San FranciscoWords Andy Harris
Photography David Loftus
San Francisco is one of the world’s most fascinating cities. During its dramatic life it has seen everything from the mercurial growth of the 1840s gold rush, and catastrophic earthquake of 1906, to some of the biggest moments in the liberal history of America. In the Fifties, Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg hung out in the City Lights bookshop in North Beach; in the Sixties the hippies brought free love and drugs; and in the Seventies the gay rights movement found its voice here. The new century saw the rise and fall of Silicon Valley, and the phoenix-like birth of young Google billionaires out of its ashes. San Francisco has always been a place of extremes, and still today rich and poor collide in its neighbourhoods, with enormous mansions strutting their stuff in the Pacific Heights area, and tenement blocks and 99-cent stores galore in the Mission District.
Like other famous harbour cities – Sydney, Vancouver and Stockholm – San Francisco is great for food and drink. Blessed with an enchanting setting and enviable climate, it affords plenty of opportunities to eat outdoors, in public spaces such as the Golden Gate Park.
It’s often thought of as the birthplace of the healthy, laidback, Californian style of food that chefs such as Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and Judy Rodgers of Zuni Café do so well – simple cooking that makes use of the abundant seasonal produce from established organic farms around the Bay and nearby Napa Valley.
This compact city filled with sidewalk cafes, restaurants and bars is the perfect place for budget eating if you’re not in the mood for fine dining (for which there are also plenty of choices). You can hit the hot dog stands, taco wagons, bakeries and alleyway coffee stalls for pit-stop grazing as you tour the sights.
If you’re lucky enough to be in San Francisco for the weekend, the only place to go first thing on Saturday morning is the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. This colourful caravanserai of stalls starts selling seasonal produce from 8am and attracts a loyal following. They come for organic fruit and vegetables with real flavour, whether it’s dried persimmons and peaches, gnarly root veg, jars of spicy pickles and scented jams, and all kinds of micro-herbs for salads. Work up an appetite wandering the market, then join the hungover Friday night bar-hoppers queuing
for Blue Bottle coffee before breakfasting on El Molino Central’s tortillas, tamales or chilaquiles ‘el cardenal’ (soft-scrambled eggs with tomato and chipotle salsa and refried Rancho Gordo beans). Otherwise, pick up a bacon and egg roll from the Hayes Street Grill gang, or open red lox (salmon) sandwiches with onions and borscht from Cap’n Mike’s Holy Smoke, and eat at the communal tables beside the quay, beneath the circling seagulls.
Inside the restored Ferry Plaza is the Village Market, an eclectic collection of food stores and delis. The Cowgirl Creamery is famed for its farmstead cheeses, and you can take away oozing cheese on toast or creamy mozzarella rolls from their Sidekick outlet next door. Nearby is The Slanted Door, Charles Phan’s modern Vietnamese restaurant, which first opened in the Mission District in 1995. It’s still going strong today with an innovative menu of salads, grills, steamed buns and the popular restorative chicken rice noodle soup available from Out the Door, its adjacent takeaway.
From here, head to Swan Oyster Depot in Nob Hill, an area that has mercifully changed little over the years. Open for a century this year, Swan Oyster Depot has 20 stools lined up along a marble counter that’s cluttered with mounds of empty oyster and dungeness crab shells. Service from the friendly Sancimino family, who run the charismatic joint, is chaotic as they shuck oysters, crack crabs, slice sides of Pacific lox and ladle thick clam chowder into bowls for their regulars. It’s a quintessential taste of old San Francisco, best tried with a glass of icy Anchor Steam beer.
Afterwards, wander down Polk Street to Russian Hill and the Marina District, where yummy mummies compete for sidewalk tables at La Boulange. Run by Pascal Rigo, one of the city’s best bakers, La Boulange is renowned for its sensuous quiches and tarts. Or take a ticket at cramped Italian deli Lucca, and wait for fresh bread rolls heaving with salami, mortadella, provolone and pickles, or a satisfying wedge of spinach frittata. Opposite Lucca is the brilliant Blue Barn Gourmet, a salad bar with attitude where various organic leaves are tossed with unusual dressings, such as chipotle and agave or meyer lemon and sumac vinaigrette.
It’s a short hop to Fillmore Street, which is filled with some great ethnic eateries. Tacobar is good for people watching from the window ledge as you try fish or prawn tacos with cabbage slaw and tangy lime salsa. The latest addition to the street, Bun Mee, is a clever Vietnamese sandwich joint where they serve slow-braised pork belly and Hanoi-style catfish with pickles in toasted baguettes.
No visit to San Francisco would be complete without a wander round the Mission District, home to some exciting Latin flavours and impressive graffitied wall murals. For the adventurous eater, Mission Street has some interesting Peruvian and Salvadorean cafes in the narrow produce halls, nestled among Mexican clothing stores filled with garish wedding outfits, Stetson hats and cowboy boots. La Taqueria is an old stalwart where marinated steak is expertly grilled and chopped into burritos with a formidable spicy salsa. More modern flavours can be found at LimÓn, a stylish Peruvian restaurant that does a mean pisco sour, as well as substantial ceviches with all the traditional trimmings.
Not too far away are two other San Francisco institutions: Delfina is the ideal neighbourhood Italian restaurant, serving affordable pizzas and pasta; and Bi-Rite Market, run by the pioneering Sam Mogannam, is quite simply one of the world’s finest food emporiums. The store’s cramped aisles are filled with carefully curated local and global artisan products, and it’s a brilliant place to pick up sandwiches and salads for the flight home. Airline food will never taste the same again as you savour a final taste of this inspiring city.
Eat & Drink
Ferry Plaza Farmers Market Ferry Building Marketplace, 1 Ferry Building; +415 291 3276. Open Saturday, 8am–2pm; Tuesday, 10.30am–2pm; and Thursday, 10am–2pm.
Sidekick 1 Ferry Building, no 19; +415 392 4000. This is the takeaway outlet of the impressive cheese shop Cowgirl Creamery, next door. Succumb to the melting cheese toasties and mac ’n’ cheese.
L’Osteria del Forno 519 Columbus Avenue; +415 982 1124. Tiny trattoria run by two Italian mamas. There’s no stove-top but an oven that produces daily roasts and pasta dishes.
Tacolicious 741 Valencia Street (at 18th); +415 626 1344. Manny Ramirez, the smiling bus boy, is the life and soul of this trendy taco bar, where they also serve great cocktails.
Little Skillet 360 Ritch Street (between 3rd and 4th); +415 777 2777. Southern-style soul food, such as chicken and waffles, grits, slaw and breakfast po’boys, at this hole-in-the-wall classic.
Limón 524 Valencia Street; +415 252 0918. Peruvian food with flare. Start with a pisco sour, then move on to the fantastic ceviche and lomo saltado.
La Boulange 2300 Polk Street (at Green), +415 345 1107. Master baker Pascal Rigo has been wooing locals for years. Try the croque monsieur, niçoise salad and provençal BLT.
Village Market 4555 California Street (at 8th); +415 221 0445. The perfect organic corner store, selling cupboard staples, great coffee and a memorable fried egg and rocket brioche roll.
The Slanted Door 1 Ferry Building, no 3; +415 861 8032. If you can’t be bothered to queue at Charles Phan’s popular Vietnamese restaurant, try the restorative chicken rice noodle soup or steamed buns from Out the Door, its adjacent takeaway.
Let’s Be Frank 3318 Steiner Street (between Lombard and Chestnut); +415 674 6755. The 100% local grass-fed beef Frank Dog or ‘Hot’ Dog (spicy pork sausage) with coleslaw and chilli sauce is the stuff of ballpark dreams.
Bar Jules 609 Hayes Street (at Laguna); +415 621 5482. If you’re lucky, the preserved swordfish sandwich with olives and chickpea salad will be on the menu at this small, quirky restaurant.
Lucca 2120 Chestnut Street (between Steiner and Pierce); + 415 921 7873. A cramped Italian deli that sells gargantuan sandwiches and spinach frittata for eating in the nearby parks.
Blue Barn Gourmet 2105 Chestnut Street (at Steiner); +415 441 3232. Expect queues of joggers at this inspirational salad bar, waiting for detox salad – an invigorating mix of quinoa, kale, carrots, cucumber, apples, flax seeds and dried cranberries – among others.
Tartine Bakery 600 Guerrero Street (at 18th Street); +415 487 2600. This famed, nondescript bakery turns out delectable open grilled sandwiches, lemon tarts and savoury bread puddings.
Fatted Calf Charcuterie 320 Fell Street; +415 400 5614. Brilliant butcher shop with homemade charcuterie, such as pork rillettes, mortadella and rabbit crepinettes for picnics, plus daily hot sandwiches and rolls.
Smitten Ice Cream 432 Octavia Street (at Linden); +917 620 2580. These exciting artisan ice creams are made to order from scratch in just 60 seconds, thanks to the liquid nitrogen in a special machine the staff call ‘Kelvin’. We enjoyed the salted caramel, quince and meyer lemon flavours.
Bi-Rite Market 3639 18th Street; +415 241 9760. Quite simply one of the most inspirational neighbourhood food stores you’ll ever visit, with the finest organic ingredients from around the globe, crammed into a tiny space.
Custom Burger 121 7th Street; +415 252 2634. Choose from American kobe or angus beef, add cheese or a fried petaluma egg, top with rocket and jalapeños, and hold it all together with a sesame-seed bun at this fantastic retro diner.
Pizzeria Delfina 3611 18th Street; +415 437 6800. There’s now a pizzeria next to Craig and Anne Stoll’s acclaimed Delfina restaurant. Sit at the sidewalk tables and eat perfectly cooked thin-crust pizzas, calzones, salads and soup.
La Taqueria 2889 Mission Street; +415 285 7117. This long-standing taco joint does brilliant grilled tongue or marinated flank steak burritos topped with avocado and cheese.
Bun Mee 2015 Fillmore Street; +415 800 7696. What could be better than braised pork belly, pickled carrot and daikon on a toasted baguette, or a bun noodle bowl with a sweet iced coffee?
Tacobar 2401 California Street (at Fillmore), +415 674 7745. Sit on stools at the window counter and people watch, as you try perfect carne asada and baja pescado (battered mahi mahi fish with cabbage slaw and lime sauce).
Swan Oyster Depot 1517 Polk Street, +415 673 1101. Cash-only institution that still sees round-the-block queues for its freshly shucked oysters, clam chowder, shrimp or crab Louie, and thinly sliced lox with icy beer.
Cookin’ 339 Divisadero; +415 861 1854. This ‘Recycled Gourmet Appurtenances’ store is run by the formidable Judy Kaminsky, who is a fount of knowledge for all things pertaining to the kitchen arts. Food and prop stylists flock to the store, as do locals simply searching for a whisk or cast-iron pan.
Mandarin Oriental 222 Sansome Street, +415 276 9888. After you’ve saved money on eating out, splash out at this luxurious high-rise downtown hotel, where all the rooms have stunning views.
For more information about San Francisco, its food and drink scene, transport, hotels and events, go to sanfrancisco.travel