The 31 Most Essential San Francisco Food Experiences
From sushi tours to picnics in Golden Gate Park, you can’t miss these essential SF dining experiences.
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 returning to over and over again. From Mission burritos to seafood feasts and Italian hot spots, here are the dining experiences you can’t miss in SF:
Quickly making a name for himself not just in the Bay Area, but across the country for his signature West Coast-style barbecue, pitmaster Matt Horn’s 16-hour oak-smoked brisket is worth trekking to Oakland for—evidenced by the lines wrapping around the block. And since you’re there, you might as well pick up some Spare Ribs, a Jalapeno and Cheddar Hot Link (or two), and Mac and Cheese, Collard Greens, and Cornbread on the side. And what the hell, why not add an order of Banana or Bread Pudding to top off your meal? There’s no way you’re making it back to SF without at least sampling your bounty—tuck into one of the sleek wood banquettes on the interior or cozy up on one of the picnic tables out front and enjoy the sweet smell of wafting barbecue smoke. Next time you’re in the mood for a food-focused road trip, check out Horn’s new spot Kowbird, which is dedicated to Southern-style fried chicken sandwiches.
How to book: Walk-in for in-person dining and takeout.
Queens, a sweet little Korean superette on 9th Ave., has become our absolute favorite place to stock up for a park picnic on a sunny day. Their seasonal banchan, which might include sesame oil-slicked greens, pepper-heavy glass noodles, and truly remarkable fresh kimchis (the fennel and tomato versions are both next level), alongside a few boxes of their on-point kimbap, is already a portable feast fit for royalty. But why stop there, when Queens has a whole menu of delicious hot fare, including spicy-sweet rice cakes, a seafood pancake woven with garlic chives, and a platter of pork with whole cabbage kimchi? Not to mention a stellar selection of natural wine and a host of housemade pantry products, including gojuchang and ssam jang, for your home-cooking needs. Best yet, should you find yourself parkside on a foggy day, Queens now has a cozy, light-filled dine-in setup at the back of the shop.
How to book: Queens is open for takeout and delivery. Walk-ins accepted for dine in.
It’s a rare kind of restaurant magic that creates a space like Kitchen Istanbul, a low-key corner spot in the Inner Richmond that feels like it’s been there forever, yet simultaneously manages to feel fresh. Maybe it’s the space’s glowing warmth that seems to radiate welcome, amplified by chef-owner Emrah Kilicoglu making the rounds and stopping by your table to make sure that everything is delicious, and everyone is happy. Maybe it’s the menu of perfectly-executed Turkish fare, from a towering pile of roasted cauliflower spiced with Urfa chile and lemon, to Hunkar Begendi (the fittingly named “Sultan’s Delight”), a dish of meltingly rich braised beef served atop silky smoked eggplant and lebni. Maybe it’s the next-level natural wine list, one of the best in the city, that’s quickly made Kitchen Istanbul an industry favorite (being open on Mondays doesn’t hurt, either). Whatever it is, this is a restaurant we find ourselves looking for excuses to return to, over and over again.
How to book: Make a reservation via OpenTable.
Splurge on a sushi tour of the city
San Francisco’s rich history of Japanese culture and heritage, combined with a prime oceanside location, makes it a standout spot to go on a proper sushi binge. And you’ll find standout options at every price point and every vibe. Sample Michelin-starred delights at neighborhood restaurants like Wako in the Inner Richmond, or Ju-Ni in the Western Addition, or go big with glamorous omakase spreads at The Shota downtown, Omakase in SOMA, or at Robin in Hayes Valley, where you’ll find an exciting selection of local fish alongside classic cuts flown in from Japan. Find affordable more affordable, but still delicious omakase at Chisai Sushi Club in Bernal; sample creative and delicious vegetarian options at Shizen; or check out local favorites with a spread at Ebisu, an Inner Sunset staple that’s been around for more than three decades; or Eiji, a cozy sushi spot in the Castro that has excellent nigiri alongside their unmissable homemade tofu.
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 its best. And, in an informal poll of essential San Francisco dishes, nearly everyone 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 book: Make reservations via OpenTable, or call 415-552-2522.
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 book: All seating is first-come, first-served.
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 (and the city agrees: Tu Lan was just added to the San Francisco Legacy Business Registry). 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 book: Seating is available on a first-come basis. Order delivery on Postmates, and takeout online.
A longtime industry favorite thanks to its pre-pandemic 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 Moroccan-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 all around.
How to book: Nopa is open for indoor and outdoor dining. Make a reservation online.
Eat a late-night Mission burrito
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).
Go on a taco crawl in the 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, the shrimp-filled Tacos Tropicale 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.
Warm up on a foggy day with a giant bowl of Cioppino (bib recommended)
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.
Take a dumpling tour of the city
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.
Stand in line for Sunday dim sum
“... 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.
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 house-made charcuterie, Dungeness crab-topped Rice Porridge, Whole-Roasted Duck, and one of the 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 book: Make reservations via Resy.
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 book: Nari is open for indoor dining. Make reservations online.
Eat the Tea Leaf Salad at the Original Burma Superstar
This sweet spot in the Richmond has been a San Francisco staple since opening in 1992, and still draws crowds for its 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 book: Walk-ins accepted for dine-in. Order takeout and delivery online.
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 layered with black beans, slaw, avocado, radish, and pico de gallo, and made even better with ample use of the house-made carrot habanero hot sauce.
How to book: Hook is open for takeout and first-come, first-served outdoor dining. Order takeout online.
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 book: Indoor and outdoor seating is available on a first-come basis.
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 single 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.
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, etc.) 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 book: Tartine is open for indoor and outdoor dining, and takeout and delivery. Order online here.
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 book: Make reservations via OpenTable.
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 book: The Buena Vista is open for first-come indoor and outdoor dining.
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 book: State Bird is open for indoor and outdoor dining. Make reservations online.
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 book: Red’s and the Hi-Dive are open for first-come indoor and outdoor dining.
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 book: Palm City Wines is open for first-come indoor and outdoor dining.
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 book: The Ferry Building Farmers Market is open for indoor and outdoor dining and takeout.
Order the menu at Saigon Sandwich
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 book: Saigon Sandwich is open for in-person takeout.
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 book: Rich Table is open for indoor and outdoor dining. Make reservations here.
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 book: Mario’s 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.
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.