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15 SF Restaurants and Bars That Define Their Neighborhoods

Where to drink and dine when you want the essence of some of the city's best 'hoods
September 28, 2016
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by Trevor Felch

San Francisco is a city of hills, fog and creative ideas. It's also a city of many unique, diverse neighborhoods that in many ways function as their own tiny cities, and that diversity is reflected in neighborhood restaurants. Want to know the real heart and soul of the Embarcadero/FiDi? We've got a restaurant for that. Where will you truly connect in worker-saturated regions such as Mid-Market, shopping corridors along the lines of Hayes Valley or highly residential parts of the city like Lower Pacific Heights and the Outer Sunset? Here are the restaurants, bars and cafes that most distinctly represent each neighborhood's past history, while also shining a light on its current personality.

Cow Hollow: Perry's
Yoga, soul cycle, pilates, juice shops — yes, Cow Hollow can at times seem like the fitness-centric Santa Monica of San Francisco. But, that’s just one side of Union Street. It’s also a primary shopping thoroughfare for the many new and old families living up the hill. While those residents may shop at different boutiques, they all regularly dine at this local favorite filled with sports memorabilia and best known for its checked blue and white tablecloths. Food is spruced-up American sports bar classics — not innovative but very satisfying. The bar is particularly lively at happy hour, and the brunch sidewalk seating is, quite simply, premium. After all, if you have a replica in SFO, you’re pretty important.

1944 Union St.; 415-922-9022

Dogpatch: Piccino
You can’t miss the Dogpatch’s Cal-Ital stalwart: Look for the bright yellow Victorian house. The Dogpatch is surging on the dining popularity meter as city residents realize just how close it is and how great the meals are at Serpentine, 'Aina and Smokestack. Piccino, though, was the restaurant that initiated this wave of dining choices. Several years later, the restaurant's pizzas, pastas, salads and straight-out-of-a-glossy-West-Coast-lifestyle-magazine look never let you down.

1001 Minnesota St.; 415-824-4224

Embarcadero/FiDi: Boulevard
There are countless reasons Nancy Oakes’ first establishment has been a consistent leader in the food and popularity categories of our survey for two decades. It's the consummate restaurant in so many regards from the Belle Époque interior with Bay views to the burger at lunch. Classic cocktails and elaborate wood-fired pork chops at dinner combined with the smooth, doting service will always make you feel special. The worker- and tourist-heavy area has so many choices for this exercise: excellent happy-hour bars like Trou Normand, the Ferry Building vendors, venerable classics like Tadich Grill and new classics like Mourad, Michael Mina and Perbacco. But Boulevard has a special magic about it and that's why it has rare staying power for a restaurant.

One Mission St.; 415-543-6084

Hayes Valley: Two Sisters Bar & Books
Books and a bar? Is this Vienna or Paris? The most Euro-chic shopping strip of the city is Hayes Valley, and this impossibly charming, quaint sliver of a bar decorated with a lending library are a perfect match, though seem more like what you'd find in an old European capital than the capital of tech. Neighborhood regulars can't resist the boozy book club and chamomile-infused house old fashioned, nor can fans from around the city. Higher-end venues like Petit Crenn, Absinthe and Rich Table abound in the area, as do casual choices like Souvla, the Proxy project vendors and Blue Bottle’s historic original garage shop. Nobody in Hayes Valley, or the city, boasts the distinct whimsical personality of Two Sisters.

579 Hayes St.; 415-863-3655

Japantown: Benkyodo
The chewy, elastic Japanese rice-based confections, mochi and manju, are a new fad nationwide. San Franciscans have been enjoying them plain, filled or dusted with red beans or fruits at this Japantown cornerstone for a while — as in 110 years. Yes, Benkyodo opened two months after the Great 1906 Earthquake. Then it closed during the World War II internment years and returned, thankfully still standing strong. Benkyodo is a candy store, soda fountain and general store trifecta, complete with counter seating, a hot dog roller and myriad food and drink items like Hawaiian guava juice. Nobody leaves without some mochi and a distinct sense of time travel. Regulars still read actual newspapers here.

1747 Buchanan St.; 415-922-1244

Lower Nob Hill: Liholiho Yacht Club
Which came first, Nopa the restaurant or NoPa the neighborhood? Well, Lower Nob Hill is a little bit the same with Ravi Kapur’s Cali-Hawaiian-global restaurant and bar that remains packed to capacity nightly almost two years in. Lower Nob Hill is also called the TenderNob by virtue of being wedged between the Tenderloin and Nob Hill. It’s essentially a real estate creation to not seem like Nob Hill elite or the gritty street life activity of the Tenderloin. Now, it’s one of the hottest neighborhoods to live in and a significant reason for that is the ability to put your name down at Liholiho, wait at home for two hours, then have a dinner of poke, fried game hen and a Baked Hawaii (not Alaska, here). Liholiho pretty much created the neighborhood.

871 Sutter St.; 415-440-5446

Lower Pacific Heights: Octavia
Quince. Baker & Banker. Now: Octavia. Some addresses are cursed for restaurants. This warm, cozy dining room in a highly residential area is the opposite, now home to its third hit restaurant. It certainly helps to have chef-owner Melissa Perello’s concise menu from the signature soft yolk deviled egg with fresno chile relish snack (truly deviled because of the spice) to un-fussy seasonal fish and meat mains (and please save room for incredible desserts). It's the definition of seasonal California cooking with an eye on the globe that the rest of the food world imagines with San Francisco. Luckily for this neighborhood, they can just stroll down the hill for a special dinner that is more leisure than formal.

1701 Octavia St.; 415-408-7507

Marina: Delarosa
Say “nightlife” and “Marina” and you’re bound to get an eyebrow raise from most San Franciscans. This neighborhood is indeed best known for rowdy good times that can veer towards your old college experiences on certain nights (or days). The Marina centers on always bustling and squeaky clean Chestnut Street. Among the dining choices, you’ll find an abundance of quality mid-scale (A16, Mamacita) and quality fast-casual (the original Tacolicious which just moved across the street, Glaze, Seed & Salt). But it's Delarosa’s excellent pizzas, cocktails and sidewalk seating that sum up the Marina’s philosophy of work hard, play hard and eat and drink well.

2175 Chestnut St.; 415-673-7100

Mission: La Taqueria
The Mission is rapidly changing, and its restaurants reflect that diverse array of neighborhood personalities. You’ve got Lazy Bear on the formal end, mid-scale favorites Delfina and Dosa, and the perpetual lines of city bucket list spots Flour + Water, Trick Dog, Bi-Rite Creamery and Tartine. And we can’t forget that the “hipster” term may have been created at Four Barrel’s Valencia cafe. So many choices. Yet, the Mission always was and still is a neighborhood of wonderful taquerias and pupuserias. Bridging the gap of the new and old Mission is the venerable La Taqueria, home to what's considered the city’s premier burrito (it's got lines to prove it). La Taqueria is old Mission meets viral-food-popularity new Mission. More importantly, the carnitas burrito and carne asada tacos remain gold standards citywide.

2889 Mission St.; 415-285-7117

Mid-Market: Zuni Cafe
Mid-Market didn’t start when the tech companies moved into the blocks of Market Street between Eighth and Eleventh streets. That is just when people started actually using a neighborhood name. The little bit of Civic Center-Hayes Valley- SoMa-Castro area is really not known by any distinct name, but it is the middle of our main street. Right in the heart of it facing the perpetual 101 traffic slog, is Zuni Cafe. Thanks to the roast chicken, burger, espresso granita, stool-free bar, quirky multilevel dining room and too many other things to count, the venue at the Rose Street alleyway (nicknamed Rosé, of course, by a clever street artist) and Market hasn’t missed a beat, even after its longtime leader Judy Rodgers passed away in 2013. It isn’t just the restaurant of Mid-Market; it’s a San Francisco landmark.

1658 Market St.; 415-552-2522

Nob Hill: The Big 4
Piano music serenades diners and drinkers, while railroad baron Charles Crocker's portrait watches guests slowly sip perfect Manhattans and Negronis and dig into the city’s leading version of chicken pot pie. Time doesn’t change in this dark bar and dining room of one of Nob Hill’s grande dame luxury hotels, The Scarlet Huntington. You won't want to leave. You can't not relax.

1075 California St.; 415-771-1140

Outer Sunset: Outerlands
Boasting an interior of reclaimed wood that is right at home with the windswept barren landscape of this coastal neighborhood, Outerlands looks and feels like the Outerlands part of the Outer Sunset. Bundle up and wait in line (luckily there is a cute parklet for this) for one of our favorite brunches. Or, skip the lines and enjoy a definitive grilled cheese lunch on homemade levain bread. At dinner the mood changes, the ambiance switches from post-surf warm-up to date night and family hour. The kitchen ambition becomes more Downtown than beach town. And despite being far from the heart of the city, it feels like the most happening place in town.

4001 Judah St.; 415-661-6140

Potrero Hill: Anchor Brewing Company
Just take a deep breath on a weekday morning. Yes, that is the distinct aroma of hops being brewed by San Francisco’s iconic brewery. So what if it’s only 10 AM? Those tours (and the one to two tours later in the day) are booked months in advance and now the attached distillery (complete with a knockout rooftop patio and garden) is a city favorite too, for views and booze. If it’s Anchor Steam you’re after, then just head to any bar. However, to fully appreciate Anchor and its history and importance to our city, a visit to the actual brewery is a San Francisco checklist item. The bar in the brewery has to be considered the most fun beer bar in the city and you'll never taste fresher beer.

1705 Mariposa St.; 415-863-8350

Russian Hill: Stones Throw
The restaurants along the tree-lined Hyde Street cable car line feel a world away from the frat bar scene of Polk Gulch — or at least that is what one of the city’s steepest hills can make two blocks feel like. Seven Hills and Zarzuela are classics on Hyde for no-frills Italian and Spanish, respectively. Polk is home to the venerable La Folie. Overshadowing them all is Stones Throw, which strikes the neighborhood tone of being celebratory, professional and fairly quiet except on weekends. Start with a vermouth-based “loophole” cocktail (no liquor on Hyde) and snacks like the puffed potatoes filled with egg yolk and then head towards a sloppy, delicious burger and now classic squid ink conchiglie pasta. Desserts are inspired by diners' childhood sweets memories since the restaurant asks diners to write down their favorite youth dessert. Now that's a move only a true neighborhood restaurant would make.

1896 Hyde St.; 415-796-2901

SoMa: Sightglass Coffee
SoMa is a vast neighborhood that's got everything from sports bars around the ballpark to repurposed garages and warehouses turned into energetic young restaurants and bars (and dance clubs). Ultimately, SoMa is an area of many personalities with one sticking out more than the others: The powerful young tech start-up scene. It's everywhere in the neighborhood, most of it hiding in unmarked offices. All morning and afternoon, the tech industry worker bees escape their offices and meet for cappuccinos and espressos at this Wi-Fi–free roastery and cafe. We can’t decide which is more impressive: the airy wood loft design or the pitch-perfect drinks made by some of the city’s most talented baristas. If you’re meeting in SoMa, chances are you’re meeting at Sightglass.

270 Seventh St.; 415-861-1313

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