I was excited about heading to San Francisco the first time. We were actually coming back from Hawaii and spent 3 days in the city and stayed at the Fairmont Hotel – the same hotel the TV series Hotel was filmed in the mid-80’s. It was situated at the top of the Nob Hill neighborhood and easily accessible to Chinatown, Fisherman’s Warf and other sites and destinations in the city. It was magnificent and I fell in love with San Francisco immediately.
San Francisco is widely known all throughout the world.
The iconic Golden Gate bridge is a recognizable landmark and after Los Angeles, it is a major California city. Despite its importance in the state and the seeming largeness of the city, San Francisco is actually a very small and compact city.
The first Europeans who lived in the area were Spanish settlers in 1776 who settled a mission called Mission Dolores and eventually a fort near Golden Gate called El Presidio. When the United States took control of the city, the California Gold Rush of 1848 is what brought a large number of people to the city and the area really started to develop quickly.
From the 1950s to 1970s San Francisco became a hub for counterculture, LGBT culture, and the hippie movement and those movements still leave their mark on the city giving San Francisco its trademark liberal and free-loving vibes.
Despite the city center being jammed into a seven-by-seven mile square of land immigrants and people from around the country carved out their little bit of San Francisco. This along with the international crowd that comes to the city makes San Francisco one of the best food landscapes in the country.
Check out some of these must-try restaurants in San Francisco.
Sam Wo Restaurant
San Francisco is home to one of, if not the biggest Chinatown neighborhoods in the country. The Chinese community is an essential part of San Francisco and Chinese immigrants helped build the city basically from the ground up. Since Chinese people have been in the city since at least the early 19th century San Francisco is home to some of the country’s oldest Chinese restaurants. Sam Wo Restaurant is one of those.
Sam Wo Restaurant was opened in 1907, and the location is a real landmark in the city and one of the most important restaurants in the city. It’s loved by tourists and locals alike and was made famous for one employee named Edsel Ford Fung who was named the “rudest waiter in America”. Fung would tell people they’re stupid and fat. Would criticize people’s orders, purposefully bring wrong dishes, slam food on the table, spill drinks, and refuse to give people chopsticks, just to name a few things. Fung passed away a while ago but he left his mark on Sam Wo because even after over 100 years, the restaurant is still going. In the 1950s Sam Wo became a hot spot for Beat Generation writers like Charles Bukowski and Allen Ginsburg.
While the restaurant now is a little more polished and renovated than it was back in Fung’s day the place still brings in tons of people from celebrities, to locals and tourists alike.
Tartine Inner Sunset
Taking a walk through the Inner Sunset district, you might come upon this little spot. Covered by the San Francisco fog and looking like nothing more than just a house on the street is the easy to miss Tartine Inner Sunset. Their location on 9th street gives Tartine Inner Sunset a very local and neighborhood eatery feel but Tartine Inner Sunset is not just a restaurant it feels more like a bakery than a restaurant. The place makes its own baked goods from tasty breads and pastries to cookies and croissants. Enjoy a sweet treat like a chocolate croissant or indulge in a brunch or breakfast of an open-faced egg sandwich made with freshly baked bread right in-house. Wash it down with a coffee or a beer or kombucha straight from the tap.
Swan Oyster Depot
Swan Oyster Depot is located in the Polk Gulch area of the city and is a significant restaurant in the fabric of the city. San Francisco’s position on the Pacific means that it gets some amazing seafood. It wouldn’t be so out of place to say that some of the best seafood outside of New England can be found here in San Francisco.
Swan Oyster Depot is one of the oldest in the city that’s still operating. The original restaurant was opened in 1903 by Danish immigrants, the Laustens. After the devastating 1906 earthquake, the Lausten family lost everything and in order to get back on their feet, they sold wheat in Golden Gate Park. Finally, they were able to rebuild their restaurant in 1912 changing the name from Cable Oyster Depot to Swan Oyster Depot as the swan is a symbol of good luck and the national bird of Denmark. In 1946 the Laustens sold their business to the Sanciminos family who themselves were immigrants from Sicily. They expanded the business from shellfish to fresh, never frozen seafood, and serve food based on what is seasonally available.
The restaurant itself is fairly simple and small with a small counter and stool and decorations spanning the century’s old restaurant’s history. Swan Oyster Depot has been the curiosity of many food writers, critics, and personalities being noted by CNN as one of “America’s Greatest Historical Restaurants”. The presentation, wine selection, and simplicity is a large part of the attraction with it being a favorite of the legendary James Beard and Anthony Bourdain who noted Swan Oyster Depot as a “true love”. Over the years people from Bing Crosby, Margaret Thatcher, Francis Ford Coppola, Julia Child, and Nicholas Cage have also dined here.
The Barbican by Whitechapel
Not all restaurants in San Francisco are old and legendary. Some are new and delicious and offer modern takes on classic dishes and while somethings can be a fad, The Barbican certainly is not going away any time soon. Part beer garden, part cocktail lounge, and part fusion restaurant The Barbican is a perfect place to spend a sunny afternoon and enjoy a few beers and a weird mix of dishes. Things like chicken tikka masala-topped tater tots and breakfast poutine are on the menu alongside gin-heavy cocktails, local craft beer, and an extensive wine list. The Barbican is also easy on the wallet with main dishes going for 15-20$.
Daeho Kalbijjim & Beef Soup
San Francisco is home to some of the best Asian food in the country with cuisines spanning from Korean, Thai, Japanese, Burmese, Chinese, and tons of others. Daeho Kalbijjim & Beef Soup is one of the best Korean spots in the city but while a lot of other restaurants try to emphasize a large array of dishes showcasing the country’s cuisine, Daeho Kalbijjim & Beef Soup specializes in everything beef. Just about every dish here features beef in some capacity like beef rib soup, beef bibimbap, broiled beef brisket, and of course namesake kalbijjim which is a short rib, meat falling off the bone stew. There are plenty of amazing Korean places in the city but few have the notoriety that Daeho Kalbijjim & Beef Soup has. Make sure to come early or book a reservation because wait times can go up to a couple of hours.
It’s weird, kind of esoteric, and features strange designs that won’t be found in other restaurants. But it is also a Michelin-starred restaurant serving some pretty tasty Mexican fare. Californios is a design lover’s dream and approaching the restaurant from the street will make you feel like you’re not even at a place that serves food. Its mirrored facade has no markings on it or a sign telling you where you are and once you step inside the low light and black walls juxtapose with vibrant artwork. Grab a spot at one of the leather banquettes or sit at the bar and peer into the open kitchen and watch your food as it gets made.
Californios serves Mexican-inspired cuisine but you won’t find burritos or enchiladas as you’d expect. Instead, Californios serves lobster tacos and wagyu beef burritos alongside foie gras garnished churros. If you’re really in the mood for indulgence try their 16-course tasting menu.
With its long list of Asian cuisines available throughout the city, picking your favorite sushi spot in San Francisco is almost a sport in itself. Sushi is somewhat of a local obsession in San Francisco and you can almost find a place that serves sushi on any street corner. So if you’re going to grab some sushi in the city, why not go big?
Robin operates on an “omakase” philosophy. Translating to essentially “I’ll leave it up to you” means that there isn’t really a set menu but guests are advised to entrust the chef with what they think you’ll like. The sushi is served based on seasonality and by what’s available that day so there’s always something different. Robin opened in 2017 but has made a name for itself with its interesting and divergent dishes like potato chip nigiri topped with caviar and wagyu topped with foie gras “snow”. If more “standard” sushi is what you’re looking for Robin also sells take-out and picnic-ready bento boxes with fresh sashimi, cut rolls, and sesame noodles.
Deli Board brings east coast deli food from a guy from the midwest and adds a cool and hip spin that is found in many San Francisco restaurants. The concept here is straightforward. Deli Board is a small deli-style restaurant serving custom sandwiches handcrafted with love using fresh and local ingredients alongside soups, salads, and sauces all made from scratch.
The menu here at Deli Board changes on the daily making everything fresh and tasty and an even better reason why you should come back and try out all their sandwiches. The one thing that is always on the menu is the “Romanian Pastrami” (which is from a fattier cut, according to owner Adam Mesnick). The sandwiches are meaty, saucy, and always fresh and nothing costs more than 20$.
House of Prime Rib
The bay area is all about the latest food crazes with new and wild fusion cuisines and bold new tastes and ingredients. But sometimes classic is what you’re in the mood for. No frills, no fusion food, no ingredients with hard to pronounce names. The House of Prime Rib is a 70-year-old Nob Hill institution that is a trip back in time. The atmosphere of the restaurant feels like a 60s-era high-end dining spot but at the same time doesn’t feel old and rundown but rather leans on its “classic” aesthetic. Leather seats, white linens, and tablecloths, and dark wood paneling go alongside martinis and Manhattans made by bartenders in vests and bowties.
If you didn’t gather from the name, beef is the name of the game here and every cut of prime rib is aged for 21 days before being cooked and cut right in front of your table. The only choices you have to make are how thick you want your cut, the temperature, and if you want a loaded baked potato or mashed. Each plate comes with a serving of creamed spinach, salad, Yorkshire pudding, and your choice of potatoes.
Our Final Word
The food landscape in San Francisco is one of the most diverse and fun in the country. There’s food from everywhere here in this small and compact city and not only is it delicious and fun but it is among some of the best in the United States. From historic restaurants to modern classics there are so many places to eat in San Francisco. Your San Francisco food tour is coupled with a ride on a cable car, touring of Chinatown and Alcatraz and hanging out at Fisherman’s Warf. San Francisco is truly an unique and fun destination on your travels. What is your favorite part of San Francisco?
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