Will it be cioppino, chop suey or a simply steamed Dungeness crab with butter, lemon and a hunk of sourdough bread?
With so many tempting specialties to choose from – many reflecting diverse immigrant communities – it’s hard to decide where a culinary journey through San Francisco should begin and what exactly it needs to include.
Some locals say that creamy clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl is a must. Others declare it sacrilegious to leave town without trying a Mission burrito, an oversized version of the Mexican staple wrapped in foil which, supposedly, was born in the city’s Mission Hill neighborhood in the 1960s.
And then there’s the farm-to-table food: San Francisco is blessed with an abundance of produce year-round thanks to its proximity to the heart of the country’s agricultural industry, and many credit the Bay Area with founding this now-ubiquitous cuisine.
According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, one third of the country’s vegetables and two thirds of its fruits and nuts are grown in the state.
Amy Sherman, the San Francisco-based founder of the food blog Cooking with Amy and an expert on the local food scene, says that chefs in the city, no matter how upmarket or casual their restaurants are or what type of cuisine they serve, feel they’re doing their diners a disservice by not using in-season ingredients as much as they can.
With the sheer number of restaurants constantly opening in the Bay Area, it’s hard for even the most devoted food fans to keep up.
But for those looking for a taste – literally – of some of the best of what the city has to offer, the following restaurants from powerhouse chefs Gabriela Cámara, Alice Waters, Dominique Crenn and Tanya Holland are guaranteed hits. (If only Cecilia Chiang’s Mandarin was still open: That iconic establishment would for sure be on the must-eats list of the Bay area.)
Read on for where to eat in the Bay area now:
Mexican chef Gabriela Cámara already had a cult following for her seafood-forward restaurant, Contramar, in her hometown of Mexico City, and it didn’t take long for her to win more devoted fans after her Stateside debut in 2015 with Cala.
Although it’s not meant to be a Contramar replica, the eatery, set in an airy, industrial space in Hayes Valley, is pescatarian heavy and features fresh, simple dishes bursting with flavor. Cámara loves the access she has to the area’s bounty of seasonal produce, and her menu changes often based on the best ingredients she can get her hands on.
The tempting possibilities could include Dungeness crab tostadas with celery root and habanero and kampachi ceviche with green tomato and ginger.
Cala, 149 Fell St., San Francisco, CA, 94102; +1 415-660-7701
It’s no exaggeration to say that Alice Waters is among the most iconic chefs in the United States and has influenced the way Americans eat ever since she opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1971.
Farm-to-table dining might be a ubiquitous trend today, but Waters is the one who started the movement of enjoying dishes that show off the prime produce, meat, poultry and seafood of the moment.
Close to a half-century later, she continues to be ever-relevant and has shaped the cooking philosophies of innumerable chefs, including Cámara.
Her eatery’s downstairs space, simply called The Restaurant and open for dinner only, has a daily changing three- to four-course menu. Up a flight of stairs, The Café is more affordable and serves an a la carte menu that changes twice a day.
Chez Panisse, 1517 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, CA, 94709; +1 510-548-5525
French chef Dominique Crenn opened the three Michelin-star Atelier Crenn in 2011 with the idea of using seasonal seafood and vegetables to recreate Bay Area versions of dishes inspired by her native Brittany.
Her high-end but not overly formal restaurant is small and has a multicourse daily changing menu that no longer includes meat.
That might mean Dungeness crab with seaweed or a black cod with coastal greens one evening and abalone with cabbage on another.
At $345 a person for the standard tasting, inclusive of service but without wine, a meal at Crenn’s namesake restaurant is a splurge.
However, Crenn’s two other spots – Petit Crenn in Hayes Valley and Bar Crenn just next door – are far more budget-conscious propositions and every bit as delicious.
Atelier Crenn, 3127 Fillmore St., San Francisco, CA, 94123; + 1 415-440-0460
Brown Sugar Kitchen
Tanya Holland may have formally learned to cook at La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Paris, but she says that her desire to be a chef started as a child when she was living in Rochester, New York, and spent time in the kitchen making soul food classics for her family and friends.
Brown Sugar Kitchen, a relaxed, 4,000 square-foot spot in Oakland that recently reopened in a new location, features a menu inspired by this cuisine.
Look for dishes such as smoked chicken and shrimp gumbo, buttery, flaky biscuits with blackberry jam, black-eyed pea salad and crispy fried chicken with a cornmeal waffle that locals and tourists line up to try.
Holland’s stick-to your rib interpretations are comforting and generous on the portions. The San Francisco outpost, in the Ferry Building, is a walk-up counter.
Brown Sugar Kitchen, Ferry Building 1, Suite 41, San Francisco, 94111; +1 415-938-8090; 2295 Broadway, Oakland, CA, 94612; +1 510-839-7685
Having honed her cooking chops in the kitchens of some of the Bay Area’s top restaurants, including the three Michelin-starred Manresa and the high-end Italian boite Acquerello, Kim Alter is passionate about showing off Californian ingredients in her cooking. As the chef and co-owner of the upscale Nightbird, which she opened in 2016 in Hayes Valley, she has the chance to do just that.
The menu, as its site describes, “celebrates the best of California’s diverse cultures and landscape.”
The choices change regularly and feature exquisite looking and colorful dishes – white asparagus with caviar, for example. There’s even a vegetarian menu that’s sumptuous enough to satisfy omnivores. Alter also owns the Linden Room, a speakeasy-style cocktail bar connected to the restaurant and the perfect spot to imbibe before or after your meal.
Nightbird, 330 Gough St., San Francisco, 94102; +1 415-829-7565
Che Fico Alimentari
Inspired by the wine bars of Rome, Che Fico Alimentari is the latest hotspot from the gifted trio behind Che Fico, Chef David Nayfeld, Chef Angela Pinkerton and Matt Brewer.
The warm atmosphere is made for sharing, and made even this emphatic anti-sharer change her tune about a table full of Italian delights: Italian cheeses, salumi, antipasti, and as with the original restaurant upstairs, some of the tastiest pastas in town.
There’s also a takeout counter, so if you can’t manage to score a table, you can stock your pantry with a selection of olive oils, dried pastas and Italian flour.
Che Fico Alimentari, 834 Divisadero St, San Francisco, CA 94117; +1 415-416-6980
Chef and owner Melissa Perello’s intimate 36-seat restaurant in the Castro neighborhood has been a hot ticket reservation ever since she opened it in 2009. Named after her grandmother, it offers a daily-changing menu of elevated classics such as a comforting bavette steak with an elegant caper salsa verde and a roasted artichoke.
Perello has deep relationships with many local farmers, and they visit Frances each morning with the best bounty of the day. Most of her staff here, as well as at her other more high-end restaurant, Octavia, are women who have been with her since day one.
Come here for a date night, with your kids or with a group of friends. Everyone is welcomed with warmth and smiles.
Frances, 3870 17th St., San Francisco, 94114; +1 415-621-3870