10 Must Eats in San Francisco

Traveler alumnus and Intelligent Travel blog founder Emily King is mildly obsessed with two things: San Francisco and food. Here, she shares her passions for both.

Life has pulled me to the Bay Area twice this past summer. As friends can attest, I left my heart there the first go round, and when I returned to retrieve it, it stole my stomach too. Oh, the food in San Francisco! After too many meals and too much money spent, I’m back home with an aching palate (and an unfriendly number on the scale). Should you find yourself in SF in the near future, here are my top 10 recommendations, broken down by category, after the jump. 

10 Must Eats in San Francisco

Seafood: Swan Oyster Depot

When I’m sitting at the marble bar at Swan Oyster Depot–perched on a wobbly stool that makes my butt and back ache and squished so tightly between two other diners that I can hardly bend my elbow enough to dunk a hunk of crusty sourdough in my clam chowder–I am somehow overcome by an exquisite feeling, despite all physical discomfort. Not only is the seafood here impeccably fresh and delicious; the ambiance is impossibly authentic, in that “this-place-only-could-have-existed-30-years-ago” kind of way. For example: The guy that fills your beer glass also shucks your oysters, tells you stories, banters with his brothers (this is a family business, of course!)–all while he’s cracking open crabs, ladling creamy chowder into bowls, and scooping up handfuls of shrimp off ice, then piling them on iceburg lettuce. I was 15 the first time I visited Swan’s–if it didn’t awaken, it certainly solidified my obsession with food.

What to order: Crab Salad with Louie sauce ($19.50); Bowl of Clam Chowder ($4.50); 1/2 dozen raw oysters ($12).

Tip: Bring cash and plenty of it. No credit cards accepted. If you’re not starving, order the best deal on the menu–a shrimp cocktail and draft beer for $10. To make your meal a truly quintessential San Francisco experience, arrive via the California cable car, hopping off at Polk Street. Swan Oyster Depot. 1517 Polk Street; +1 415 673 1101. 

Burgers: Mo’s Grill

Now this is a burger! For all the times I’ve eaten and written about my D.C. standbys (Ray’s Hell Burger, Good Stuff Eatery, Five Guys), I can’t remember the last time I sunk my teeth into a burger this good. My burger-connoisseur of a boyfriend says it’s the “best of his life.” The components: A buttered and toasted hoagie-like bun (not in shape, but taste), a moist flame-broiled patty (made with ground-on-the-premises beef), sharp cheddar cheese, tomato, lettuce, jalapeños, mayonnaise, and caramelized onions. To counteract the burn, alternate bites with sips of your handspun vanilla shake. What to Order: Tex-Mex Burger ($7.95)–we subbed cheddar for Monterrey Jack to cut down on the spice–and a vanilla shake ($4.95), which feeds two.

Mo’s Gourmet Burgers; 1322 Grant Avenue (in North Beach); +1 415 788 3779.

Sushi: Tataki Sushi and Sake Bar

For those of you sushi-lovers out there who have been shamed into a corner by Sylvia Earle, there’s hope. When it opened last year, Tataki

was the first all-sustainable sushi bar in North America… which means, NO hamachi (yellowtail), unagi (freshwater eels), or blue crabs, among many other over-fished species. But what is on the menu–and there are plenty of options–is not just guilt-free, it’s West-coast fresh (read: clean, delicate, slightly creamy) and reasonably priced.

What to Order: Nigiri ($5-12, depending on what’s available); the giant Golden Gate roll ($15); Arctic Char & Avocado Roll ($4.50 during happy hour).

Tip: Show up during Happy Hour (5:30 p.m.-7 p.m.) for $4.50 rolls and $4 large Sapporos.

Tataki Sushi and Sake Bar; 2815 California Street (Pacific Heights); +1 415 931 1182.

Pizza: Pizzeria Delphina

When you walk into Pizzeria Delphina, don’t bother finding the host. Simply sketch your name (plus number in party) on the chalkboard to your left, and she’ll seat you when a table’s open. Casual chic may be the appropriate term, though for me, “this place is so friggin’ cool” seemed to be the only descriptor that came to mind. Beautiful servers (mostly female), beautiful eaters (a good mix of the sexes), and beautiful food that actually tastes as good as it looks. Think: flash-fried sand dabs with fresh squeezed lemon and bits of crispy parsley; a “crazy melon” salad with yellow and red watermelon, cantaloupe, mint, feta, olive oil, and chili (to give it a hint of spice); and the superstar: the Panna pizza–a crusty, yet supple crust, smothered in tomato sauce, cream, basil, and Parmesan.

Even with two glasses of wine and a few scoops of gelato, we still spent less than $60 for two. If I lived nearby, I’d eat here once a week.

What to Order: Sand Dabs (special of the day; $10); “Crazy Melon” salad ($7.75); Panna pizza ($10); Ischia Bianco wine ($7.75).

Tip: Lines get LONG, so avoid lunch and dinner rushes.

Pizzeria Delphina; 2406 California Street (Pacific Heights); +1 415 440 1189.

Dim Sum: Ton Kiang

If dim-sum charm is what you’re after–metal carts, garish crystal chandeliers, and aquariums chock full of unusual sea life–don’t come here. Ton Kiang

looks more like a family diner than a dim-sum parlor, and unless you’re out near Golden Gate Park, it’s a pain to get to. Worth it, but a hassle. (From downtown, take the 38 bus all the way out

Geary.) Negatives aside, the dim sum here is a few steps above any other I’ve had. It’s simple dim-sum fare–dumplings, pork buns, rice pancakes–but it all tastes so much better. During lunch, servers come around with steaming trays of food; for dinner, you’ll have to order each item off the menu. Ask for spicy sauces to kick things up a notch.

What to order: Shrimp Balls; Rice Pancake with Shrimp; Pot Stickers; Green Chives and Shrimp dumplings ($3-7 per item).

Tip: The Chinese donuts may look amazing, but the sesame balls are the best dessert choice. Don’t miss them. I dream about these things.

Ton Kiang; 5821 Geary Blvd.; +1 415 752 4440.

Breakfast: The Butler and the Chef

I’m a tough critic when it comes to French toast, but The Butler and the Chef

serves some of the best in the city. The Pain Perdu consists of thick slices of organic French bread, dipped in an egg/vanilla mixture, then lightly pan-fried to create that slight crunch. Also included: a sprinkling of powdered sugar, a hunk of butter, and real maple syrup.

Of course, French toast always tastes better in a cozy French cafe such as this, where the cooks wear toques, the tables are crowded, and your food and bowls of cafe au lait hardly fit on your intimate two-top.

What to Order: Pain Perdu (a.k.a. French Toast, $9); Cafe au Lait ($3.50), Vegetarian Eggs Benedict ($12).

Tip: Closed on Monday, and doesn’t open until 10 a.m. on Sunday. Also, they sometimes close for long weekends, so call ahead to check hours.

The Butler and the Chef; 155A South Park (SoMa); +1 415 896 2075.

Fish Tacos: El Metate

Everyone has their favorite Mission-district taqueria. I’m hardly an expert–having only been to a few–but I can sing praises about El Metate’s fish tacos. Served in soft corn tortillas atop shredded iceburg lettuce, the spicy-crusted white fish is fluffy and sweet, and not at all “fishy” tasting. For an extra buck, get yours piled with guacamole and sour cream. Need a palate refresher? Their agua frescas are divine.

What to order: Fish taco ($2.50); Cantaloupe Agua Fresca ($1.50)

Tip: Stick to the fish tacos. We tried four other varieties, all of which were pretty run-of-the-mill. El Metate; 2406 Bryant Street (Mission District); +1 415 641 7209.

Miscellaneous Foodie Heaven: Ferry Building Marketplace

For anyone on the SF foodie circuit, a stop at the Ferry Building Marketplace

is a must. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself ducking in several times each trip, just to snag a fresh loaf at Acme Bread, a salami log at Boccalone, a bottle of Stone House olive oil, drip coffee at Blue Bottle, or a hunk of Mt. Tam triple-cream cheese at Cowgirl Creamery.

The market–with its array of gourmet/organic/locavore food stuffs–is dangerously expensive, but I love everything about it.

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What to Get: Anything mentioned above. If you have time for a sit-down breakfast, sit at the community table in Boulette’s Larder for hot multi-grain cereal with walnuts, raisins, flax seeds, brown sugar, and real cream.

Tip: The Farmer’s Market on Saturday is a sight to behold (don’t miss the Mexican breakfast at Primavera!), but those weary of crowds should visit on quiet weekday mornings.

Ferry Building Marketplace; One Ferry Building (on the Embarcadero, at the bottom of Market Street); +1 415 983 8000.

Coffee: Phil’z Coffee

The familiar cappuccino / latte / macchiato terminology doesn’t exist at Phil’z–instead, you’ll see a menu listing names like Jacob’s Wonderbar Brew and Anesthesia To The Upside. And instead of espresso machines, you’ll see lots of silver pans and paper filters–each dripping one cup at a time.

Thoroughly confused? Yes, that’s the beauty of this place for those of us that have grown all too familiar (and weary) of Starbucks and its baristas. The coffee is delicious, if incredibly strong–they use triple the beans!–but they’ll lighten it up for those that ask.

What to Order: Tesora (the house blend, $3.25) with cream and sugar.

Tip: Bring your own mug and get a 50-cent discount.

Phil’z Coffee; 3101 24th Street (Mission District; other locations around town, but the Mission store was the first to open); +1 415 875 9370.

Beer / Best Reason to Cross the Golden Gate: The Tourist Club

A beer garden in the mountains? Accessible only by hiking trails? This was enough to send us over the bridge to Mount Tampalais, to the haven that supposedly lay within its woods. Sure enough, a 20-minute hike down a curvy slope ends at the Tourist Club, a Bavarian-style private lodge that opens its deck and kegs to the public from 1 p.m.-5 p.m. on weekends. What can be better than sharing a $20 pitcher of Hoegaarden with best friends on a mountainside in the Muir Woods on a September Saturday? Not a whole heck of a lot.

What to Order: Beer ($6 pints; $20 pitchers; Cash only).

Tip: Heavy-duty hikers can start in downtown Mill Valley and hike 45 strenuous minutes up the Dipsea Trail. For a shorter hike (20 min), park across from the Mountain Home Inn, walk south on the Panoramic Trail, then turn right down the Redwood Trail.

The Tourist Club; 30 Ridge Avenue, Mill Valley.

All Photos by Emily King

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