The Ultimate San Francisco Food Guide

The Ultimate San Francisco Food Guide

Restaurants in San Francisco are known for being some of the trendiest dining destinations in the country. Most major cities in the U.S. have a culinary scene that births famous chefs and Instagram-worthy novelties. But San Francisco in general is a place that sets the pace in many industries. So of course that would extend to San Francisco food. From Cecilia Chiang to Alice Waters, the Bay Area has been a hub of food and dining innovation for decades.

That said, if you’re an avowed foodie, you’ve likely already heard of places like Tartine, Nopa, and State Bird Provisions. But if you look beyond the flashy and/or flash-in-the-pan, there’s a whole world of hole-in-the-wall surprises and long-loved institutions. To help you sort through the seemingly endless array of options, we’ve compiled this list of what to eat in San Francisco. From hefty burritos to creative, cutting-edge cuisine, there’s something for every appetite.

Burritos in the Mission

For some of the best Mexican-American food in California, head straight to the Mission District. The Mission, as the locals truncate it, has been a hub of Mexican-American immigration since the middle of the twentieth century. The main drags through the neighborhood (Mission, Valencia, 16th, and 24th streets) are littered with taquerias.

Before you set out on your journey, know that San Francisco is staunchly a burrito town. Burritos are to San Francisco what the Chicago dog is to Chicago and pizza is to New York. The Mission District is the birthplace of the Mission burrito (Yes, there are regional burrito variations in the U.S.!). It is something you simply must eat in San Francisco at least once. 

What makes the Mission burrito distinct from others is that it rolls an entire typical Tex-Mex meal into one (very large) tortilla. It’s stuffed with rice (NEVER french fries—looking at you, San Diego), beans, cheese, sour cream, veggies, and your choice of meat and wrapped in foil. It’s truly a symbol of the city. You can, of course, still find tacos in San Francisco. But for the best of the best, you are going to want to go to L.A. instead. (This is the only time we’ll admit that L.A. is better than us at something).

The Fight for the Best Burrito

We could be here all day debating the best burrito spot in the city. I find myself at Pancho Villa Taqueria often. (I had one unspeakably good burrito brought to me from there about 15 years ago and I’ve been going back, trying to figure out which one it was, ever since). But ask around and you’re likely to hear a lot of love for El Farolito and La Taqueria. They are within a block of each other on either side of the 24th St. BART station. There’s also Papalote (The salsa is so fabled you can buy it bottled in grocery stores around here). Or, for more of a margaritas-and-enchilada-platters experience, El Toreador in West Portal—the place I’d go when I was in college and got a big tip at work.

Italian Food in North Beach

North Beach is San Francisco’s Little Italy, and it offers everything from your typical pizza and lasagna to rarer treats like cannoli and—of course—some exquisite espresso. For example, if you are looking for something light, neighborhood institutions Caffe Trieste or Caffe Greco can supply you with coffee and pastries. Caffe Trieste has the distinction of being the first espresso coffee house on the West Coast. It was a hub for the beat poets back in the day. If you’re looking for pizza in North Beach, try Golden Boy Pizza and its distinctive square-shaped pieces on a focaccia crust. For almost fifty years now, lines of locals and tourists alike have formed outside waiting for a slice.

Ready for a big, sit-down meal? It’s at Original Joe’s. The name is a bit of a misnomer—there are several restaurants called Original Joe’s in the Bay Area. There is some contention among them over who is the true “original”—but the SF location has been serving up red sauce-soaked dishes like ravioli and chicken parmigiana since 1937. The cozy booths, dark-wood interior, and suit-jacketed waitstaff makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time.

Further afield, Flour + Water has been the hot-ticket foodie destination for at least a decade. To this day, it has a strong hold over SF residents with its inventive, Northern California-informed takes on traditional Italian pasta dishes. They take walk-ins, but reservations are pretty much mandatory if you want to make sure you can eat dinner at a reasonable hour.

The Best Chinese Food in San Francisco Might Be in the Sunset

Due to a wave of immigration from China during the Gold Rush, San Francisco has the oldest Chinatown in the country. If you want authentic Chinese or familiar Chinese-American fare, it’s a great place to start. 

Hit up House of Nanking for family-style eats and Li-Po Lounge for tasty (and potent) mai tais. But for even more great Chinese food, take the M, the L, or the N out to Sunset. Since the 1960s, the Sunset District has been home to a large Chinese-American community. You’ll find more mom-and-pop restaurants, and a more relaxed pace. Some neighborhood standbys are Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant for all-halal with a Chinese-Islamic fusion, Terra Cotta Warrior for dishes inspired by Shaanxi cuisine (a regional style less common in the U.S.), and the always-packed Kingdom of Dumpling for, well, dumplings.

Japanese Food…in a Mall

Would you believe me if I said the best Japanese food in SF was in a mall? The whole of Japantown—which is actually pretty small as far as San Francisco neighborhoods go—is home to stellar Japanese restaurants. But Japan Center is the best place to hit if you’re short on time but still want a quality meal. 

Japan Center is a large shopping complex, split in half by Japantown Peace Plaza, that takes up a large swathe of the neighborhood. It is, by my estimate, mostly eating establishments. You’ll have your pick of the litter with sushi and ramen there (Marufuku has rich, flavorful ramen, but it’s kind of small and gets busy on weekends.). But I’m a bigger fan of Japan Center’s wealth of desserts and treats: mochi donuts, tea houses, and taiyaki (ice cream served in a soft pastry shaped like a fish) and more. 

My personal favorites are Matcha Cafe Maiko for matcha soft-serve with various toppings on a waffle cone, and Belly Good Cafe for crepes with cute designs. And just around the corner, there’s a market full of imported snacks and drinks to take on the go.

American Food in San Francisco

This section is basically an excuse to honor the bacon-wrapped hot dog vendors that are, no joke, absolute pillars of this city’s cultural scene. Exit a bar, club, or music venue in one of the more nightlife-focused neighborhoods in San Francisco—say, Divisadero or Mission Streets—after about 10 PM and you’ll be greeted by the siren scent of sizzling meats, peppers, and onions coming from one of several carts parked outside. 

These plump hot dogs or sausages come wrapped in bacon and nestled in a thick roll rather than a bun. They can be dressed up with peppers and onions if you want. No need to keep cash on you—most sellers take card or Venmo now. This isn’t an exclusive experience to San Francisco—other places like Chicago and LA have them—and I can’t really recommend any particular carts, as they’re all operated by individual people making the exact same thing. But the bacon-wrapped dog slingers of San Francisco are a ubiquitous part of the going-out experience here, and we thank them for their service.

But if you don’t have time to stalk highly-trafficked areas in the hopes of catching a hot dog cart, brick-and-mortar restaurant Rosamunde has been serving sausages for two and a half decades. Their only remaining location is on Mission Street. The “SF Style” dog is pretty darn close to what you’ll find waiting for you outside the clubs in the wee hours.

More Than Just Dogs

O.K., on to the real food. For sandwiches, beer, and more at extremely reasonable prices, it’s gotta be Tommy’s Joynt on Geary. This dimly-lit diner has a divey feel, and has been beloved by locals for more than 75 years. Looking for more of a steakhouse vibe? Tadich Grill, John’s Grill, and House of Prime Rib serve up red meat and seafood in an old-school atmosphere. However, at least when it comes to House of Prime Rib, tables are often booked out close to a year in advance. Though getting in without a reservation is possible, it can be cutthroat.

For more modern spins on American plates, you can try more elevated spaces like Outerlands or the aforementioned State Bird Provisions. More “California cuisine” than meat-and-potatoes American, expect things like local fish, seasonal vegetables, and fresh-baked, small-batch bread.

Vegetarian Restaurants in San Francisco

SF doesn’t have a reputation as a hippie haven for nothing. There’s no shortage of great meat-free eats here that aren’t skimpy or depressing. To start, many, if not most, of the more well-known restaurants in the city have extensive veggie options, so check the menu before you go. But there are also plenty of places that are fully vegetarian or vegan.

Try Rad Radish with its meat-free take on American classics. Or Cha-Ya’s all-vegetarian Japanese-inspired menu. There’s also the cloth-napkin establishment Greens, which comes with a fabulous bay view. But keep your eyes peeled for a couple unassuming storefronts that really deliver on flavor, sans meat: Enjoy Vegetarian and Golden Era Vegan. They serve Chinese and Asian-fusion food, respectively, so you can enjoy a hearty meal without worrying about meat crossover.

San Francisco Brunch Restaurants

Like many other major cities in the US, brunch is a big deal in San Francisco. The title for the hottest brunch spot changes year to year, but there are a few tried-and-true, won’t-let-you-down establishments that will get your weekend mornings off to a tasty start. Brenda’s French Soul Food is worth the hour-long (if you’re lucky!) wait.

The New Orleans-inspired menu features mouth-watering entrees like fried chicken, beignets, gumbo, and chicory coffee. It holds a special place in my heart (and arteries) not just because it’s delicious, but it’s where we held our morning-after wedding brunch. We waited an hour and 15 minutes in the rain, and you know what? It was worth it.

For something a little different, you can go to Dandelion Chocolate’s 16th Street restaurant, Bloom. They open at 7:30 AM Thursday through Saturday, and offer chocolate-themed breakfast items like babka French toast and European-style drinking chocolate.

But if you just want a hearty, no-frills breakfast, Squat and Gobble is one of my old standbys. They have two locations in San Francisco and are a worthy alternative if the line is too long everywhere else. They specialize in crepes, but also serve diner classics like pancakes, bacon and egg platters, and sandwiches. All of it comes with crispy, crackly, devastatingly good rosemary roasted potatoes.

Conclusion

And this is not even the half of it! With such a diverse mix of cultures spanning centuries, San Francisco food, from quick and greasy bites to white table cloth meals, is a vast and vibrant scene. No matter your appetite, your tastes, your dietary needs, or what your friends want to eat, there’s something to satisfy wherever you are in the city.

Interested in learning more about the best eats on the West Coast? Check out our Ultimate Portland Food Guide next.

15 thoughts on “The Ultimate San Francisco Food Guide

  1. I’m bookmarking this! I’m haded to San Francisco for business in a few weeks, and I’m a huge foodie. This is perfect!

  2. Thanks so much for the vegetarian options in your San Francisco food guide. When we were last in San Francisco, my husband wasn’t a vegetarian, and now it’s difficult to know where to go to eat for him! I can’t wait till our next trip there!

  3. Your ultimate San Francisco food guide is a treasure trove of culinary delights! From classic dishes to hidden gems, you’ve covered it all. I appreciate how you’ve curated a diverse selection of eateries, catering to different tastes and preferences. Whether it’s clam chowder in a sourdough bowl at Fisherman’s Wharf or dim sum in Chinatown, you’ve captured the essence of the city’s vibrant food scene. Reading through your guide has me itching to explore San Francisco and indulge in its gastronomic wonders. Thanks for sharing these mouthwatering recommendations!

  4. I visited San Francisco many times in years past. The food was always a big attraction. With so many businesses leaving SF, I wonder if restaurants are suffering?

  5. I’d love to visit California one day, and going to San Francisco is at the top of that list! Everywhere I travel. I love to find incredible places to eat, so this will be a wonderful starting point. Thank you!

  6. This is such a great guide to San Francisco! We’re visiting Napa Valley next month, but plan to spend a few days in San Fran. I will share your wonderful guide with my friends so we can explore some of these places. Thanks for sharing these hidden gems!

  7. Wow everything looks SO delicious! California is truly a beautiful state…a nice place to visit but I just wish some of the cities were safer. Looks good though…great guide!

  8. There is certainly no shortage of great food options in San Fran! I’d love to visit sometime, enjoy the good weather and some awesome food. I like having such a variety of cuisines.

  9. Wow, so many restaurants featured here. I have not been to SF in a long time. But this is a great resource on this topic 100% so thanks for sharing!

  10. It’s my favorite adventure to try different type of foods and these look so great. Amazing guide and surely will help many people going there.

  11. There is a Korean BBQ place with your own tables that you cook your own food at, nearby the Moscone Centre in San Fran that I love! I am going to check out these burritos and italian food next time I am there.

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