San Francisco’s sights, sports, music, and cultural attractions alone inspire millions of travelers each year. However, the biggest draw is San Francisco’s renowned culinary landscape. The latest research shows that food and cuisine are the #4 reason people say they want to visit San Francisco, sited by 59.7% of survey respondents. Food and drink are intricately woven into the region’s history and traditions, making the Bay Area a dining destination like no other. Here are the reasons why San Francisco is so delicious.
The James Beard Foundation Awards are as important in San Francisco as the Academy Awards are in Hollywood. On March 27, the finalists for the 2019 awards were announced. San Francisco was well-represented with ten nominees:
Best New Restaurant: Angler
Outstanding Chef: Corey Lee, Benu
Best Chef-West: Joshua Skenes, Saison
Rising Star Chef of the Year: Alexander Hong, Sorrel
Outstanding Pastry Chef: Juan Contreras, Atelier Crenn
Outstanding Restaurant: Quince
Outstanding Service: Saison
Outstanding Bar Program: Bar Agricole
Outstanding Wine Program: Benu
Restaurant Design: China Live and El Pípila
The winners will be announced on May 6, 2019.
San Francisco is already home to a number of James Beard Award-winning chefs and restaurants. In 2018, Dominique Crenn, creator of Atelier Crenn, Petit Crenn and Bar Crenn, was named Best Chef: West, which includes California, Nevada and Hawaii. Belinda Leong and Michel Suas of B. Pastisserie in San Francisco were named Outstanding Baker. Zuni Café was honored for Outstanding Service. The award for Outstanding Restaurant Design (76 seats and over) went to In Situ, the new restaurant inside SFMOMA, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
San Francisco has been home to Best Chef: West several times. Traci Des Jardins of Jardiniere, The Commissary, Arguello, Public House and Mujita (and James Beard's Rising Star Chef of the Year, 1995) won it in 2007. Prior winners of the regional award also include Corey Lee of Benu (2017), Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski of State Bird Provisions (2015), Daniel Patterson of Coi (2014), Michael Tusk of Quince (2011), Charles Phan of Slanted Door (2004) and Nancy Oakes of Boulevard (2001).
San Francisco and the region has a total of 80 Michelin stars among the 58 venues listed in the 2019 Michelin Guide. The area’s Bib Gourmands, “restaurants that offer high-quality food at pocket-friendly prices,” increased by one this year to 68.
Seven restaurants in the region have achieved the three-star distinction. That's more than any other city in the United States, including New York.
Dominique Crenn at Atelier Crenn is now the first female chef in the U.S. to achieve three Michelin stars (more on her later). Her newer restaurant, Bar Crenn, also received its first Michelin star and was named one of the best new restaurants in the U.S. by Esquire Magazine (see below).
Cala, in San Francisco, is the only two-star Mexican restaurant in the world. Ironically, there are no two-star Michelin restaurants in Mexico.
Al’s Place on Valencia Street is one of the least expensive Michelin star restaurant in the U.S.
San Francisco also took the top spot on Esquire’s 2018 list of “Best New Restaurants in America.” Angler, on the Embarcadero, was named #1 and described as “an Avalon of pleasure and ease.” Other San Franciscans on the list: Bar Crenn (#12) and Che Fico (#17).
Yelp named San Francisco the #1 city in America for 2019 on their list of “Top 10 Foodie Cities.” The Yelp blog states, “In order to rank the best places for foodies, our Data Science team looked at a number of different factors. Yelp’s data science team compared cities’ new restaurants, looking at ratings, reviews, cuisine diversity and percentage of food photos, to reveal where Yelpers love to eat right now.…San Francisco grabbed the top spot as the best destination for foodies. From Michelin-starred restaurants like Liholiho Yacht Club to Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, there’s virtually no cuisine travelers can’t find in the City by the Bay.”
San Francisco restaurants and chefs have been a driving force in global culinary innovation for decades, and there are countless examples of local establishments leading the way in experimentation, advancement, and excellence.
You can see this innovation at work by dining at restaurants such as Lazy Bear, which was started as pop up by a lawyer who lost his job, financed by a tech venture capitalist, and is now Michelin star restaurant.
A meal at In Situ starts with a menu that’s a map of what inspires chef Corey Lee. Here, he curates a rotating of menu of dishes perfected by his peers all over the world.
Chef Michael Mina and television host and cookbook author Ayesha Curry joined forces to develop an exciting new flavor experience. International Smoke borrows techniques from cultures in every corner of the world for its smoked and grilled specialties.
Reflecting the culinary lifestyle of the Bay Area, San Francisco International Airport (SFO) developed a has opened a 3,241 square foot food hall, located in SFO’s International Terminal. Manufactory Food Hall is a collaboration between four multi-award winning San Francisco culinary luminaries who will bring their three eateries: Chefs Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Prueitt with Tartine, Gabriela Cámara presenting Cala, and Pim Techamuanvivit of Michellin-starred Kin Khao.
San Francisco Bay Area “food firsts” include these creations:
- The Martini (1860)
- Pisco Punch (1880)
- The Popsicle (1905)
- Chicken Tetrazzini (1908)
- The Crab Louie salad (1914)
- Green Goddess salad dressing (1915)
- It’s It Ice Cream Sandwich (1928)
- Joe’s Special (1932)
- The Mai Tai (1944)
- Irish Coffee, making its American debut (1952)
- “California cuisine” (1971)
Here are some other tasty tidbits:
- Fior d’Italia is the oldest Italian restaurant in the U.S. opened in 1886.
- San Francisco’s oldest restaurant is Tadich Grill (circa 1887), one of several that pre-date 1900, (Cliff House, Old Clam House and Schroeder’s).
- San Francisco had the first American chef to unanimously win the Japanese “Iron Chef” competition (1999)
- With some 5,300+ places to eat, San Francisco has more per capita than any other major city in the United States.
- According to WalletHub, San Francisco has the highest number of chocolate shops per 100,000 residents, at 9.17 per person.
Taste and Technology
San Francisco is the home of Salesforce, Twitter, LinkedIn, Square, Pinterest and countless tech startups. All that innovation works up an appetite and not just any greasy slice will do.
Located within San Francisco’s iconic Salesforce East building, Trailblazer Tavern marries the unmatched talent and expertise of the Hawaiian-born-and-bred husband and wife chef duo and James Beard-nominated Hawaiian chefs Michelle Karr-Ueoka and Wade Ueoka of Honolulu’s MW Restaurant with Chef Michael Mina’s innovative approach to upscale dining and Salesforce’s “Ohana” culture.
Creator has introduced the world's first hamburger completely composed by robots. This is the newest division of the robotics company Creator Inc., founded in 2010 as Momentum Machines. The mission is “to create the most human centric dining experience possible through the use of technology.” Reviews have been remarkably positive.
With two locations in downtown San Francisco, eatsa is a start-up company and fast casual restaurant chain based in San Francisco. The mission is to “revolutionize restaurants using technology and design to delight and empower both customers and operators.” Similar to an automat, users order via tablet and their custom-made orders appear behind glass in cubbyholes with the customer’s name.
Diversity of Dining
San Francisco is well-known for a deeply inclusive culture, and residents are open to diversity in every aspect of daily living. This welcoming spirit and willingness to embrace other cultures and lifestyles has made the city’s incredible variety of cuisine possible. In a single trip, you can enjoy classic flavors and modern remakes from the culinary traditions of dozens of nations.
There is a huge Asian influence due to largest Chinese community outside of China in San Francisco.
Chinese cuisine has developed from street food to fine dining. Places like Mr Jiu’s and China Live are redefining the term “Chinese restaurant.”
Each year, the San Francisco Chronicle’s list of “Top 100 Restaurants” is eagerly awaited by locals and foodies around the world. Here are ten additions to the list that reflect the city’s culinary and ethnic diversity:
- ‘Aina - Hawaiian cuisine, Dogpatch neighborhood
- A Mano – Italian cuisine, Hayes Valley
- Dumpling Time – Chinese cuisine, South of Market (SOMA)
- Esan Classic – Thai cuisine, Tenderloin/Civic Center
- International Smoke – Upscale, international barbeque, South of Market (SOMA)
- Mister Jiu’s – Chinese cuisine, Chinatown
- The Morris – Northern California cuisine, Potrero Flats neighborhood
- Robin – Japanese cuisine, Hayes Valley
- Rooh – Indian cuisine, South Beach neighborhood
- True Laurel – Drink-centric menu, Mission District
Female Chefs Taking the Lead
Nowhere is this double dynamic of diversity and innovation as evident as in the region's strong legacy of female chefs and women-owned restaurants. From Alice Waters, who helped found the local and organic food movement back in 1971 when she opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley, to Joyce Goldstein fusing Mediterranean flavors with California's bounty for the first time in 1984 at San Francisco's Square One, women have been on the front lines of the Bay Area food scene for decades.
Few culinary superstars have risen as fast as San Francisco chef Dominique Crenn. After bringing her five-course tasting menu and intimate small dining room experience to the Marina District with Atelier Crenn in 2011, she opened up Petit Crenn in Hayes Valley in 2015. The first female chef in the U.S. to earn two Michelin stars and author of the cookbook, “Atelier Crenn: Metamorphosis of Taste,” French-born Crenn is famous for her attention to detail on both the dinner and brunch menus, the latter featuring stand-out items like the Brittany Coast style buckwheat crepes filled with lobster mushrooms, aged goat cheese and eggs.
After running the kitchen at San Francisco culinary institutions such as Zuni and Bar Agricole, as well as Camino in Oakland and Bantam in Santa Cruz, veteran chef Melissa Reitz now runs the show at Locanda on Valencia Street (sister restaurant of Delfina). Her three-star menu here focuses on modern Italian Osteria-style classics such as veal saltimbocca with prosciutto, cheese and sage, all melted gloriously together on top. Locanda also does an extremely popular brunch menu, which features items like French toast with strawberries and pistachio butter.
Born and raised in Bangkok, Pim Techamuanvivit has single-handedly upped the game on Thai food in San Francisco at critically acclaimed Kin Khao (which means “let’s eat”). Items like Khao Mun Gai (chicken fat rice, ginger-poached chicken and Pim’s own secret sauce) created from produce and meats sourced from local farms, have helped to win Kin Khao a Michelin star. The coconut and black rice pudding dessert is also a crowd pleaser.
When Jardiniere first opened its doors back in 1997, it helped transform Hayes Valley from a neglected neighborhood to the trendsetting city center oasis that it is today. Besides masterminding the French-influenced menu at Jardiniere (think duck confit with peaches and chrysanthemum), Traci de Jardin is also the chef/owner of both Mijita in the Ferry Building and The Commissary in the Presidio, as well as a partner in the Public House, where she creates sustainable pub food.
Michelin-star winning chef/owner of both Frances in the Castro and Octavia in Pacific Heights, Melissa Perello is a star of San Francisco’s competitive fine dining scene. Her seasonally changing menus are creative and expressly influenced by the Pacific Rim, with items like tagliatelle with sea urchin butter, jolly tomatoes, and shishito appearing on the menu. In 2016, Perello was a semi-finalist for the James Beard Award for “Best Chef West.”
The genius behind the Indian street food-inspired menu (including curry topped pizzas) at both Juhu Beach Club (now closed, much to our chagrin) in Oakland and Navi Kitchen in Emeryville, Preeti Misti went from working at the Google cafeteria to appearing on Top Chef to becoming one of the hottest young chefs in the Bay Area. The author of the “Juhu Beach Club Cookbook,” which promises Indian Spice with an Oakland Soul, Mistry’s menu items – like tamarind coconut curry with cremini mushrooms and summer eggplant – have a devoted and die-hard following.
Chef/owner of both Contramar in Mexico City and Cala in San Francisco, Gabriella Camara has the honor of running what many consider the most authentic upscale Mexican restaurant in the Bay Area. Plates like her signature dish, trout tostadas with chipotle and avocado, gets rave reviews and have helped define “modern” Mexican cuisine across the country.
Born near Shanghai in 1920 and raised in Beijing, Cecilia Chiang is a living legend in the San Francisco restaurant scene, as she is credited with bringing Mandarin style Chinese food to the Bay Area. Although her restaurant closed in 2006, her influence is still strong, and she has been the subject of several recent documentaries including one by director Wayne Wang (“The Joy Luck Club”). Mandarin classics like Peking Duck and Beggar’s Chicken have now become a staple of San Francisco cuisine largely because of her.
An innovative project that mixes San Francisco’s passion for food with its commitment to community service, La Cocina, located in the Mission District, is both a building and the project. Founded by The Women’s Initiative for Self-Employment and funded by an anonymous donor, it’s mission is truly inspiring: “To cultivate low income food entrepreneurs as they formalize and grow their businesses by providing affordable commercial kitchen space, industry-specific technical assistance and access to market opportunities. We focus primarily on women from communities of color and immigrant communities. Our vision is that entrepreneurs gain financial security by doing what they love to do, creating an innovative, vibrant and inclusive economic landscape.”
Like many major American cities, San Francisco struggles with people experiencing homelessness. CHEFS, Conquering Homelessness through Employment in Food Services, is a five-month culinary training program that provides instruction in technical and professional skills enhancement necessary for entry into the food service industry. Students are provided with classroom instruction, in-kitchen hands-on training and an internship at a local restaurant or institutional kitchen setting. Individuals qualify for the program if they live on the street, in a shelter, in transitional housing, in a residential treatment program, in a supportive housing building or meet HUD (Housing and Urban Development) definition of extreme low income.
A long list of San Francisco/Bay Area restaurants provide internships for CHEFS students and many students go on to work in the restaurant industry. The CHEFS program has graduated more than 1,000 individuals since inception.
Generosity is a specialty with San Francisco restaurants. For example, Tacolicious has made public education a priority since 2012, investing in the Bay Area community through the Tacolicious School Project. For Tacolicious owners Joe Hargrave and Sara Deseran, this mission is personal. Since kindergarten, their children have attended San Francisco public schools.
From September to May, each Tacolicious location in San Francisco, Palo Alto and San Jose pairs up with neighboring public schools, donating 15 percent of a month’s worth of Monday’s proceeds. Tacolicious has an annual alliance with 54 public schools. To date they have given more than $1 million to public education.
Tacolicious also partners with Parents for Public Schools and the San Francisco Education Fund. As part of this partnership, Tacolicious sponsors one child's $15,000 Maisin Scholar Award, helping close the opportunity gap for San Francisco’s inner-city youth.
Local, Sustainable Sources
Northern California has robust agriculture, providing top-quality ingredients to the chefs of the city year-round. As a result, Bay Area cuisine has taken its place as a leader in fresh flavors.
For example, the famous Waterfront Restaurant is a favorite for its farm-to-table produce and its selection of sustainably harvested seafood. The STEM Kitchen & Garden menu features produce from its on-site garden, as well as certified cafe-free eggs and humanely-raised meats.
Some restaurants extend their sustainability commitment to their choices in building and furnishing. One of the most notable examples is Plow, which relied on the skills of contractors within their zip code to transform the building from an architecture studio to an eatery. All construction materials were locally sourced, and now that Plow is open for business, nearly every ingredient takes a direct path from farm to table.
To the Bay Area's bounty without making a reservation, simply visit one of the city's exceptional farmers' markets, like the one at the historic Ferry Building. Watch out for shoppers with large carts – they are most likely chefs planning their menu for the week based on what’s fresh and beautiful at the market.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
What would the Bay Area be without its wine? As one of the world's top producers of everything from Chardonnay to Zinfandel, a visit to San Francisco wouldn't be complete without a trip to wine country, just an hour away.
This is definitely a spirited town, fond of its martinis, Pisco Punch and Irish Coffee. Mixology is a serious science and craft cocktails approach alchemy.
San Francisco has also become a brewer's paradise. There are almost as many different kinds of local beer to sample as there are local wines. Brewery tours are on offer, including San Francisco's original Anchor Brewing.
With so many options, travelers never go hungry in San Francisco. Frequent visitors keep a running list of which places to try on their next visit, which always keeps them coming back.
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