For San Franciscans, eating out is a sacred act, like yoga or meditation, that improves with practice. The city has a constellation of Michelin-starred restaurants to choose from, but its inspired chefs — and dedicated diners — have transformed San Francisco’s collective kitchen into a kind of shrine-cum-laboratory for globe-fusing cuisine, with something to suit every taste bud and budget. You can never go wrong with the tried-and-true — such as House of Prime Rib, Tadich Grill, Tosca, Greensand Yank Sing — but walk a few blocks (or ask your barista) and you’ll likely find a new sizzling classic just as good.
Booking ahead is essential for the stars — and really for the popular non-stars, and the holes-in-the-wall, too — so mark your calendar at least 30 days in advance and keep calling. Other ways to secure a seat are to eat an early dinner or late lunch, arrive a half-hour before opening and line up with fellow foodies, or sit at the bar.
Ways to save: If food is as essential to your faith as it is to San Francisco residents, make your pilgrimage during Restaurant Week (check the site for dates), when more than 100 of the city’s best eateries offer prix-fixe lunches and dinner that represent real bargains. At other times of year, save by having lunch rather than dinner.
Ethnic and intimate eateries
Where in the world can your taste buds take you? Of course there’s North Beach, San Francisco’s Little Italy — touristy, yes, but don’t skip the focaccia at Liguria Bakery, brick-oven-baked there for more than 100 years. Or America’s oldest Chinatown, where you can savor heavenly dim sum at the numerous no-frills bakeries or sit down for an elevated meal in a stunning setting at Empress by Boon (hint: you can eat at the bar without a reservation). San Franciscans are not afraid to line up for food, and do for the tea leaf salad at Burma Superstar, croissants at Arsicault, and the carnitas burrito at Taqueria San Francisco. Fancy something more exotic? Head to Japantown’s Waraku, serving superb ramen (veggie versions, too) since 2013. Try the Israeli-style sufganiyot at the kosher Frena Bakery, or the perogi at Cinderella Russian Bakery and Cafe. Better yet, sample your way around Salvadorian, Algerian and Senegalese fare inside La Cocina Municipal Marketplace.
San Franciscans are loyal to their neighborhood restaurants, which makes them fun and lively for visitors, too, so don’t be afraid to browse street by street to discover places like Pizzetta 211, a cute as a button pizzeria with toppings that change with the seasons. Solid comfort food (think meatloaf and mashed potatoes) is what keeps Blue Plate lit up for locals, while anyone craving shrimp and grits or chicken and waffles must pull up a chair at Auntie April’s. Meanwhile, plant-based Nourish is continually applauded for its fresh and healthy menu.
Food halls, food trucks and more
For some of the city’s finest fare in a compact setting, go to the magnificent Ferry Building to find purveyors of locally produced olive oil, cheese, bread, ice cream, chocolate, cakes, mushrooms, nuts, fish, meats, oysters and more. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, there’s a farmers market on the broad sidewalk just outside.
China Live is San Francisco’s Asian answer to New York’s famed Italian-themed Eataly. Restaurateur-entrepreneur George Chen's 30,000-square-foot ode to all things Chinese comprises the grab-and-go Oolong Café, the 120-seat Market Restaurant, an expansive retail market and an exclusive $250 tasting menu restaurant called Eight Tables.
Ways to save: San Franciscans have embraced food trucks almost as much as their iPhones. From the Chai Cart to the Grilled Cheez Guyand Lobsta Truck, the city has hundreds of mouthwatering mobile eateries. Local farmers markets often feature pop-up restaurants — such as Gumbo Social, serving southern specialties on Sundays at the Outer Sunset farmers market. Drop by the former SOMA StrEat Food Park, now called District Six, where there’s plenty of outdoor seating and a variety of permanent gourmet food trucks serving everything from corn dogs to seafood chowder.
Pay attention to restaurant happy hour specials, too, such as the one at neighborhood hangout Violet’s with $5 snacks and $8 cocktails, or at Scopo Divino, serving happy hour half-price oysters.