Where to Eat Classic French Dishes in San Francisco

These are the stand-out bistros, brasseries and cafes around town
July 14, 2016
by Trevor Felch

Diners around San Francisco have many boulangeries, bistros, cafes and brasseries in which to indulge in a full meal of foie gras, duck confit and chocolate mousse, or a glass of Provençal rosé for a toast. And we've got the goods on the best ones for frog legs, profiteroles, cassoulet and more classics. Behold our favorite spots for enjoying classic French dishes. Bon appétit!

Monsieur Benjamin: Steak tartare, escargots and frog legs
Corey Lee’s Hayes Valley bistro sports a comprehensive menu covering what seems like the entirety of the French cuisine repertoire, starting with seafood platters and steamed mussels in beer, and then finishing with a regal hazelnut and praline-layered Marjolaine. Decisions are daunting, but on the bright side you can’t go wrong. If you need an extra nudge in any one direction, try one of those classic French dishes that raise awkward-at-first eyebrows like a spot-on roughly chopped steak tartare tossed with raw egg yolk and pickles, escargots cooked in red wine with mushrooms (superior to the usual garlic and butter), and lemon juice-kissed crispy fried frog legs. No, the frog legs don't taste like chicken — think of them as flaky sea bass tempura rolls. Just try them and you'll want a second order.

451 Gough St.; 415-403-2233

Photo: Mathilde French Bistro/Facebook

Mathilde French Bistro: Duck confit
Indeed, there is a fair amount of fat going on in this young SoMa bistro’s outstanding duck confit. The meat is preserved in its own fat, then slow-cooked for seven hours in more duck fat, and accompanied by a luscious potato preparation with bacon in the final presentation. The result? Glorious. It's rich, robust and meaty, and has just the right amount of salt to make every bite captivating.

315 Fifth St.; 415-546-6128

Photo by Virginia Miller

Cafe Jacqueline: Soufflés
Since the 1970s, San Franciscans seeking carefully made puffy soufflés have headed to an unlikely area (North Beach’s Little Italy) for one of the grandest dishes in French cuisine. Savory soufflés like the crab or mushroom, and dessert ones like chocolate or lemon are perfect to share. Of note, the Café Jacqueline has been one of our most romantic restaurants just about every year since we started tracking restaurants (good luck reserving on Valentine’s Day), thanks to its charming, rustic setting. Soufflés, of course, are meant to be eaten immediately before they collapse, but fortunately for San Francisco, a soufflé specialist can last decades.

1454 Grant Ave.; 415-981-5565

Neighbor Bakehouse: Croissants
Pastries are, yes, a sticky subject in San Francisco, with so many excellent bakeries worthy of a morning visit. The Dogpatch's year-old stalwart bakery (beware it's only open until 2 PM and closed Monday and Tuesday) has perfected the croissant art, being buttery, flaky, and as slick as a professional swing dancer, but not too much of any of those. It's just right and will become a finger-licking great temptation anytime you're in this far corner of the city. In a bagel and croissant mood? Opt for the "everything" version with a cream cheese center and seeded-spice outer layer.

2343 Third St. Unit 100; 415-549-7716

Photo: b. Patisserie/Facebook

B. Patisserie: Baguettes and kouign amanns
The discussion of baguettes that are crisp, slightly smoky on the outside and pillowy soft on the inside begins and ends with Belinda Leong's NoPa bakery. The same story goes for its buttery, sweet, irresistible croissant dough pastries coated with a sugar glaze — they're as special and dessert-like as a morning pastry gets when filled with a fruit compote or chocolate.

2821 California St.; 415-440-1700

Cocotte: Coq au vin and crème brûlée
The best French restaurant in the city nobody knows about resides along the leafy Hyde Street cable car stretch of Russian Hill — just pretend the rattling hum of the tracks is from the Paris Métro and you can be transported across the Atlantic. Cocotte excels at countless classic preparations, but on a chilly night when the wind is howling, coq au vin — the hearty, red wine-braised chicken, bacon and carrot stew — comes calling. Don’t hesitate to ask for seconds on baguettes to soak up all the broth. Don't miss the banana crème brûlée for dessert. You'll finish every bite of it, from the burnt top to the last spoonful of custard.

1521 Hyde St.; 415-292-4415

Chapeau!: Profiteroles
It’s mandatory to save room for dessert at the Inner Richmond classic French bistro that's about to begin its third decade (!). The problem? You’ll want to try sweetbreads, filet mignon, bouillabaisse and countless other savory dishes beforehand. Still it's worth it for the truly special meal-finishing combination of ice cream sandwiched by choux pastry doused in a unabashed bold and sweet chocolate sauce. Eat fast because that ice cream melts and profiteroles get messy in no time.

126 Clement St.; 415-387-0408

Photo: Aquitaine Wine Bistro/Facebook

Aquitaine: Cassoulet
The white bean and meat stew is a rib-sticking favorite in the southwest of France for warming up in the winter. In the summer? It’s way too heavy for the sweltering days. But here in San Francisco, summer is just like winter, so it’s always cassoulet season! Nobody does a better version year-round than Laurent Manrique’s FiDi bistro, with a hearty, deftly seasoned bowl full of duck confit and sausages that can easily feed two.

175 Sutter St.; 415-402-5290

Photo courtesy of Bright's Les Clos/Facebook

Enjoying French wines
French cuisine isn’t just about the eating. Wine is a vital part of the experience, from cheap, quality Sancerre to high-end Bordeaux and Burgundy, and San Francisco restaurants and wine bars have the right selections chosen for your next cheese plate or steak frites. RN74 in the FiDi and SoMa’s Les Clos must be at the top of your list for exploring the higher end of French wines, especially the ever-complex but enjoyable Burgundy regions (and the food is always excellent for pairing). Terroir in SoMa specializes in the quirkier side of French wines (lots of natural wines) and Amelie near Russian Hill offers a candlelit and festive atmosphere meets approachable French label-heavy wine list experience that most wine bars aspire for but rarely become — featuring good wine at good prices, together with an equally a good time.

301 Mission St.; 415-543-7474
234 Townsend St.; 415-795-1422
1116 Folsom St.; 415-558-9946
1754 Polk St.; 415-292-6916

Bouche: Foie gras
After being foie gras–free for a few years, French restaurants in town are back to serving the decadent dish. At this intimate Lower Nob Hill wine bar and restaurant, a lobe of foie gets seared swiftly, so it's silky in the middle, yet almost caramelized on the exterior. Slather it on some grilled toast with a dollop of almond cream and a finishing sweet touch of burnt berry jam and citrus gastrique. It's a perfect example of how Bouche is really the best version we have of the "bistronomy" craze enveloping Paris this decade — where classic dishes get slightly tweaked with global influences and modern techniques, served in relaxed surroundings (until 1 AM at Bouche!).

603 Bush St.; 415-956-0396

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