Welcome to The Greats, a series on the restaurants around the country that define their cities. Here now, a guide to the San Francisco Greats.
With its diverse population and proximity to some of the best produce and farms in the entire country, it’s not hard to see why San Francisco remains one of the premier dining destinations for visitors from around the world. Despite how tiny it is relative to other major cities — it’s only seven miles by seven miles, as any local can rattle off to you immediately — there are more than 4,000 restaurants to choose from.
Of course, with that much variety it might be hard to feel like you can make a clear choice about where to dine. Featured below are several standouts that range from all-time classics rooted in deep histories to newer, modern spins on a diverse set of cuisines to help make that decision about where to go a little easier. These locations can be found all over the city, from the views of the Golden Gate in the Marina District to the more quaint neighborhood vibe of Noe Valley, but what they all have in common is that they embody what makes the City By the Bay such a dynamic — and delicious — place to eat.
House of Prime Rib (Nob Hill)
Founded in 1949, House of Prime Rib has remained a top destination for locals and visitors to San Francisco alike. Boasting some of the warmest hospitality in the area and those signature carts filled with towering rib roasts carved to order tableside, the restaurant has retained its frozen-in-time interior replete with red leather banquettes and generous cocktails that come with a sidecar of extra drink. For the uninitiated, prepare for a veritable feast that starts with the cult-favorite salad and continues on to a plate full of prime rib, cut to your choice, and sides such as mashed or baked potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, and creamed spinach. Pro tip: Don’t forget to take advantage of a second piece of prime rib after you power through your first.
Dining at the restaurant: Open for indoor dining.
Takeout: House of Prime Rib is still doing takeout for now starting at 3:30pm Monday through Friday. You must order in person directly at the restaurant.
State Bird Provisions (Western Addition)
Chefs Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski’s lauded State Bird Provisions features some of the most creative presentations and interpretations of California cuisine. The ever-rotating small plates selections, along with essentials such as the signature state bird with provisions, a tribute to all things quail. Since opening to tremendous buzz in 2012, State Bird Provisions has racked up incredible tallies of awards, starting with plaudits from both the James Beard Foundation and Bon Appetit for Best New Restaurant and its regular appearance in the Michelin guide as a one-star restaurant.
Dining at the restaurant: Indoor dining has resumed and reservations are open.
Takeout: No takeout or delivery.
La Ciccia (Noe Valley)
The seafood-forward cuisine of Sardinia is the focus of Noe Valley favorite La Ciccia. Locals have long loved the exceptional, warm service from the team led by chef Massimiliano Conti and his partner and wife, Lorella Degan. Conti’s food is raved about for its simple but delicious preparations such as fresh spaghetti with spicy, garlicky oil and bottarga, or cured fish roe. Outside of the pastas, Conti also has a way with fish, whether it is marinated anchovies or the whole fish preparations sometimes found on the secondi menu. La Ciccia’s plaudits go beyond locals, as it has been featured by Zagat, Michelin, The New York Times, and as one of the San Francisco Chronicle’s best Italian restaurants in the Bay Area.
Dining at the restaurant: Indoor and outdoor dining reservations are once again open.
Takeout: Order online via the website or by phone.
A favorite of both neighborhood folks who gather at the bar to industry folks looking to score a delicious late night burger, chef Laurence Jossel’s Nopa has maintained its reputation for excellent food and cocktails and its welcoming, warm interior since 2006. The open kitchen has great views of Jossel and his team roasting meats and vegetables in a wood-fired oven, which has turned out countless iterations of the legendary country pork chop, its edges smoky and charred by the oven. Regulars also frequently turn to Nopa’s burger and house-made kennebec chips, and vegetarians know that the vegetarian tagine, which can also be made fully vegan, will always represent the best in Bay Area seasonality.
Dining at the restaurant: Reservations are live for outdoor dining.
Takeout: Available through their website or phone.
Che Fico (NoPa)
Che Fico was a certified hit immediately after opening in 2018. Though it has a Cal-Italian focus, it also features “cucina Ebraica,” or food from the Jewish-Roman tradition. Along with plentiful antipasti options, there are hearty meat and pasta dishes and a variety of cheeses and cured meats. Downstairs from the main dining room is Che Fico Alimentari, a market with a pantry filled with housemade goods such as giardiniera and hot sauce. You can also sign up for the wine and provisions club.
Dining at the restaurant: Che Fico is taking reservations for its outdoor space in association with the to-go market, Alimentari.
Takeout: Che Fico Alimentary is available for takeout.
Foreign Cinema (Mission)
Foreign Cinema has long been a given on many best-of San Francisco lists, including an 18-year run in the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 Restaurants list, thanks to chef/owners Gayle Pirie and John Clark, who have maintained the restaurant’s excellence and destination status since 1999. Before farm-to-table became a buzzword, Foreign Cinema was already taking advantage of the robust produce in the Bay Area to produce myriad vegetable preparations and creative dishes like its “pop tarts” with seasonal fruit fillings that’s a staple at brunch. It has always been popular to dine outdoors at Foreign Cinema, and with that availability now in full swing, the film of the month has also resumed playing via projector on the wall of the patio.
Dining at the restaurant: Reservations are open for both indoor and outdoor dining.
Takeout: Both dinner and brunch are available for takeout via phone order.
Kokkari (Financial District)
For more than 20 years, Kokkari has been a destination for diners looking for excellent Greek food and, especially, lusciously prepared seafood and game dishes. A mainstay at the top of the Zagat guide for Bay Area restaurants, Kokkari takes full advantage of both local ingredients and top-shelf imports from Greece. To dine inside Kokkari is to treat your nose to overwhelmingly pleasing notes of grilled meats being cooked over a hearth of charcoal, and the liberal use of lemon adds zip to Greek classics such as avgolemono, a lemon and egg soup, as well as grilled octopus.
Dining at the restaurant: Indoor dining reservations are now available.
Takeout: Delivery though third-party apps or takeout by calling the restaurant directly.
China Live (Chinatown)
This 30,000-square-foot complex is an ode to Chinese food in all its glorious forms. The multi-level space starts with an open and inviting ground floor split into various areas with entertaining views of cooking stations throughout the space as various chefs pleat dumplings and pull noodles for the menu, which features elements from a variety of regions across China. The best seller is the juicy shen jiang bao, with a crispy pan fried bottom and lush, brothy, porky filling, with other dishes ranging from Peking duck to kung pao tofu. Upstairs at Eight Tables, a more fine dining experience means upscale Chinese offerings in a sumptuous setting. At China Live, owner George Chen has taken his decades of hospitality experience and created an immersive Chinatown experience bar none.
Dining at the restaurant: China Live has resumed accepting reservations for both indoor and outdoor parklet dining.
Takeout: Through its China Live Signatures service, many locales in the Bay Area can experience a curated menu of items for delivery. San Francisco folks can order a broader menu for delivery and pickup from the restaurant itself.
While the Absinthe Group has several notable restaurants in San Francisco, Bellota is its crown jewel and was named Eater SF’s restaurant of the year when it opened in 2016. Not only is the Spanish-focused menu filled with classic pintxos and tapas such as briny, savory boquerones and smoky, crispy patatas bravas, the cocktail and wine program is also littered with fun regional wines from Spain, creamy and sweet sherries, and a multitude of variations on gin tonics. Those gin tonics come in impressive glasses adorned with fruit and flowers, and there are few things that can make you truly feel like you’re at a special place than those cocktails. Bellota is especially good for groups with paellas that feed two to four.
Dining at the restaurant: Now taking reservations for both indoor and outdoor dining.
Takeout: Takeout and delivery are available through a third-party app.
Brenda’s French Soul Food (Tenderloin)
If you’ve ever seen the iconic Instagram shot of creamy crawfish spilling out of savory beignets, then you’ve met Brenda’s. The Tenderloin Southern comfort destination from chef/owner Brenda Buenviajé serves up dishes that range from several types of beignets to shrimp and grits to fried chicken combos. Brunch is when this restaurant comes alive, and it’s recognized as a top stop for the popular weekend meal in outlets from Eater SF to The Infatuation. Buenviajé has built a mini empire around the Bay Area, with locations now in Oakland and San Jose, too.
Dining at the restaurant: Both Brenda’s French Soul Food and sibling restaurant Brenda’s Meat & Three are open for dine-in.
Takeout: Order through third-party apps or contact the restaurant directly.
Zuni Cafe (Hayes Valley)
Like House of Prime Rib, Zuni Cafe is one of those indelible, classic San Francisco establishments that has maintained its excellence over several decades. Known far and wide for its roast chicken and warm bread salad for two and the craveable hamburger, Zuni has consistently loomed large at the James Beard Awards, scoring its first in 2000 for the late Judy Rogers as Best Chef: West, Outstanding Restaurant in 2003, and for its service in 2018. Dining at this corner-shaped, elegant American restaurant is a true San Franciscan treat.
Dining at the restaurant: Reservations for outdoor dining have resumed, but indoor dining is still on pause.
Takeout: Takeout ordering is available through Zuni’s website or via telephone. Since the pandemic began, Zuni Cafe has been offering takeout and has also piloted an innovative and successful program that uses only reusable containers that the restaurant takes back from you by returning it to the restaurant, to other drop off locations, or via curbside pickup at your residence.
Spruce (Presidio Heights)
Boasting accolades such as a Michelin star, Esquire’s best new restaurant of 2007, and Wine Spectator’s grand award, Spruce is an undeniable SF destination. The food at Spruce takes inspiration from California, highlighted by the fact that it gets the bulk of its produce from less than 40 miles away at Woodside-based SMIP Ranch. That produce features heavily in all of the restaurant’s American preparations, from its breadth of fresh salads to the accompaniments and toppings of its main course dishes such as Bavette steak.
Dining at the restaurant: Reservations are live for indoor dining for lunch and dinner, as well as weekend brunch.
Takeout: Currently available through the website.
It’s hard not to be swept away by the incredible Bay views at Waterbar, but even dining indoors in full view of the two massive floor-to-ceiling fish tanks and sweeping oyster bar is an amazing experience. Equally as impressive as the interior and exterior views are the seafood offerings that Waterbar provides diners with. The restaurant boasts a wide range of seafood dishes from fresh oysters to pan-seared fillets and whole fish preparations. Sustainability is at the forefront of Waterbar’s dishes, and the care with which the kitchen prepares that bounty is fully evident in the presentation of its food.
Dining at the restaurant: Indoor and outdoor dining are both available and reservations are open.
Takeout: Takeout and delivery is available through third party apps.
With food focused on the southern coastal region of Campania in Italy, A16 has been a pillar of the Marina District in San Francisco since its founding in 2004. The restaurant features a narrow but welcoming interior and open kitchen so diners have a nice view of the work the chefs put into famous offerings such as the wood-oven cooked pizzas and the meatballs, which have their own cult following. Fresh housemade pastas like the maccaronara enveloped by a hearty ragu and other rotating pastas with fresh sauces and adornments are also a hallmark of the satisfying cooking.
Dining at the restaurant: Reservations for outdoor dining are available.
Takeout: Order online through their website.
It can sometimes be hyperbolic to proclaim a restaurant as revolutionary, but there are few other ways one could describe a restaurant as influential as Greens, which was first established in 1979 and has since maintained its status as one of the premier vegetarian restaurants in the country. A long line of chefs have been influenced and inspired by both Zen Buddhism and the restaurant’s vibrant farm, Green Gulch, which provides the restaurant with pristine vegetables and fruits. Almost every dish can be made fully vegan, and the liberal use of legumes, yuba, and tofu add the depth of protein any diner can appreciate. The interior is its own work of art, featuring the work of several local artists and rich uses of several types of wood to create a warm and inviting atmosphere to match the sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean.
Dining at the restaurant: Indoor and outdoor dining reservations are both open.
Takeout: Available through the website.
Yank Sing (SoMa)
Three generations of the Chan family have contributed to Yank Sing’s success since its opening in 1958. Since then, similar generations-long local devotion to Yank Sing’s dim sum offerings have helped maintain its status as a must-go for Bay Area natives, transplants, and tourists. Noted as a Bib Gourmand restaurant for Michelin and a long-standing place on guides from Zagat and the San Francisco Chronicle, it’s hard to argue with the critical acclaim after tasting a juicy pork soup dumpling and feeling its warm broth break free of the wrapper or taking that first bite of a pillowy barbecue pork bao.
Dining at the restaurant: Both the Rincon Center and Stevenson Street locations are accepting reservations for dine-in. Since the pandemic, the restaurant has modernized how it serves dim sum to make it more Covid-friendly.
Takeout: Order through third-party apps or contact the restaurant directly.
Ozumo is celebrating its 20th year serving quality Japanese food in a bright, beautiful, wood-paneled room replete with high ceilings and views of the Bay Bridge. Food wise, the sushi holds strong as a consistently fantastic part of the menu, and can be enjoyed via omakase sets or individual nigiri and sashimi orders. Aside from the sushi, the restaurant also features braised, grilled, and fried meats and fresh, local vegetables. Also of note are items like the well-known black cod, prepared with miso and sake. Don’t miss the extensive sake menu.
Dining at the restaurant: Indoor and outdoor dining are open for reservations.
Takeout: Takeout and delivery on offer directly from the restaurant at their website or from third-party apps.
Campton Place (Union Square)
Campton Place features Cal-Indian flavors produced by chef Srijith Gopinatha that has launched it to two Michelin stars. Though the restaurant has featured many other chefs over the course of its existence, when Gopinatha took over the restaurant in 2008 and overhauled the menu completely in 2013, Campton Place started soaring to new and previously unfounded heights. Featuring a prix fixe that blends Gopinatha’s south Indian roots with California produce, Campton Place’s menu features dishes such as game hen with summer herb saag and slow-cooked lamb with cumin-lime yogurt.
Dining at the restaurant: Campton Place is currently in hibernation.
Takeout: None currently available.
Chef Heena Patel’s very personal restaurant underwent a huge overhaul of its menu in 2019 not long after its opening, and though its bright interior and stunning plateware by Maria Qamar remained intact, the menu itself evolved into more of a reflection of Patel’s Gujarati roots and cooking skills, eventually becoming more intimate and yet bold at the same time. Regulars have become hooked on Patel’s dishes such as sev puuri and the maru bhaji, a seasonally rotating fried veggie platter. Eater SF named it 2019’s best restaurant shortly after the menu’s rebirth.
Dining at the restaurant: Besharam is getting ready to reopen for indoor dining, but reservations are not available yet.
Takeout: None currently on offer.
The Slanted Door (Embarcadero)
Chef Charles Phan gained national acclaim for The Slanted Door when it opened in 1995, eventually moving the restaurant from the Mission to its prime location in the San Francisco Ferry Building, all while nabbing the James Beard Award for Best Chef: California and Outstanding Restaurant in 2014. Though the food is well-known for its Vietnamese leanings, it still features the undeniable bounty of the Bay Area’s local seafood, meats, and produce. The vegetable side of the menu is robust with offerings such as yuba noodles with roasted chiles, and the restaurant is well known for its version of shaking beef, filet mignon with red onions and a sharp lime sauce.
Dining at the restaurant: Currently closed due to the pandemic and renovations, though the San Ramon location is open.
Takeout: None while the restaurant hibernates.
Burma Love Downtown (SoMa)
The Bay Area has long been a hub for Burmese food, and one of the most famous faces of that food has been the Burma Superstar restaurants. That same group opened Burma Love Downtown in Mint Plaza in San Francisco in 2019 to great fanfare, and the restaurant has been a hot spot ever since. Salads feature heavily in Burmese food, and the most famous of these is tea leaf salad, which Burma Love Downtown has its own version of, tossed tableside blending the fermented tea with the crisp ingredients — like nuts and fried garlic — that make the salad such a textural delight. There’s also mohinga, a fish chowder that is a staple of Burmese cuisine, along with other delights such as Burmese curry and pork belly with mustard greens.
Dining at the restaurant: Indoor and outdoor dining both available to book now.
Takeout: Order directly through the restaurant or via third-party apps.
Nopalito (Lower Haight)
Chef Gonzalo Guzman’s Mexican cooking has won the hearts of San Franciscans since Nopalito launched in 2009, and though one store had to close due to the pandemic, the Broderick Street restaurant still remains along with a taco window run out of the former Bi-Rite creamery space on 18th Street in the Mission. Guzman’s porky, piquant pozole rojo has a massive following, as does his rich, filling carnitas.
Dining at the restaurant: Currently closed for dine-in.
Takeout: Both the Broderick location and 18th Street locations offer takeout and delivery via third-party apps.
Both Castro-located Frances and its Pacific Heights-located sister restaurant, Octavia have long been destinations and tough-to-secure reservations. When Frances opened in 2009, rave reviews and best new restaurant awards raked in from publications like Bon Appetit and Esquire, as well as a James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. Chef and owner Melissa Perello crafts approachable, comforting food at both restaurants, with famous dishes such as the panisse frites and the best-in-class lumberjack cake.
Dining at the restaurant: Both locations are closed to ride out the pandemic.
Takeout: None available.
Swan Oyster Depot (Nob Hill)
Be prepared to wait in line at Swan Oyster Depot, but you will be richly rewarded with a bounty of fresh seafood that has made this Nob Hill counter a favorite of Anthony Bourdain and other culinary elite. History is a palpable presence at this family-owned luncheonette open since 1903, where servers charmingly guide diners to dishes such as crab Louie salad, shucked oysters, and a colorful sashimi platter. It’s a classic San Francisco experience that locals and visitors must have. Pro tip: There’s a (not-so) secret menu that diners would be smart to acquaint themselves with before going.
Dining at the restaurant: Swan Oyster Depot is open for walk-ins with a new parklet.
Takeout: Takeout is available.
Noah Cho is a writer and teacher based out of Oakland, California. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @noahreservation.