San Francisco Tourist-Trap Survival Guide

Tackle the city like a local: from where to eat on the water to the best restaurants without a wait
July 5, 2016
by Trevor Felch

San Francisco is a truly special place to visit, with top visitor attractions ranging from the Golden Gate Bridge and the fog, to Alcatraz and our beloved, steep hills. Our restaurants and bars are a key reason to visit the city, but it's tourists beware as the eats by the main sights aren't always where the locals go. Be a savvy traveler and follow our advice to avoid dining letdowns in San Francisco. We'll show you how to see all the major SF tourist attractions and also eat and drink very well nearby.

Eat well in Sausalito
Tourists treat Sausalito as a sightseeing destination — at the end of a bike trip across the Golden Gate Bridge or as a stop on a ferry journey — not as a dining destination. However, the quaint, artsy town deserves attention for its excellent restaurants too. Sushi Ran is a sushi and izakaya standout, while Copita is an excellent stop for regional Mexican cuisine. Poggio is one of the Bay Area's most distinguished Italian restaurants (this is where you can learn what al dente pasta really is), and just up the road you can enjoy a pizza, beer, bocce ball and water views at the always fun Bar Bocce. Note: lunch or a very early dinner is recommended because the last ferry leaves around the time you'd start a 7 PM dinner.

Explore the Ferry Building by sandwich
The Ferry Building is a magical place for food lovers, but many tourists end up at two underwhelming restaurants on the Embarcadero side because of the outdoor patios. Soak up the sun later and go inside for a sandwich tour to get a good feel for the array of vendors. Start with avocado toast at Frog Hollow Farm, then get a muffaletta​ at Boccalone, followed by a grilled cheese from Cowgirl Creamery’s Sidekick Cafe. Of course, the finale is an ice cream sandwich or just a non-sandwich scoop from Humphry Slocombe ice cream.

Get last-minute dinner reservations in the Financial District
Nabbing reservations for prime tables at the city's hottest restaurants is becoming a competitive sport in San Francisco — some require planning two months in advance. However, that is not the case in the Financial District where some of the city’s leading restaurants, including Perbacco, Michael Mina, Mourad and Bix, are almost always available for last-second reservations. Bonus: lots of noteworthy craft cocktail bars are located nearby, like Rickhouse, The Treasury and Trou Normand. Make it a full night in a neighborhood known for its business lunch crowd.

What to eat in Ghirardelli Square besides chocolate
Aside from over-the-top chocolate fudge sundaes, the dining scene has been bleak for decades at Ghirardelli Square — until this year. If it’s daytime, grab sandwiches and sweets at the excellent Le Marais, an outpost of a Marina bakery. At night, enjoy the famous roast chicken and rustic, seasonal cooking at Waxman's from the James Beard Award-winning chef Jonathan Waxman.

Want crab? Try a Polk Street brunch stroll
The only locals you’ll find at Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf are the sunbathing sea lions. Despite the nearness to the water, this is not the place to try San Francisco Dungeness crab. For that you want to go to Swan Oyster Depot. However, it's no secret, and lunchtime lines for a stool can be daunting. Our advice? Treat a visit there as the main part of a do-it-yourself brunch on Russian Hill's Polk Street. Be among the first at Swan Oyster Depot when it opens at 10:30 AM and have a Dungeness Crab Louie for breakfast. Then walk a few steps for fresh donuts at Bob's and finish with coffee at Saint Frank. Then you're close to Pier 39, but at least you don't have to eat there.

Hide from Union Square in the Burritt Room + Tavern
Union Square can feel as hectic as Times Square with shoppers, convention-goers, tourists and suits all jostling for space — and for the next several years add the relentless noise and street closures of the subway project. You need a break. You need some calm, some jazz music, some addictive spicy fries and a well-made, reinterpreted classic cocktail. That is what the Burritt Room is here for, on the second level of the slightly hidden Mystic Hotel, owned by the well-known chef-restaurateur Charlie Palmer. It's perfect for a short drink and a snack or lingering for a full dinner.

Welcome the wait for the city's hottest tables
Let’s face it. You’re probably not getting a reservation at State Bird Provisions, Al’s Place, Flour + Water or Liholiho Yacht Club. Show up early and embrace the two-hour wait with snacks and pre-dinner drinks, and you have a pretty nice night. For State Bird, you'll want to wait at the Fillmore gastropub, unofficially known as the restaurant's waiting room. Flour + Water is across the street from the city’s premier cocktail bar, Trick Dog, and a three-minute walk to Southern Pacific Brewing. Al’s Place is two blocks from BEL’s Belgian beer selection and the excellent cocktails and house brews of Old Bus Tavern. Liholiho Yacht Club is near dozens of TenderNob and Union Square bars, with Hopwater Distribution and Tradition being the highlights.

Have a world-class bakery picnic
Our bakeries are some of the best in the world (sorry, Paris). With that reality come the lines at Tartine and B Patisserie for the morning pastry rush. The best way to experience the bakeries are to come later in the day when lines are shorter, and buy both pastries and bread for a spectacular afternoon picnic. Tartine is right by Dolores Park and B Patisserie is not far from Golden Gate Park. There is a Bi-Rite Market near both bakeries for your wine, charcuterie and cheese needs. Best of all, your picnic lunch will be a fraction of the price of a regular San Francisco brunch. Don't forget a jacket — SF weather can turn on a dime. Last note on Tartine: If you must get the famous country loaf, come the day before your picnic because it's only baked and sold after 5 PM.

Skip the burritos; it's taco time
Yes, San Francisco is known for its unwavering love of burritos. Yes, La Taqueria does really make the best burrito you'll ever have. However, burritos are powerfully filling (you want to have room for dinner, right?), and they're repetitive after a few bites. The hack: tacos. For lunch, visit Hayes Valley’s Tacos Cala where you'll find Mexico City-style guisado tacos led by one with a soft-boiled egg — it’s hard to find, located on an alley in the back of the restaurant Cala. At dinner, Lolo in the Mission can’t be beat for creative tacos and cocktails. For either meal and a big dose of fun? Tacolicious really does make delicious tacos in the Mission and Marina and is great for kids as well.

Best lunch or late night meal in SF? Zuni Cafe
No restaurant in San Francisco is as synonymous with one dish as is Zuni and its roast chicken. It truly is a masterpiece — and always available. But there are a few things visitors don't often think about when it comes to Zuni. The first is how everything else on the menu is terrific too, expressing the best of pure California cuisine, from the balsamic vinegar Bloody Mary to an espresso granita for dessert. Even the burger might be San Francisco's best. The catch? It's only available at lunch or after 10 PM. Go during those times not only for the burger but also because reservations are much, much easier to get than prime dinnertime ones. And, you can still have the chicken.

Solve the Little Italy dilemma
The best Italian restaurants in San Francisco are not in the heart of our Little Italy, North Beach. If you're visiting the neighborhood, don't worry; there are great places off the main drag of Columbus Street, which is home to one disappointing pasta and pizza cafe after another. For high-quality al dente pasta and superb Negronis in an old-school atmosphere, head over a few blocks to Trattoria Contadina. Or get just outside of North Beach to Cotogna where you can enjoy terrific pizza and pasta at the neighbor and sibling of one of the city's great gastronomic destinations, Quince.

california cuisine
outdoor patios
seafood restaurants
tourist traps