The 30 Most Essential SF Food Experiences
Get started on them ASAP.
What makes a restaurant, or a dish, essential? Is it the setting, the ingredients, 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, this 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. But really, you should think about the places and tastes that are essential to your San Francisco… and support the hell out of them.
Split the chicken for two at ZuniHayes 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 current-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, the 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 (when seats in the house become a possibility again), but our favorite thing to do is snagging a table in the bar area, tucked in the restaurant’s iconic, triangular corner window.
How to order: Zuni is open for limited outdoor dining and takeout. Make reservations here, and order takeout here.
Stand in line at Swan Oyster DepotNob Hill
Waiting in line for a seat at the counter at 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: Swan Oyster Depot is open for outdoor dining, and for takeout and delivery. Call 415-673-1101 to order.
Eat Julia Child-approved imperial rolls at Tu LanSOMA
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. Overorder and turn your leftovers into fried rice the next day.
How to order: Tu Lan is open for takeout and delivery. Order delivery here, and takeout here.
Have a late night dinner at the bar or communal table at NopaWestern Addition
Long an 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 there have a special kind of magic about them. Their takeout game has been strong throughout the pandemic, with a changing selection of prepared food (including a stellar fried chicken that we hope will make it back onto the restaurant’s permanent menu) and pantry items including house smoked bacon, house cured trout, and brined, vacuum-sealed pork chops.
How to order: Nopa is open for takeout and delivery, Tuesday-Sunday. Place your order here.
Eat a late night Mission burritoThe 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).
How to order: La Taqueria, El Farolito, Taqueria Cancun, and El Metate are open for takeout. Visit their websites for more information.
Go on a taco crawl in the MissionThe Mission, Western Addition
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.
How to order: La Oaxaquena and La Palma are open for takeout; Nopalito is open for take out and delivery (order here). Lolo is open for outdoor dining, takeout, and delivery (order here).
Warm up on a foggy day with a giant bowl of cioppino (bib recommended)Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach, The Castro
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 a 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 takeout (order here). Scoma’s and Sotto Mare are both open for outdoor dining and takeout (order Scoma’s here, and Sotto Mare here).
Feast on chicken wings at San TungInner 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.
Take a dumpling tour of the citySunset, Sunnyside, SOMA, Chinatown, Richmond
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 Mandariin 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 and Shanghai Dumpling King are open for takeout and delivery; Old Mandarin Islamic, and Dumpling Time, are open for takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining; Mister Jiu’s and Red Tavern are open for takeout and outdoor dining.
Stand in line for Sunday dim sumRichmond, 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 and Dragon Beaux are open for takeout and delivery; Good Luck Dim Sum is open for takeout; and Yank Sing is open for takeout and outdoor dining.
Drink a Chartreuse slushy at The MorrisDogpatch
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, and 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. Keep an eye out for pandemic-era specials including Wednesday burger nights, Thursday fried chicken, and special, wine-paired dinners.
How to order: The Morris is open for takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining. Order and reserve here.
Try all of the curries at NariJapantown and The Dogpatch
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 takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining. Order and reserve here.
Eat the tea leaf salad at the Original Burma SuperstarInner 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 house made carrot habanero hot sauce.
How to order: Hook is open for takeout. Order online here.
Have a 1 am feast at ToyoseOuter 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: Toyose is open for outdoor dining, takeout, and delivery. Call 415-731-0232 to order, or order online here.
Embrace the lack of San Francisco-Style PizzaNorth 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 and Che Fico Alimentari are open for takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining; PizzaHacker and Square Pie Guys are open for takeout and delivery.
Carbo-load at Tartine BakeryMission
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 bakery 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.
Choose-your-own-adventure at State Bird ProvisionsFillmore
Dining at State Bird Provisions is many things—delicious, dynamic, warm, fun. From the dim sum-style carts making the rounds offering garlic-laced donuts topped with burrata and chicken liver mousse to the bird itself, crisp-skinned and resting on a bed of savory, lemon-laced caramelized onions, the cozy, glowing space managed to feel like a revelation years after the restaurant had opened, won acclaim, and become a known-entity. That spirit of innovation lives on—now, you can get a taste of the State Bird experience, including the bird itself, outdoors, along with a brand new brunch service.
How to order: State Bird is open for takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining. Order and make reservations here.
Dress Up for a martini-fueled dinner at House of Prime RibRussian 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 (and dressed), 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 zambonis of prime rib wheeled around the room and lovingly carved by chefs in towering toques. It should therefore come as no surprise that, with the announcement that they were opening for limited indoor dining (accompanied by this delightful video highlighting their safety precautions), tables were fully booked through December almost immediately.
How to order: House of Prime Rib is open for limited indoor dining. Learn more here.
Drink an Irish coffee at The Buena VistaFisherman’s Wharf
While not a food, per say, the Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista is about as essential SF 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 takeout and outdoor dining. Learn more here.
Have a pre- or post-game burger and fries at Red’s Java House and the Hi-DiveEmbarcadero
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 thrills, 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 is open for takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining. The Hi-Dive is open for takeout and outdoor dining.
Take a hoagie from Palm City Wines to Ocean BeachOuter 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 filling, 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? Palm City’s original (and eventual) plan was to be a wine bar—they’re currently slinging an excellent selection of natural wines by the bottle, which, yes, go very, very well with hoagies, and are best enjoyed down the street on the sand at Ocean Beach. I’m partial to meat bombs like the Italian American, a veritable cured meat masterpiece slathered with n’duja mayo (oh, yes) and the juice-soaked Hoag au Poivre, but the Philly-style roast pork is a worthy contender, as is the seasonally changing vegetarian option.
How to order: Palm City Wines is open for takeout. Order online in advance here, or visit in person to order.
Sample the absolute best of the Bay at the Ferry Building Farmers MarketEmbarcadero
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., Cowgirl Creamery, 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 outdoor dining and takeout.
Order the menu at Saigon SandwichTenderloin
Saigon Sandwich is a must-visit for banh mi lovers. It’s also a must-visit for those who haven’t yet realized that they are banh mi lovers, because 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 I favor ordering them all and seeing which one you like best. Long live Saigon Sandwich; may they never change.
How to order: Saigon Sandwich is open for takeout. Visit in person to order.
Eat dinner at the bar at Rich TableHayes 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 takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining. Order and make reservations here.
Celebrate something, anything with baby octopus and uni pasta at La CicciaNoe 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 takeout and first come, first serve outdoor dining. Order takeout here.
Eat a focaccia sandwich at the Corner Table at Mario’s Bohemian Cigar StoreNorth 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 takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining. Order online here.
Take a turkey sandwich on Dutch crunch from Arguello Market to Golden Gate ParkInner 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 and delivery. You can order online here.
Eat the whole fried branzino at Beit RimaThe Castro, Cole Valley
Beit Rima is notable thanks to its next-level, perfectly crafted 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 takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining. Order online here.
Give in to the fancy toast trendOuter 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 or 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; visit to order or order online.
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