There are certain signature San Francisco dishes that as a responsible diner you just have to try. After all, you can't possibly have a complete experience without a few bites, or so the thought goes. The catch with some of these specialties is that they aren't always special. In reality, some signature dishes turn out to be the least interesting items on a menu, but they stay on the menu (and your must-try lists) thanks to the hype. Others are simply flawed, but get attention due to one incredible component. As our service to the San Francisco diner, we've called out the dishes we think don't live up to the hype and identified ones we think will satisfy you in all the right ways.
Shaking beef at The Slanted Door
Why it's overrated: This isn’t about the shaking beef being bad. It’s not bad at all. In fact, it is an enjoyable marinated sweet and sour beef tenderloin dish using excellent quality meat that gets wok stir-fried with onions, and served atop sweet soy soaked watercress. It’s more that there are at least a dozen far more unique choices from the menu, and the shaking beef is a one-note (and pricey compared to everything else) platter worth only a few bites. Everyone always says it’s a must-order, and that's not true unless you're the steakhouse type who NEEDS beef with dinner.
Try instead: We could list a dozen dishes from The Slanted Door that we love, but for the ultimate beef experience, regardless of the cut, walk a few blocks into the FiDi from the Embarcadero and enjoy dinner at the revamped Alfred's.
Fried oyster lettuce wrap at Liholiho Yacht Club
Why it's overrated: Fried oysters and Thousand Island dressing – how can this go wrong? It turns out that when you combine those two and wrap the oyster in a thin morsel of beef, then nestle all three together in a butter lettuce wrap, it doesn't work. The globe-spanning cooking from Ravi Kapur hits tons of flavor profiles in each creation and frequently pulls it off. This appetizer mainstay at the always packed TenderNob restaurant, however, is a case where all of the ingredients are terrific on their own but cancel each other out when put together. It begs for less sauce and more beef carpaccio.
Try instead: When we think about fried oysters, we think about fried oyster po' boys at The Boxing Room. Nobody makes a better version than this corner of NOLA in Hayes Valley. The oysters come fully dressed with the right crunchy-and-airy loaf of bread. On the side? A Sazerac, of course.
Fried chicken sandwich at Bakesale Betty
Why it's overrated: The lunch-only Berkeley cafe’s legendary buttermilk fried chicken sandwich (it's also its only savory menu item except for a tofu version) has spawned countless imitations nationwide and boasts arguably the most loyal, fervent following of any single food item in the Bay Area. Combine San Francisco's adoration of fried chicken and sandwiches, and, yes, we understand why this is such a big deal. Don’t get us wrong, we love the fried chicken itself, from the crispy, slightly salty batter to the beautifully moist breast meat. The issue arises from the composition of the sandwich, where the Acme torpedo roll commands too much attention of each bite from the chicken, and the jalapeño slaw needs more moisture. Verdict: great fried chicken and not a great sandwich.
Try instead: Wes Rowe is owning the spruced-up fast-food burger category at his new WesBurger n' More in the Mission. Here's a little inside info: The burger isn't even the best thing to order. It's the spicy but not too intense Nashville hot chicken sandwich with garlic mayonnaise, lettuce and pickles (basically everything we just said that drags down the version at Bakesale Betty). The chicken matches its East Bay counterpart and the tidy, organized final product makes this the complete fried chicken sandwich experience.
Burger at Balboa Cafe
Why it's overrated: The spot has some points going in its favor: The co-owner of the Cow Hollow institution is our state's lieutenant governor, and it's been around for over a century. But what we don't understand is why the burger gets praised as one of our city's best in the elite Zuni-Marlowe-Nopa club. The meat is routinely overcooked to medium-well when medium rare is asked for. On the bright side, we applaud the made-in-house pickles and really like how it’s one of the few burgers that you’ll find served on a cut-in-half baguette, making it more of a hamburger sandwich. But whether it’s the beef itself or missing the mark on cooking time and method, it’s not a good sign when the only reason to order a burger is the bread (or to soak up the very good classic cocktails).
Try instead: Head up the big hill to tony Presidio Heights for the burger served on a house-baked English muffin at Spruce. It's available in the dining room at lunch and always at the bar. The perfectly charred on the outside, juicy on the inside half-pound patty is exactly what an upscale restaurant burger should be.
Swedish pancakes at Sears Fine Food
Why it's overrated: The renowned petite Swedish pancakes, 18 to a plate at Union Square’s 88-year old landmark, are better for wrapping around a dainty filling blini-style, not being the sole focus of the plate. That’s because they just don’t taste like, well, much of anything but air. They can barely hold up to butter and maple syrup. It’s the type of dish that makes you shrug with indifference. They are good, cute diner fare and far from great, particularly when this place gets slammed by tourists and it takes forever to order.
Try instead: This is tough. Tremendous pancakes at brunch AND no long line for a table? We've got a solution: the lemon-ricotta pancakes with blueberry conserva at Locanda in the Mission. Make a reservation, order some cocktails and other bites, then finish with the pancakes. This couldn't be a more rewarding and relaxing brunch compared to the hyped one above.
Garlic bread with burrata at State Bird Provisions
Why it's overrated: Is any restaurant worth lining up at 4 PM and getting seated at 9:30 PM?
Look, State Bird Provisions is a great restaurant with lots of exceptional dishes. Is it THE life-changing restaurant the hype builds it to be? Sorry, but no. It's a really good restaurant and the hype carries it from there. Some dishes are stellar and others like the thrill-free funnel cake–evoking bread with burrata and a vague hint of green garlic don’t match the off-the-charts attention it gets (it’s not fair to the restaurant how diners have placed it on such a high pedestal). The gummy bread comes off as greasy and, with creamy burrata, it hits you as too much over-the-top gluttony without a “wow factor” to make it special.
Try instead: Swap garlic bread for pizza crust! At Russian Hill's Gioia, you can add high-quality Di Stefano burrata to any pizza; we recommend the Acciughe with anchovies and Calabrian chiles.
Artichoke and green chile 50/50 soup at Duarte's Tavern
Why it's overrated: Venture all the way out to the coast’s venerable roadhouse-saloon for a slice of the magnificent olallieberry pie. Do it, please. It’s the Bay Area’s most famous pie for good reason. Please also order the cioppino, the Dungeness crab sandwich and savor the historic old pine-paneled setting. But what we don't understand is why the green chile and artichoke soups, and their combined half-and-half version, are also considered essential to a visit. You should definitely try artichokes when in the area, but not in mundane creamy soups that vaguely taste like the vegetables they’re based on.
Try instead: For an artichoke-item that truly tastes like the region’s favorite produce, walk 10 steps to Arcangeli Grocery for the artichoke bread – filled with real artichoke. Don't be surprised if you finish almost the entire loaf yourself at a beach picnic. It's that good.
Pisco punch at Comstock Saloon
Why it's overrated: San Francisco’s Barbary Coast period a century ago started the city's craze with the pisco punch cocktail. Fast forward to today where this Barbary Coast–inspired North Beach bar offers pisco punch as its signature cocktail. Here's the problem: a pisco punch tastes refreshing but basic, and the tastes of pineapple, sugar and pisco grow tiring quick. Comstock is a terrific all-around bar, so we’d recommend bypassing the faithful but far from riveting classic.
Try instead: If you're inclined to have a pisco cocktail, it's hard to beat that other classic: a pisco sour. Our preferred version, complete with a few angostura bitters on top, is from another historic bar: Elixir. You can't not have a good time at the old Mission saloon that does craft cocktails right without losing its century-old vibe.
Secret breakfast ice cream at Humphry Slocombe
Why it's overrated: The secret in the ice cream at this pair of creative parlors in the Mission and Ferry Building is bourbon. It’s bourbon and corn flakes because, supposedly, you shouldn't put booze in your breakfast cereal, but you've always wanted to. Oh, the mischief. Here’s the real secret: You can’t taste the bourbon. It’s a fun concept, but it ends up not being much different from a crunchy vanilla scoop. There are dozens of superior flavors to put on your cone here, whether for breakfast or after dinner.
Try instead: You never know what flavors will be available at Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous in the Dogpatch, but we like the signature flavor, Ballpark, made from ingredients that say "baseball": Anchor Steam beer, roasted peanuts and chocolate-covered pretzels.