The most common question I am asked when cooking for a client is ‘What is your favorite restaurant in San Francisco?’ They might as well ask me which of my unborn children I like best. I always try to answer truthfully but without choosing one specifically. It is extremely difficult to pick just one. And, normally I can never do so. I usually answer with a follow up question like, ‘is it breakfast, lunch or dinner?’ Or, ‘do I get to eat somewhere else the next day?’ And, the ever-so-telling, ‘am I moving out of the city tomorrow?’
I’ve decided to take the overall question and do something I haven’t done before — something I’m really excited about. And that’s write about the incredible food scene in San Francisco. As I have just mentioned, it is impossible to pick one restaurant. So I’m copping out, again, and answering this question in bunches. And because the task is too difficult, I am making this a three-part blog post. But hey, it’s fun and a great way to talk about the food scene in SF. I will start at “Beginner” level which I categorize as having no real experience eating out in San Francisco. The places mentioned are where I would send a first-timer, looking for some awesome food unique to our incredible city. Moving further into each post, the restaurants will get a bit less known, more adventurous, but always awesome (in my own humble opinion). So without further adieu, Kellan’s Kitchen Guide to eating out in San Francisco; Volume 1, Beginner.
It is without fail that I end up fighting which of these two places to mention first. But to preface, I will ask this – is it Crab Season? Because if it is, the answer is without hesitation quite simple: Swans Oyster Depot. This seafood mecca has been around for over a century and has gained not just a cult following, but a national audience. Anthony Bourdain has filmed his shows here a number of times and calls it “the best restaurant in America.” It’s simple. It’s small. It’s no-frills. It’s not easy to get a space at the counter without an hour wait unless you’re savvy. There is a bounty of fresh fish and shellfish and other wonderful things in the window, tantalizing you to come in for a peek. The shotgun bar counter holds roughly 15-18 guests all touching elbows. However uncomfortable you may feel, it will disappear with your first sip of cold Anchor Steam beer and that first bite of fresh crab. Without divulging all of the great things on the menu, you must always order Crab Fat with your bread. Screw the butter, get the good stuff. And for heavens sake, stay away from the Clam Chowder and bread bowl — that’s tourist stuff. Get crab, smoked salmon, oysters (duh) and clams on the half shell. Get the famous Crab Louie (not seafood, not shrimp, but just crab) and be transported back in time to when thousand island dressing was homemade. Listen to the brothers talk trash to each other and about the triumphs of our local sports teams. You will leave fat and happy, and already thinking about how you will make it back within the same trip.
On to the next spot, and one of my all time favorites, Zuni Cafe. What right-minded person would suggest that you order a $48 chicken dish on a menu? Anyone who has ever been to this San Francisco institution. My friends and I always debate what it is that makes the chicken so good. In the end, it just is. I even mimic it on my menu. But beware, it takes an hour to cook. A tip for your dining experience here? Order the chicken as soon as you check into your table, saving you the wait time as the kitchen works to prepare this delicious bird. It is served with a sourdough bread salad which is arguably better than the chicken on any given day. One bite of this chicken and you will understand my sentiment. Zuni Cafe is also wonderful for its atmosphere. It takes over a triangular section on Market Street that has it’s own alley with near floor-to-ceiling windows giving it a beautiful, modern city feel in an odd space, which pretty much sums up San Francisco. The restaurant features a comfortable and elegant decor including white table cloths, live piano, and an open kitchen where you can see the old brick oven that puts the magic into the chicken. Reservations are recommended, however my favorite Zuni experiences have come after walking into the restaurant on a whim and sharing the chicken and some oysters with friends. While the Bloody Mary is good enough to warrant an honorable mention, it really is all about the chicken.
Rounding out the restaurants in this first, but very important guide is NOPA. Situated in an old bank, NOPA is a locals’ favorite for many reasons. It’s a central figure in the revival of the food scene in its namesake neighborhood. Large and open, beautiful and thoughtfully noisy, NOPA is a hub for a great meal or great drinks. Their bar is stocked with homemade bitters, house-brewed ale, and a Manhattan menu that stirs anxiety. Open late, its a favorite spot for a visit in the wee hours to get that fancydrink and have one of the best burgers in all of SF. I have been here many times and I struggle to order anything other than the pork chop. It is that good. Almost in the same category as the Zuni chicken, this pork chop is to die for. The first time I had it, I literally almost ordered another. The food here is fresh, seasonal, tasty and not pretentious. The servers are hip, knowledgeable, and provide just the right amount of service and sass. I may be painting an odd picture of such an established restaurant, but don’t get me wrong, this place is just the right amount of high class mixed with an open door that will happily serve you a burger and a manhattan at midnight. Pro-tips; Brunch here is renowned. No reservations, so you must wait in line but the stuffed french toast is totally worth it. A great night is guaranteed if you plan on dinner at NOPAand a show at the Independent. Who knows? You might even see the band at the bar before the show.
Last, and certainly not least, is San Francisco’s Ferry Building. This somewhat newly-renovated ferry terminal now boasts one of the largest food scenes in the city. It has a great number of small artisan shops, markets, specialty stores and food vendors, and restaurants. Just to name a few are
stalls that hold Cowgirl Creamery, one of the Bay Area’s most renowned cheese mongers, Acme Bread Company, arguably the best sourdough bread in the city,Boccalone, Chris Cosentino’s charcuterie which sells, among other things, ‘Tasty Salted Pig Parts,’ Blue Bottle Coffee, Humphry Slocombe Ice Cream, Golden Gate meats, and the list goes on and on. One could easily spend hours and hundreds of dollars creating a meal here. The Ferry Building is also home to restaurantsGott’s Roadside, Market Bar, Hog Island Oyster Co., and the nationally acclaimed Slanted Door. All of the food sold in the Ferry Building is nothing short of exceptional. There are also three farmers markets every week. Tuesday and Thursday are more tailored to ready-made food feeding the thousands of workers in the area. As customers tend to form lines at the most popular vendors, it is best to get there early. RoliRoti is probably the darling of them all, cooking up porchetta sandwiches served with potatoes that catch all of the meat drippings (I’m currently salivating). Saturday’s farmers market is by far the biggest. If your head was spinning reading about all of the food selections inside the Ferry Building, then this market will send you right into vertigo. If you can swing this on your visit, do so, and do so hungry. I often refer to the Ferry Building as a Mecca for food. And upon a visit, you will understand why. Even if you are on a budget, a great way to enjoy the food is to grab a $1 roll from Acme, a $4 cone of meat from Boccalone,sample some cheese from Cowgirl and find a bench outside toenjoy the stunning views of the Bay Bridge.
San Francisco has so many ‘Beginner’ restaurants — and I’m sure to have missed a few, but for now this should be a great way to get started on familiarizing yourself with this city’s extraordinary food scene. If only here for a short time, you won’t leave disappointed if you make it to any number of these selections. I visit these places regularly, sometimes to a fault. But they are that good and worth returning too often. So with that, have fun and happy eating. Until the next segment, you have homework to do!