Food & Drink

An editor's guide to eating around town

Published On 05/02/2013 Published On 05/02/2013
West Coast Executive Editor Kevin Alexander

As the lyrical genius 2Pac once said, "From Oakland to Sactown, the Bay Area and back down, Cali is where I eat a lot of organic, local greens and good avocados, especially when they're in season." But with so much good food around, how does one choose where to get the bombest burrito, and pasta so good it would make a thug cry? Well, just ask our West Coast Executive Editor Kevin Alexander, who is here to answer those questions and tell you about all of his favorite places to eat in the city. Favorite Restaurant: Frances. Yes, it's small, perpetually packed, and on a random stretch of the Castro. But there is a reason for this, friends: it serves just about the best everything in SF. And if you don't get the Applewood-Smoked Bacon Beignets with maple chive creme fraiche, you will regret it for the rest of your days, and write sad, very specific poetry about the experience. Best Late-Night Eats: A lot of people say Sam's in North Beach for burgers, but the best place to get late-night food is Nopa, north of the panhandle on Divis. It's also one of the best restaurants, period, but the fact that they serve such incredibly kick-ass food so late makes it a must-hit. Also, their last cocktail list was Wu-Tang Clan-themed. So, yeah, please go there. Best Cheap Eats: Go to Turtle Tower in the Tenderloin. Avoid the definitely insane people wandering around outside. Be slightly disappointed when you find out it's neither a tower, nor packed with turtles. Get the beef and tendon pho gai. Rejoice. Best Sandwich: Many people swear by the Menage a Trois at Ike's, and I'm also partial to the #1 Super Special at Lucca Delicatessen in the Marina, but Wise Sons has an absolutely ridiculous pastrami Reuben. And if you feel like you need to nap the rest of the day in a ball on the couch watching the Nancy Drew movie, order it with a side of the pastrami cheese fries. Best Pizza: Ragazza, in the Lower Haight. You're going to have to wait, but luckily you can do that over at The Page across the street. Once you're in, get the Amatriciana, then do like my friends Jackie and Mike, and get two farm eggs on top. Then weep tears of sweet, pizza joy. Best Dish: If you can get in there, get the CA state bird with provisions at State Bird Provisions. It's deep-fried quail and it is glorious. And now you know that quail is the California state bird. Best Izakaya: Namu Gaji. After everyone said delightful things about their street food whenever it showed up at the Farmer's Market, the Lee brothers opened up NG on Dolores, and now everyone is saying delightful things all the time about their "New Korean American cuisine", which they awesomely also describe as "aka No Known Allergies, National Karate Association because we eat everything and we will flying side-kick your ass." But before they do that, get those Gamja fries. Best Italian: Locanda, in the Mission. It's from the Stolls -- who own Delfina, another amazing Mission resto with serious Italian chops -- and the cacio e pepe is so damn handsome, George Clooney once asked it for style pointers, and IT IGNORED HIM. Best Cajun: Boxing Room. If you couldn't tell from the "eaux" on the end of his name, Chef Justin Simoneaux is from Louisiana, so he's not messing around in a genre he doesn't speak fluently, and you can see it in the menus at BR, with everything from the crispy boudin balls, to the duck & sausage jambalaya, which is currently my favorite thing on the menu. Best Chinese: Ever since Danny Bowien, the chef at Mission Chinese, opened a location on the Lower East Side in NYC, the hype has been nearly deafening, but it's kind of worth it. It's purposefully not authentic -- they serve "Americanized Oriental food" -- but the preparations are so silly and amazing you might not even hate that you waited 45mins next to a dude in a beanie talking about "optimizing SEO". Best Mexican: There are some choice sit-down Mexican spots in the city -- Nopalito, for one -- but SF is known for its burrito and taco joints, so really, if you're doing it, you need to go to La Taqueria, get carnitas tacos, and make a mess of your face and shirt. Best Food Truck: With Off the Grid and a few others, SF is lousy with food trucks, but I personally dig the Chinese-style steamed and baked buns at Chairman Bao Bun Truck. Get the Coca-Cola-braised pork. And the spicy chicken. And the pork belly. And the duck confit. Best Bakery: Though perpetual front-runner Tartine and other heralded newcomer The Mill are both damn incredible (get Josey Baker's toast at The Mill, and you will FREAK OUT), my favorite right now is B. Patisserie. Not only do they have delicious open-faced tartines (be cool, lawyers associated with Tartine!), but the Kugeloph (like powdered German donuts, but better) and the kouign-amann (it's like a croissant with melted sugar inside made by the Devil himself) are honestly the best pastries I've had since I stopped exclusively eating those discontinued Hostess fruit pies. Best Burger: Though I'm also a large fan of the Kronnerburger (especially if you wash it down with a gin-based Stranger Juice -- perhaps the best-named cocktail in SF), my favorite burger in the city is a tie between the 4505 Meats burger at the Ferry Building Tuesdays and Saturdays (it's $8 for Magruder Ranch beef, Gruyere & special sauce on a scallion-sesame bun), and the bacon burger at Rickybobby, which mixes bacon and beef together in the patty, comes as a double-burger, and adds American cheese, pickles, onions, and a house ketchup/mayo mix. Most Gut-Busting Dish: The Super Carne Asada burrito from El Farolito. It wins SF's vaunted "Best Burrito" nearly every year, but it's also two pounds of Mexican food to take down all at once. You will fall asleep after eating it, so don't even bother trying to fight it. Best Fine Dining: One could make a case for Gary Danko, or the newly re-opened Saison, or Benu, but my favorite is Quince. Though the atmosphere was better when they were in a small house up in Pacific Heights, their brick digs are sleek, the service is impeccable, the pasta courses are some of the best anywhere, and they'll make a Bobby Burns cocktail table-side. Place I Could Go Every Night: Fat Angel. Between the highly curated, impressive beer list (huzzah, sour beers!), and the super-simple menu with shareables like warm Firebrand French bread with maple-bacon butter and the salty, sweet, and spicy Chinese nuts, this is easily one of my favorite go-tos in the city. So much so, that I actually just created a category to rave about it. Most Romantic: Bix is an old-school SF favorite, down a back alley in Jackson Square. Tell them you know Willie Brown and ask for a corner booth up top. Below you, someone will likely be playing the piano. Don't sing, but do stare provocatively at your date, and ask her if she likes that Ben Folds cover of "Tiny Dancer". Best for Partying: Park Tavern in North Beach. It's big, it's already noisy, it has a raucous if not scene-y bar, um, scene, the food & drinks are choice, and they even have a super-secret upstairs bar called the Eden Lounge, if you feel you need to continue things in a more aggressive, yet more secretive manner. Best for Work: Boulevard. It's expensive, sure, but it sits right on the Embarcadero overlooking the Bay. All the movers and shakers and people in suits that do complicated things with money go here, and the food is pretty damn incredible, especially that Kobe Bavette steak. Best Lunch: Marlowe in SOMA is one of my favorite restaurants in the entire city for dinner, drinks, whatever, but the lunch menu has just been elevated by the addition of the McMarlowe, a boneless lamb rib sandwich. They've also got a killer burger, and a fried chicken number, but come on...THE MCMARLOWE RIB SANDWICH. Best Brunch: On a kind of random corner in the Lower Haight, Maven is a mostly-locals-only hang that quietly has some of the best food and drinks in the city, and it will likely anger the locals who frequent it that I said it. You can get their famous burger (with Angostura bitters!) on said menu, but the smart move is to order the bread pudding French toast for the table, then stock yourself with the Duck Hash (w/ braised sofrito), some Billionaire's Bacon (likely the best bacon in the entire world -- I'm almost positive it's dipped in magic, heroin, and unicorn glitter) and a Smokin' Jefe (essentially a mezcal take on the Bloody Mary). I'm so hungry right now. Weirdest Food: The duck hearts at The Alembic. They're jerk-spiced. And come on pineapple. And yeah, they're duck hearts. Most Local Food: If you want to get one of the signature SF meals, you can't go wrong one of three ways: fresh oysters from Hog Island, Roast Chicken for Two at Zuni Cafe, or Chuck Phan's cellophane noodles with crab at The Slanted Door. Best Wings: I don't even care that it's cheating, but Zero Zero in SOMA has skillet-fried chicken thighs with chili sauce and a caraway yogurt that boggle the mind. It's like eating wings if God was in the kitchen working as a line cook who was really good at cooking fried chick-- Okay, so the analogy doesn't exactly add up. Best Donuts: Because I feel bad about my self-image, I try not to eat donuts all that often, but when I do, I crush at least a half-dozen from Dynamo Donut in the Mission. Specifically, the Bacon Maple Apple, the Monte Cristo, and the Cornmeal Rosemary Cherry. And the Banana de Leche. And the Lemon Sichuan. And -- WHY AM I SO HUNGRY, STILL?!?

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1. Frances 3870 17th St, San Francisco, CA 94114 (The Castro)

Located on a quiet residential block in the Castro, Frances is a tiny Michelin-starred restaurant helmed by the superbly talented chef Melissa Perello. The seasonal, market-driven menu changes often but you can always expect an appearance from Perello's smoked bacon beignets, a house signature featuring delicately fried balls of dough studded with bacon and served with a creamy maple creme fraiche dipping sauce.

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2. Nopa 560 Divisadero St, San Francisco, CA 94117 (Alamo Square)

Nopa is a San Francisco institution that does everything really, really well. It's the best brunch in Western Addition and one of the best in the whole city. Its burger is perfect with pickled onions and French fries, especially when eaten at the bar. It's a one-stop-shop for a date, a birthday dinner, or dinner with your parents. Plus, the kitchen is open until 1 AM for a full dinner. Yeah, this place wins at everything.

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3. Turtle Tower Restaurant 645 Larkin St, San Francisco, CA 94109 (The Tenderloin)

The Larkin St outpost from SF's beloved go-to for piping hot bowls of pho and all things Northern Vietnamese is also the biggest location yet, accommodating hungry hordes clamoring for the aforementioned noodle bowls in impossibly flavorful broth, banh mi, and other delicacies that seem like they ought to be way more expensive.

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4. Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen 3150 24th St, San Francisco, CA 94110 (Downtown)

If it's a little difficult to make it from your office to the deep Mission-located Wise Sons, you are in luck, because this pastrami paradise has started a delivery service using TCB Courier that -- provided you make a minimum order -- delivers to the less-deep Mission with no extra charge and Downtown for an extra fiver.

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5. Ragazza 311 Divisadero St, San Francisco, CA 94117 (Western Addition)

Look no further than Ragazza if you're craving Neapolitan-style thin-crust pizzas, antipasti, and Italian-inspired wine and beer, all in a casual and quiet ambiance in Lower Haight.

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6. State Bird Provisions 1529 Fillmore St, San Francisco, CA 94115 (Fillmore)

State Bird Provisions opened in the Fillmore in 2013, won the James Beard Award for best new restaurant, earned a Michelin star, and has been one of city's hottest spots ever since. After you score a reservation, State Bird will likely be one of your most memorable meals ever thanks to the fact that creative Northern California small plates are served from dim sum carts. The atmosphere is fun, the food is affordable (plates range from $3 to $20), and the dining experience is anything but ordinary.

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7. Namu Gaji 499 Dolores St, San Francisco, CA 94110 (The Mission)

This New Korean American restaurant is a family affair, owned by three brothers who utilize ingredients harvested from their own farm. Korean-inflected spins on favorites, like a pickled daikon-topped double cheeseburger and Korean tacos (nori replaces a tortilla shell, and is filled with marinated and grilled bulgogi beef, kimchi salsa, and spicy aĂŻoli, are well-worth your time during the week, but the real star is the KFC (Korean Fried Chicken) brunch dish.

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8. Locanda 557 Valencia St, San Francisco, CA 94110 (The Mission)

Younger brother to game-changing Italian stalwart Delfina, Locando's a bustling osteria and bar that's earned a following of its own thanks to flawlessly fried Jerusalem artichokes and a thoughtful amaro-heavy cocktail program that get things started before you move onto the show-stopping selection of pastas (don't miss the cacio e pepe) and grill selections like Berkshire pork saltimbocca.

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9. Boxing Room 399 Grove St, San Francisco, CA 94102 (Hayes Valley)

This Hayes Valley gem, situated in the back of a spacious former 19th-century Standard Shirts Factory, will satisfy all your Creole cravings with classics like oysters, hushpuppies, fried green tomatoes, black eyed peas, and po’boys. The theme carries over to the cocktail menu, where New Orleans favorites like the Milk Punch or Ramos Gin Fizz can help you pretend you're actually in the Big Easy and don’t have to go to work tomorrow.

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10. La Taqueria 2889 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110 (The Mission)

This no-frills taqueria is home to the best burrito in America. The Mission-style burrito has a healthy dose of meat, cheese, beans, homemade hot sauce, salsa, and no rice. The place has been around for 40 years and if the daily long lines are any indication, they're doing something right. Ask for your burrito "El Dorado-style" to get your rice-less bundle of joy thrown on the grill until the outside is golden brown and the inside has melted to perfection.

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11. Mission Chinese Food 2234 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110 (The Mission)

Though Danny Bowien's since expanded with two NYC locations, the original SF Mission Chinese, which he opened inside a rundown Chinese restaurant in 2000, started it all. The creative Mission eatery takes an interesting spin on classic Chinese dishes. You’ll find the usual suspects like Mongolian long beans, ma po tofu, and sesame chicken, but the real showstoppers are his fun spins on classics. Kung pao pastrami, thrice-cooked bacon and rice cakes, and kung pao burritos are far from forgettable.

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12. The Mill 736 Divisadero St, San Francisco, CA 94117 (Alamo Square)

Baking incredible fresh bread daily (made with flour from from their German mill) this partnership between the Barrel guys and Josey Baker Bread is a constant go-to for a bite, coffee, and some quiet contemplation. As you'd expect from a place that has a serious way with dough, the BYOB Monday pizza nights and Wednesday grilled cheese and soup nights are not to be missed.

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13. B. Patisserie 2821 California St, San Francisco, CA 94115 (Pacific Heights)

You may have noticed that buttery, sugary Breton pastry, kouign amann, in just about every bakery these days. Well, you can thank B. Patisserie's Belinda Leong for introducing it to pastry-crazed San Franciscans several years ago. Beyond said sweet standout, you can also hit this Pac Heights institution for other Gallic treats like colorful macarons and impeccable croissants (plus more American creations like key lime tarts and chocolate banana bread). Feeling more savory? Tartines like mushroom ragout with goat cheese or ham and gruyere are equally covetable.

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14. 4505 Butcher Shop 1909 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94103 (The Mission)

Do you like meat? Yes? Oh, well then go to 4505. Seriously, they've got meat galore, from hot dogs to sausages, to gourmet to cold cuts, it's ready to eat or take home to cook yourself. Chef Ryan Farr and his wife Cesalee want to change the way you buy, cook, and eat meat. Allied: Now that you’ve tried literally all the meats, roll to the Whole Foods at 2001 Market St and grab some Smith & Forge, the hard cider that's built strong -- built from Apples and built to Refresh.

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15. Rickybobby 400 Haight St, San Francisco, CA 94117 (Lower Haight)

You know it's a sweet place when it has two first names for its only name. And if you like cheap and hearty eats, soft lighting and crazy crap on the walls, you'll love Rickybobby.

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16. Taqueria El Farolito 2779 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110 (The Mission)

If you want to push the limits of your stomach's burrito capacity, this place feature a two-pound monster that should hold you over until four days from now. If not, there's plenty of other options to quell your Mexican-food hankering.

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17. Quince Restaurant 470 Pacific Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133 (Jackson Square)

Quince, in operation for more than a decade, offers an always original blend of seasonal Italian and French cuisine shepherded under the vision of owner and executive chef Michael Tusk. The quaint eatery's modern, luxurious layout takes enjoyment of your Michelin-starred meal to another level.

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18. Fat Angel 1740 O'Farrell St, San Francisco, CA 94115 (Fillmore)

Fat Angel, based in the Fillmore neighborhood of San Francisco, serves comfort food with a sophisticated edge. You're also bound to find a good beer or wine to wash it all down.

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19. Bix Restaurant 56 Gold St, San Francisco, CA 94133 (Financial District)

Step back in time and indulge yourself at this '30s-style supper club just minutes from the Embarcadero. Bix is all class, from the white-jacketed bartenders mixing delicious cocktails to the intimate lighting & high ceilings, to the piano player & live jazz. This iconic SF spot serves “modern American” cuisine which includes Dungeness crab rolls, bone marrow, fresh lobster spaghetti, and a black truffle cheeseburger. Co-owners Doug Biederbeck and Bruce Hill are behind other SF staples (Florio, MarketBar, Fog City, and Pizzeria, among others), and Chef Emmanuel Eng previously worked at Boulevard, Maverick, and Aqua.

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20. Boulevard 1 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94105 (Financial District)

Located within walking distance of the Embarcadero and the twinkling Bay Bridge lights, Boulevard is owned by Executive Chef Nancy Oakes and was a recipient of Zagat’s San Francisco Bay Area’s 'Most Popular Restaurant' award. Boulevard is upscale yet relaxed -- a perfect spot to take out-of-town relatives or host a celebration -- with a well-curated wine list and daily cheese selections. There are plenty of options for vegetarians, but the filet mignon and Kurobota pork chop are standouts.

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21. Marlowe 330 Townsend St, San Francisco, CA 94107 (Soma)

Named after the owners family butcher shop in Boston, it is no surprise that Marlowe, founded in San Francisco's swanky SoMA neighborhood, slings some of the Bay Area's best burgers. Not to be boxed in, this American-French bistro offers a diverse menu, which includes its signature Northern California oysters the perfect drink complement from its lengthy wine list.

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22. Maven 598 Haight St, San Francisco, CA 94117 (Lower Haight)

Maven is a chic bar and restaurant in Lower Haight that pairs all of its dishes with different cocktails. The highlight of the menu is the burger, which begins with beef that's ground with a few dashes of angostura bitters and is paired with the Mr. Wiggles cocktail, made with bourbon, amaro, vermouth, and bitters. The bar's morning cocktails make it a popular brunch spot, as do the duck hash and Bananas Foster French toast. The seating is all communal, and the best seats in the house are either on the second-floor loft or at the chef's counter.

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23. The Alembic 1725 Haight St, San Francisco, CA 94117 (Upper Haight)

The Alembic is known for its encyclopedic menu of spirits and handcrafted cocktails. The whiskey selection in particular reads like a written history of brown spirits, featuring American bourbon, whiskey, and rye alongside single-malt and vatted Scotch whiskey. The draft beer list is a nod to those with an appreciation for local craft brews and the food menu is filled with atypical bar snacks like pickled quail eggs and jerk-spiced duck hearts. As for the space, it's a trendy, rustic, dimly lit affair.

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24. Hog Island Oyster Co. 1 Ferry Building, San Francisco, CA 94111 (Embarcadero)

Hog Island Oyster Bar, located in the Ferry Building Marketplace, does its namesake proud; for those that love oysters, few places do it better. With outdoor seating that truly completes the seafaring experience, a grilled-cheese sandwich with superb word-of-mouth buzz, and cold, IPA brews to complement, Hog Island has serious make-a-day-out-of-it appeal.

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25. Zuni Cafe 1658 Market St, San Francisco, CA 94102 (Soma)

A culinary talisman for over thirty years, Zuni Cafe on the ever-bustling Market Street continues to serve New American cuisine with French and Italian influences. With a menu that changes daily, the element of surprise is never lost -- all while using the freshest, most sustainable ingredients.

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26. The Slanted Door 1 Sausalito - San Francisco Ferry Bldg #3, San Francisco, CA 94111 (Embarcadero)

Traditional Vietnamese cuisine infused with Bay Area spirit, The Slanted Door, according to its visionary owner/executive chef Charles Phan, is a restaurant that "refused to cut any corners."Using local, fresh ingredients, patrons experience a variety of meals given a modern, subtle twist.

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27. Zero Zero 826 Folsom St, San Francisco, CA 94107 (Soma)

A celebration of all things Neapolitan pizza, Zero Zero serves up wood-fired pies and classic negronis in a modern space with a view. The coursed meals and punch bowls make it an ideal group destination, while the foolproof antipasti and pizzas reserve this restaurant for many a first date. Whether you're here in big company or on an intimate meal, though, make sure to enjoy a glass of over 75 vinos at the bar, where you'll get an impressive view of city lights.

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28. Dynamo Donut & Coffee 2760 24th Street (between York and Hampshire), San Francisco, CA 94110 (The Mission)

Bacon. Donut. Day. Dynamo Donut & Coffee has made it real, and available every day. Handmade daily by owner Sara and her staff and using organic, locally sourced ingredients, their creative take on donuts make the word "glazed" suddenly sound mundane and unworthy.

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29. Park Tavern 1652 Stockton St, San Francisco, CA 94133 (North Beach)

If you're looking for a restaurant in North Beach packed with San Franciscans of all neighborhoods, head to Park Tavern. This upscale spot is homey and bustling, and the food is part Southern comfort, part English pub. Every table gets the famed lamb-and-beef Marlowe burger and a starter of smoky deviled eggs, but those in the know will get an extra order of eggs to put on their burger. Park Tavern is also a bonafide brunch hotspot with the best Bloody Marys and a menu filled with griddled goods (pancakes and more pancakes) and savory eggs. And that burger.

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