San Francisco

A Chefs' Guide to Eating Out in San Francisco

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As the birthplace of California’s farm-to-table food movement, San Francisco has long had an embarrassment of riches when it comes to good food. Yes, incredible produce continues to serve as the backbone of Californian cuisine, and, yes, iconic restaurants like Chez Panisse and Zuni Café are still around. But the restaurant scene isn’t static; it’s constantly evolving, with new chefs and new restaurants making names for themselves and garnering praise from Bay Area diners and visitors alike.

To learn more about the city’s best dining options, we spoke with four of the city’s top chefs to find out their go-to spots. They gave us their picks for late-night burritos, Sunday brunch, splurge-worthy meals, and more. Preeti Mistry, chef–owner of Juhu Beach Club; Charles Phan, chef–owner of The Slanted Door Group; Matt Accarrino, chef–owner of SPQR; and Dominique Crenn, chef–owner of Atelier Crenn and Bar Crenn, all weighed in with their favorites to help us plot out this eaters’ roadmap.

The combination of reverence for the classics, and excitement around what’s new—think exceptional beer bars, boutique hotels with Thai small plates and zero-proof cocktails, and Michelin star-worthy bar bites—means a trip to San Francisco will keep you busy, whether you’re checking in on enduring favorites, sampling the best of the new, or hoping to do a little bit of both.

This article was created by the Serious Eats editorial team and brought to you by Capital One®. Capital One has had no involvement in any editorial aspect of the production of this content.

Best Late-Night Eats

Our chefs’ late-night favorites include wok-fried scrambled eggs, tender tripe, and a veggie burrito worth waiting in line for in the wee hours of the morning.

  • Nopa

    Lori Eanes

    Nopa is always bustling. It was a pioneer on Divisadero Street back in 2006, which has since become a busy area for restaurants. There’s one big, open room—the kitchen's in the same room as the diners—with a mezzanine and one large communal bar. It's a pretty lively vibe for sure, and you see a lot of industry people there.

    I'm not a huge late-night person because I'm a big cyclist; I try to ride home early most nights. But if I end up at Nopa, I'll eat the burger. It’s always really consistently good: wood-grilled, with pickled onions and a heap of crispy fries on the side. Even better, you know everything on the plate is locally sourced. I’m a habitual Rye Manhattan drinker, so I’ll wash it down with that.

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  • Yuet Lee Seafood Restaurant

    Lori Eanes

    Yuet Lee in Chinatown is for everyone: partygoers, cops—everybody eats there. It also looks a bit like an operating room. It's got really bright lights and it’s painted fluorescent green. Yuet Lee is famous for its salt and pepper squid, but I always order the tripe; they boil it until it’s really tender and serve it with a sesame-and-soy sauce on top, and a really flavorful scallion dipping sauce on the side. I also get their wok stir-fried scrambled eggs, which are really soft and tender, and come garnished with scallions.

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  • Taqueria Cancun

    Lori Eanes

    I lived in The Mission when I was in my early 20s and I didn't have a lot of money. I was going out to bars a lot, and I’d always end up at Taqueria Cancun, which was usually packed, with a line out the door. It’s a rustic old taqueria with wooden picnic benches, so there’s a lot of dining communally. There’s also a long steam table where you watch the burritos and tacos being made as you wait in line. The best thing about a place like Taqueria Cancun is that you will see every type of person in there.

    I love the veggie burrito. The cheese gets gooey and melty, and they put in fresh avocado chunks—literally scooping chunks out of half an avocado, and putting it in the burrito—so nothing gets soggy. [Ed’s note: the burrito also comes with rice, beans, onions, cilantro, salsa, and sour cream.]

    When I was younger, I’d wait in line for the burrito on late nights out, but I could only ever eat two-thirds of it. The last third I would unearth the next morning from the refrigerator, and scramble all of the interior with eggs for breakfast.

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Best Brunch

Despite one chef joking that they’re “allergic to brunch," their favorites—from classic dim sum with water views to Tunisian shakshuka in an ivy-covered courtyard—were each enthusiastically branded as can’t-miss, uniquely San Franciscan meals.

  • Hong Kong East Ocean

    Lori Eanes

    I love dim sum, especially for brunch, and I could eat at Hong Kong East Ocean all day. It’s out on the pier of Emeryville, Berkeley, past tiki bar mainstay Trader Vic's, so you have that feeling of being on the water. It’s like you’re at a big hotel banquet hall, but with a gorgeous view of the Bay and Bay Bridge. There are big tanks of lobsters and crabs to stare at while you wait for a table. You tell them how many people you have in your party, then they give you a number and you wait for your number to be called, but they are so efficient and quick.

    The servers come around with some items in carts, and they also give you a paper menu with photos, and you just go through and tick boxes of everything that you want. There's instant gratification—you don't sit there waiting for someone to take your drink order, then your food order. Before the server even comes around, someone's like, "Do you want this?" And it's like, "Yes, here we go."

    The big pork buns at Hong Kong East Ocean are amazing—I can’t have just one. They're light and soft, and have that shiny glazed outside. I want to eat so many things there. Pro tip: don't do deep-fried there because you'll just get in the calamari, and then you're like, "Oh my God, I'm so full, I can't eat anything else." There's the Hong Kong-style rice noodles with a sweet sauce, really great smashed cucumbers with bright ginger, savory roast pork, and then a bunch of different dumplings.

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  • Andytown Coffee Roasters

    Lori Eanes

    One unique place in San Francisco is this place called Andytown, just a few blocks from Golden Gate Park. They now have a couple of locations, but I love the original spot—a tiny postage stamp of a space. They used every inch in this first location, and you virtually order at the espresso machine. There is ample outdoor seating and bike racks right in front. It’s clearly a vibrant part of the neighborhood and a popular meeting place on the weekend, when lines are longer. Mid-morning, mid-week is usually the most chill time to drop in.

    Besides the great coffee (which they roast themselves), they are known for a drink called the “Snowy Plover," which is like a whipped cream coffee–soda kind of thing. Maybe more importantly, they have a whole in-house bakery program. They make jam-stuffed muffins, and these little things that look like Pop-Tarts. But the best things they have are the Irish scones they cook on a griddle. You can get the scones a couple of different ways, but my favorite is to have them split one—it’s kind of like a cross between an English scone and a biscuit, but not as flaky—and griddle it with butter, then put a triangle of raw-milk Cheddar and a strip of warm bacon on each side.

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  • Foreign Cinema

    Lori Eanes

    I started going to Foreign Cinema in the Mission years ago for brunch. It’s a wonderful place that features fresh California food. Right now, they have a Tunisian shakshuka with eggs, zucchini, and feta—it’s delicious. And you can get a version of Pop-Tarts made with organic strawberries or nectarines. Chef Gayle Pirie and John Clark, who both used to work at Zuni Café, have been doing this for a long time. I love that it’s such a cool spot with beautiful outdoor seating in the courtyard—and, of course, you should come back for dinner when there are movies playing and lights strung everywhere.

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Best Drinks

From places with thoughtful mocktails to one that puts out a perfectly executed Old Fashioned, the chefs had strong opinions about where to get a drink.

  • Nari

    Lori Eanes

    There's a place called Nari that just opened in Japantown from chef Pim Techamuanvivit. It’s a brand new space in Hotel Kabuki. The bar upstairs is separate from the restaurant and it's a really cool, well-designed space. There’s a mix of wood and concrete, and lots of plants throughout, and upstairs it feels really cozy and intimate, with a window that looks down into the kitchen. It's a place that I feel comfortable in because the whole bar is separate from the restaurant, and you're not taking up a dining seat. In San Francisco, you don't see that very often.

    In addition to making amazing alcoholic drinks, Nari has a non-alcoholic beverage program. I thought it was really interesting that they’re going through all these steps to make zero-proof drinking feel special. They use cool glassware, and pour tableside, and they have a drink similar to a gin and tonic.

    Nari’s got a separate bar bites menu that’s really good, too, with a bunch of flavorful little dishes that are full of sweet, sour, and salty notes. I’d recommend the miang, a dish of cha-phlu leaf-wrapped Thai salad bites, made with stone fruit, coconut, and a fish sauce caramel to accompany. The dish is light, multi-textured, and delicious.

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  • Bar Agricole

    Lori Eanes

    Bar Agricole in the South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood is my favorite place for drinks. It’s sleek and pretty hip: a super-modern loft with a contemporary dining room and two bars. There’s a patio with an organic vegetable garden out front, and it's very tranquil.

    They make a great Old Fashioned, using cognac—even though I usually just do it with bourbon. It's so hard to make an Old Fashioned. It seems easy, but there are many ways for you to screw it up—every part of it! Too much syrup, or the wrong spirit, too much bitters, or the wrong kind of ice. If you don’t use a big ice block, it'll melt too fast, and you'll have a watery drink. (And I'm a fast drinker, by the way. Imagine if you're a slow drinker!) In any case, you just can’t go wrong with Bar Agricole.

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  • Roses' Taproom

    Lori Eanes

    Roses’ Taproom is relatively new. It just opened a couple of years ago in Temescal, a neighborhood in Oakland, and it's just a really cute space. A lot of the beer places in the city tend to be kind of gross—sort of macho and smelly—and Roses’ is just like a nice, clean, well-lit place for fancy beers.

    They brew their own beer right there, and then they have some beers from other local breweries. They also have a nice selection of almonds, olives, and charcuterie, and stuff like that. I was super into the hazy IPA for awhile, but now I'm really loving their tropical IPAs—a little bit more refreshing, but still very hoppy.

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  • Trick Dog Bar

    Lori Eanes

    When I go out to drink cocktails, it’s at Trick Dog, a really cool place in the Mission with fun people. The decor is dark and minimal, almost like an old saloon, and it’s very tiny. If you want to sit and have a long conversation over a drink, then you better get there as soon as it opens, because the later it becomes, the more fans come pouring through the doors.

    They change the menu all the time—every six months or so—so I don’t have a particular drink to recommend. But there’s always a well-manicured cocktail available, like the collaboration I did with them last year, a sherry and tea-smoked maitake mushroom–inspired cocktail. You can ask anybody: Trick Dog has the best bartenders; they really know what they're doing. It has great plates, too—chicken wings, curried noodles, salad—so you can also get a late-night bite from the bar.

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Best Splurge

Clearly, there’s nothing tired about the San Francisco classics, but if you’re looking for something new, you can find fantastic, of-the-moment tasting menus, too. Here are the spots where you should treat yourself.

  • Chez Panisse

    Lori Eanes

    Chez Panisse, especially the café upstairs, has never failed me. I love how cozy and casual the decor is. I’ve never really been to France, but when I’m there, it feels like I'm in France, so I start out with a glass of Champagne. I love the roasted pork loin with polenta, cauliflower romesco, currants, pine nuts, and black olives.

    Whatever they have, it’s always seasonal and you can’t go wrong, like the perfect tomato salad. And then there’s the fruit—when the evening ends, sometimes they just bring you a pear and a knife, and you know it’s going to be the best pear you will ever have. Or they’ll hand you a date, or a cute little wooden basket with a tangerine or something, and you don’t really want to peel this thing. But then you do, and you eat it, and it tastes like they’ve injected it with syrup or something because it’s so amazing. It’s like the best fruit just goes to their restaurant, and no one else can get it.

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  • CDP Bar

    Lori Eanes

    CDP is the sister bar to Commis, the only Michelin-starred restaurant in Oakland. I love it for special occasions; my partner and I just went there recently for our wedding anniversary. CDP is a fancy cocktail bar that manages to still feel fun and super chill. The bartenders are really knowledgeable, and the cocktails are so interesting. The food is also spectacular.

    The one thing that is consistently on the menu that I always get is the slow-poached egg yolk. It has a brothy allium base, with just about everything in the onion family, in all of these different forms. And then there’s an egg yolk floating on top. The dish is super savory, but the onions are also really sweet, so the dish is almost like a savory dessert with a silky egg yolk. And then there are little crunchies on top that I think are some sort of onion. Yeah, that little bite is just really delicious, comforting, and very luxurious.

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  • Benu

    Lori Eanes

    We have so many really good three Michelin star–type restaurants in San Francisco, but I think one of the best is definitely Benu in the SoMa district, downtown. You walk in and it has a really cool and clean vibe with lots of earth tones and a really modern feel.

    I’m always looking for attention to detail, and a unique and consistent vision, and that's super evident there. The food, the way it's served, the service, the wine list; a common thread of excellence runs through the whole experience. They serve a tasting menu focusing on seafood and vegetables, and chef Corey Lee has this ability to distill flavors into the most compact bites.

    You're getting creative beverage pairings, creative food, and because Chef Lee is Korean, the food is inflected in that way. One of his signature dishes is a faux shark fin soup, which has no actual shark fin in it, of course. I consider the broth in the faux shark fin soup at Benu to be the best broth I’ve ever had, with Shaoxing wine, Dungeness crab, and clear noodles that are both soft and almost crunchy at the same time.

    It takes me out of French fine dining or Italian fine dining or anything like what I do on a daily basis. Chef Lee uses ingredients and methods that are entirely unfamiliar to me, and so I appreciate that, because it feels like a really special experience.

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Can't Miss Bites

Take the cable car to drink Irish coffees in a bar untouched by time, wander through one of the world’s best farmers markets, and dig into the platonic ideal of roast chicken. You can’t leave San Francisco without making these stops.

  • Zuni Café

    Lori Eanes

    I would say you can’t leave San Francisco without eating the chicken from Zuni Café. I love walking in, with all the exposed brick and big windows, where you can see chickens roasting in the fire. The chicken takes about 90 minutes to come out, so you have to be patient. But then the bird arrives looking so beautiful, with a bread and pine nut salad accompanying it. The dish is just delicious, and reminds me of my mother’s chicken—I’m from France, born and raised in Versailles.

    In San Francisco, there are a lot of great restaurants, and a lot of new up-and-coming restaurants. But there are also a lot of restaurants that have been here a long time, and have just become iconic, like Zuni. These restaurants have made the San Francisco culinary scene what it is today, and for me it’s important to embrace and celebrate them.

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  • Ferry Building Farmer's Market

    Lori Eanes

    Being an East Coaster, the reason that I ended up in California was the produce, more than anything else. I think one of the better models for farmers markets out there is the Ferry Building Farmers Market. The Saturday market is the best one, but there’s intermittently ones on Tuesdays and Thursdays that are also good, if you were visiting San Francisco during the week.

    You can go there and try all the different seasonal produce. There's a number of cheesemakers, bakers, chocolatiers, and other various artisans. And then there's a lot of pop-up restaurants there, too. It's a good way to get a really good sampling of what’s new in San Francisco. It's the one place that I would say visitors should not miss!

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  • The Buena Vista Café

    Lori Eanes

    If you're coming to San Francisco, go to The Buena Vista in Fisherman’s Wharf and order the Irish coffee. Go during a rainy, foggy, cold San Francisco winter day and sit at the long, dark wood bar, with the bartenders in white jackets. It's just a perfect place to end your trip. I'm sure you can find better whiskey somewhere else, and better coffee, but it’s classic—they’ve been serving it since the 1950s. They use their own whiskey brand, they shake the beautiful cream by hand, and they add in square lumps of sugar to sweeten the whole thing. Typically, I have three of them in a sitting.

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Editor's Note: The chefs' responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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