Finding good food while shopping can be as troublesome as trying to find a sweater that fits your uncle. Uninspired food courts and chain restaurants are the norm for many malls and plazas, but we've got a few eating and drinking tricks up our sleeves for shopping centers and streets across the Bay Area. You'll be surprised how easy it is to find great Thai, thoughtful cocktails and some of San Francisco's finest restaurants once you know where to look. Take a deep breath, enjoy the season and eat well while giving your credit card a workout.
Bay Street Emeryville
Most of the dining choices within the major shopping complex at the eastern edge of the Bay Bridge are a disappointment. Luckily, the recently revamped Emeryville Public Market has Hot Italian's notable pizzas, intriguing Korean-Japanese dishes at Koja Kitchen and some top-notch ramen bowls at Shiba Ramen. No trip to Emeryville is complete without a wrap-up drink at Prizefighter. What's not to love about a neighborhood bar that makes bargain $10 cocktails with the best of ingredients?
Jane on Fillmore/Facebook
Pacific Heights' chic shopping strip boasts Jane on Fillmore, a bakery/cafe with terrific coffee and pastries and one of our favorite avocado toast preparations. SPQR's modern Italian kitchen is without question the marquee dinner spot, but be sure to reserve well in advance (if you forget, you can sit at the counter or put your name down and they’ll text when there's space). You can always grab a glass of wine next door at Florio. If the mood calls for a more lively French Quarter–style night, swing by the reopened Elite Cafe for jambalaya, gumbo and frozen Irish coffee.
A morning of shopping in Russian Hill and Polk Gulch followed by a Dungeness crab Louie lunch at Swan Oyster Depot sounds great. At least, until you see the two-hour line. If you don't have time for that, plan your shopping schedule to finish at happy hour at Mezcalito. Then make sure you have a reservation lined up for the pristine, always captivating seasonal Californian cooking at Lord Stanley.
Russian River Brewing Company/Facebook
Santa Rosa Plaza
Skip the options inside the shopping center and opt for housemade bagels with lox or a nourishing, umami-rich quinoa bowl at the colorful bohemian restaurant, The Spinster Sisters, a brief walk across Juilliard Park from the Santa Rosa Plaza. If the shopping stress gets to you, then a Pliny the Elder on tap beckons at the Bay Area’s most important brewery, Russian River Brewing, a short stroll to the east. Or, head in the other direction for Santa Rosa’s premier coffee shop, Flying Goat Coffee for a post-shopping wake-up espresso. Gift tip: The Spinster Sisters just released a book with its favorite spots in Sonoma County.
The faux-Tuscan architecture throughout the San Jose shopping complex might have you craving European fine dining, but the best dining choices are all casual San Francisco imports like Tacolicious, Smitten Ice Cream and Dandelion Chocolate. However, our favorite lunch spot is the nondescript Siam Fine Thai Cuisine right outside the shopping center’s boundary. Though the long menu is not trailblazing, you’ll be hard-pressed to find better mango sticky rice and pad Thai for miles.
Stanford Shopping Center
The garden-themed restaurant attached to the new Anthropologie store, Terrain Cafe, is so new that most shoppers don't know it exists. Well, it's already hands down the best (and really only great) dining option at this upscale open-air shopping area, courtesy of Philadelphia super-chef Marc Vetri. Everything at Terrain is terrific from a lunchtime rock cod sandwich to Vetri's signature polenta budino for dinner dessert, so try to allow time for a full meal instead of a rushed between-stores break. If you’re searching for the highest tier of latte art in stunning surroundings, continue your shopping steps away on University Avenue at Blue Bottle Coffee. It's part of a shared work/cafe space in what originally was a 1920s movie house.
Begin the day in Cow Hollow's prime shopping corridor with a latte at Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters (complete with obligatory Instagram photo of the pineapple wallpaper) and then watch the stroller set and yoga students pass by on the sidewalk as your table enjoys a sausage, waffle and mimosa-filled brunch at Belga. If shopping time falls in the afternoon, round out your Union Street crawl with dinner at the latest iteration of the Mina Test Kitchen. Called Postcards from La Costiera, the prix fixe menu is full of bright seafood dishes that will surely make you feel like you're on a summer trip to the Mediterranean, instead of seeing the sun set at 4:45 PM on a cold December day.
When it comes to Christmas in San Francisco, Union Square is the center of the action. It's got the department stores, the ice skating rink, the city's Christmas tree — and luckily, some great dining options. New chef John Griffiths has rejuvenated Bluestem Brasserie into a popular locals and tourists destination, day or night (weekend brunch is particularly great). For high-caliber cocktails with dinner, newcomer Rambler and the always enjoyable Burritt Room + Tavern have you covered and are slightly off the beaten path from the main shopping crowds. The real insiders know that the intimate French bistro–wine bar, Bouche, is the place to go when you need superb scallops, candlelight and a break from Christmas carols.
Westfield San Francisco Centre
Outside of M.Y. China, options are bleak within San Francisco's major shopping center in Mid-Market. However, Martin Yan's restaurant in the bustling shopping complex is one of the best Chinese restaurants in the city. Enjoy a dim sum lunch, Beijing knife-cut noodle with minced pork as part of a dinner feast, or the six different seasonal Dungeness crab preparations from varying Chinese regions. For other great options, exit the shopping center, cross Market Street and you’ve got the beer paradise of Mikkeller and the city's most vibrant Thai flavors at Kin Khao waiting to help take the holiday edge off. If you're up for a walk, head six blocks over to Una Pizza Napoletana, which is open for lunch Wednesday to Friday through the new year. As the dough often runs out by 8 PM and it's usually not open in the daytime, now is your chance to try what are some of the most transcendent puffy, charred pies not just in the Bay Area but the country.
The global Taiwanese cuisine and dumpling specialist Din Tai Fung at this enormous Santa Clara mall is the best mall dining option in the Bay Area. The crowds are aware of that, especially as the restaurant goes through its debut holiday season. Make a reservation in advance and be flexible with times. It’s worth it for the signature pork or crab xiao long bao and unheralded Taiwanese specialties like spicy shrimp and pork wontons and pork chop fried rice. Bar Code Cafe has one of the more eclectic menus you'll find anywhere from coffee and wine to boba tea and panko oysters. Burgers at Super Duper are another reliable bet.
The Village at Corte Madera
Instead of eating at one of the generic chains at the Marin County open-air shopping center, drive five minutes away from the 101 into the charming downtown strip of Larkspur. Equator Coffee just opened a cafe serving its own award-winning beans and excellent espresso drinks. If it's time for breakfast or lunch, swing by Farmhouse Local (the housemade biscuits with chicken-apple sausage gravy are always a hit). For dinner, Picco is the place to go for a definitive California cuisine experience (home of the Bay Area’s premier risotto and excellent cocktails too) and for outstanding thin-crust pizza and soft serve (get the olive oil and sea salt), head next door to Pizzeria Picco.