Welcome to San Francisco’s “Greatest Hits” List.
We presume you’ve encountered a “greatest hits” album before, but unlike Come Get It: The Very Best Of Aaron Carter, this one is actually worth your time. To be clear - this is not Now That’s What I Call A Restaurant: 2016 either. This is a concise and carefully chosen set of places in San Francisco that you should hit first if you’re new to town (or get yourself to stat if you're not) - restaurants that are essential to San Francisco dining, from world-class pasta to breakfast sandwiches by the beach.
Just how you wouldn’t introduce your nephew to Michael Jackson by throwing on History: Vol 1 and skipping right to "Heal The World,” we wouldn’t send someone unfamiliar with San Francisco to a new Mission sushi spot without sending them to these restaurants first. And you shouldn’t either.
If you are looking for what's new, check out our Hit List, a guide to the brand new, recently-opened restaurants worth your time, or our guide to SF’s Best New Restaurants Of 2015. If Fastball can have a Greatest Hits, so can we. But unlike Painting the Corners: The Best of Fastball, you’ll probably use this one more than once.
If you’ve eaten at restaurants more than a couple times in SF, you’ve felt the Zuni sphere of influence. Roast chickens for two. Fancy cheeseburgers with garlic aioli. Brick oven-cooked fish. It all ties back to Zuni. Dining in SF without having been to Zuni is like speaking English without learning Latin — you can do it, but wouldn’t you rather feel like an informed student of culture while you’re doing it?
There are many pretenders to the pizza throne, including some that have “Pizza Napoletana” in their name, but UPN is the one true Khaleesi of the Margherita. The atmosphere is somewhat sterile, it’s only open four days a week, they close when they run out of dough, but that’s all worth it. Chew on this crust and you may begin to weep.
The pinnacle of NorCal food at this very moment: simply-cooked meats, pasta with fresh vegetables, sea urchin et al. But Rich Table’s also not afraid to get weird, with generally good results, like the porcini doughnuts and sardine chips. The Hayes Valley corner restaurant is also quite “cute.”
It is a rare thing in San Francisco to serve quality food until 1am, offer a superb brunch, and have feel-good vibes for days. Nopa has been setting the ‘new American’ standard for the past 10 years, and the quality hasn’t slipped a bit. Hence its role as our ultimate go-to. Everyone else knows this too, so you might have to wait, but loitering around to snag bar seats is the move. Or going post-10pm. Either way, the burger and pork chop are always in consideration for our favorite meats around.
Still one of the toughest reservations in town, five-plus years in. And for good reason—the pastas are delicious. No one in town does a better “rustic” pile of cheese, butter, meat, and starch than these guys. If you want to go, line up early at 4:45 or go late at 10:15.
The rare gimmick restaurant where the food stands up to the gimmick. In this case, the gimmick is that half the menu is carried around on trays and rolled around on carts, dim sum style. You’ll quickly discover that your eyes are indeed bigger than your stomach. But you won’t be mad about it. The namesake fried quail and giant garlic-cheese bread ball are must-orders.
So legit, it seems fake: an oyster counter that’s been open since 1912 that still turns out excellence. You come to San Francisco, you go to Swan, you wait in line (possibly for an hour), you doubt that it matches the hype, and then you dig into your first bite of cracked crab. Your mind is changed.
If there’s one area in which cities like NY and LA have us beat, it’s in restaurants that are straight-up cool. Loud atmosphere and vibrant scene are not necessary aspects of a great night out, but it is fun to let loose from time to time. Enter Bar Crudo. Have chowder, have oysters, have arctic char, have fun.
Look, we don’t want to be the people telling you that you have to go to Tartine Bakery… but you have to go to Tartine Bakery. Get a morning bun, get a croque monsieur, or just get some goddamn bread. It is fully acceptable to eat a loaf of Tartine bread by the slice, unadorned.
Foreign Cinema is one of the greats. The California-inspired menu changes often and is wonderful for every meal, and everyone from your mom to your college roommate to your boss can agree that it’s special. They play old black and white movies on outdoor patio, and if you can finagle a seat out there you’ll never want to leave. The setup and menu aren't flashy or trendy, but it's absolutely classic. Basically, Foreign Cinema is the Bay Area's James Taylor.
If there’s one thing that San Francisco truly excels at, it’s incredible bread. If we had to pick another thing we are the greatest at, it’s pricing menu items like they are collectors' relics from the Titanic. Hello, The Mill and your infamous $4 piece of toast. But there’s a reason it’s $4, because it’s 4,000 times better than any toast you could make at home. The bread is immaculate, the spreads (What’s up, HOUSEMADE NUTELLA) are insane, and the vibe is perfect.
OK, we lied. There is another thing that San Francisco kicks every other city’s ass in: ice cream. Happy cows come from California and they produce exceptional dairy products that the artisans of our city churn into sugary wonders. Bi-Rite wins for best location, best soft serve, and overall best consistency of flavors in the city. It’s an institution, and the salted caramel deserves all the praise and glory.
Hot take: this is the best breakfast restaurant in America. There are no better egg-pancake-bacon-potato plates out there. There simply are not. This is why you must arrive 10 minutes before opening, on the the dot.
Yes, it’s new, yes it’s order-at-the-counter, yes, the menu is small. And yes, Souvla is one of the all-time greats in San Francisco. We’ve desperately needed reasonably priced, delicious, healthy food in a nice space for a long time, and when Souvla finally arrived to show us how it’s done, they nailed it. The Greek meats are incredible, the service is quick and friendly, and the frozen yogurt with baklava is a revelation. We can’t wait for the hopefully-rapid expansion of this Mediterranean oasis.
SF is the best burrito town in America (we invented it, look it up). Is this THE best burrito? For our money, yes, and it’s much better than more famous counterparts (La Taq, Farolito). We can say this definitively: you’ll love it.
There is one other ice cream spot among the all-time greats. Maybe because they’re down to get a little weird with the flavors, maybe because they put booze in the breakfast ice cream, maybe because they have the balls to put foie gras in there too. Whatever it is, Humphry Slocombe drives the crazy train of desserts and they do a fantastic job. Try all the flavors. They’ll let you.
Has anyone outside of San Francisco (minus the good people of Myanmar) eaten excellent Burmese food? We will bet you all our Twitter stock that they have not. Our city has a serious Burmese food scene - from trucks to upscale spots - and the OG Burma Superstar in the Richmond is to thank for our communal enjoyment and understanding of the joys of a tea leaf salad. And the even greater joy of getting Burma Superstar takeout and laughing at all the suckers in line.
There are a lot of places that serve upscale breakfast sandwiches or elaborate pastries that require test tubes and liquid nitrogen in their preparation. Devil’s Teeth Baking Co. in the Outer Sunset makes the best breakfast sandwich in San Francisco, and it doesn’t need to be gluten-free or organic. It’s hearty, it’s sturdy, and it’s perfect. There are few better things in life than sitting on the benches outside the bakery, sandwich in one hand, coffee in another, watching the people and the dogs and pondering a walk on the beach. This is why you live in California.