The Most Iconic 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 it’s some combination of all 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 fine dining 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 eateries 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 the Golden City:
Get the whole duck at Mister Jiu’s
Mister Jiu’s is remarkable in its ability to strike a balance between modernity and tradition. Housed in a former banquet hall in the heart of Chinatown, the restaurant has lost none of its grandeur, but has subtly gilded it with a sleek, almost timeless sense of style. The menu feels similar—Chef Brandon Jew has taken Chinatown classics like mapo tofu, scallion pancakes, salt-baked fish and of course, the Whole Duck—and has amplified them with house-made sauces and carefully sourced ingredients (the duck, for example, hails from Liberty Farms and arrives burnished in caramel, crisp-skinned glory). Everything on this menu is delicious and all of it partners beautifully with the restaurant's standout cocktail program and wine list.
How to book: Reservations are available online.
Give in to the meat sweats at San Ho Won
Few new restaurants have been as hotly anticipated as San Ho Won, chef Corey Lee’s homage to the Korean comfort food of his childhood. Thankfully for us, that includes Korean barbecue, with cuts including classic galbi, beef tongue and a whole-marinated Cornish hen. The meats, which are grilled over lychee wood charcoal produced for the restaurant, are served with house made sauces, condiments and kimchis. Go big on the barbecue, but be sure to save space for Lee’s takes on other traditional Korean dishes, including a blood sausage-topped Korean pancake, chicken and ginseng jook with abalone and kimchi-jjigae prepared pozole-style with hominy and avocado. Or skip making hard choices and go for the family-style house menu for the table.
How to book: Reservations are available online.
Drink an Irish Coffee at The Buena Vista
There are San Francisco tourist traps that just aren’t worth your time, attention, or stomach space (looking at you, chowder in a bread bowl). But there are also San Francisco food tourist traps that are ubiquitous because they deserve to be. The Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista, for example, is a modern marvel of coffee, fresh cream and Irish whisky. It’s well worth a visit to watch the skilled bartenders seamlessly batch and craft a line of coffees with choreographic precision, made better by the fact that the just-sweet-enough (and just-spiked-enough) drinks are in fact, delicious. There’s no better cure for a damp winter (or summer’s day).
How to book: The Buena Vista is first-come, first-served. Get a seat at the bar if you can.
Feast on whole fish Cha Ca at Bodega SF
Matthew Ho’s Bodega SF is the latest iteration of a family tradition—from 2003 to 2017, his family’s Bodega Bistro was a destination for Northern Vietnamese food in the Tenderloin. Ho carried the torch with Bodega pop-ups in 2019 and meal kits during the pandemic, leading to the opening of Bodega SF. The space, with intimate booths and communal high-top tables, is well suited to a variety of experiences, from tucking into pho at lunchtime or feasting on oysters with yuzu coconut foam at dinner. For us, though, the turmeric-and-dill-laced cha ca prepared with whole branzino is unmissable. The fish, splayed-open for maximum skin crispiness and topped with a riot of fresh and fried seasonings, is a celebration in a dish, one worth having regularly.
How to book: Reservations are available online.
It’s a rare kind of restaurant magic that creates a space like Kitchen Istanbul: a low-key corner spot in the Inner Richmond area that feels like it’s been there forever, yet at the same time manages to feel fresh. Maybe it’s the locale’s glowing warmth that seems to radiate welcome, undoubtedly assisted by chef-owner Emrah Kilicoglu making the rounds and stopping by your table to make sure that everything is just perfect. Maybe it’s the menu of exquisitely-executed Turkish fare, from a towering pile of roasted cauliflower spiced with urfa chile and lemon, to Hünkar Beğendi (also known as the “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. Moreover, in an informal poll of essential San Francisco dishes, nearly everyone who responded, food writers and food lovers alike, cited The Chicken. This is, 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 dish marries simplicity with skill, comfort and familiarity with an almost revelatory combination of flavor and texture. Frankly, 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 clichés. 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 rite of passage in San Francisco. It’s also a rare breed of restaurant that is a constant draw for locals and tourists alike, but whatever gets you there, the wait is always worth it. Start with a dozen oysters then move on to the Crab Back, best sopped up with the ever-present wedges of sourdough bread—or consider a Louie Salad if you’re tempted by a 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 accompanied 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 haphazardly 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. (Incidentally, 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.
Eat a great big pile of mortadella at Palm City Wines on Mortadella Mondays (and Tuesdays)
Palm City opened on a sleepy corner in Sunset in the middle of the pandemic and quickly became one of the hottest destinations in town thanks to their forearm-length hoagies loaded with an almost obscene (in a good way) amount of top-notch sandwich fillings. We love the hoags, but our new favorite time to visit Palm City is for Mortadella Mondays (and Tuesdays) for a more lowkey scene that gets back to Palm City’s neighborhood roots. Specifically, by offering hard-to-find wines by the glass, $10 corkage on all bottles, and best yet, the Big Morty, which is a glorious platter of thin-sliced mortadella topped with pistachio pesto and served with crostini.
How to book: Palm City Wines is open for first-come indoor and outdoor dining.
A longtime industry favorite thanks to its pre-pandemic late hours (in San Francisco, it can be challenging to find a good meal after 10pm) 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 and perfect) to the tender-brined pork chop or the house-smoked trout atop thick slices of bread or the unctuous bolognese—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 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 deceptively simple—flour tortilla, loaded with rice, beans, meat of choice, salsas, guac and sour cream, 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, the tenderness of the rice and 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, 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 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 ample praise, San Francisco’s dumpling scene is strong, but how should you 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 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]?” Good 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 by 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-do is kicking things off with a Chartreuse slushy, the restaurant’s signature drink and a seriously sophisticated sipper masquerading as a crushable party drink. Then again, why can’t it be both? The Morris is positive proof 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 also one of the most gorgeous dining rooms in town.
How to book: Make reservations online.
Eat the tea leaf salad at the original Burma Superstar
This sweet spot in 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, mohinga 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 a taco, sandwich or burrito 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 Outer Sunset, Toyose is legendary for its late hours, spicy fried chicken wings and massive bottles of Hite beer. It may specialize in alcohol-accompanying appetizers, 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, they go very well with beer and soju).
How to book: 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 iterations. It’s a pizza-lover’s world here, we’re just living in it.
Tartine Bakery has been drawing lines down the block from its corner location in the Mission for years, long before they expanded across the city, California, and the world (including the outstanding Tartine Manufactory, which includes full meal service and alcohol). But the bakery remains one of the most delicious cross sections of San Francisco’s standout flour-centric culture, with 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 Bakery, and B. Patisserie.)
How to book: Tartine Bakery 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 and locally sourced whatnot—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 of course spinach) and just how dirty you want that Martini. 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.
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.
One of the 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 Reem’s, visit on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays for a chance to explore 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, Midnite Bagel, Namu Stonepot and Primavera, purveyors of the best chilaquiles in the world.
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 results in 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 cacio 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: 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, plus 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
Western Addition & The Richmond
There are still some disbelievers prone to snarky comments with regards to 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. The Mill—arguably where the dreaded toast discourse started—remains impeccable with fresh-baked, whole grain varieties of bread providing a stellar vehicle for everything from avocado and smoked trout to nut butters and seasonal jam. Breadbelly has quickly become a legend in its own time thanks to their excellent kaya toast, featuring coconut jam laced with pandan atop fresh milk bread, which is as delicious as it is Instagrammable.
How to order: The Mill and Breadbelly are open for takeout; visit them to order in person or pre-order from Breadbelly online.