Heights, SOMA
“Uh, what exactly is San Francisco-style pizza?” you might be thinking. And the answer is: there is no ONE San Francisco-style pizza, which makes for a rich, delicious, magnificent landscape of pizza eating for all. From Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in North Beach, home to a stunning array of perfectly crafted pizza styles, to PizzaHacker in Bernal Heights, where you’ll find sourdough pizza crust loaded with top-notch seasonal ingredients, to Square Pie Guys, perfectors of crisp-edged, Detroit-style perfection, to Che Fico’s controversially charred (but delicious!) iterations, it’s a pizza-lover’s world here. We’re just living in it. 
How to order: Tony’s is open for first-come indoor and outdoor dining. Che Fico Alimentari is open for indoor and outdoor dining, make reservations here. PizzaHacker and Square Pie Guys are open for takeout and delivery.

Tartine Bakery
Tartine Bakery

Carbo-load at Tartine Bakery

Mission
Tartine has been drawing lines down the block from its corner location in the Mission for years, long before they expanded across the city (including the outstanding Tartine Manufactory, which includes full meal service and booze, among other things), California, and the world. But the bakery remains one of the most delicious cross sections of San Francisco’s standout flour-centric culture—gorgeous, immaculately crafted pastries and sweets (morning buns! gougeres! croissants! tarts!!) and sticky interiored, crusty sourdough bread. Why choose between baked goods when you can, indeed, have it all? (For more excellent pastries, check out Craftsman and Wolves, Arsicault, and b. Patisserie.)
How to order: Tartine is open for takeout and delivery. Order online here.

State Bird Provisions
State Bird Provisions

Choose-your-own-adventure at State Bird Provisions

Fillmore
Dining at State Bird Provisions is many things—delicious, dynamic, warm, fun. From the dim sum-style carts making the rounds to legendary dishes like garlic-laced donuts topped with burrata, chicken liver mousse, and sourdough sauerkraut pancakes doused with pecorino. Then, there’s the bird itself, crisp-skinned and resting on a bed of savory, lemon-laced caramelized onions. 
How to order: State Bird is open for indoor and outdoor dining. Make reservations here.

House of Prime Rib
House of Prime Rib

Dress Up for a martini-fueled dinner at House of Prime Rib

Russian Hill
Say what you will about San Francisco’s commitment to vegetable-forward dishes, seasonally changing menus, locally sourced everything—one of the best, and most beloved restaurants in the city has a never-changing menu, and centers around massive sides of beef. Welcome to the House of Prime Rib, a temple to tradition, where the only choices you have to make include the cut of meat you’d like, if you want your potatoes mashed or baked, whether you’d prefer creamed spinach or corn (the answer is always spinach), and just how dirty you want that martini (very). The food is delicious but it’s the experience that makes HOPR especially outstanding, centered around the zeppelins of prime rib wheeled around the room and lovingly carved by chefs in towering toques. 
How to order: House of Prime Rib is open for indoor dining; make reservations here.

Drink an Irish coffee at The Buena Vista

Fisherman’s Wharf
While not a food, per say, the Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista is about as essential San Francisco as consumable items get. And, the boozy, cream-topped delights are rich enough that it certainly qualifies as a snack of sorts. At any rate, The Buena Vista has been making these beauties since 1952, and they know their stuff. 
How to order: The Buena Vista is open for first-come indoor and outdoor dining.

Red's Java House
Red's Java House

Have a pre- or post-game burger and fries at Red’s Java House and the Hi-Dive

Embarcadero
Everyone has their preference for a pre- or post-Giants game burger and a beer on the water—Red’s Java House, or the Hi-Dive. Both are old school, both have few frills, both keep the beers cold and the burgers hot. And both are blessed with Bay-front locations with two of the best views in town. Which one’s better? You’ll have to visit both and decide for yourself.
How to order: Red’s and the Hi-Dive are open for first-come indoor and outdoor dining.

Take a hoagie from Palm City Wines to Ocean Beach

Outer Sunset
Easily the newest establishment on this list, Palm City opened on a sleepy corner in the Sunset in the middle of the pandemic and... quickly became one of the hottest destinations in town. Why? Their forearm-length hoagies, made on fresh, custom hoagie rolls from Pacifica’s Rosalind Bakery, loaded with an almost obscene (in a good way) amount of top-notch sandwich fillings, are that freaking good. And what’s not to love about a sweet little neighborhood spot becoming beloved for doing a seemingly simple thing really, really well? They also happen to be a top notch wine bar and bottle shop—sandwiches on the beach became a time-honored pandemic tradition, but it’s a true joy to settle in for a glass or two at their light-filled space. Fear not: the hoagies taste just as good inside as out.
How to order: Palm City Wines is open for first-come indoor and outdoor dining.

CUESA & The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market
CUESA & The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market

Sample the absolute best of the Bay at the Ferry Building Farmers Market 

Embarcadero
One of the single best ways to get a taste of San Francisco is to spend some time at the Ferry Building, a temple of the best the Bay has to offer. In addition to absolute standout spots like Hog Island Oysters Co., Humphrey Slocombe, Fort Point Beer, and The Slanted Door, visit on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays for the legendary farmers market, a favorite of the city’s chefs. It’s also a gold mine for delicious food in its own right including Roli Roti, Wise Sons, and Namu Stonepot.
How to order: The Ferry Building Farmers Market is open for indoor and outdoor dining and takeout. 

Order the menu at Saigon Sandwich

Tenderloin
Saigon Sandwich is a must-visit for banh mi lovers: these are more or less the platonic ideal of Vietnamese sandwiches. From the crackly crusted, light-as-air rolls to the brightly flavored pickles and generous fillings, to the consistently low price tag, a Saigon Sandwich banh mi is basically perfect. The combination, featuring pate and headcheese is a personal favorite, as is the tofu, but order them all to find out which one you like best. Long live Saigon Sandwich; may they never change.
How to order: Saigon Sandwich is open for in-person takeout.

Rich Table
Rich Table

Eat dinner at the bar at Rich Table

Hayes Valley
It’s hard to define Rich Table’s food—what kind of mad alchemy makes for a restaurant with booze-friendly bites like freshly made potato chips woven with sardines and porcini-dusted donuts served with raclette cheese dipping sauce alongside sea urchin-infused caio e pepe and dry-aged ribeye? Exactly. Count on Rich Table for one of the more dynamic, delicious dinners in the city—with a stellar selection of cocktails and wines to boot. The restaurant’s cozy corner bar feels like a well-kept secret, and is our favorite place for a porcini doughnut-fueled dinner for two. It’s as exciting today as it was when it opened in 2012.
How to order: Rich Table is open for indoor and outdoor dining. Make reservations here

Celebrate something, anything with baby octopus and uni pasta at La Ciccia

Noe Valley
Masquerading as a low-key neighborhood Italian restaurant in Noe Valley, La Ciccia is sneakily one of the absolute best restaurants in the city. Specializing in seafood-heavy Sardinian food with a magnificent wine list to match, La Ciccia is the kind of place that makes you feel like a regular, even if your visits are limited to once-a-year special occasions. And it’s the perfect place to celebrate—owners Massimiliano Conti and Lorella Degan make every table feel like the most important one in the room. Everything is delicious, but the spicy baby octopus stew is a must, as is the pasta topped with grated bottarga.
How to order: La Ciccia is open for indoor and outdoor dining. Make reservations here.

Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe
Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe

Eat a focaccia sandwich at the corner table at Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store

North Beach
This cozy corner in North Beach would be a charming destination no matter the quality of the food thanks to its prime location on Washington Square Park, and the presence of eclectic regulars at all hours of the day. But Mario’s need not get by on appearances alone thanks to its outstandingly delicious, oven-baked focaccia sandwiches. Made on olive oil-rich focaccia from Liguria Bakery across the park (a legend in its own right), the sandwiches are warming, flavor-filled squares of comfort. The meatball is locally famous, and for good reason, but the breaded eggplant is a stellar option, too.
How to order: Mario’s is open for first-come indoor and outdoor dining.

Take a turkey sandwich on Dutch crunch from Arguello Market to Golden Gate Park

Inner Richmond
Dutch crunch bread is a Bay Area classic, beloved for it’s crackly-chewy texture and slightly sweet flavor. It’s also the vehicle of choice for one of the most iconic San Francisco sandwiches: the roast turkey from Arguello Super Market. Made from whole rotisserie-roasted turkeys, white and dark meat are sliced and layered on the Dutch crunch roll before being loaded up with fixings (be sure to add pepper jack cheese and avocado). There’s no bad place to eat this sandwich, but on a blanket in nearby Golden Gate Park is the best.
How to order: Arguello Market is open for takeout.

Beit Rima
Beit Rima

Eat the whole fried branzino at Beit Rima

The Castro, Cole Valley
Beit Rima is notable thanks to its next-level Palestinian food, including perfect mezze (like hummus, ful, lebneh, and grilled halloumi) and flavorful kebabs and falafel. Even more special are the shareable, larger format mains like tender-braised lamb shank, or their whole, fried branzino. Whatever you do, order ample amounts of the handmade, za’atar-topped pita.
How to order: Beit Reima is open for first-come indoor and outdoor dining. 

Give in to the fancy toast trend

Outer Sunset, Western Addition, Richmond
There are still some disbelievers prone to snarky comments with regards to $5 toast, but they likely haven’t experienced the magic that is a slick-sliced slab of well-toasted bread, lusciously topped with cinnamon sugar, or almond butter, or fresh jam. Cinnamon toast at Trouble Coffee was one of the first, and remains one of the best, especially paired with a cappuccino out by Ocean Beach. The Mill’s toast is hard to beat, with fresh-baked, whole grain varieties of bread providing a stellar vehicle for everything from avocado to nut butters and seasonal jam. And Breadbelly quickly became a favorite thanks to their excellent kaya toast, featuring coconut jam laced with pandan atop fresh milk bread.
How to order: Trouble and The Mill are open for takeout; visit them to order in person. Breadbelly is open for takeout and limited outdoor dining.

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Lauren Sloss is a San Francisco-based travel, food, and music writer who has done stints in Philadelphia, New York, London, Istanbul, and aboard a 32-foot sailboat. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.