Welcome to San Francisco’s “Greatest Hits” List.
Obviously you’re familiar with the concept of a “greatest hits” album, but to be clear, this is not just a list of our highest-rated spots. This guide is a carefully-selected collection of the places we think every San Franciscan should try at least once - and the restaurants you should prioritize if you’re new to town.
Just like you wouldn’t introduce someone to Chevy Chase by throwing on a few episodes of Community, we wouldn’t send someone to a new San Francisco hotspot without having them go to these restaurants first. You shouldn’t either.
If you are looking for what’s new, check out our Hit List, a guide to the brand new, recently-opened restaurants worth your time.
Added 1/2020: Mister Jiu’s, La Ciccia, Farmhouse Kitchen, House Of Prime Rib, Burma Superstar, Red’s Java House.
Zuni Cafe serves standards like caesar salads, burgers, and roast chickens. But the burger is grilled over a wood fire, served on focaccia, and is so good it almost transcends being a burger. The chicken is perfectly roasted and the caesar salad is so right it should teach a salad-making course at Stanford. Like the food, Zuni’s space is simple - but the floor-to-ceiling windows and copper bar make it one of the most memorable places to eat in the city. It’s been open since 1979, and it’s still the place we send people new to SF first.
If you want to know what “cool” really means, go to Liholiho Yacht Club. This place in the Tenderloin has been open for years, but every night the bar in the front still gets packed like it was an exclusive afterparty where the bouncer is open to bribes. The food is a combination of Hawaiian and Asian, and it’s still some the most creative in the city. Even if you can’t get a reservation a month in advance, it’s worth the wait.
Dinner at this Hayes Valley restaurant can get expensive, but it’s always worth it to feel like you’re on a trendy rooftop patio plucked straight out of Mexico City. And in a place like San Francisco, where it’s easy to find excellent Mexican food, Cala’s stands out. The mostly-seafood dishes are some of the best in the city. If you need convincing, try the Dungeness crab or avocado tostadas, or the rockfish a la talla which is butterflied and grilled, and topped with red chili on one side and parsley sauce on the other. And remember, dinner here is still cheaper than booking a flight south.
One (mostly incorrect) stereotype about San Francisco is that all anyone cares about is vegetables living happy lives before becoming food. And if you ate at Al’s Place for every meal - and ignored all the carnitas burritos and oysters across this city - you’d be a little closer to believing that was true. The main focus here is vegetables, prepared so well that you could forget meat even existed, and plated so attractively that you’ll want to stare at each dish for a while before you dive in. That said, don’t skip on the proteins here (served as “sides”) - they’re just as good.
There’s a reason why there are now three Burma Superstars all with lines out the door: it’s incredible. You’ll want the tea leaf and rainbow salad (which belong in the International Salad Hall Of Fame), the rice noodles with coconut curry, and the sweet and tangy sesame beef. Actually, you’ll want it all, which also happens to be the reason we come back again and again.
San Francisco has more pasta per capita than most non-Italian cities, and Flour + Water’s is without a doubt some of our very best. Get their pasta tasting menu, that’s completely different than their a la carte options, to overload on as much as you can handle in one sitting. The menu is constantly changing, so you’ll never run into your favorite things from last time, like corn cappelletti with chocolate and mint or roasted garlic torchio with rabbit sugo that’s last meal-worthy. But that just opens you up to trying whatever new, incredible dishes they have when you go there next.
Outerlands feels like a boat-themed beach house in the middle of the Outer Sunset (you can thank the planked walls for that). The food here - from the eggs baked inside of their phenomenal bread to the roasted cod with spicy tomato sauce - is fantastic and worth dropping in for even if you forgot to make a reservation. Add a few of of their great cocktails into the mix, and a trip to Outerlands can make a few hours feel like a week-long vacation.
Flour + Water pastas are meant to be admired, like paintings made out of carbohydrates. Cotogna’s pastas, on the other hand, are the kind you want to eat as quickly as possible - ravioli with egg and brown butter, tagliatelle with a thick bolognese, and gramigna with rabbit. There are also wood-fired pizzas and meat dishes, but really, you’re here for the pasta. This restaurant is upscale without being pretentious, and perfect for almost any occasion - birthdays, anniversaries, or date nights with a close friend - so it’s no surprise that you always need a reservation. It’s also great for lunch or brunch, when it’s also easier to get a table.
Nopa has been setting the “new American” standard for the past 10+ years, and the quality hasn’t slipped a bit. Hence, its role as our go-to for most occasions. It’s pretty much everyone else’s, too, so you may have to stay up until midnight refreshing their reservations page a month in advance to get a table, or wait for a few bar seats to open up if you go there on an impromptu first date. No matter what brings you to Nopa, you can feel confident that their pork chops, burgers, and avocado toast are our favorite versions in the city.
This one-stop shop for all things that come out of the oven makes great morning buns topped with the perfect amount of sugar, gougères filled with loads of black pepper and cheese, and lemon bars that you’ll want to serve at every party you host. Whenever we come here for a quick pastry on the weekends, we always end up walking out with a box filled with baked goods - and no set plan on how to eat them all.
Rich Table is the rare place that gets better every time we go. The food is fantastic, and the menu doesn’t shy away from getting weird. Every time a dish is delivered to your table, it ends up being completely different than what you imagined, in the best possible way. No matter what you decide on, you can expect the dishes, from porcini donuts with raclette to cod al pastor with fresh tortillas, to always be creative and delicious.
There are plenty of places in SF to load up on great seafood, but very few that offer it with an amazing view. Located in the Ferry Building, Hog Island Oyster Bar overlooks the Bay, so you can take in the view and (maybe) get a micro-tan while you wait outside for a table. Once you do, order all the chowder, raw oysters, and everything else you could want from the ocean without having to dive for it yourself.
The menu at Tadich Grill is full of classics like clam chowder and cioppino as well as near-dinosauric dishes that aren’t really served anymore like double-cut lamb chops with mint jelly. It’s the oldest restaurant in the state, and the food, combined with the long, wooden bar and waiters in white coats, make it feel like one of the last remaining links to old San Francisco. Whether you’re at the bar alone with a cup of soup and a cocktail, or in a private booth celebrating a birthday or promotion, you’ll always feel frozen in a much better time.
One of the most frequent questions we get is “who makes the best burrito in San Francisco?” While there are a ton of spots to get your super al pastor, or a simple rice and beans, our favorite is El Castillito. Their burritos are propped to a higher level thanks to the cheese they melt on the inside of the tortilla before adding the filling - it’s something we wished taquerias everywhere adopted. Even without that, though, El Castillito’s carnitas alone take this place to the top. It tastes like someone played Mozart to the meat while it cooked.
As much as people in this city love the outdoors, there aren’t a ton of great restaurants where you can experience it. So when we get a rare good weather day, we head for Foreign Cinema. This Mission spot’s courtyard is perfect for having Persian omelettes and fried chicken at brunch, or kicking back raw oysters while you watch the classic movies they project on the wall during dinner.
Paying $8 for a piece of toast is a polarizing concept, but it’s also one of the realities of being in San Francisco. You could skip on the ritual entirely, but then you’d miss out on a trip to The Mill in NoPa. This place cuts their incredible bread into thick slabs, toasts and covers it with delicious toppings like cream cheese, pesto, or house-made jam. One slice is all you need to get why people line up every morning to spend as much for toast as an entire loaf of the bread it’s made from.
There aren’t many things worth waiting for two hours, but most things aren’t lunch at Swan Oyster Depot. This place has been open for over 100 years, and usually has a line so long that people bring tall boys and wine to drink while they wait. The people behind the counter are so good at what they do, they’ll remember what specific oysters they served you the last time you were here six months ago. The food at Swan is a parade of some of the best seafood you’ll ever have, from oysters and Sicilian sashimi covered in oil and capers to Dungeness crab backs filled with crab fat to dip your sourdough bread.
State Bird Provisions is still one of the most exciting places to eat in San Francisco. It’s known as “the place with the carts” thanks to all the servers whizzing around the dining room passing out dim sum dishes like they were beads on a Mardi Gras float. Whether you’re eating tofu caprese or jerk octopus or cajun-style duck andouille, you can count on each of those dishes being phenomenal. Coming here isn’t dinner as much as it’s an event, and one that everyone should experience at least once in their life.
There aren’t many reasons we’d wake up early on a Saturday morning, but clawing our way out from under our warm pile of blankets to beat the crowds at Plow is one of them. This place makes the kind breakfast we’d gladly wait in line for (and trust us, there will always be a line) The menu is mostly American staples like big, fluffy biscuits, eggs, and lemon pancakes, all of which are all fantastic.
Breakfast sandwiches aren’t complicated. But Devil’s Teeth Baking Company’s special breakfast sandwich - with egg, pepper jack, avocado, and bacon on a just-baked biscuit - feels like an entirely new invention. This place is a few blocks away from the ocean, and there are few mornings better than eating one of these on a bench outside with a cup of coffee before a walk to the beach.
San Francisco is filled with classic dim sum places like Yank Sing and small spots we hit when we want a lot of food but don’t want to pay a lot, like House Of Pancakes. But still, when people ask us where to get Chinese food in the city, we tell them to go to Mister Jiu’s. The food is a mix of Chinese and American classics - like Dutch crunch BBQ pork buns and cheong fun with sea urchin - and it’s all delicious. On top of that, the dining room is one of the coolest in the city with its large mid-century tables with lazy susans, antique chandeliers, and great views of Chinatown.
La Ciccia doesn’t just make some of the best seafood dishes in the city, they’re one of the best Italian restaurants, period. This Sardinian restaurant serves dishes like spicy octopus stew, fresh spaghetti with bottarga shaved on top, and pan-seared branzino that are all so simple and good you’ll wonder why you haven’t hit this place the entire time you’ve been in SF. Like a lot of places on this list, getting a table at this small Noe Valley spot can be difficult, unless you plan weeks ahead. But it’s worth the effort.
When people ask us where to go to have a fun dinner, we send them straight to Farmhouse Kitchen. This Thai place always feels like a party with its bright decorations and servers who dress in costume every night, but the antics never overshadow the food. There is everything from fried chicken with curry and the spiciest papaya salad we’ve ever had to beef ribs that fall apart like they were never supposed to be in one piece. It’s all fantastic, and enjoying every bite is as much a guarantee as seeing at least two birthday parties over the course of dinner.
At House Of Prime Rib, martinis come with side cars, wine bottles are larger than your car’s spare tire, and huge portions of meat are served from zeppelin-shaped carts. This place is dedicated to an old-school style of excess that doesn’t really exist anymore, and we’re lucky enough to have it right in Nob Hill. On any given night, you’ll see every walk of life waiting by the bar for their table, from businesspeople in suits to tourists in cargo pants. All of them come to this place for the same thing - to dine like English royalty and have a blast in this glorious restaurant.
People in San Francisco love activities - like hiking, and thinking about surfing while they're busy parasailing. If you’re not one of those people - or you’re seeking a different kind of day - go spend a slow, lazy afternoon at Red’s Java House. This pre-Giants game hangout has been open since the 1930s, and their back patio right by the Bay Bridge is the perfect place to get some sun while you enjoy their old-school, simple burgers served on sourdough rolls. It’s so peaceful you may be tempted to throw your phone (and the 2,000 unread emails on it) into the Bay. Probably don’t do that though.