For San Franciscans, eating out is a sacred act, like yoga or meditation, that improves with practice. The city boasts seven three-star Michelin restaurants, the most of any U.S. city, and its inspired chefs — and diners — have transformed the city’s collective kitchen into a kind of shrine-cum-laboratory for globe-fusing cuisine. The high priests include Michael Mina, Gary Danko, Traci Des Jardins, Tyler Florence and Dominique Crenn. And the Michelin three-stars du jour are Asian-inspired Benu; fire-cooking and seafood-focused Saison; farm-to-table altars Manresa and Quince; and Coi (duck, sweetbreads, foie gras, Armagnac prune and black truffle, anyone?). But you can have epiphanic eats at dozens of places.
Reservations are essential for the stars; for some you have to set your speed-dial 60 days in advance and pray. Other ways to secure a seat are to eat an early 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 Franciscans', make your pilgrimage during Restaurant Week at the end of January. 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 do you want your taste buds to take you? Of course there’s North Beach’s Little Italy — touristy, yes, but don’t skip the focaccia at Liguria Bakery, brick-oven-baked there for 107 years. Or America’s oldest Chinatown, where you can savor heavenly dim sum at City View Restaurant. San Franciscans line up for the tea leaf salad at Burma Superstar and the carnita burrito at Taqueria San Francisco. Fancy something more exotic? Try the Israeli-style sufganiyot at the kosher Frena Bakery, the blinchiki at Cinderella Russian Bakery and Cafe or the Middle Eastern samakeh harrah (whole rockfish, spicy walnut stuffing, tahini and pomegranate) at Tawla.
To rub elbows with neighborhood regulars, hie to the homey Blue Plate, or grab a bayside table at vegetarian favorite Greens. For history with a view, the Cliff House, originally built in 1858, serves signature San Francisco dishes like Crab Louie in a signature perch overlooking the Pacific.
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 exuberation of all things Chinese comprises the grab-and-go Oolong Café, the 120-seat Market Restaurant, an expansive retail market and an exclusive $225 tasting menu mecca 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 Guy, Lobsta Truck to Seoul on Wheels, the city has hundreds of mouthwatering mobile eateries. Sample more than two dozen every Friday at the Off the Grid gathering at Fort Mason against a breathtaking bay backdrop. Other great venues are the Off the Grid Upper Haight on Thursdays and the SOMA StrEat Food Park.