Take a culinary tour of top San Francisco restaurants
In October, when Sacramentans were busy celebrating the opening of Golden 1 Center and an evolving local restaurant scene its construction helped inspire, San Francisco officially became America’s top dining destination.
Or tied for it, when the 2017 Michelin Guide awarded three stars – its highest honor – to six Bay Area restaurants. That’s as many as New York has.
But there have been several less-expensive, single-Michelin star places that have opened in San Francisco in the past five years, including the wildly popular Asian-European-New American dim sum spot State Bird Provisions, mostly vegetarian Mission restaurant Al’s Place, and the youngest of bunch – Mister Jiu’s, a hip, elegant Chinatown restaurant that drew its first Michelin star seven months into its run.
If we’re looking for a primary factor in keeping a restaurant scene vibrant despite high commercial rents, a depletion of talent because of equally high residential rents, and a $13 minimum wage, it’s tech money. The Bay Area is full of rich people who want to eat at nice restaurants.
But that’s not the only factor.
“The thing that has always set San Francisco apart from a lot of other cities is we have a history of chef-driven restaurants,” said Mister Jiu’s chef-owner Brandon Jew, 37, a San Francisco native who headed up the kitchen at the acclaimed Bar Agricole before opening his own place.
Unlike other cities whose restaurants carry the imprimatur of famous chefs or restaurateurs but not their daily presence in the kitchen, San Francisco encourages the creativity of on-site, smaller-scale chefs – the kind who win Michelin stars. “There always has been a support system” within the chef community and from diners, Jew said.
In time for the holiday season, when many Sacramentans will head to San Francisco for shopping or sightseeing, I have chosen 10 favorite San Francisco restaurants. Because the pond is much bigger there, I will not call them the 10 “best,” as San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer did with Sacramento restaurants in an August article acknowledging this city’s growing culinary sophistication.
But all excel in their price categories – and that is saying a lot for pricey places such as Quince.
A few of my picks, like Mister Jiu’s and In Situ – the new restaurant inside the recently renovated and reopened San Francisco Museum of Modern Art – are truly the latest thing, since they opened in 2016. Others are time-tested places I frequented when I lived in San Francisco and continue to patronize on visits there.
There’s a good chance of getting a seat, sans reservation, at this popular Mission District restaurant, named best new restaurant by Bon Appetit magazine in 2015 – if you arrive alone and ready to line up with other hopefuls before the restaurant opens at 5:30 p.m. And if it’s also a weekday.
This solo roller met all three guidelines, sidling up to the bar of this modest, airy storefront restaurant. I ordered the one-person version of the “family style” menu consisting of several vegetable-forward savory dishes (chef Aaron London uses meat and fish sparingly) plus a dessert, for a reasonable $65.
From the menu’s “snackle” section, I liked the chickpeas with a chunky, spiky romesco sauce. From the “warm/hot” section, I favored creamy grits that were made earthy by goat’s milk curds, lent acidity by yuzu and calmed by mint.
$$-$$$. 1499 Valencia St., San Francisco, 415-416-6136, www.alsplacesf.com
In 1999, chef Cory Obenour and business partner Jeff Trenam began offering well-sourced comfort food, such as meatloaf and fried chicken, in an Mission District/foot-of-Bernal Heights shotgun-layout space with a diner in front, Victorian-esque dining room in the middle and a cozy patio out back.
The ahead-of-its-time idea had sprung, Obenour said, from being burned out from working in San Francisco kitchens where the food seemed stuffy. “I was tired of putting a glaze on salmon,” Obenour said. So they went meat and potatoes, though the meat sometimes is grilled octopus, and there are complex vegetable-based dishes such as farro with porcini and Parmesan, slow-cooked egg and lemon pistou.
Obenour opened the place with the intent of serving local, gourmet ingredients to all sorts of people. He still offers a $1 Olympia beer, in case a bike messenger wants to pop in to have one with his meatloaf. That meatloaf, served with mashed potatoes and green beans, runs a not-cheap $20. But a $1 beer evens things out.
$$-$$$$. 3218 Mission St., San Francisco, 415-282-6777, blueplatesf.com
The “open kitchen” becomes more like an enveloping kitchen at this Ferry Building cafe that offers patrons a view of the Bay Bridge along with one of veteran chef Amaryll Schwertner at work in her kitchen. From our seat at the bar, we could see Schwertner working a large stove holding several pans, including one filled with simmering water that yields the famously delicate yet substantive stars of Schwertner’s seasonally driven poached-egg breakfast dishes.
We ate poached eggs with crisp Brussels sprouts on a recent Saturday morning, when an assortment of herbs and basket of fruit arranged near Schwertner’s work station mirrored the goods being sold outside at the farmers market.
Schwertner keeps her attention on the stove while her longtime business partner, Lori Regis (the pair once owned San Francisco’s famous Stars restaurant), greets guests and expedites orders. “It is not a show,” Schwertner said. “I am inviting people into my work.”
$$-$$$$. Ferry Building, Suite 48 (Market Street and Embarcadero), San Francisco, 415-399-1155, www.bouletteslarder.com
When I informed a San Francisco friend – and longtime San Francisco Museum of Modern Art member – that I was coming to eat at the museum’s new restaurant, she responded with, “That place is so pretentious.”
She’s not wrong. In Situ, where the museumlike lighting, when trained on tables, does not flatter diners the way it does paintings, and where one wall is filled with paintings and another left intentionally blank, is not an inviting place. But the food is phenomenal.
Chef Corey Lee, of San Francisco’s three-Michelin-star, $228-per-person Benu restaurant, here pays tribute to the world’s great chefs, from Napa’s Thomas Keller to Italy’s Massimo Bottura, by replicating their signature dishes. And while most plates are small despite their $20-plus price tags, In Situ is still a lot less expensive than Benu.
Our favorites were the beautifully plated carrot, sour curd and pickled pine (chef: Matt Orlando, from Copenhagen’s Amass restaurant), which alternately hit sweet, sour and acidic spots, and the shrimp and tasso henican (Tory McPhail, of New Orleans’ Commander’s Palace), which comes with pickled okra and a “five pepper jelly” with diced peppers so fresh and crunchy we picked them out individually to better appreciate their flavor.
$$$-$$$$. 151 3rd St., San Francisco, 415-941-6050, insitu.sfmoma.org.
Though La Corneta taqueria in San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood does the popular street taco meats like carnitas, carne asada and al pastor well, my first instinct never has been to order red meat.
My fondest memories of what was once my neighborhood taqueria are of mounds of mushrooms, grilled to order with garlic and a touch of cooking oil, that go into La Corneta’s excellent mushroom quesadilla ($6.60), and of juicy shrimp cooked in a similar fashion before they merge with cheese, sour cream, guacamole, lettuce and salsa in a stuffed, $10.50 “super” prawn quesadilla.
Nobody said taqueria items without red meat were the lighter choice. Only that some prefer them, and La Corneta offers an abundance of options.
$-$$. 2834 Diamond St., San Francisco (plus three other Bay Area locations). 415-469-8757, www.lacorneta.com
The full experience of dining at Brandon Jew’s new upscale-Chinese restaurant starts on the street.
At 10:15 p.m. on a Friday – the only reservation available on short notice – there was hardly any automobile or foot traffic evident in Chinatown. Waverly Place, the two-block-long side street on which Mr. Jiu’s sits, was especially quiet. Enhancing the film noirlike tenor was the restaurant’s narrow bar area, lit only slightly by the glow of an aquarium situated near shelves of liquor bottles. The bar leads to more open dining room that holds lovely, large lighting features shaped like upside-down flower bouquets, and glass doors showcasing the sights of Chinatown outside.
In renovating a space that once held the long-running Four Seas restaurant, Jew switched the entrance from busier Grant Avenue to the more evocative Waverly. Such attention to detail also shows in Jew’s food. He makes his own sauces, from hoisin to the oyster sauce – made from oysters plucked from Tomales Bay – he uses in Mister Jiu’s excellent ling cod dish.
The restaurant’s name pays homage to the Chinese name that often was Americanized into “Jew” by customs officials. Jew also merges vestiges of traditional Chinatown cuisine with a California farm-to-table philosophy. His duck comes from Sonoma’s Liberty Ranch and chicken from Yolo County’s Riverdog Farm. In his delightful hot and sour soup, Jew uses Early Girl tomatoes from Santa Cruz.
“A really good tomato to me was complex enough to be a little bit tart and a little bit sweet, and a good base for hot-and-sour soup,” he said. The resulting soup is “90 percent tomatoes,” he said. They are cooked down for a few hours, with shallots and lemongrass, before an abundance of white pepper is added.
$$-$$$$. 28 Waverly Place, San Francisco, 415-857-9688, misterjius.com
The truly special feeling that dinner at chef Michael Tusk’s Italian/French/New American restaurant produces starts when one enters its interior, the plush furnishings and romantic lighting of which seem so much better-suited to a fine-dining experience than the concrete-floored minimalism rampant among today’s restaurants.
It continued throughout the 12-course, $220-per-person (and worth it) tasting menu we tried last spring, when it featured different but equally delicious preparations of asparagus, from blanched to grilled, on a single plate; a rustic wooden serving board lined with delicate pieces of stuffed pasta, and the least-gamy, juiciest lamb chop I ever tasted. Then came a few dessert courses, culminating in a parting gift of to-go cups of hot chocolate as we exited the restaurant. We sipped the hot chocolate as we floated up the hill from Jackson Square to North Beach.
The Michelin Guide upgraded Quince from two to three stars in October. It’s hard to think of a more deserving recipient of such an honor.
$$$$. 470 Pacific Ave., San Francisco, 415-775-8500, quincerestaurant.com
Award-winning chef Matthew Accarrino incorporates local produce and spices from around the world, and puts mustard and squid ink into his pasta doughs. Yet the dishes he makes at this Fillmore Street restaurant still taste recognizably Italian, and thus comforting.
Considering how accomplished Accarrino’s food is, the place gives off an unusually relaxed, neighborhood vibe. But the service staff is always on the ball, whether explaining menu items or monitoring music. When we visited for lunch last February, the strains of Adele’s “Hello,” which had begun to wear out its welcome, came on the SPQR sound system. But only momentarily, before a staff member scotched it in favor of a less ubiquitous tune.
$$$$. 1911 Fillmore St., San Francisco, 415-771-7779, spqrsf.com
State Bird Provisions
This Fillmore District nouveau dim-sum restaurant (and 2013 James Beard Award winner for best new American restaurant) is the perfect mix of high-end food, professional service and fun atmosphere.
The most memorable items we ordered from passing dim-sum carts were raw oysters topped by a briny foam, and guinea-hen dumplings in aromatic broth. From a separate, more traditional menu, we ordered the restaurant’s signature quail (California’s state bird). Chef/co-owner Stuart Brioza fries the quail to a crunchy, uneven finish that lends heft to a not-that-meaty fowl.
$$$. 1529 Fillmore St., San Francisco, 415-795-1272, statebirdsf.com
This Bay Area fast-food chain offers two-patty $7.75 “super burgers” you can feel good about eating. The beef comes from humanely raised, all-vegetarian-fed animals from family farms. Pickles are housemade. Buns come from a local, artisan baker, and shakes ($4.75) feature organic ice cream from Marin County’s Straus Family Creamery. Needless to say, it’s all calorie free.
OK, maybe not when you add bacon ($1 extra), and cheese (75 cents) to the super burger. But at least the patties are 4 ounces instead of 6 or 8. The burger also comes in a $5.50, single-patty “mini” version.
$. 783 Mission St., San Francisco, and other Bay Area locations. superduperburgers.com
Price (For typical entree)
- Under $10 – $
- Under $15 – $$
- Under $20 – $$$
- Over $20 – $$$$