San Francisco is an exciting and dynamic restaurant town with new restaurants opening all the time, but to really know the city inside and out you need to get to know the classics. Here are 10 classic San Francisco restaurants everyone needs to visit. They have stood the test of time and remain crowd favorites for good reason.
A consistent favorite among diners, it’s an elegant special occasion restaurant where service is as smooth and refined as the sleek polished wood interior. The tasting menu format features luxe ingredients like caviar, lobster, filet of beef, roasted quail, foie gras, and dungeness crab. While not cutting edge, the food is always stunningly plated and prepared with impeccable French technique. It’s also one of the few restaurants that offers a flambé dessert, prepared tableside. The blini with caviar, stunning cheese selection, and soufflés are all signatures. Make a reservation at Gary Danko.
Farallon just might be the most dramatic restaurant in San Francisco. The historic building is a dreamy under-the-sea fantasy of glass jellyfish, nautical mosaics, and sea urchin chandeliers. Meanwhile, the food soars to ethereal heights. Large platters of iced seafood are a constant, but the menu changes frequently, always offering the freshest seafood. The dishes crafted by executive chef Jason Ryczek reflect his deep affinity for local seafood and his creative touch. Wine pairings here are particularly divine, and if you want the chef to create a special tasting and pairing menu, that’s available upon request. Make a reservation at Farallon.
Everything about Original Joe’s feels right, from the retro interior with leather booths and art deco mermaids, to the wait staff who make you feel like a regular and bountiful platters of eggplant parmesan, liver with bacon and onions, veal scallopini all served with a side of spaghetti or ravioli. At least once in your life, you must try the signature dish — Joe’s special, a scramble of eggs, ground beef, spinach, and onions served with sourdough bread. Dating back to 1937, this restaurant has changed locations but is now at home in North Beach, the spiritual home of all things Italian in San Francisco. Make a reservation at Original Joe’s.
While the concept has changed since it first opened as a diner, Fog City is even better than it was before — and just as iconic. It has a cozy, almost clubby feel and sits perched between the city and the waterfront. A consistently solid choice for American classics, such as clam chowder, Caesar salad, deviled eggs, and oven-roasted steak or chops, it has plenty of choices to make foodies as happy as less adventurous diners. No matter what your tastes, the frozen custard and French cruller donuts are the perfect sweet ending to any meal. Make a reservation at Fog City.
San Francisco is known for many things, and the tiki bar is one of them. And for one of the most revered tiki bars, you simply must go to the Tonga Room. An icon since 1945, the setting is Polynesian and features a lagoon in the center where the band plays on a thatch-covered floating barge. The menu consists of Asian appetizers including pork siu mai, pot stickers, poke, and curried crab won tons. But the best reason to come here may just be the tropical cocktails and the signature punch bowls, which serve two or four, such as the scorpion bowl, lava bowl, or the smuggler’s golden punch bowl. Make a reservation at the Tonga Room.
Sutro’s at the Cliff House
While most of the waterfront restaurants in San Francisco face the bay, Sutro’s at the Cliff House faces the mighty Pacific Ocean on the far western edge of the city. With spectacular panoramic views of the famous Seal Rocks, the Marin coastline, the Sutro Bath ruins, and the entry to the Golden Gate, it may be hard to focus on your meal. The menu features farm- to-table style cuisine with plenty of local seafood. The Anchor Steam beer braised mussels with harissa is a signature dish. Friday nights, you can enjoy live jazz upper balcony lounge. Make a reservation at Sutro’s at the Cliff House.
One of the most romantic restaurants in San Francisco, Jardinière is a popular choice before or after the theater, since it’s situated just a block from both the Opera House and the Symphony Hall. The signature restaurant of James Beard award-winning chef Traci Des Jardins, the food is classically rooted in French techniques. The menu changes seasonally, but the braised short ribs are always available for good reason; they are easily the best in the city. The wine selection here is also outstanding. Each Monday night, there’s a fixed price thematic menu with pairings (usually wine but sometimes beer). Make a reservation at Jardinière.
It’s inevitable that if you come to San Francisco, eventually you will end up at Zuni Café. The flatiron-shaped building has two levels, with exposed brick walls, industrial support beams, and large windows facing bustling Market street. The daily-changing menus are inspired by seasonal organic ingredients and incorporate traditional French and Italian fare. Signature menu choices include their impressive oyster selection, a Caesar salad, and that legendary brick oven roasted chicken with bread and greens. Make a reservation at Zuni Café.
House of Prime Rib
San Francisco is not known for steak, but prime rib? Well, that’s another matter. The congenial feeling House of Prime Rib has been feeding the meat and potatoes crowd since 1949. They serve good old-fashioned Midwestern corn-fed beef, aged for 21 days and roasted in rock salt. The prime rib makes it’s way into the dining room in domed stainless steel carts and is carved tableside in slices thick or thin. The restaurant is known for their classic cocktails, spinning salad bowl, and traditional sides including creamed spinach, Yorkshire pudding, and steakhouse-style baked potatoes. Make a reservation at House of Prime Rib.
Housed in a stunning Belle Époque building, Boulevard is a knockout restaurant with its mosaic floors, colored glass, and bronze details. As appropriate for business as it is for romance, the restaurant epitomizes a distinctly American approach to cuisine with modern Mediterranean and French influences. The ahi tuna tartare is a signature dish, though the dish changes throughout the seasons. High-end ingredients like Dungeness crab, foie gras, quail, and sea scallops are artfully combined with the finest wild mushrooms, foraged sea vegetables, and best-of-season vegetables, fruits, and herbs. Make a reservation at Boulevard.
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Amy Sherman is a San Francisco-based writer, editor, blogger, and cookbook author. She is the publisher of the food blog Cooking with Amy. She currently contributes to numerous online publications including Food Network, Fodor’s and Refinery 29 and never says no to a warm donut. Follow her @cookingwithamy.
Photo credits: Douglas Friedman (Gary Danko); Lee Sherman (House of Prime Rib); Frankie Frankeny (Bar Jardieniere); Drew Altizer (Fog City).