The vegetarian and back-to-the-farm revolution of the 1960s Bay Area spawned the ultimate food city of the day, which today is known for some of the freshest, healthiest and most diverse cuisines in the world. Not to mention some of the most unique. People from around the globe travel to the city to sample everything from Zuni Chicken to Mission Burritos to Castro cookies to the unique fare of Frances, the Castro’s first gourmet restaurant.
Don’t miss these only-in-SF gems…
Okay, if you’re going to order duck, this is the only place to do it. Or go for the lamb. Or one of the burgers — they only serve 50 each night — so get your order in early. The romantic atmosphere will sweep even the most skeptical of dates off his feet.
2. Foreign Cinema
As you are seated, you’ll no doubt notice that classic films are projected on the wall throughout the evening. Speakers at each table allow you to listen in, or drown the movie out so you can talk about the amazing food: curry fried chicken, steak with cocoa and lavender rub, homemade pop tarts. The outdoor seating is perfect for those rare warm San Francisco nights–or just sit under one of the heat lamps and order one of the original cocktails that will make you flush in no time flat.
Looking for world-class vegetarian cuisine? Greens gets its relaxing, healthy atmosphere from the source: it’s run by a local Zen center in Fort Mason. With veggie cookbook author Annie Somerville at the helm, the restaurant’s offered local, organically-grown food, transforming the machine shop in which it’s based to a cavernous testament to the beauty of the bay it overlooks . And that’s not all that’s transformed, as Greens helped usher in the health-eating trend for which California is still famous. The menu changes with the seasons, so you’ll always get a new treat.
The Castro has not always been the perfect place for fantastic food, but as the city’s fortunes have grown so has the caliber of cuisine. Frances opened at the start of the most recent dot-com boom and offers Michelin-quality meals that are as much art as edible. Try the bacon beignets, the paisse frites, or the chickpea fritters. And plan ahead: while this restaurant transformed the gayborhood by introducing super-high-end dining, reservations must be made in advance.
5. Urban Putt
Yes, it’s a mini-golf course. Yes, it’s weird. No, you won’t be able to stop talking about it afterward. Even if you’re not into mini-golf, you’ll love the comfort food: fried chicken, maple waffle skewers, and harvest ale are among the top choices. Each of the 18 holes has a different theme and is just the thing to make a memorable impression on a new friend.
You might remember the name from Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin’s classic feel good series on the joys of queer SF. In the book, Brian Hawkins is a waiter at Perry’s with the best gossip. Good news: Perry’s is still around, and more of an institution than ever. The original restaurant, opened in 1969, introduced New York-style hubbub to laid-back San Francisco, and even today it’s a little slice of the Upper East Side.
7. Chez Panisse
This is the one that changed everything. Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1971 and basically invented California cuisine. With its focus on locally grown, high-quality produce, you always know you’re getting something fresh and highly intentional. Alice, now an international food superstar, ensures that the place still serve high-quality food, thanks to an extensive network of organic farms and rotating band of world-class chefs. And as this restaurant gained fame, imitators flourished; it’s now common everywhere to see slavish devotion to the Chez Panisse ethos. And it’s worth the quick subway trip from SF to Berkeley for the dining experience alone.
Winner of various awards, Tartine is run by Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson, recognized as among the best pastry chefs in the country. They’ve elevated bread-making to an art form, crafting each loaf with a delicate care. You can place orders for bread three days in advance — that’s how in-demand Tartine‘s food is. It’s also walking distance from the Castro and Dolores Park, and you’ll often find it packed with queers of various sorts.
9. Pizzeria Delfina
Delfina’s pizza is the stuff legends are made of. Inspired by the best of New York and Italian cuisine, it has brought an international touch to San Francisco pizzerias. Lines are typically long, and of course there’s plenty of organically-grown and locally-sourced ingredients. Nothing formal going on here — just really good food in a really fun atmosphere. Just up the street from Tartine, make it your dinner spot before heading to the bakery for dessert.
10. San Tung
Here’s to meals worth waiting for: although this place doesn’t take reservations and the wait can be long, locals flock from miles around to wolf down the moo shu pork, dry fried chicken, and famous dumplings. Don’t stuff yourself on potstickers before the main course comes, tempting through it may be — you’ll need room for the popular cham-pong seafood noodle soup. This is a great place to experience authentic Chinese food in the colorful and bustling Sunset ‘hood.
11. Del Popolo
First came Del Popolo‘s pizza truck, which denizens literally followed around the city to get the perfect Neapolitan style pies. Now there’s a fixed location on Nob Hill with eight pizzas, salads beer and wine. Fittingly, the huge pizza oven is the oracle around which the restaurant around which the restaurant radiates.
12. China Live
This 30,000-square-foot culinary homage to one of the world’s great cuisines is located in the heart of Chinatown. Check out the sheng jian bao dumplings, Sichuan lobster and Peking duck with kumquat glaze in sesame pockets, among other creative local delicacies.
13. Hot Cookie
Okay, so Hot Cookie is not technically a restaurant–and the food is hardly revolutionary. It’s more of a join where you stumble in after a night of drinking at the bars that line Castro street or when, well, you have the munchies. It’s right next to the Castro Theater and the cookies–not to mention the men and boys who frequent the place are hot. And the Hot Cookie branded red underwear are infamous–and ubiquitous. So live like a local, and pick up a pair with your fresh baked dough.