Must-Try

Eat This Now: SF Bay Area's 30 Essential Dishes

By Trevor Felch  |  January 24, 2017
Credit: Liholiho Yacht Club

Whether you're seeking out that perfect bowl of ramen, homemade spam or the ultimate Dungeness crab salad, San Francisco's restaurants are offering some outstanding original and classic dishes as 2017 gets under way. We've done the delicious work of finding 30 San Francisco Bay Area dishes that define the region right now. Whether you're a local or a visitor, consider this your must-eat list for the winter.

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  • Credit: Nightbird

    Quail egg at Nightbird
    Kim Alter's Hayes Valley tasting menu destination was one of the city's most important openings of 2016, and its signature amuse is a big reason why. Each diner starts with a poached quail egg topped with brown butter hollandaise and caviar, served on a bed of fried leeks. It's a rustic-elegant way to begin dinner playing with all sorts of textures and flavor profiles. And it's the one dish you can always count on being part of the Nightbird experience.

    330 Gough St.; 415-829-7565

  • Credit: The Gastropig/Facebook

    #baconslut sandwich at The Gastropig
    Hashtag dishes are a thing now, while expressing adoration for bacon is hardly a new trend. The breakfast sandwich of the moment is from Uptown Oakland's new daytime-only spot focused on the pig. Its already outrageously popular hashtagged sandwich comes on a brioche roll with applewood smoked bacon, over-easy egg, sharp cheddar and Aleppo chile aïoli. Definitely add avocado for $2. #Deliciousbreakfast

    2123 Franklin St., Oakland; 510-817-4663

  • Credit: Stones Throw

    Squid ink conchiglie pasta at Stones Throw
    The Russian Hill New American restaurant along the cable car line isn’t the first place that comes to mind for pasta. But it always has its signature comforting bowl of squid ink–stained conchiglie (seashell-shaped pasta) jazzed up with spicy capers and tender greens and topped with shrimp, clams and calamari. If you're riding the cable car and it starts raining, this is the stop for warming up.

    1896 Hyde St.; 415-796-2901

  • Credit: Arguello Restaurant/Facebook

    Pozole at Arguello
    Our abnormally damp and chilly winter calls for hearty stews and soups. On cue, seek out the hominy- and chicken-enriched green chile-based pozole served at the Presidio's relaxed Mexican restaurant. The pivotal spice addition is oregano, and cabbage and radish add some needed brightness. A crispy tortilla comes on the side, ready to be shattered into the dish. Nothing defeats a winter cold like a strong pozole.

    115 New Montgomery St.; 415-872-9825

  • Credit: Lara Hata

    Burger at Finn Town
    Grab some napkins and get ready for one of the city's most impressive burgers to debut in 2016. The Castro's New American tavern offers a double-decker burger with the beef hailing from local butcher Golden Gate Meat Company. Elaborations are classic California style — a homemade Thousand Island dressing sauce, iceberg lettuce, pickles and two layers of slightly melted American cheese.

    2251 Market St.; 415-626-3466

  • Credit: Alanna Hale

    Bananas Foster at Alfred's SF
    Winter fruit desserts can be a challenge, so why not opt for a classic banana dish with a fiery show? The reinvigorated FiDi classic steakhouse (thanks to its new Daniel Patterson Group owners) is one of the few San Francisco restaurants where diners can conclude with a flambé tableside. You'll taste no shortage of rum and cinnamon in the flavoring, and brioche amps up the decadence to absorb the sticky-sweet sauce.

    659 Merchant St.; 415-781-7058

  • Credit: Alembic

    Sprouted lentil croquettes at Alembic
    Hippie cuisine at one of the city's premier cocktail bars? Well, this is the Upper Haight, after all. Alembic's new executive chef David Faro will open your eyes with this fascinating bar snack creation that's joined by cilantro yogurt and spiced up with plenty of Calabrian chile. Think of it as falafel gone to Haight Ashbury.

    1725 Haight St.; 415-666-0822

  • Credit: 3rd Cousin

    Uni crème brûlée at 3rd Cousin
    The dish at this outstanding, out-of-the-way seasonal Californian in Bernal Heights just sounds incredible. The well-known briny-smooth appetizer certainly lives up to the hype. A trio of fish eggs — yuzu tobiko, trout roe and caviar ​— join the uni atop a caramelized creamy mousse. Spread on toast points and enjoy the luxury ride.

    919 Cortland Ave.; 415-814-3709

  • Credit: Trevor Felch

    Warm ginger cake at Nopa
    The now 10-year-old Divisadero classic does so many things incredibly well, from late-night bites to brunch, burgers to cocktails. But it rarely gets attention for the excellent desserts (possibly because diners often order so many savory dishes). Pastry chef Hannah Ziskin offers a perfectly moist ginger-spiced cake that sounds heavy but isn't. The cake is covered with confit apple slivers, thinly layered in the manner of a classic French tarte tatin. On the side are more diced apples and a pool of not-too-sticky salted caramel, plus hazelnuts, pomegranate seeds and whipped crème fraîche . It’s an absolutely essential mid-winter dessert.

    560 Divisadero St.; 415-864-8643

  • Credit: April Dawn Storm/LiholihoYachtClub

    Housemade "Spam" at Liholiho Yacht Club
    No, it’s not what you think. The focus of the dish at the ultra-popular Tendernob restaurant is really a combination of pork shoulder and ham made in-house that gets glazed and then seared on a plancha — nothing at all like the rubbery stuff out of a can. Chef-owner Ravi Kapur uses the Hawaiian snack favorite Spam musubi (similar to a Spam sushi roll) as his inspiration and serves this inverse version on sticky rice with finely diced nori (like seaweed), a spicy aïoli and the trio of "Spam" slices fanned out on top. You still won’t find the dish on the menu, but outside of the secret items at In-N-Out Burger, there isn’t a more universally known off-menu item in town.

    871 Sutter St.; 415-440-5446

  • Credit: Tamara Palmer

    Porcini donuts at Rich Table
    We've already told you how hard it is to get a prime table reservation, and how fun the bar seating is at this always jam-packed Hayes Valley restaurant. Every table starts with a plate warm, puffy savory doughnuts dusted with porcini powder — ready to be dunked in whipped raclette cheese. It's a quirky post ski-fondue meets breakfast donut with a hefty umami punch that symbolizes the playfulness of this kitchen.

    199 Gough St.; 415-355-9085

  • Credit: Foreign Cinema

    Fried chicken at Foreign Cinema
    Long before Nashville hot chicken became a nationwide trend, the venerable Mission restaurant offered a slightly spicy fried chicken dish that has rotated on and off the menu for more than a decade. Madras curry is the zesty secret to the buttermilk-based batter, and sesame seeds provide a captivating additional crunch dimension. The North African-Eastern Mediterranean theme continues elsewhere on the plate with Moroccan-spiced cauliflower, kale salad, hummus, and ras el hanout spiced honey. It's a thrilling dish that will command your attention away from the movie playing on the patio wall.

    2534 Mission St.; 415-648-7600

  • Credit: Motze

    Chanko nabe at Motze
    After departing Bar Tartine at the end of 2016, chefs Nic Balla and Cortney Burns can be found a few blocks away in the Mission serving a similar type of Cali-Japanese cuisine with distinct fermented and brined elements apparent everywhere in the nightly-changing dinner tasting menus. Lunch is completely different, however, focused on a selection of protein, rice and stew bowls that in Japan are known as "sumo stews" for fortifying sumo wrestlers. Right now, Motze offers one with chicken sausage and breast, egg and schmaltz flavoring. Pair it with a salad for a strong $15 daytime bargain.

    983 Valencia St.; 415-484-1206

  • Credit: Pierce Larick/New Revolution Media

    Tuna tartare at Chaya Brasserie
    Here's your trivia for the day: Chaya’s Japanese-born, French-trained chef Shigefumi Tachibe invented tuna tartare in 1984 (the Smithsonian even recognized this to make it official). The raw fish starter that seems to be on 90 percent of San Francisco menus now. There are still very few versions done better than what you'll find at this 17-year-old Embarcadero Asian fusion classic with avocado chunks and a caper aïoli, which gives a quirky salty punch that's more associated with steak tartare than tuna tartare. That makes sense since Tachibe simply replaced beef with tuna when he created the dish.

    132 Embarcadero; 415-777-8688

  • Credit: Trevor Felch

    Kale salad at Trick Dog
    This isn't just another kale salad. The Mission cocktail bar with a still underrated kitchen has always offered this towering pyramid of a kale salad livened up with slow-cooked egg yolk dressing. You won't find a tough fiber of kale anywhere in the pile, but you will encounter crunchy-salty pepitas, nuggets of avocado and a generous flourish of Parmesan that seems to coat every leaf.

    3010 20th St.; 415-471-2999

  • Credit: Trevor Felch

    Dungeness crab Louis at Sutro’s
    In San Francisco, winter aligns with Dungeness crab season. At the iconic, upscale restaurant at the Cliff House that locals often ignore as a tourist trap, this salad isn’t tourist bait, believe it or not; it’s one of the best renditions of the San Francisco icon, with avocado, baby lettuces, a hard-boiled Jidori egg, and a heaping serving of sweet, chunky crab meat.

    1090 Point Lobos Ave.; 415-386-3330

  • Credit: Delfina Restaurant/Facebook

    Spaghetti at Delfina
    This venerable Italian restaurant, which transformed its Mission neighborhood into the city's premier dining spot, just turned 18, and it’s as popular as ever. Whether it's your first or 50th visit, you'll want an order of the simple, robust, idyllically al dente spaghetti graced with hints of basil, garlic and pepperoncini, lightly coated with a plum tomato sauce. It remains pasta at its purest — five-ingredient perfection. 

    3621 18th St.; 415-552-4055

  • Credit: Al's Place

    Fries at Al’s Place
    Brined and twice-fried, the cooking method for the fries at one of San Francisco's most popular restaurants is unorthodox for sure. The resulting crispy-soft texture contrast and intense tangy potato flavor is one of a kind in the best way. And it doesn't stop there — these fries come with a smoked apple sauce dip.

    1499 Valencia St.; 415-416-6136

  • Credit: Aina/Facebook

    Lomi Lomi arctic char at Aina
    Having dominated the Hawaiian-Californian brunch scene (first as a pop-up and now as a brick-and-mortar), this Dogpatch restaurant has gone a step further and started serving dinner. Be sure to try this Hawaiian classic, showcasing deeply smoky and effortlessly flaky paprika-cured arctic char with fried sunchokes and a green onion soubise. The kiawe wood used for smoking adds a sweetness to this outstanding dish that you'll remember for days.

    900 22nd St.; 415-814-3815

  • Credit: La Marcha Tapas Bar/Facebook

    Arroz negro at La Marcha
    Though "paella" isn't in the name, this is really just a different sort of paella, where squid ink and truffle aïoli play the starring role amid the customary cast of rice, mussels and fennel sausage. Atypical anchovy breadcrumbs and trout roe are also involved. This young tapas bar and restaurant at the Oakland-Berkeley border might offer a half dozen paellas, but there's no doubt that its the arroz negro that sets the bar in the Bay Area.

    2026 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley; 510-269-7374

  • Credit: Leo Gong

    Smoked Muscovy duck at The Morris
    Duck is the centerpiece of this compact, eclectic menu at one of the hottest restaurants in the Bay Area. Diners opt between a half or whole bird, accompanied by roasted root vegetables and potatoes. The secret is in how Gavin Schmidt cooks it. The duck is brined, aged, air-dried, smoked and finally roasted. The venue's predecessor for 24 years, Slow Club, had its burger, and now The Morris has its duck. 

    2501 Mariposa St.; 415-612-8480

  • Credit: Campton Place

    Spice pot at Campton Place
    Talk about perfectly blending a menu concept and a sense of place. Chef Srijith Gopinathan is leading the pack of higher-end Indian restaurants that are suddenly trending. Of note on his Spice Route tasting menu is this plant pot filled with crushed pani puri, buttermilk foam, yogurt, mustard seeds and chickpeas with several aromatic spices and decorative herbs, topped by crispy quinoa for a captivating crunchy edge. Have your camera ready: Fog makes an appearance in the presentation, thanks to some dry ice outside the pot.

    340 Stockton St.; 415-955-5555

  • Credit: Eric Wolfinger

    Wood-grilled avocado at Bird Dog
    There are more than a few restaurants doing toasts, guacamoles and myriad other things with our state's beloved avocado, but it's the Peninsula's best contemporary Californian restaurant that really convinced us that an avocado could stand alone. It’s not fussy; it's just a halved avocado with ponzu sauce filling the vacancy left by the pit, some fresh wasabi on the side and a wood grill's smoky notes deep inside every bite.

    420 Ramona St., Palo Alto; 650-656-8180

  • Credit: Chloe List

    Trout tostada at Cala
    Raw fish graces a lot of menu's appetizer sections, but nothing matches what Hayes Valley's marquee Mexican restaurant opens with. A wedge of avocado garnishes bright orange trout on crisp, greaseless fried corn tortillas. The three bites per tostada are precious. Don't forget a squeeze of lime. It's no wonder that Cala is the most important San Francisco restaurant to open in the past 12 months, and that this is the must-order dish.

    149 Fell St.; 415-660-7701

  • Credit: Caitlin Kerton

    Americana burger at Causwells
    Somehow this Marina burger gets overlooked on most top burger lists. That's a shame. It's perfection, with twin patties that manage to be meaty and juicy despite being thin, and they're complemented by oozing Thousand Island–like sauce, American cheese, pickles and onions. Messy? You bet, and it's worth it.

    2346 Chestnut St.; 415-447-6081

  • Credit: Mika Takeuchi

    Couscous at Mourad
    Fluffy to the point of almost evaporating like a snowflake when your spoon touches each couscous morsel, this is without question the gold standard of couscous dishes in the Bay Area. FiDi workers and destination diners alike agree this is also one of the great vegetarian entrees in San Francisco. The preparation varies by season but right now look forward to pepitas and butternut squash, and you can always count on the one-two flavoring punch of brown butter and harissa that gives the dish its feisty, joyful edge.

    140 New Montgomery St. #1; 415-660-2500

  • Credit: Mensho Tokyo

    Tori paitan ramen at Mensho Tokyo
    The secret is out — this is the essential bowl of ramen in a ramen-crazy town. The Tokyo-based chain's first U.S. outpost has proven to be a rousing success thanks to an incredibly robust and creamy boiled chicken bone broth that's downright enthralling. One slurp of the steaming, perky noodles accompanied by slices of thin pork and duck chashu proves that this ramen's worth any line. The search for the Bay Area’s premier bowl of ramen ends here in Lower Nob Hill.

    672 Geary St.; 415-800-8346

  • Credit: Trevor Felch

    Honolulu hangover cake at Bluestem Brasserie
    Ever since Baker & Banker closed, city diners have been yearning for the desserts of that restaurant's co-owner and pastry chef, Lori Baker. Meanwhile, despite a prime Union Square–Moscone Center location, Bluestem Brasserie was struggling. Everyone's happy now that John Griffiths is in charge of savory dishes, while Baker runs the dessert program. Baker's regal signature dessert started as a Bluestem original, and she's refined it to perfection. It's a gigantic wedge of rum-infused devil's food cake boasting layers of chocolate, coconut, marshmallow and caramel. Warning: It serves four to five, unless you’re considering it your entree.

    1 Yerba Buena Lane; 415-416-6136

  • Credit: John Storey/Pläj

    Herring platter at Pläj
    Those in Scandinavian countries routinely eat sour, marinated herring preparations like we in the U.S. casually munch on burgers and grilled cheese sandwiches. This Hayes Valley Scandinavian restaurant elevates herring to lofty heights with various accompaniments like a curry apple sauce or tomato and fennel. Whatever you decide to put on the crackers, it'll make you want to book a trip to Helsinki or Stockholm — even this time of year.

    333 Fulton St.; 415-294-8925

  • Credit: Trevor Felch

    Anchovy pizza at Del Popolo
    Slowly, but surely, the salty-fishy-umami boost of little anchovies is becoming accepted by San Francisco diners. Even those picky pizza-eaters who adore the outstanding margherita or housemade sausage pie from this Lower Nob Hill standout are accepting anchovies when they try them on the immaculately puffy crust with bitter greens, ricotta and Calabrian chiles.

    855 Bush St.; 415-589-7940