Whether you've lived here for a year or a lifetime, you can't quite call yourself a San Franciscan without having tried these iconic dishes. It's not about the trendiest or latest, although a few of these bites have been on the national map in recent years. But a San Franciscan goes well beyond trends and merely following the crowd, appreciating the classics and game-changers that put SF on the culinary map not just recently but decades ago. Keeping all that in mind, here are 10 of our edible icons, some a few years old, some great for decades.
Though we also adore Anchor Oyster Bar and Sotto Mare (hopefully, the latter will not lose its luster under new ownership) for mountains of Dungeness crab and oysters, there is only one Swan Oyster Depot. Despite incessant long lines for a coveted seat at the single counter, the seafood spot (which opened in 1912) is a city treasure complete with a warm Sicilian welcome from the Sancimino family, who has owned the space since 1946. Though just about everything is excellent here, including daily changing oysters, heaps of impeccable Dungeness crab in a Crab Louie ($24.50) is the pinnacle.
There's no place like Cafe Jacqueline — not just in SF, but anywhere. A one-woman show in the kitchen, Jacqueline has been dedicated to making perfect soufflés since the 1970s in this humble, romantic North Beach spot. She's the Jiro Dreams of Sushi of soufflés, and you can't consider yourself a San Franciscan until you've dined on her savory and dessert soufflés, from lobster or white corn-ginger-garlic to lime or Grand Marnier. The soufflés are well worth the almost agonizing hour wait as mesmerizing aromas float in from the tiny kitchen.
It doesn't get better than SF's ultimate taqueria, La Taqueria, a Mission staple for decades. Whether you swing toward burritos or tacos, La Taqueria excels at both, and their carnitas are legendary. Plus, there's no pesky rice taking up precious real estate in those burritos. They also make the best frescas (try strawberry or tangerine) in town. Since they were just named the best burrito in the nation, the typically long, but fast-moving lines are far longer, stretching around the block. Not bad for a place run by the same family since 1973.
Cal Italia pizza at Tony's Pizza Napoletana [Photo Source: Virginia Miller]
Tony Gemignani, winner of Naples' World Pizza Championships multiple times, is meticulous right down to the range of ovens he uses for each style of pie and his sources for flour and key ingredients (you can practice some of his recipes in his third book coming out this October). Choosing the ultimate pizza from either his flagship Tony's Pizza Napoletana or Capo's, his deep-dish haven that dares outshine Chicago, is virtually impossible. Creative Californian with an Italian ethos? Don't miss the Cal Italia. Neapolitan perfection? Try his championship pie, a classic margherita. Deep-dish better than any you've ever had? Order anything at Capo's and you're golden.
Run by the married team of pastry chef Elisabeth Prueitt and baker Chad Robertson (who've also partnered on several books), Tartine Bakery has long been the bakery which many aspire to be, from their superlative loaves to the best quiche you'll ever try. Prueitt's pastries have been a draw since the shop's 2002 opening, none more so than her iconic morning bun, which has been copied countless times. Flaky, buttery, dusted in cinnamon and sugar, it's scented with orange, as if a croissant met a cinnamon bun inspired by kouign-amann.
The last of the great prime-rib specialists, House of Prime Rib is quintessential SF and has been doing it the same, blessedly old-school way since 1949. Its 21-day aged prime rib is carved and served tableside from a massive silver cart, with salad tossed tableside as well, and the affordable feast is inclusive with sides and Yorkshire pudding. Thankfully, the place continues to stay packed nightly.
Those of us who frequent New Orleans know how hard it is to find authentic NOLA cuisine outside of that great city, even by those who claim to be from there. Thankfully, we have a couple such sources here, namely Brenda's French Soul Food. Her shrimp and grits are divine, but so are her crawfish beignets (three for $9) loaded with cheddar cheese, scallions and crawfish, and doused in cayenne pepper. They're a spicy, savory, cheesy wonder.
The House's sea bass [Photo Source: Virginia Miller]
The House has been one of North Beach's gems since Larry and Angela Tse opened it back in 1993, and it remains one of the best Asian-influenced seafood restaurants in the city. Along with its multiple daily seafood specials, a highlight since the beginning has been its famous grilled sea bass ($26), flaky and fall-apart in a ginger soy sauce, fantastic with a side of garlic or wasabi noodles.
There are many notable ice cream makers in San Francisco (see our top 10 here) and choosing "the best" is almost impossible, but Humphry Slocombe is the ultimate mix of gourmet, experimental, wacky (think the Jesus Juice red-wine-and-cola flavor) and downright delicious. While our favorites include Peanut Butter Curry and Black Sesame, it's the Vietnamese Blue Bottle Coffee ice cream and most importantly, the über-creamy Secret Breakfast (bourbon and cornflakes) that first put it on the map, continuing to draw lines of locals and travelers alike.
Though Rich Table's rightly loved sardine chips garnered national attention within weeks of opening, the savory porcini donuts ($7) dipped in luxurious raclette cheese sauce are just as noteworthy. Joined by lovely cocktails or wines from the thoughtful list, cocktail-hour bites don't get better than this.