A culinary guide to San Francisco

The City by the Bay is home to dozens of Michelin-starred restaurants, yet its dining scene remains laid-back, propped up by fantastic local ingredients — and a sense of humour.Friday, 23 August 2019

San Francisco is such a feast for the eyes — cable-cars rumbling up implausibly steep hills; Golden Gate Bridge stretching grandly to green headlands — it’s easy to overlook that it’s also the best place to eat in the US. New Yorkers might gasp at that, but just look to the stars: San Francisco, a tiny city of 885,000 people, is home to 36 Michelin-starred kitchens — many more per capita than its East Coast rival.

Ask any chef here and they’ll tell you the same thing: it’s the ingredients that do it. California, where farms and orchards are squeezed between tech giants and movie studios, is the nation’s bread basket, and access to just-picked produce is de rigueur. An hour’s drive north of the city, the Napa and Sonoma wine regions have exploded with independent dairies, ranchers and growers obsessively fine-tuning high-quality, obscure varietals, and heritage this and heirloom that. In food-obsessed SF, where Cowgirl Creamery cheese and Sonoma County Poultry’s Liberty Ducks are akin to local celebrities, this regional harvest elicits palpable pride.

While the pervasive food nerdery might be new, the City by the Bay’s culinary pedigree isn’t. After all, this is where sourdough bread, fortune cookies, and mai tai cocktails were all invented. In the 1970s, Chez Panisse, just across the water in Berkeley, pioneered the practice of listing farmers and producers on menus.

It’s this ingrained, trailblazing spirit that makes San Francisco such a thrilling place to dine in. Like the city itself, food here is progressive and always evolving: no one’s resting on decades-old laurels. It’s the sort of place where a Michelin-grade meal is served at communal tables in a dinner party atmosphere, not a stuffy dining room. Or where ice cream is anything but vanilla, with parlours scooping flavours from candy cap mushroom to cheese and bread.

There are so many must-tries in San Francisco — this bakery, that cocktail, those life-changing crawfish beignets — it’s almost impossible to know where to start. A good bet for a taste of what’s on offer is The Mission District. Since the 1960s, this Latin-flavoured neighbourhood has been known for its super-sized Mission burritos. In the past five years or so, it’s also become ground zero for super-creative food and drink. Within a few blocks, you’ll find hallowed bakeries, third-wave coffee roasters, ‘locavore’ ice cream parlours, high-end dining — even a cheese cafe. And that’s just for starters.

A day in The Mission

Art deco movie palaces, colourful Victorian houses and politically charged murals make the Mission District San Francisco’s most vibrant neighbourhood. Its beguiling energy has lately drawn creatives, tailed by hip drinking dens and restaurants, squeezed between old dive bars and taquerias. Start early at Craftsman and Wolves, an industrial-chic patisserie that typically sells out of its signature pastry, the Rebel Within, before noon. This savoury, muffin-like cake is studded with sausage, Asiago cheese and spring onions, and has a soft-cooked, runny-yolked egg baked inside. The effect, in both appearance and taste, is magical.

Afterwards, head to Mission Dolores Park to sit under a palm tree and absorb the view of far-off Downtown skyscrapers. Two blocks north is Mission Dolores, San Francisco’s oldest surviving structure, dating back to the city’s founding by Spanish missionaries in 1776.

En route to lunch, head along Valencia Corridor, where independent merchants sell, among other things, crowd-sourced fashions and small-batch scents. For a pick-me-up, sip a glass of Californian wine at Mission Cheese.

Next, join the queue at lively La Taqueria (it moves fast). Lauded for its Mission burrito since the mid-1970s, other menu options include the carne asada (grilled sirloin marinated in garlic and beef fat), pinto beans, housemade salsa, and a serrano hot sauce made using the secret recipe of Miguel’s late mother.

Suitably full, stroll over to Balmy Alley to see some of The Mission’s best murals, a tradition brought over by Latino immigrants in the 1960s. The topics of this protest art include gentrification, the flight from the Salvadoran Civil War, and more.

As evening approaches, drop by Flour + Water. Founding chef Thomas McNaughton’s pasta creations, such as tagliatelle with king trumpet mushroom bolognese, owe a debt to his stint at a Bologna pasta factory. If there’s a wait for a table, stop by at nearby True Laurel for creative cocktails, like Grandma’s to Blame (gin, clarified grapefruit, manzanilla, lavender and fermented honey).

Top 3: local institutions 

Swan Oyster Depot
Arrive early at this 107-year-old, 18-seat, raw bar on Polk Street — it has a no-reservations policy and three-hour waits aren’t uncommon. The pay-off: fresh seafood, a charming, old-time atmosphere, and hand-painted menus. Ask about its ‘secret’ items, which could include Sicilian sashimi (prime cuts drizzled with olive oil, lemon juice and capers).

Tony’s Pizza Napoletana
At this popular joint in beatnik North Beach, owner Tony Gemignani appears to have mastered every pizza style imaginable, honouring traditions from Naples to Detroit (and winning pizza competitions worldwide in the process). The Porto, with a port reduction and Portuguese chouriço, is outstanding. tonyspizzanapoletana.com

Brenda’s French Soul Food
San Francisco’s best brunch might entail a long queue on a grubby block of the gritty Tenderloin district, but it’s worth it. Chef Brenda, a Louisiana native, cooks Cali-Creole comfort food, the likes of which you won’t find anywhere else in the city. Order the crawfish beignets, oozing cheddar and dusted with cayenne. frenchsoulfood.com

A day in Nob Hill and Russian Hill 

Don’t fret about all the calories you accumulate on a gastronomic tour of these adjoining neighbourhoods: you’ll work most of them off scaling the steep streets. Here, you’ll encounter dizzying views of classic landmarks as you journey through old and new schools of San Francisco cooking.

Start in Lower Nob Hill, where young food entrepreneurs have congregated for the city’s last semi-affordable rents. At Jane on Larkin, pick up the ‘toast menu’; jersey ricotta, honey and hazelnuts on Jane’s fig and walnut bread is surprisingly savoury, the sweetness of the floral honey tempered by the tangy cheese. It’s a quintessential case of the city elevating simple food with top-notch produce.

After the fog lifts (around 11am), walk up to California Street. The playground of 19th-century railroad barons, it’s dotted with wedding-cake mansions. At the Cable Car Museum on Mason Street, you’ll find antique cable cars (what San Franciscans call cable trams), and the huge wheels that still turn the underground cables. Outside, hop on a car for a quick ride to Lombard Street. Hop off, zigzag down the hairpin turns, and enjoy the view of Alcatraz en route to the Diego Rivera Gallery. Here, Rivera’s 1931 mural depicts the creation of San Francisco and the painting itself.

Feeling peckish? Drop by George Sterling Park, with great Golden Gate Bridge views, then grab an outside table at Nob Hill Cafe to rub shoulders with old-guard locals (its Italian menu is very ‘old SF’). The doughy calzone, dipped in house tomato sauce, is peerless.

A block away, Grace Cathedral contains secular stained glass windows (spot Einstein on the upper right) and a host of art exhibits. Head back down the hill to Hopwater Distribution, a sort-of old-new saloon (wooden booths; slow-moving ceiling fans) with 31 California-brewed beers on tap.

Close by, Liholiho Yacht Club should be reserved at least a month ahead. Chef Ravi Kapur mixes up Hawaiian, Indian and Chinese culinary styles. Essential order: sticky kimchi-glazed beef ribs with miso butter, Brussels sprouts and pickled onion.

Top 3: places for ice cream

Humphry Slocombe

Named for the two main characters in Are You Being Served? (the founders are huge British comedy fans), this quirky local ice cream company is best known for its Secret Breakfast: clumps of sugary, crunchy cornflakes set into bourbon ice cream. Candy Cap is also memorable: maple sweetness, chased by pleasingly musty notes of mushroom. humphryslocombe.com

Salt & Straw
This boutique scoop shop in upmarket Fillmore blends the best flavours of the Bay Area. Cowgirl Creamery’s buttery Mount Tam triple cream cheese makes for a rich and delicious ice cream, ingeniously speckled with candied chunks of fruit and walnut bread from Acme, a bakery in Berkeley. saltandstraw.com

Bi-Rite Creamery
Bi-Rite’s Mission store — probably San Francisco’s most popular parlour — always has a queue for its small-batch, seasonal scoops, made with milk, cream and eggs from Bay Area dairies. The biggest seller? Salted caramel. Be sure to sample several flavours before committing: the velvety roasted banana and intense orange cardamom are both deserving of attention, too. biritemarket.com/creamery

Spotlight: fun fine dining

San Francisco’s signature low-key style means even its haute cuisine is informal, with many chefs rethinking starchy fine dining. State Bird Provisions, in residential Western Addition, was described by Bon Appétit magazine as the ‘best new restaurant in America’ when it opened in 2012 and it’s since been awarded a Michelin star. Husband-and-wife owners Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski’s seasonal Californian small plates are served from carts, dessert-trolley style. The result is playful, sociable and delicious, no matter what you pick. The burrata-topped, deep-fried garlic bread shouldn’t be missed.

Over in The Mission, behind an unmarked door, two-Michelin-starred Lazy Bear (an anagram of founding chef David Barzelay’s surname) is more like a dinner party than a restaurant. Guests share long tables, and the chefs tell the story behind each course as it comes out, even inviting diners into the kitchen for a chat. The giddiness about their craft is infectious, doing far more for food appreciation than a traditional white-tablecloth joint. Dishes change regularly, but a creamy sous-vide egg with bacon, maple and hot sauce is a mainstay for good reason.

Saison may have three Michelin stars, but there’s plenty about it that’s not necessarily what you’d expect from such an exalted establishment: the setting (a brick warehouse in unlovely SoMa); a 1980s pop playlist; an open kitchen. A lot of work that goes into each dish (watching the chefs gently fan the wood fire that cooks each course is oddly pleasing). Standout dishes include the an indecently smoky, buttery Santa Barbara sea urchin atop grilled bread soaked in grilled bread sauce.

Top 3: bakeries

B Patisserie

Founders Belinda Leong and Michel Suas, were named the best US bakers at 2018’s James Beard Foundation Awards. Their kouign-amann — a Breton ‘butter cake’ whose crackly sugar crust conceals a soft, syrupy centre — is a masterclass in texture. bpatisserie.com

Tartine Bakery
This Mission bakery makes exemplary loaves, but it’s the outstanding morning bun that justifies the long queue. Sticky and sweet, with a complexity that comes from orange zest and cinnamon, it might be the best breakfast pastry you’ll ever taste. tartinebakery.com

Mr. Holmes Bakehouse
This tiny Lower Nob Hill sensation has both substance and style (hot-pink neon signage; white subway tiles). The daily-changing fillings are seriously good — expect the likes of chocolate earl grey cream or sweet potato pie. mrholmesbakehouse.com

Essentials

Getting there

Airlines flying direct to San Francisco from the UK include Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow and Manchester, British Airways from Heathrow, and Norwegian from Gatwick. virginatlantic.com  ba.com  norwegian.com

Where to stay
Stanford Court livens up Nob Hill’s historic pomp, with mid-century-meets-contemporary rooms. Doubles from $295 (£225), room only. stanfordcourt.com

How to do it
British Airways Holidays offers five nights at the InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco from £650 per person, including flights. ba.com

Published in Issue 6 of National Geographic Traveller Food.

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