Welcome to the San Francisco Bay Area, simply the most delicious region to eat and drink in the entire world. San Francisco itself can seem like a city run by restaurants with a tech industry on the side, but what makes San Francisco truly special is the Bay Area surrounding it and its distinct micro-climates. With our near-constant sunshine co-existing with near-constant cooling fog, produce, animals and wine grapes all thrive somewhere within an hour drive of the Golden Gate. Sourdough bread? Dim sum? Roast chicken? Locally and sustainably grown vegetables and fruit? Welcome to Northern California. We've got it all and then some. Hop on a ferry or a cable car, and look for these nine examples of where the San Francisco Bay Area food and drink scene is unmatched.
No city in the world (even Paris with its baguettes) is synonymous with one bread like San Francisco and sourdough. Boudin is the city’s longtime sourdough fixture, and Acme is the post-1980s Californian cuisine movement sourdough legend. The bread basket of San Francisco, however, is full of more loaves than just sourdough. Tartine’s country loaf (a recipe that spans 38 pages of Tartine’s cookbook) may be the single most famous bread baked in the country. The appropriately named Josey Baker, with his bakery-cafe, The Mill, leads the national baking movement of using wild yeasts and milling whole grain flour. There isn’t a day when the beloved focaccia at the venerable Liguria Bakery in North Beach doesn’t sell out. Then add Firebrand in the East Bay, Manresa Bread in the South Bay, Wildflour in Sonoma County, Bouchon Bakery in the Napa Valley — you get the idea.
The New Italian
North Beach is San Francisco’s Little Italy and home to a few blocks jam-packed with traditional Italian restaurants. For the San Francisco New Italian — chefs bringing together the best elements of California with distinct Italian influences — you have to look elsewhere. That would be cauliflower and bottarga at Cotogna, seared local squid with bean ragu and salsa verde at Perbacco, beet mezzaluna with pistachio and green garlic at Flour + Water, heirloom tomatoes and house-cured anchovies at A16, coconut panna cotta with blood orange and Prosecco-yuzu ice at Delfina and the now signature smoked fettuccini with sea urchin, smoked bacon and quail egg at SPQR. This is just beginning of a wonderful and extensive homemade-pasta-filled “Cal-Ital” list.
Food halls are big right now — just look at Eataly and Atlanta’s Ponce City Market, or reborn spots like Los Angeles’ Grand Central Market. When the Ferry Building renovated at the turn of the 21st century and opened its Marketplace, it became a benchmark for food halls and fresh produce nationwide, and it joined Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge as one of the marquee tourist sights of San Francisco. The roster in the Ferry Building and its farmer's markets (on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday) are a San Francisco who’s-who list: Acme, The Slanted Door, Bouli Bar, Hog Island Oyster, Dandelion Chocolate, 4505 Meats, Roli Roti, Fort Point Beer Co., Blue Bottle Coffee, Frog Hollow Farm and many more. And it goes beyond the Ferry Building. Napa’s Oxbow Public Market, Oakland’s renovated Swan's Market and the wonderfully named The Market on Market Street in the rapidly changing Mid-Market neighborhood of San Francisco all continue the region's love for small purveyors and the fresh ingredients.
Local, Sustainable Ingredients
There is a reason ambitious chefs want to cook in San Francisco — the ingredients from the land that surrounds it. Gentle weather and sustainably minded farmers and growers mean happy animals and plants, which translates into top-notch food on the plate. The farmers and growers in the Bay Area have reached celebrity status much like many regional chefs. The list is long. There's meats from Marin Sun Farms and Devil’s Gulch Ranch; cheeses from Cowgirl Creamery; mushrooms from Far West Fungi; persimmons from Hamada Farms; lettuce from Star Route Farms; heirloom beans from Rancho Gordo; local and sustainable fish from Water2Table; and oysters from Hog Island Oyster Co. The very idea of “local and sustainable” can all be traced back to Alice Waters opening Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1971, of course, and her legacy lives on.
Comfortable High-End Restaurants
Benu, Saison, Coi, Lazy Bear, Commis, Sons & Daughters, Manresa. They are some of the most exciting restaurants in the nation today for fine dining and thought-provoking, seasonally rooted cuisine. Think of these prix fixe, high-end gastronomic destinations as the equivalent of the business-casual venture capitalist, wearing a sport coat and jeans. Previously this breed of restaurant would be French-inspired and feature heavy sauces, offer shorter prix fixe menus, involve a dress code and have the elegant decor to match. Now, vegetables take center stage at Manresa; seafood like Monterey abalone and foraged seaweed shows up at Coi; Benu is deeply inspired by chef Corey Lee’s Korean upbringing; Lazy Bear features a sole communal table; and Saison’s kitchen is part of the dining room. In the Bay Area, fine dining is comfortable, relaxed and even fun.
Two of the country's most recognized tiki bars are in San Francisco. While similar in their themes, they still differ greatly. Smuggler’s Cove is a serious rum bar frequented by locals — it even has its own rum society. The Tonga Room has fake thunderstorms, a 75-foot pool and resides in one of the city’s most luxurious hotels (only in San Francisco). Then there's Forbidden Island on the actual island of Alameda and Tradr’ Sam in the not-so-tropical Outer Richmond neighborhood of San Francisco. Did we mention that many cocktail scholars credit Trader Vic’s in Emeryville (East Bay) with creating the mai tai?
Dim sum is one of the most common “must-try” meals for visitors, and deservedly so. At lunch in many neighborhoods of the city, carts peddling dumplings, pork buns, chicken feet and egg custard tarts command the attention of locals and tourists alike, and packed dining rooms such as Yank Sing, Ton Kiang and Hong Kong Lounge are leading the charge. For much of the Bay Area, the suburbs just south of San Francisco are considered the prime area for dim sum at enormous multiroom, 500-diner or more capacity restaurants like Koi Palace and Tai Wu. In San Francisco, dim sum doesn’t have to stick to tradition. The two-year old State Bird Provisions remains one of the city’s hottest tables, in large part due to its unique take on small plate “provisions” served dim sum–style from carts.
San Francisco takes its roast chicken seriously. Boring and safe? Hardly. Just try the olive and preserved lemon–brined roast chicken at Mourad or the roast chicken with marsala gravy and ricotta-slathered toast at Tosca Cafe. Zuni Cafe’s roast chicken with bread salad is one of the country’s iconic dishes — the simple dish has a perfect ratio of crispy skin to moist meat, and it's thrilled diners for more than two decades. It truly is transcendent in a way many diners are skeptical roast chicken can be. Nopa, Oro, Souvla and even the Roli Roti truck make sure Zuni isn’t alone.
You thought we forgot this one, right? Besides the weather, the most common answer from expats when asked what they miss about San Francisco is great burritos. This is a city, after all, that prides itself on excessively large burritos filled with meat, sour cream, guacamole, cheese, rice and beans, easily weighing more than a pound. La Taqueria is often considered the favorite for its superb carnitas and rice-free burritos, but ask 10 San Franciscans, and each will likely have a different favorite spot — and a passionate defense. Taqueria Cancun, El Castillito and El Farolito are all big names for big burritos in the Mission. And then there's the filling. Will it be carne asada, al pastor pork, chicken? At Papalote, diners can even order grilled vegetables or tofu in achiote as a burrito filling. The end result should always be the same: a giant-size, sloppy and very satisfying burrito meal.
Photo: Flickr/ An Mai