How to Rent Your Own Private Island
Brazilian: Sunstream Coffee
From the outside it looks like any ol’ random coffee shop, just with a Brazilian flag outside, but on the inside you’ll be transported to Ipanema, especially when you’re mowing down a quintessential açai bowl (and it’s a huge bowl!) and the various croquette-like pastries that are totally meant to be snacks for teenagers but are Brazilian staples because 1) they’re cheap, 2) they’re fried, and 3) they’re great pre-samba fuel. No meat on a skewer, thankfully. Even more thankfully, there’s a hot dog with tomato sauce, potato chips, corn, and peas... ON the dog.
Chinese: Terra Cotta Warrior
China’s array of cuisines is huge: dim sum, xiao long bao, and so on. But it’s important (and delicious) to learn about the niche cuisines, like that of Shaanxi. And there’s no better place to learn about them than Outer Sunset’s Terra Cotta Warrior, worlds away from the Chinatown crush.
You’ll go to the TL’s Tadu, you’ll eat raw beef tartare and lamb tibs served directly on a car wheel-sized platter covering acres of spongy, bitter “injera” bread, you’ll wonder why anyone still uses utensils ever, and you’ll reconsider the whole vegetarian thing.
We don’t have much in the way of stereotypical French cafés, but we do have a lot of terrific California-French hybrid bistros (Nico, Bouche, Aquitaine, Sous Beurre Kitchen, Gaspar, et al.). Somewhere in the middle is Chapeau!, the Inner Richmond legend to know when it’s duck confit and escargot hour. Besides, any restaurant with a name ending in an exclamation point has to be pretty exciting, right?
Hayes Valley’s beloved corner of Munich is more than just a place to get boots of beer (though you should get those, too), thanks to a hearty menu and an inviting, ever-changing interior. We’ve got a lot of good places in town for sporting your lederhosen, like Schroeder’s and Leopold’s and Walzwerk, but none of them have been as good for as long as Suppenküche -- a neighborhood anchor that is as good today as it was a decade ago.
Kokkari is the runaway best sit-down, formal Greek dining room in the city but in the spirit of budget cuts and austerity (hello, Athens government!), let’s keep things a little bargain-friendly, shall we? Enter Souvla, a Hayes Valley fashionista’s look at Greek wraps. Do not skip the Greek fries, do not skip the Greek yogurt, and do not skip any of the four star-studded wraps.
Sure, this is San Francisco’s only Guamanian restaurant, but it actually still manages to earn the ‘best’ moniker. It’s exclusively a fixed-price five-course affair (not cheap at $65 but you get a few free bites tossed in), and hopefully one that includes the short rib dish “kadu” and the shrimp patty.
We’ve been told many times that Liholiho Yacht Club is NOT exclusively Hawaiian, so we won’t include it here (but definitely go there if you’re looking for NOT exclusively Hawaiian food), but instead Grindz, which does fantastic Tiki-free Hawaiian food.
Very few people in SF knew a thing about regional Indian cooking before Dosa opened on a not-as-hip Valencia a decade ago. Even now, San Francisco Indian restaurants boast a few bright spots, but too often still mostly do ho-hum lunch buffets and decent tandoori chicken skewers. Dosa is a beacon of brilliance, teaching us all what fiery, fresh South Indian cooking is about. Service is smooth, the Fillmore location is big brasserie-style grand and the Valencia original is as intimate as a tea parlor. Of course you’re getting a dosa and the city’s best gin and tonic.
This is THE most stacked category of the list by a factor of . SPQR? Flour + Water? Cotogna? La Ciccia? Delfina? A16? You can’t go wrong. (Actually you can if you just go to North Beach and pick a random place on Columbus. Then you’re screwed, buddy.) We’re going with this stalwart in the FiDi -- the pastas are the definition of al dente and it’s formal enough to wear a tie and casual enough for a first date. The real reason we’re going here right now: octopus. It’s the pork belly of 2015, a ubiquitous protein that's always mediocre. Except Staffan Terje’s version at Perbacco.
Japanese: Izakaya Rintaro
Just try not to relax at Rintaro. Sorry, you can’t. You can’t be stressed here. There’s no more serene venue to dine at in San Francisco and the tranquility really sets in when you start tasting the purity of the yakitori and the careful balance of flavors in the concluding broth with hand-rolled udon. The much celebrated, painstakingly made omelet frankly isn’t all that great, but don’t panic; the sashimi, salads, and everything else could be at a Chez Panisse in Kyoto (the chef/owner is an Alice Waters school alum). Try to sit on the patio if it’s open; it’s a magical oasis in the Mission-SoMa border no man’s land.
Laotian: Maneelap Srimongkoun
And the award for longest url ever goes to... this place. Southeast Asian cuisines from Vietnam, Thailand, and Singapore are the darlings of daring eaters everywhere in search of funk, heat, and passion. Sexy cuisines, if you will. Laos brings the same profile of bright, layered flavors with a little extra underdog edge. Just skip the Thai dishes -- if you’re going to learn about Laotian cuisine, go all out with stuff like pork rice balls and Laos sausages.
What’s the best reason to visit the Twitter building if you don’t work there? The whoa-Nellie!-spicy vegetarian laksa from Azalina’s, a stall in The Market in Market on Market near Market behind Market. Azalina’s story is a great one, having worked from being an aspiring La Cocina incubator program entrepreneur to now having her own spot in a primo address. And now we all can’t get enough of the laksa or pineapple tea salad.
There’s a citywide chorus that sings the happy praises of Nopalito’s unmatched carnitas, superior tortillas, beautiful salads, and the pozole all others are judged by. It's closely followed by the likes of Lolo and Padrecito, but Nopalito just does everything SO WELL, except a burrito -- last we checked though, we’ve got a few places catering to that need on, we don’t know, EVERY BLOCK. Also: between Nopalito and Tommy’s, Nopalito makes the better margarita. Yup. Nopalito. Next question.
Warm up by the fireplace with lamb chop kebabs and pounds of free lavash bread, and if you haven’t tried a Persian “jeweled rice” dish like the “adas polo,” with a host of spices, lentils, dates, and raisins, you are in for a special night. If San Francisco’s rent prices and never-ending bureaucratic red tape are getting to you, come here and get away from it all.
Portuguese: Cafe St. Jorge
Lisbon is really Europe’s San Francisco. Portugal’s capital has the hills, the street cars, the liberal attitude, the seafood, and even a knockoff Golden Gate Bridge. So we need a little tile-covered corner of Portugal, and we’ve got it thanks to the sun-splashed slice of la lengua at Cafe St. Jorge (named for Lisbon’s castle). You can get avocado toast and quinoa bowls, sure. But come on, man: sardine and fava bean crostini! A ham-Portuguese cheese-banana panini! And pastéis de nata, the less-sweet, superior predecessor of the ubiquitous dim sum egg custard tarts! Just be aware, the cafe can look like Coffee Bar when it comes to laptops crowding. Because we’re in San Francisco, not Lisbon, remember?
Ramen: Izakaya Sozai
We’re drawing a line in the sand and making the biggest declaration in San Francisco: Who. Makes. The. Best. Ramen. And it’s the Sunday lunch-only chicken ramen at Nojo in Hayes Valley. Wait, it just closed? OK, it’s really Hapa Ramen. Hold up, that’s gone? What’s going on here? Do we even have ramen in San Francisco anymore? Of course, there’s always the gold standard for tonkotsu ramen, preceded by a parade of weird grilled meats on a skewer and fried things you’ll regret later. Sozai, after three sake rounds, is as warming and comforting as a big, friendly bowl of ramen.
Russian: Red Tavern
Heyyy, let’s go get some Russian food, everybody! *Pause* *Everyone has the same stoic face as Putin* OK, so Russian food doesn’t quite have the jazz of New Orleans cooking or the beauty of sushi. But it’s not that bad! Really, it isn’t. Please go to Red Tavern and get some borsch, stuffed cabbage rolls, a few pelmeni dumplings, plenty of vodka, and the massive platter of bliny with smoked fish and salmon caviar.
Senegalese: Bissap Baobab
Peanut butter is great but we all need to get past middle school and graduate to peanut sauce. Enter the cuisine of West African countries, including Senegal. A Senegal staple is the curry peanut sauce called “mafe.” It comes with chicken but do yourself a favor and opt for the tofu since it’s the ultimate sauce absorber. By the way, this place is also a jazz club/dance club in the evening called Little Baobab. Great cuisine, great music, and dancing. Yes please.
South African: Amawele’s South African Kitchen
You’ve had enough Chipotle for the year. The same with that robotic quinoa shop, the bland salads, the fast-casual burgers... ugh, the plight of the FiDi worker bee. Alas, happy hour is only five hours away or shorter if you operate like yours truly. Amawele’s will absolutely break up the usual monotony at noontime and provide a lesson in a cuisine we’re 99% sure you don’t know anything about except that chenin blanc grows well near Cape Town. It’s a food court-like, fast-casual set-up (competing with the formidable Yank Sing) run by twin sisters originally from the city of Durban.
Spain loves its tapas crawls -- one bite here, one bite there, and before you know it you’re starving but have plowed through countless glasses of Sherry. We don’t need to bother with the crawl. Even if Contigo was in Barcelona, not quiet Noe Valley, the locals would park instead of crawl. We’ll give props to Coqueta, Bocadillos, and Zarzuela but not much more than that thanks to the anchovy toast and the coca flatbread with figs at Contigo. Do note the Paella Tuesdays where your table gets four dishes and the city’s best paella for $38. Talk about crazy-good buys, especially when combined with some sparkling sangria and manzanilla en rama.
We can’t think of a better pre-show warm-up than sipping homemade lemon horseradish aquavit, while munching on some gravlax and so-much-better-than-IKEA-it’s-not-even-funny Swedish meatballs. Pläj isn’t a visionary like Noma but it’s got some spunk. It’s a real-deal destination spot that can be the performance alone for an evening. It’s the heart of Sweden in the heart of SF, just with techies instead of blonde models.
It’s your favorite ride at Disneyland, the world’s coolest-looking mountain, and San Francisco’s oh-so-homey and romantic fondue address. Obviously a cheese fondue is necessary but shall it be Gruyere? Raclette? Vacherin Fribourg? Then continue to beef fondue. And CHOCOLATE FONDUE for dessert that’s sooo much better than the chocolate fountain at your office's holiday party. Luckily, the calves liver à la carte is not served as a fondue. Just imagine that! Stick to cheese.
Thai: Hawker Fare
We’ve had a lot of impressive growth in vibrant Thai flavors the past few years, sort of mirroring the expansion of the genre’s Papa Bear, Lers Ros. No more impressive though than this new Valencia corridor anchor that used to be the sad Amber Dhara. The big Northern Thai Isaan flavors are Jimi Hendrix guitar riffs here. They scratch and claw. There is no more fun menu to eat through in the city right now than this one. Plus (and it’s a big plus) there's a secret cocktail den upstairs.
Vietnamese: Aux Delices
Wait, we mean The Slanted Door, right? With all due respect, we are closing that door because 1) do you really need another recommendation for there?, and 2) eh, it’s so loud and crowded and the food can waver -- it sometimes is a chore. San Francisco has some knockout spots for pho and even more to satisfy your bánh mì fix. And you usually get to play some fun Tenderloin dodge-and-go games en route. Aux Delices is a civilized, friendly spot on Russian Hill that allows you to have a premier small bowl of pho for an appetizer, then cover the whole country of Vietnam (and some of France, because colonial days!). It’s a charmer for couples but preferable to bring a big group -- too many tempting dishes to count. And trust me, you do want to really get your feast on.