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: 2017, 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 right away if you’re not) - restaurants that are essential to San Francisco dining, from world-class pasta places to a spot for breakfast sandwiches by the beach.
Just like you wouldn’t introduce your nephew to Bob Dylan by throwing on his Christmas album, 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.
Added 11/2017: Liholiho Yacht Club, Cala, Al’s Place, Burma Love, A 16, Californios, Cotogna, Outerlands, SPQR, Hog Island Oyster Bar, Sons & Daughters, Taqueria Cancun
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?
We’ve been huge fans of this place since we first discovered it, and not just because of the pretty space, open kitchen, and fantastic drinks - even though we do appreciate all those things. We’re fans because the food is incredible, and consistently so. This is the place that sent us running to tell our friends about beef tongue, and also convinced us that Spam can be a delicacy. We’re here for birthday dinners, snacks and drinks with out-of-towners, and really any other reason we can possibly think of. Getting a reservation can be tough, but sitting at the bar is surprisingly doable.
Walking into Cala feels like sneaking into an outdoor wedding in Mexico City. The Hayes Valley space is beautiful, and the energy is high without being chaotic. People are excited to be here, as they should be, because the food and drinks are phenomenal. The menu is upscale, but not in the guacamole mixed tableside or “craft quesadillas” way. Instead, the focus is on simple, fresh vegetable and seafood dishes like trout tostadas and charred sweet potato tacos with bone marrow salsa. You’ll wish more restaurants served food like this.
Al’s Place is a cool restaurant that even decidedly uncool people will love. The vegetable and seafood-heavy menu here is a little quirky, but it’s not overly experimental. So your not-too-adventurous friends slash parents will be perfectly comfortable. Especially if they can get a little bit excited about eating salad with their hands.
Burma Love takes something good (its more casual older sister restaurant, Burma Superstar) and makes it great. This Mission spot does outstanding versions of Burmese classics, from tea leaf salad to spicy shrimp to coconut chicken curry soup, in a space that’s fun and oddly easy to get into, considering the quality of the food. Burma Love is the best place for Burmese food in the city.
Neighborhood restaurants can be easy to overlook, but A 16 is one to go out of your way for. The pastas and pizzas here are stellar, and the place itself has a warm and welcoming atmosphere unlike anything else you’ll find in the city. Unless your grandparents happen to run an incredibly good Italian restaurant and let you cut your pizza with scissors.
Doing the tasting menu at Californios is like listening to an album you’ve never heard before but instantly know you’ll be singing to yourself for weeks. Each simple-sounding but imaginative Mexican dish flows perfectly into the next, and the place has a special occasion feel - particularly for the Mission.
There are plenty of very good Italian restaurants in San Francisco, but at Cotogna, consistently excellent food is only part of the deal. The atmosphere is just as important - and together, they’re an unbeatable package. This place is classy without being pretentious, energetic without being too loud, and also, unsurprisingly, pretty hard to get into - so consider trying it for lunch or brunch instead of dinner. You’re here for seasonal pastas, pizzas, and meat dishes (in that order), and you’ll also need to eat as much focaccia as you can, whichever meal you come for.
Everything tastes better on vacation. Or at Outerlands, where you can trick yourself into thinking you’ve left San Francisco. The cool beach house-y interior is a great place to sit and eat, and even simple dishes like the grilled cheese are impressive. While the wait at brunch can be a little daunting, the dutch baby and eggs “in jail” (cooked in a giant slice of bread and served with bacon and salad) are worth it. And at dinner, it’s a perfect date night spot if you want to actually be able to hear your date and not fight for elbow space with neighbors.
Still one of the toughest reservations in SF, almost a decade 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 and haven’t made your plan a month in advance, either line up early at 4:45, or go late at 10:15.
Look, we don’t want to be the people telling you that you have to go to Tartine Bakery - but you really do 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.
People don’t talk about SPQR as much anymore, but we are not those people. This very upscale (but not stuffy) pasta place is still excellent - and it’s also not impossible to walk right in for a seat at the bar. Whether you’re here spontaneously or for a birthday, affordable Tuesday dinner SPQR is not. You will spend money here, but you can also trust that anything you order off the daily-changing menu is going to be phenomenal. Particularly the uni fettucine, if it’s available.
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 go-to for most occasions. Everyone else knows this, too, so you might have to wait, but loitering around to snag bar seats is smart. Or going post-10pm (it’s open until 1am on Fridays and Saturdays). Either way, the burger and pork chop are always in consideration for our favorite meats around.
This Hayes Valley corner restaurant is the pinnacle of NorCal food: simply-cooked meats, pasta with fresh vegetables, and, of course, sea urchin. But Rich Table is also not afraid to get weird, with generally good results - like the porcini doughnuts and sardine chips. No matter how far ahead you need to plan, get here.
Take great oysters and a beautiful view, drown them in clam chowder, and you’ve basically reached your life apex. Hog Island is a San Francisco institution for a reason - the Ferry Building location is iconic, and the seafood is incredibly high quality. Definitely stop here if you’re a tourist, but don’t avoid it if you’re a local. Even with the almost inevitable wait, it never disappoints.
Sons & Daughters is a special occasion, tasting-menu-only spot, so save it for an anniversary, birthday, or other celebration of how much you like going out for fancy meals. The seasonal food is prepared in an open kitchen and served in a dining room with only 28 seats. It’s energetic and refreshing and absolutely a San Francisco bucket list experience.
SF is the best burrito town in America. And for our money, this is SF’s best burrito. It’s much better than its more famous counterparts (like the ones at La Taq and Farolito), and we can say this definitively: you’re going to love it.
Foreign Cinema is the Bay Area’s James Taylor. The setup and food aren’t flashy or trendy, but this place is absolutely classic. The California-inspired menu changes often, and everyone from your mom to your college roommate to your boss will agree that it’s special. They also play old movies on their outdoor patio, and if you can get a seat out there, you’ll never want to leave.
If there’s one thing that San Francisco truly excels at, it’s bread. And if we had to name a second thing, it would be pricing menu items like they are collectors’ relics from the Titanic. A prime example is The Mill and its 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 (like housemade nutella) are excellent, and the whole feel of the place is awesome.
So legit, it seems fake: an oyster counter that’s been open since 1912 and 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 lives up to the hype, and then you dig into your first bite of cracked crab. Your mind is changed.
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.
El Castillito may have the better burrito - but only just. Cancun has a bigger menu, is a little rowdier, and stays open until 2am on the weekends, which is shockingly rare. The al pastor is always the right choice, although if you’re feeling extremely ambitious, there’s always the mojado burrito, topped with melted cheese, multiple salsas, sour cream, and enchilada sauce. There are three locations of Cancun in the city, but the Mission one is the best.
We have zero doubt that 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 Plow opens, on the dot.
There are a lot of places that serve upscale breakfast sandwiches or elaborate pastries requiring test tubes and liquid nitrogen in their preparation. But 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.