San Francisco and its people are no strangers to starting over: The Spanish did it—first under their own rule, and then as citizens of a newly independent Mexico—followed by those seeking fame and fortune through the gold rush years. It has rarely been an easy ride for its citizens. Great earthquakes and the resulting fires have often meant rebuilding, which has allowed residents to carve out a city of neighborhoods—the Chinese laborer-formed Chinatown, the LGBT-friendly Castro, and the Latino-influenced Mission, for example—that remain uniquely San Franciscan.
The result is a tourist’s dream destination: an easily navigable city with dozens of distinct and shifting cultural neighborhoods, rich history, and iconic architecture. It’s also home to diverse culinary offerings built by locals who seem to roll with the moment as easily as the cable cars that share space with convertibles on its roadways. As the concierge at my hotel told me on a recent visit, “You’d have to go out of your way not to eat a great meal in San Francisco.”
The Sight: The Ferry Terminal
If your goal is to hang with the locals, you’ll have to choose your times wisely. The tourist-hub vibe is stronger the closer you get to kitschy Pier 39, but don’t dismiss the entire strip along the Embarcadero. Start your exploration of the piers at the Ferry Building. Originally opened in 1898, it was refurbished after the 6.9-magnitude earthquake that shook the city in 1989, reopening in 2003. You’re most likely to bump into locals enjoying a coffee or snack, doing some shopping at the farmers market (Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays), or waiting out the rain for a streetcar.
Classic Food Option: Venturing out early in the morning will give you a little more wiggle room around the markets and their great views of the bay. Come for breakfast and avoid the crowds that converge on the terminal for lunch. Grab a bambini sandwich at Sidekick Café and Milk Bar, featuring cheese from their Cowgirl Creamery stall next door, or head to the bagel bar at Golden Gate Meat Company. If you’d rather sip your breakfast, try Sōw Juice for made-to-order fresh juice concoctions.
Trendy Food Option: Walk a few blocks to Hard Water at Pier 3 for American whiskey cocktails and New Orleans-influenced nibbles. The restaurant is a sister property to popular Slanted Door, where standing in line for the Vietnamese pho and shaking beef has become the thing to do when in the city. (Tip: You can skip the line and take your meal to go from the “out the door” counter instead.)
Unexpected Food Option: It’s hard to stay under the radar at the Ferry Building, but somehow Boulettes Larder and next-door Boulibar manage to feel tucked away. In the evening, nestle up with the after-work crowd for craft cocktails or the updated-daily dinner menu featuring local farm produce. Similarly, the popular Hog Island Oyster Co., with a patio that overlooks the water, is easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it.
The Sight: The Golden Gate Bridge
There’s a lot of misguided information out there about this iconic San Francisco bridge. It’s not gold—more of a rusty orange—and it’s not named for the California gold rush. It gets its name from the similarly named strait that connects the Pacific Ocean with the San Francisco Bay. None of that matters once you’ve caught a glimpse of it. Snap some shots, then consider a walk (or ride a bike!) across for a different view.
Classic Food Option: Chef Annie Somerville may have a chuckle when she sees that we’ve called Greens Restaurant a San Francisco classic. When it first opened in 1979 as an offshoot of the San Francisco Zen Center, it was anything but mainstream. Greens was originally meant to provide a way for the center’s students to work together and practice their Buddhist beliefs in a workplace. Today the staff’s purpose extends beyond that but the mission is much the same. Views of the bridge only enhance its charms.
Trendy Food Option: MINA Test Kitchen: Celebrity chef Michael Mina is a San Francisco favorite (he has nine restaurants in the city) and his latest project—a variety of pop-up kitchens providing a constantly changing restaurant experience—is bound to cement his legendary status. Currently, Indian fare is on offer at the MINA Test Kitchen, but as of June 4, Mina will partner with Ayesha Curry (cookbook author and wife of another local hero, NBA superstar Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors) for International Smoke, a barbecue-themed pop-up. You’ll have to check the site before visiting to know what’s cooking while you’re in town.
Unexpected Food Option: Grab something at As Quoted, a new minimalist café in Presidio Heights, and take it with you into the park—Crissy Field is said to be the best spot to snap a photo of the bridge. The café, run by sisters Kara and Andie Yamagami, focuses on being able to feed anyone no matter their dietary restrictions.
The Spot: Golden Gate Park
The popular park offers places to catch up on fine arts (the de Young, part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), science (California Academy of Sciences), and culture (Japanese Tea Garden) among its grassy fields and meadows.
Classic Food Options: For more than a century, Cliff House—part of the Sutro Historic District—has been the go-to spot for locals celebrating an occasion. With options for both casual (Bistro Restaurant) and upscale dining (Sutro’s) you’ll feel comfortable whether you’re just in from a Lands End hike or dressed for dinner. The live Friday night jazz at the Cliff House is the perfect accompaniment for incredible sunset views.
Trendy Food Options: The Presidio Social Club wasn’t always a must-see destination in San Francisco. The white clapboard building, erected in 1903, was once a military barracks and was only converted to an eatery in 2006. Now boasting a marble bar, communal table options, a booze-heavy Sunday brunch, and more, it’s a throwback to a bygone era with a hip, modern following.
Nopalito has become the buzzy spot for hipsters looking for lazy brunches or multicourse dinners. The restaurant has grown from its humble beginnings—cooks at Nopa were making the food they grew up on for the kitchen staff and the owners were inspired to take it to the masses—and has turned into a popular option for fish tacos, organic corn (ground on-site), tortillas, and a selection of margaritas and cervezas. Expect to wait for your table, or order ahead and take your meal into the park to enjoy.
Unexpected Food Option: From the outside, Burma Superstar is easy to miss. Perfectly set alongside stores selling variations of cheap plastic dishes and minimart storefronts, it’s only the telltale line that signals something special is happening inside. The decor is warm and the food is hot, thanks to an abundance of dishes boasting the restaurant’s signature five-spice sweet heat sauce. Tea-leaf salad, “sticky fingers” ribs, and pumpkin pork stew are also popular picks.
The Sight: Coit Tower
The 210-foot-high Coit Tower has been standing atop Telegraph Hill since 1933. The concrete cylinder offers incredible 360-degree views from its observation deck and murals, dating to 1934, painted on the walls inside its base. Add to that the chance to eat in North Beach and it's a must-do.
Classic Food Option: When Fior d’Italia first opened in 1886, the crowd was a bit rougher. Gold miners, gamblers, and sailors were among the clientele for the Northern Italian cuisine on offer. With more than a century of history under its belt, Fior d’Italia reigns as one of the most consistently popular lunch and dinner options in the city. For a classic breakfast option, head to Mama’s on Washington Square. The line out the door is a testament to the pancakes, omelets, and more that have kept patrons coming back since it first opened more than 50 years ago. Bring cash—Mama’s doesn’t take credit cards.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Trendy Food Option: Celebrity chef Jonathan Waxman has made a name for himself on television (Top Chef Masters) and in New York (Barbuto). Now the man who was one of the first advocates of California’s produce-first cuisine during his time at Chez Panisse in the 1970s has returned to his hometown in the Bay Area with his latest offering. Waxman’s, which opened earlier this year in historic Ghirardelli Square, has people booking in for a taste of baked Grassy Bar oysters with brown butter and fennel and charcoal-grilled rock cod.
Unexpected Food Option: The Codmother is the kind of surprise you’ll like. Ridiculously simple—picnic tables in a courtyard next to a food truck—and incredibly good seem to be the winning combination for this fish and chips joint. Visitors rave about the fresh fish, large portions, and garlicky fries. Simply put: delicious.
The Sight: Mission District
If you’re hoping to get a glimpse of the historically immigrant-heavy Mission District, you’d better come soon. Italian, German, and Irish immigrants have all called the neighborhood home, but it is the working-class Latino families, who lived here for decades, that have the strongest affiliation. Today, the Mission is gentrifying rapidly, but you can still feel the legacy of the Latino community in the small shops and restaurants that line its streets. Don’t miss the murals that are part of the area’s history, and spend time in Mission Dolores Park for a glimpse of the new locals and a view of the city’s skyline.
Classic Food Option: For almost a hundred years, the Christakes family served up ice cream and lunch to locals and tourists at the St. Francis Fountain shop. In 2002, new owners updated the institution and have brought it to a new generation of diners. Now you can pop in for just about anything—a big breakfast or the classic fountain desserts and plenty in between. Need more? Follow the line to Tartine bakery, where fans say you should wait as long as it takes to get anything they make into your mouth.
Trendy Food Option: In-the-know residents and visitors head for 20 Spot, where you can choose from a large selection of wines to sip (including Californian up-and-comers) under dim lighting inside an 1885 Victorian building. The former record shop still spins vinyl—a curated playlist runs in the daily menu—and offers shareable seafood and vegetarian plates to nibble from.
Unexpected Food Options: Hole-in-the-wall joints can be hit or miss. Since opening in 2002, La Torta Gorda has been hit after hit. Most recently in 2015, Food Network named the restaurant’s pierna enchilada—a pulled pork sandwich—the number two sandwich in United States. This is the place to experiment with dishes beyond the ones you know best. The items on the menu originate from the owner’s home state of Puebla, Mexico, and you can find a selection of local specialties.