The city by the Bay is home to some of California's kitchen greats, but as San Fran continues to evolve, its eating scene is changing with it. From the hottest openings to some of the city's cooking legends, this is your guide to eating in San Francisco, bite by bite.
Depending on who you speak to, San Francisco is either completely over or just beginning. The northern Californian city is more culturally and economically divided than ever, with some people driving Lamborghinis that would feed a corner of the city's at-risk citizens for a year. Free love has been replaced with free trade, and rents soar while tech startups boom. But to the casual observer, it feels vital. There's a beating heart to the SF community that is grounded in the strength of free-thinking and locavore values. And there's no easier place to observe this than in the food culture.
Lunchtime tacos are hidden in the alley behind Cala restaurant. Photo: Supplied
There are two things to note about owner-chef Gabriela Camara's modern Mexican restaurant. One is, even if you've booked, you'll still wait. But they let you drink mezcal margaritas while you're standing around eyeing off tables and trying to work out whether those diners are just in for a Dungeness crab tostada and a nettle, tomato and cheese quesadilla, or if they're strapping in for the full shebang. You couldn't blame them. Who would want to miss the mussel tamal, where the shellfish stud buttery leek and fluffy cornmeal wrapped in banana leaves. The other thing to take heed of: Camara also runs a taqueria called Tacos Cala in the back lane, which is open for lunch only. If you can't get into Cala to eat, taking the food to go is close to as good as it gets. calarestarant.com
Jokbal ssam (lettuce wraps with pig trotter) by Korean chef Kim Byung-jin features on the menu at In Situ. Photo: Eric Wolfinger
In Situ at SFMOMA
Just as the gallery this restaurant is attached to collaborates with the world's greatest contemporary artists, so, too, does chef Corey Lee with his menu. His is an homage to culinary titans, past and present. Unlike his other San Francisco restaurant, three-Michelin-starred Benu (see below), the menu at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is democratic. Want to order the creamy, pickled-jalapeno-spiked shrimp grits from former New York restaurant WD-50's 2013 menu but skip the cuttlefish cappuccino from Italian chef Massimiliano Alajmo's 1996 Le Calandre menu? You can. Perhaps you're purely interested in Clare Smyth's 2017 "lamb carrot" from her Notting Hill restaurant Core. You'd do well to be. It's a perfectly turned carrot hiding under braised lamb with an aerated sheep's milk yoghurt and an accompanying shredded lamb-stuffed bun. Divide and conquer or order a tasting and eat everything. insitu.sfmoma.org
The latest outpost of the Tartine empire, the Manufactory, is home to a bakery, restaurant, cafe, bar and ice-cream shop. Photo: Supplied
This is aspirational bread-eating at its best. Bakery founders Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Prueitt describe baking as a mix of craft, science, art and philosophy. One of the very nice things about eating at this 3700-square-metre space (and there are many) is that you can just drop in for some bread, good salted butter and a cocktail. Another is the bonus of the Heath Ceramics showroom tacked on Voltron-style in the old factory space. If you haven't heard of the California ceramics company before, here's the best place to start an incurable addiction. tartinebakery.com
State Bird Provisions
Fun fact: the quail is the state bird of California. What a delicious emblem. And it's well celebrated at chefs Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski's Fillmore Street digs – fried golden with onions. There's a menu, but you don't really need it – everything makes its way around the room on trays and trolleys (pictured), just like a yum cha service, only friendly. Hog Island sweetwater oysters are scattered with toasted sesame; a duck liver mousse is served alongside a tumble of sweet, American-style almond biscuits. House-made sourdough hides under an oozing burrata, and pork ribs come sticky and darkly sweet with black bean sauce and black garlic. Getting a table here is hard work so you may as well eat up. statebirdsf.com
Wood-fired, home-style Italian comfort food comes hot, heavy and rustic from chef Michael Tusk (he also has neighbouring fine-diner Quince). Sit up at the kitchen counter along with the rest of the city's working-from-home creative community and order the rigatoni bound with sausage ragu, broccolini and a side dish of house-made ricotta. Use as much as you like (I used it all). There's a warmth to the restaurant that makes you want to settle in with a slice of quince upside-down cake, stare at the wood-fire hearth and forget about the wind whipping up Pacific Avenue. cotognasf.com
This is the straight-up fine-diner of straight-up fine-diners. Every bell, every whistle is delivered in pure, elegant, understated comfort. Corey Lee (pictured), considered by his contemporaries to be among the best chefs in America, delivers punch after punch, landing with precision every single time. A single chicken wing, stuffed with abalone and brushed with a layer of foie gras under the skin, is so yielding that you almost want to laugh at how ridiculously perfect it is. His barbecued quail (state bird!) is gently smoky and made to shred onto a black truffle steamed bun. There's word Lee will be opening a Korean barbecue restaurant in the not-too-distant future, and there are echoes of his Seoul heritage on the Benu menu in dishes like his version of bo ssam – veal short rib served with kimchi, perilla salad and all the condiments. benusf.com
La Taqueria SF
There's only so much fine-dining you can do in one visit before you break and order a burrito in the Mission district. It's one of the busiest taquerias in the area, so prepare to queue. Owner Miguel Jara has been serving here since 1973, and while it's relatively lo-fi in appearance, it's hi-fi in flavour from the fresh strawberry sodas to the double-shelled lengua tacos (one soft, one hard) and the pork carnitas. For dessert, mosey up the road to Bi-Rite Creamery and order a salted caramel ice-cream – the original and still the best. facebook.com/LaTaqSF
The idea from chef Joshua Skenes and the team that brought San Francisco the hedonistically expensive fish restaurant Saison is a more approachable offering while still maintaining their ethos of using hyper-local seafood. The menu changes daily, dictated by what the ocean gives. There might be diced big-eyed tuna scooped up on a massive rice cracker along with chopped tomato water jelly. Or crispy blowfish tails served with little more than a lemon cheek. The cooking's clever but uncomplicated – check the whole radicchio heart, each leaf brushed with house-made XO sauce, then reassembled to form a perfect head of bitter lettuce. Wine service applies a similar mindset, with plenty of Californian choices. anglerrestaurants.com