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The First Timer’s Guide To Eating In San Francisco

PHOTO: Krescent Carasso

Now that most American job creation happens in San Francisco, you may be planning a trip here. Maybe it’s just to eat, maybe it’s for work, maybe it’s to see the Full House houses.

Whatever your reason, there’s a lot of good stuff to eat here. This list is your “teaser guide” to the city – perhaps not the be-all end-all, but the most representative of what we have to offer.

A warning upfront: we’re going to send you to some places that have lines. That’s because they’re good. You can choose to go in off-peak hours, or you can choose to do some reading on your phone, but these picks are still the best. Such is life.

We’ll leave you with a few words of wisdom. The “hills” that people speak of here are pretty much mountains. Leave your heels at home. And also: call it SF, call it San Francisco, but keep “San Fran” and “Frisco” for your own time. Now eat up.

FOR BREAKFAST, BRUNCH, & LUNCH

Tartine Bakery

Mission
600 Guerrero St.
8.7
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If there was ever a time to shut your eyes, point, and hope for the best, it’s at Tartine Bakery. Everything at this Mission classic - from the morning buns to the gougeres to the croissants - will make you consider moving nearby. And while it seems a little insane to wait in line for baked goods (and in a lot of cases, it is), it’s more than justified here.

Acme Bread Company

Embarcadero
1 Ferry Building Ste 15
8.6
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Tartine is great for things like lemon bars and croissants, but Acme Bread Company makes our favorite bread in the city - especially their sourdough. Plus, if you end up at their outpost at the Ferry Building on a farmers market day, you can get things like jam and cheese to go with your bread. Find a spot outside, sit, and try not to eat a whole loaf in one sitting.

8.5
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It’s easy to forget that San Francisco has beaches. There’s the bridge to see and food to eat and hills to climb and scooters to dodge, but the beaches aren’t to be missed. And the best breakfast sandwich in the city conveniently happens to be near the beach at Devil’s Teeth. On a weekend, there will be a line - but it moves fast - and on the weekdays, you can pop right in. Grab a breakfast sandwich and walk a few blocks down to Ocean Beach. Blast “California” on your phone and open up the Zillow app. Ok maybe don’t do the last part.

Yank Sing

Soma
49 Stevenson St

It may not be a law that you have to eat dim sum in San Francisco, but it’s definitely a guideline you should follow. Yank Sing in SoMa is one of our favorites, and it’s best to go with a group so you can try more things. Have fun looking around the room at the carts passing by, waiting for the one with soup dumplings or shrimp har gao to reach your table. If you find yourself in the Richmond, we like Hong Kong Lounge II, as well.

If you take a walk around Chinatown, but don’t want to commit to sitting through a whole meal, hop in line at Good Mong Kok Bakery. You can get giant steamed pork buns and shrimp dumplings for less money than your Uber that morning - $6 will absolutely get you enough food for two people. There’s nowhere to sit, but you can eat your pork buns while you walk around the neighborhood and scope out where you want to try next.

The Mill

Nopa
736 Divisadero St.
7.9
MAP

The technologic contributions that the Bay Area has given the world are countless, but San Francisco’s most controversial invention is probably $4 toast. You have the people at The Mill to thank for that, but you also have them to thank for their bread that’s perfection. The coffee is also great, and so is the granola.

Photo: Virginia Mae Rollison

Plow

Potrero Hill
1299 18th St.
8.2
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There are certain rites of passage you need to experience during your first trip to SF, like seeing your first self-driving car, or learning that distances are sometimes measured in hills instead of miles. Having breakfast at Plow is another and while it’ll require getting there when they open at 7am to avoid the insane wait, the lemon ricotta pancakes alone are worth the hassle.

8.2
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Breakfast isn’t always worth going out of your way for. You’ve got a waffle iron at home, and eggs are eggs - unless it’s the Rebel Within at Craftsman and Wolves. It’s a muffin with sausage and a soft-cooked egg baked inside. Think about that for a minute. Then go get one instead of eating dry cereal at your hotel.

9.5
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Just like Kermit the Frog, Zuni Cafe is the definition of aging well. This place has been an SF staple since it opened in the late 70s, and it feels just as cool today as it did 40 years ago. Their food is just as classic - if you’ve ever seen a whole roast chicken on a menu, it’s this place’s fault, and theirs is the gold standard. The caesar salad is perfection, too. We like to go for lunch and pretend that we’ve retired early to a life of casual midday feasts, but do whatever you need to to get to Zuni.

Swan Oyster Depot

Nob Hill
1517 Polk Street
8.5
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At Swan, they keep things simple, with fresh oysters, cracked crab, and pretty much every other delicious raw seafood you could want. If you’re not sure about what you’re doing, just ask someone behind the counter. Even though there’s always a line, you won’t be rushed by anyone who works there, so you can take your time, order accordingly, and eat while you weigh the pros and cons of smuggling oysters back home in your suitcase.

El Castillito

Castro
136 Church St.
8.3
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You have to get a burrito when you’re here and while there are more options to choose from than you could ever try in one trip, we’ll make it easy for you: go to El Castillito. With cheese melted on the inside of the tortilla, it’s a paragon of the form. A thing of beauty is a joy forever. Or until you finish eating it.

8.4
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Hog Island is our favorite restaurant in the Ferry Building (it’s worth planning a Saturday morning here for the farmers market and picking up some bread from Acme, too). Get a spot overlooking the bay, knock back some fresh oysters and chowder, and drink a glass or three of rosé in the sun.

MAP

Located right next to Dolores Park in the Mission, the lines can be long, but the ice cream at Bi-Rite is absolutely worth the wait. Rincanelas (snickerdoodles in ice cream form), creme brulee, and their most famous, salted caramel, are our favorites. Sleeper? Brown sugar with ginger caramel.

for dinner

Mister Jiu's

Chinatown
28 Waverly Pl.
9.0
MAP

Mister Jiu’s does a modern take on Chinese American classics, like pork wontons and roast duck, and it’s one of the best restaurants to open up here over the past few years. It’s good for groups, and the dining room is one of the coolest spaces in SF hands down. Getting a reservation in advance is the way to go if you want the full experience in the dining room, but the bar is first come, first serve and has the full menu, too.

Photo: Krescent Carasso

Nopa

Nopa
560 Divisadero St.
8.8
MAP

A great restaurant, where the elements converge to make you feel like you’re almost at home - just with better food and nicer wine. The burger and pork chop are classic, but the everyday experience at Nopa is what makes it special. Be a planner, make reservations a month in advance, and you’ll be golden.

8.5
MAP

This is not the kind of restaurant you hit up every day, but it’s one of the coolest spots you can go to in SF. Small plates are brought around the restaurant dim-sum style for you to choose from, and there’s a small menu that you can order straight from the kitchen. State Bird is an exercise in restraint because you’ll want to eat everything that passes, but no matter how many plates you get, make sure to order the state bird (fried quail) no matter what.

Flour + Water

Mission
2401 Harrison St.
9.0
MAP

This is a new school Cal-Italian place that easily has some of the best pasta in the city. You’ll need to plan this one ahead of time, because if you don’t have a reservation, you’ll need to line up at 4:30 in the afternoon to get in at a decent hour. Spring for the pastas over the pizza, and if you and everyone you’re with is serious, the whole table can do the pasta tasting menu.

9.5
MAP

Liholiho is a restaurant greater than the sum of its parts. The space is cool, the drinks are great, and the Hawaiian-inspired menu is delicious, and when all of these things come together, it’s one of the most fun restaurants in SF. The poke is the best we’ve had and the fried oysters are nothing short of incredible. If you have a complete carnivore with you, order the beef ribs, but make sure you leave room for the off-menu spam special.

Photo: Krescent Carasso
7.6
MAP

Trattoria Contadina is as good as it gets when it comes to old school Italian food. The menu has the classics like veal saltimbocca and house-made gnocchi with tomato cream that are exactly what you want from a place like this. It’s a five minute walk uphill from Little Italy, but you’ll feel less like you’re in a 90s romcom dinner scene and more like you’re actually eating a real meal than pretty much anywhere on Columbus Ave. Plus, you can pick your favorite celebrity headshot on the wall after you order - but not Cheers-era Kirstie Alley, she’s our favorite.

Foreign Cinema

Mission
2534 Mission St.
8.6
MAP

This place has been around for a while, but it has a cool enough space and modern menu that you’d believe someone who said it had just opened. If you have dinner outside, you get to watch classics like The Maltese Falcon that are projected on the courtyard wall while you eat. And if you request the same table in the morning, you get to eat brunch in a nice sunny courtyard. It’s tough to lose. Order the fried chicken or the Persian omelet.

Photo: Virginia Mae Rollison

bars

Zeitgeist

Mission
199 Valencia St
MAP

Very “SF,” in the sense that the beer is hoppy and potent, the place is run down, the piercings and ink are out in force, and it’s a great time. Smoke fills the air, so stick your nose into your next beverage. On a nice day, hanging out in the backyard area of this Mission dive is where it’s at.

MAP

Odds are you’re going to go to the Tonga Room at some point, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you look around and think, “This is more Disney-esque and filled with conference-goers than I can handle,” and you still want a tiki drink, head to Pagan Idol afterwards. It can also get crowded, but it’s the kind of crowd who’s interested in the time they’re having instead of just taking pictures like they were at Jurassic Park. The bar itself is a cool space with a more modern take on the tiki theme, and the drinks are just as strong as the Tonga Room’s.

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