New Survey Results: San Francisco's Best Restaurants

October 1, 2013
by Meesha Halm

This year’s San Francisco Bay Area Restaurants survey reflects the valued opinions of 17,505 surveyors and covers 1,495 restaurants, running the gamut from venerable, high-end destinations to quick-casual joints (with ingredients often sourced from the same sustainable farms and ranchers). Our surveyors are not only some of the most tech-savvy in the nation - 68% report making reservations online - but they’re also remarkably well-informed, basing their opinions on a whole lot of dining out, averaging approximately 4.2 meals out per week (lunch and dinner combined).

Brand-new lists for San Francisco this year include top recommendations for special occasions, such as "First Date" and “Brunch With Friends,” and for dining near key destinations like “AT&T Park," "Golden Gate Park West" and the “Wine Country.” A final note: while culinary icons located in the greater Bay Area, such as The French Laundry and Chez Panisse, remain much beloved, please note that this roundup specifically focuses on the big winners, notable newcomers and top dining trends emerging in the city of San Francisco. Stay tuned for more Survey coverage throughout the week, let us know your thoughts on the results in the comments and be sure to check out our video Taste Tour

Top Food in SF 

Winner: Perennial favorite Gary Danko (which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year) won big again with surveyors, but there was some movement just below. The fine-dining Italian Acquerello inched up to the second-place spot, followed by the tiny Japanese omakase favorite Kiss Seafood.

Breakthrough Kid: The Sardinian-inspired La Ciccia infiltrated the top five this year with a score of 27, suggesting that the secret is out on this off-the-beaten-path osteria. Luckily for devoted locals, next month the owners are slated to open La Nebbia, an enoteca and lasagneria spin-off, a few doors down, which should help accommodate the overflow.

Biggest Jumps: The newly relocated Saison climbed higher on the list. KEIKO à Nob Hill, which was too new to qualify in the 2013 edition, notched a spot, as did the long-running bistro Chapeau!. Notably absent, however, is Canteen, Dennis Leary’s cult Californian that he shuttered at the end of August as he prepares to open two new ventures.

(See overall Bay Area winners)

Top Service in SF

Winner: From his flexible tasting menu format to the complimentary breakfast treat for the ladies given on the way out, Gary Danko and his über-accommodating staff continued to set the standard of excellence for service, notching a near-perfect 29 for their efforts.

Notable Newbies: Cracking the list for this year were the wildly different Frances and KEIKO à Nob Hill, which suggests that surveyors recognize that stellar service comes in all packages, from presenting complex tasting menus in luxurious surroundings (KEIKO) to rustic farm-fresh fare and carafes of house wines (Frances).

Changing of the Saison: Saison, Joshua Skenes’ newly relocated tasting-menu restaurant boasting only 18 seats and an unusually high server-to-diner ratio, is raising the bar for San Francisco fine dining and moved higher on the list.

(See overall Bay Area winners)

Top Decor in SF

Winner: The nod to prettiest dining room in San Francisco once again goes to the Garden Court, thanks in part to its majestic stained-glass domed ceiling and the ornate surroundings of the historical Palace Hotel. Meanwhile, Sierra Mar was voted No. 1 in the greater Bay Area.

Notable Newbie: The glitzy $7 million interior design and clubby house-party vibe of Downtowner and newcomer Hakkasan helped the high-end Chinese chain snag a spot on the list.
Ever-Changing Views: It’s not the first time Waterbar and AQ made the top decor list, but what has earned them those honors is new. The glittery views of the Bay Bridge on display from the dining room of Pat Kuleto’s seafooder on the Embarcadero changes nightly, thanks to the mesmerizing LED-illuminated light show of the Bay Lights. And over at AQ's SoMa flagship, everything from the wall decor and tabletop to the staff’s uniform changes completely every four months.

(See overall Bay Area winners)

Most Popular

Winner: It’s been nine years since Gary Danko wrestled the title of Most Popular from Boulevard, and the Wharf wonder shows no signs of letting go. Indeed, this is the fifth consecutive year that the restaurant swept the No. 1 spots on the Top Food, Service and Most Popular lists.

Notable Newbie: Last year’s most notable newcomer, State Bird Provisions, racked up rave reviews for its rendition of New American provisions served dim-sum style and quickly established itself a spot on this year’s Most Popular list (so much so that’s it’s already closed temporarily for an expansion), as did Food Network’s Tyler Florence’s paean to the Barbary Coast, Wayfare Tavern.

Honorable Mention: Also joining the ranks for the first time is Osha Thai, the former hole-in-the-wall Southeast Asian noodle chain, which has grown in popularity and sophistication since debuting in 1996 and now has six sought-after outposts.

(Note: the Most Popular list covers the entire Bay Area)

Top Californian in SF

Winner: The year’s biggest restaurant story was the temporary closure of Alice Waters’ legendary locavore Chez Panisse following a devastating fire. But within San Francisco city limits, Jack Voignes’ low-profile Local Mission Eatery was deemed the king of California cuisine, followed by Frances and COI.

Notable Newcomers: Across town in the Western Addition, Nopa, Laurence Jossel’s beloved late-night Californian, made it into the top five.

NOPA is also the New Mission: Fittingly, the restaurant credited for putting the neighborhood for which it is named (North of the Pan Handle) on the map, was joined by a spate of other NOPA area hot spots this year, including Zagat unrated newcomers The Mill, Wine Kitchen and a new branch of Bi-Rite Market and Creamery.

(See overall Bay Area winners)

Top Italian in SF

Winner: The city is rife with culinary options, but when it comes to picking favorites, San Francisco surveyors continue to favor Italian as their favorite cuisine, earning 22% of the vote. And for the ultimate Italian meal, diners head to the venerable fine-dining Acquerello, which regained its top dog status. 

Biggest Drop: Seven Hills, which captured the top spot among the city's Italian restaurants in its debut last year, has settled in at No. 3, as it adjusts to its newfound popularity.

Notable Newbies: Rank swapping notwithstanding, the same five Italian restaurants (which also include Delfina, La Ciccia and Quince) continue to dominate the San Francisco list, and it’s worth pointing out, you won’t find any of them in North Beach.

(See overall Bay Area winners)

Top Chinese in SF

Winner: Providing more proof that breakfast is indeed the most important meal of the day, dim sum specialist Yank Sing nabbed the top spot for Chinese (beating out the much-hyped Mission Chinese and Martin Yan’s first San Francisco venture M.Y. CHINA, neither of which made the top-five list.)

Notable Newcomer: The splashy newcomer Hakkasan not only nabbed a spot near the top for decor, but also landed at No. 5 for its high-end Chinese food just months after opening its doors, while Z & Y, an under-the-radar Chinatown hole in the wall, quietly landed on the list for the first time, grabbing the No. 2 for its tongue-numbing and affordable Sichuan fare.

Farewell to Tommy’s: After 27 years, Chinatown’s venerable Tommy Toy’s Cuisine Chinoise, which in its heyday entertained politicos, Hollywood celebrities and socialites with tuxedoed waiters and French menus, closed its doors, taking with it San Francisco’s last vestiges of the opulent, old-school Empress Dowager style of dining.

(See overall Bay Area winners)

Top New American in SF

Winner: Gary Danko (pictured) notched another near perfect 29 for his haute renditions of New American cuisine. 

Notable Newcomers: Joining the crowd of perennial winners Boulevard and Saison were two other ventures that also earned an impressive 27 for food and that represent both ends of the dining spectrum. Corey Lee’s SoMa lair Benu gets the nod for presenting haute tasting menus with premier crus in pristine Zenlike digs, while Range, chef-owner Phil West’s 15-year neighborhood Mission haunt, also earned a 27 for his rustic renditions of New American cuisine paired with some of the city’s best cocktails in far more casual digs.

(See overall Bay Area winners)

Top Mexican in SF

Winner: The Mission’s aptly named La Taqueria (pictured)snapped up the numero uno spot, with its straightforward traditional made-from-scratch tacos and burritos, ending all discussions (at least temporarily) about the rightful winner of the local taco wars.

Notable Newbie: The organic, vegan-only Gracias Madre in the Mission climbed onto the top list this year.

Trend Watch: Local and sustainable were the watchwords for a new crop of local and sustainably inspired Mexican restaurants that have opened on both sides of the bay, including a Downtown outpost of the Rosa Mexicano chain and Cole Valley’s Padrecito (another offshoot from the Mamacita gang).

(See overall Bay Area winners)


Top Bakeries/Sweet Shops in SF

Winner: Now with two locales from which to choose, the Mission original and a new take-out counter at the Western Addition store, it’s little wonder that surveyors deemed Bi-Rite Creamery (pictured), Sam Mogannam's and Anne Walker’s organic specialty scoop shops, the best place to blow your diet.

Notable Newcomer: Craftsman & Wolves, William Werner’s ultramod, high-end patisserie and cafe in the Mission, made the shortlist for his cutting-edge sweets and savories.

From Pop-Ups to Permanent: Several fellow pastry vagabonds followed in Werner’s footsteps, putting down roots and opening brick-and-mortar ventures, such as Belinda Leong at B. Patisserie in Pacific Heights and Michelle Polzine’s 20th Century Café in Hayes Valley. Also sweetening the dessert scene this year is the spate of new artisanal cacao-bean-inspired cafes, including Michael Recchiuti’s Chocolate Lab, Dandelion Chocolate and Charles Chocolates.

(See overall Bay Area winners)

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