SFGuide

The First Timer’s Guide To Eating In SF

Not every great restaurant in San Francisco—just the ones you should have on your list while you’re getting acquainted.

Visiting San Francisco for the first time? Just moved here with a still unloaded U-Haul? Obviously we have some opinions. Firstly, check where you parked that U-Haul—street sweeping is no joke here. Secondly, don’t confine yourself to landmark areas like Pier 39 or Lombard Street. Thirdly, maybe don’t do anything else but eat?

What you see before you isn’t meant to be a definitive list of this city’s best restaurants—it’s just what we’d do if we were in your shoes, if we just moved here, or were visiting with a weekend in front of us and a whole lot of options to sort through. Speaking of shoes, hopefully you brought some comfortable ones. You’ve got a lot of ground (and hills) to cover.

THE SPOTS

Nopa imageoverride image
8.8

Nopa

$$$$415-864-8643
Hours:MONDAY5:00PM to 12:00AM

We’ve yet to find something that Nopa doesn’t do really well. It’s a laid-back San Francisco staple, after all. And it’s one we go to for pretty much any occasion, whether it’s to sidle up to the bar for one of the best burgers in town, go on a first date, or celebrate a milestone anniversary over big plates of pasta, pork chops, and vegetable tagines. This restaurant just works for, well, everything.

We love Nari. The well-lit dining room with high ceilings and lush plants will make you feel like you’re eating inside the world’s most stunning botanical atrium. And every dish from the Kin Khao sister restaurant in Japantown perfectly matches the bold, beautiful space. The food layers sour, sweet, and spicy flavors and textures that command your attention, like a plate of sweet pork jowl covered in a sticky sauce, or lettuce cups with a charred mushroom and puffed rice salad that’ll make your tongue tingle.

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8.0

Yank Sing

$$$$(415) 957-9300
Hours:MONDAY11:00AM to 3:00PM

Yank Sing is the city’s most famous dim sum spot—it’s been around since 1958 and is known to draw huge crowds, especially at the larger Spear Street location inside the Rincon Center. And while they’re arguably not the best dim sum spot in the city, Yank Sing is still a classic we love, and coming here at least once is a quintessential dining experience. Once inside, metal push carts with bamboo steamers will zoom past you, and you’ll have your pick of everything from phenomenal kurobuta pork and Napa cabbage dumplings and steamed BBQ pork buns to scallop siu mai. Get one of everything and don’t hold back.

Plow imageoverride image
8.5

Plow

$$$$415-821-7569
Hours:MONDAY7:00AM to 2:00PM
Perfect For:BreakfastBrunch

If breakfast is your most important meal of the day, then make it count by heading to Plow. Coming here during your first trip to the city is a rite of passage, like staring out at the Golden Gate Bridge, or eating your first Mission burrito. Unless you get to this Potrero Hill spot right when they open at 7am, you’ll probably have to wait in line. But the light, fluffy lemon ricotta pancakes alone are worth the hassle.

Zuni is a classic that never goes out of style. The Market Street restaurant has been a San Francisco landmark since it opened in the late ’70s, and hasn’t lost its spark since. The name of the game is the famous wood-fire roasted chicken served on a warm bread salad. The Caesar salad is perfection, too. We love to go for lunch and pretend that we’ve retired early to a life of casual midday feasts, but do whatever you need to get to Zuni.

San Francisco is home to the country’s oldest Chinatown, and strolling down its streets lined with hanging red lanterns and plenty of restaurants and shops is a basic requirement on any trip to the city. Here, you’ll find no shortage of excellent food—but one spot you need to check out is Good Mong Kok. This bakery is the place for massive BBQ pork buns, plump har gow, pork siu mai, and more delicious dim sum treats. Another perk: you’ll be able to get enough to feed at least two people for less than $10. There’s no sit-down dining, so take your food to go and enjoy it in nearby Portsmouth Square.

Whenever we’re at Tartine (which is often), we’re tempted to just shut our eyes, spin blindfolded, and point to the menu—we trust we’ll always end up with something excellent. Everything at this San Francisco bakery, from the morning buns and gougères to the crackly, buttery croissants, will make you seriously consider selling your most prized possessions just to eat here every day. Just note that getting your hands on these impeccable breads and pastries will require you to wait in a line that usually wraps around the corner, so plan accordingly.

photo credit: Melissa Zink

Taqueria El Farolito imageoverride image
8.7

Taqueria El Farolito

$$$$(415) 824-7877
Hours:MONDAY10:00AM to 2:30AM

Everyone has strong opinions about where to find the best burrito in the city. Ask us, and we’ll point you in the direction of Taqueria El Farolito. What sets the cash-only taqueria’s apart is the always well-spiced meats that are cooked to tender perfection on the plancha. Our go-tos are the carne asada or al pastor, but it’s hard to order wrong. These burritos are the size of newborn babies, and you should get them filled with the magical mix of sour cream, guacamole, and cheese. And while you're here for burritos, ordering the quesadilla suiza that’s oozing with melted cheese is also required.

Twelve pizza styles ranging from Sicilian and Neapolitan to Roman and Detroit, all cooked using one of seven different temperatures, using five kinds of heat sources—this North Beach spot takes their pies seriously, and coming here always means you’ll have your pick of a variety of doughs, shapes, and toppings, which is great since Tony’s makes some of the best pizza in the city. Get the margherita Neapolitan pizza, but don’t pass up on the coal-fired New Yorker, which is loaded with sausage, pepperoni, and cheese.

The Mill imageoverride image
8.3

The Mill

$$$$4153451953
Hours:MONDAY7:00AM to 9:00PM
Perfect For:BreakfastBrunch

Our perfect morning always includes laying around in the sun with our wandering neighborhood cat before heading to The Mill for a light breakfast and coffee. And if you’ve got a full day ahead of you, there’s no better place to fuel up. The NoPa bakery makes incredible house-made bread, which they also serve in toast form, topped with things like avocado, cream cheese and pesto, or seasonal jam. It’s all fantastic, and even better with an iced latte to wash it down. Also grab some of their black pepper parmesan buns to go before heading to Alamo Square Park for obligatory photos with the Full House Victorians.

At some point, you’ll probably end up walking up Columbus Avenue doing North Beach things, like grabbing a scoop of gelato and taking pictures of Coit Tower. And if it happens to be around lunchtime, stop at Molinari Delicatessen. This old-school Italian deli/grocery store churns out fantastic sandwiches, stuffed with high-quality cured meats. You can order off the menu, which has things like the Renzo with prosciutto and hot coppa or the South Beach with turkey and provolone, or make your own sandwich, which should always include the excellent basil-garlic spread. And if you’ve never tried Dutch crunch, a slightly sweet roll with a crackly rice flour and sugar topping (and a Bay Area invention), let your introduction happen here.

We already loved Prubechu before the pandemic, but our affection for this Guamanian restaurant in the Mission was reignited when we had dinner in their new outdoor dining area. It’s spacious, heated, and feels like a chill backyard with colorful floral tablecloths and a low-key playlist. It’s one of the newer restaurants on this list, and one you need to experience, stat, especially for the creamy tinaktak with handmade egg noodles and coconut beef, the tender ko’ko’ wings and tangy lemon fina’denne sauce, Chamorro BBQ plates, and fluffy banana donuts.

Big gold chandeliers, leafy potted plants, and floor-to-ceiling glass windows—Mister Jiu’s has one of the prettiest dining rooms in the city. But that’s not the only reason to make a reservation here—the impressive, beautifully-plated Chinese American dishes each have their own special twist. The cheong fun is topped with things like uni or caviar, the BBQ pork buns are made with a Dutch crunch crust, the pork potstickers incorporate rainbow chard and beets, and the whole roasted duck comes with a duck liver mousse and peanut butter hoisin. Come with a group—you’re going to want to order as many dishes as can possibly fit on your table.

This is a city full of great ice cream spots, but Bi-Rite does some of the best. Signature and rotating flavors, like balsamic strawberry or peanut butter swirl, have the creamiest textures. And they have soft serve and vegan options, too. The ice cream shop is located on the corner across from Dolores Park, so the power move is to grab a cone on your way to the sunny patch of grass. If you’re having trouble deciding what to get, know we can’t get enough of these flavors: ricanelas, crème brûlée, and salted caramel.

Note: Liholiho Yacht Club is temporarily closed for renovations. The restaurant will reopen Spring 2022.

Liholiho Yacht Club never fails to put our decision-making skills to the test—simply because everything here is incredible. Their menu is influenced by Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Hawaiian flavors, and every time we visit, we find something new to obsess over, like the spicy tuna poke we love scooping onto their crackly nori chips or the whole fried fish with coconut turmeric marinade.

This place in FiDi isn’t just the oldest continuously running restaurant in San Francisco, it’s the oldest restaurant in California. And not much has changed since it opened in 1849, from the long, wooden bar to the private white tablecloth-ed dining nooks. Head to this old-school spot to experience a bygone San Francisco era, and also taste a few dishes from their seafood-focused menu, like clam chowder, cioppino, oysters Rockefeller, crab cakes, and petrale sole a la Newburg. During the pandemic, Tadich hit a new milestone in its history—the walk-in only restaurant is now officially taking reservations.

San Francisco is full of great sandwich spots, like Molinari Delicatessen. But another one you need to check out is Saigon Sandwich. It’s a cash-only banh mi institution that’s been around for decades, and is located just outside of the Tenderloin’s Little Saigon. The secret to their longevity? Their tender roasted pork, which is stuffed between a perfectly crackly yet soft French roll. That, and the fact that at $5-ish a banh mi, getting a sandwich here is a great deal.

At House Of Prime Rib, the wine bottles are larger than spare tires, huge portions of different cuts of 21-day-aged prime rib are served alongside Yorkshire pudding and creamed spinach, and the meat is carved and plated table-side. This spot is a San Francisco legend dedicated to an old-school style of excess—and we’re lucky enough to have it right on the edge of Nob Hill.

We go to Yank Sing for traditional dim sum. We go to Dragon Beaux whenever we want more creative takes, like sea bass dumplings and black truffle squid ink xiao long bao. This incredible spot is run by the same folks behind Koi Palace and Palette Tea House, and every time we come here, our table transforms into a colorful spread of dumplings, siu mai, and bao. Their menu is pretty extensive too, and aside from dim sum they also do hot pot, congee, seafood, BBQ, and other great Cantonese dishes.

La Taqueria review image
7.9

La Taqueria

$$$$415-285-7117
Hours:MONDAY11:00AM to 9:00PM

You’ve most likely heard of this famous Mission-style burrito spot, which makes a great rice-less burrito with meat, pico de gallo, and pinto or refried beans. But we’ll tell you flat out: this won’t be the greatest burrito, and it certainly won’t upstage El Farolito’s, which, we already said, is the best in the city. But if this is your first time in San Francisco, La Taqueria is worth a visit, even if just to see for yourself what all the hype is about. Order the carne asada super with avocado and melted cheese—and get it dorado (crisped on the plancha)—and you’ll leave here happy.

This restaurant in the Fillmore always excites us. The music is loud, the energy is strong, and they serve incredible small plates, which they roll on carts around the dining room, dim sum-style. To put it another way, State Bird Provisions is a phenomenal restaurant, and you can’t go wrong with anything you order. The menu changes very frequently, but expect to see things like spring rolls, dumplings, fried quail, and corn mochi. No description here can do justice to the intricacies of the dishes, so do yourself a favor and just get to State Bird.

There are plenty of things to do in this city, like walk along Ocean Beach, chill in Golden Gate Park, or take a trip north for a glass of chardonnay in Wine Country. If you’re seeking a different kind of day, consider spending a lazy afternoon soaking up some sun at Red’s Java House. This pre-Giants game hangout is all about the vibes—it has a back patio right by the Bay Bridge and is the perfect place to enjoy something cold over a burger on a sourdough roll.

The Sardinian restaurant in Noe Valley doesn’t just make some of the best seafood dishes in the city, it’s one of the best Italian restaurants, period. And ordering from their menu of excellent dishes shouldn’t be an exercise in restraint. Get the spicy octopus stew, the fresh spaghetti with bottarga shaved on top, the pan-seared branzino, and don’t pass on the hearty gnocchetti with pork sugo. La Ciccia delivers an intimate feel with its cozy patio and string lights, small dining room with white table cloths, and a casual buzz that makes this spot perfect for a date night, a celebration, or a laid-back weeknight out.

Over in the Richmond District, there’s an area called Little Russia, a neighborhood with notable bakeries, markets, and restaurants spread out on and around Geary Boulevard. One place you need to check out there is Cinderella Bakery and Cafe. This spot is always packed with folks waiting in line for house-made breads, baked and deep-fried piroshki, golubtsy, pelmeni in broth, and more. Don’t leave without a slice of the medovik, a layered honey cake with sour cream and condensed milk, which Cinderella Bakery nails every time.

You won’t see a tagliatelle bolognese or spaghetti and clams at this Mission spot. Instead, you’ll find California-Italian pasta dishes made with interesting, seasonal ingredients on their often-changing menu. One day they might serve cappelletti with mint and artichoke, or a triangoli with fava beans and preserved Meyer lemons the next. And since you’re going to want to try every dish from this pasta Hall of Famer, get their $125 tasting menu, which also comes with several small plates like mushroom arancini and creamy truffle sformato. Reservations usually book fast, but if you can’t score one but want to still see what Flour + Water can do with, well, flour and water, head to their casual spin-off restaurant, Flour + Water Pizzeria.

A meal at Scoma’s is one of the few reasons you’ll find us at Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s located on a pier, is built like a houseboat, and is where to go when you want to get really fresh fish by the water. The menu has things like Crab Louie salad and linguine con vongole, but focus on the clam chowder or the Dungeness crab, which you should get whole-roasted.

The Arab restaurant has two locations in the city—the original in the Castro, and one in Cole Valley—and serves their rendition of what they call “Arabic comfort food.” Come here at the end of a long day, and unwind over their excellent mezze platter with hummus, lebna, muhammara, and baba ghanouj, puffy, za’atar-covered bread, and garlicky chicken shish tawook. You’ll want to take a picture of the massive spread and save it as your lock screen. And digging into the whole-fried branzino topped with a refreshing mint and onion salad is a form of self-care.

Farmhouse Kitchen is a celebration restaurant in every sense of the word. There are colorful streamers and floral motifs everywhere. Music videos play on TV screens. And servers are dressed in tropical-themed shirts. But none of that takes away from the Thai food, which is something to raise a glass to in itself. The hat yai fried chicken with roti, yellow curry, and blue rice are a perfect trio. The panang neua short ribs fall off the bone. And the papaya salad has a nice kick. Long story short, this place is fantastic. And coming here if you want to have a good time is always a good idea.

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Ferry Building

$$$$

You’re new to the city, so one thing you’re probably going to do is check out the shops and eateries at the Ferry Building. Which is always a good call, since you can also get your hands on some really great food: crackly fresh baguettes from Acme Bread, briny, slurpable oysters and clam chowder from Hog Island Oyster Co., or a pint of matchadoodle or Secret Breakfast ice cream from Humphry Slocombe. Take your treasures and enjoy them on a bench along the Embarcadero while you gaze out at the bay.

Rich Table is one of the rare places that always surprises us, in the best way, every time we visit. We marvel at the ever-changing mix of creative dishes, like sardine potato chips with a whole sardine slotted through the middle, porcini-dusted donuts with a side of melted cheese, or bread infused with actual Douglas fir. Their menu changes depending on what’s in season, but you’ll also see things like sea urchin cacio e pepe, aged duck with fattoush and sumac, or a creamsicle and mandarin granita for dessert.

Sometimes, all we want is a bowl of pasta with extra creamy and tomato-y sauces, and for that, Trattoria Contadina always fits the bill. The old-school Italian spot is located on a quiet corner on the border of North Beach and Russian Hill, and serves up heavy pasta dishes like spaghetti and meatballs, house-made gnocchi with tomato cream, and penne with ’nduja sausage. And no matter what you order, know the portions are gigantic.

Reem’s California started in Oakland before eventually landing a second location in San Francisco’s Mission District in 2020. Which is a good thing, because now you can experience this Arab bakery without having to cross the Bay Bridge (it’s now the only Reem’s location as the original closed summer 2021). This neighborhood spot and community space serves incredible pastries, chicken wraps, oven-baked flatbreads, and hummus in a bright space. If you only get one thing, make it their excellent shakshuka.

Foreign Cinema imageoverride image
8.6

Foreign Cinema

$$$$(415) 648-7600
Hours:MONDAY6:00PM to 2:00AM
Perfect For:BirthdaysBrunch

Foreign Cinema is hands-down one of the most unmissable and unique dining experiences in the city. To get here, walk on a red carpet down a long hallway before emerging into a beautiful courtyard with high white walls, twinkling string lights, and a movie playing in the background. The relaxed patio setting isn’t the only reason Foreign Cinema is a standout. It’s also the perfect spot to hunker down over wine and oysters, or one of the dishes from their changing menu of things like beef carpaccio, smoked salmon, or ceviche. Getting to the patio for brunch is also never a bad idea. Order the fried chicken or the Persian omelet.

We can say, with certainty, that San Tung’s chicken wings are life-changing. And, no, we’re not being hyperbolic. The dry-fried wings are covered in caramel-like garlic, ginger, and red pepper sauce that are good enough to inspire an out-of-body experience. And yes, you will probably end up licking every last bit of the sauce from your plate, and possibly end a friendship when you go for the last wing. But you should also save room for things like crispy pork potstickers, three deluxe spicy sauce noodles, and beef with oyster sauce. So write your name on the whiteboard and expect a wait, which will be fully worth it once the chicken lands on your table.

For some damn good soul food, you’ll want to make your way into Bayview and grab a seat at Auntie April’s. This restaurant is a San Francisco institution (est. 2008), thanks in no small part to the eponymous dish made with the most perfectly breaded fried chicken and house-made plain, cinnamon, or red velvet waffles.

Burma Superstar opened in 1992, and although it wasn’t the first Burmese restaurant in San Francisco, it helped popularize Burmese food in the area, and is now a mini empire across the Bay. There are three Burma Superstar locations, three spin-off restaurants (Burma Love, Burma Club, and B Star), and a newer, delivery-only spot in Oakland. At the original in the Richmond, lines out the door are still a permanent sidewalk fixture thanks to their incredible, easily-shareable dishes like tea leaf salad (a nutty, crunchy masterpiece), the sweet mango chicken, platha and dip, and pork belly with mustard greens. And always get extra coconut rice.

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