San Francisco is a city where people live to eat and their appetites are far ranging and eclectic, whether it’s a craving for an ample rice plate from a café in Chinatown or pancetta wrapped frog legs staged on Limoges china.
With some 3,489 restaurants to choose from, more per capita than any other major city in the United States, it’s no wonder that after scenery the second most popular reason for visiting this 47.335-square-mile culinary crossroads is restaurants.
Local ingredients and worldly chefs fuel this delicious attraction, exceeded only by “atmosphere and ambiance.” International influences have been at work in the City’s kitchens since the Gold Rush days when Frenchmen, Germans and Chinese flocked ashore from early sailing ships. Over the years Italians, Armenians, Basques, Filipinos, Indians, Polynesians, Japanese, Mexicans, Russians, Spanish and Scandinavians have added their flourishes to the local gastronomy.
San Francisco’s geography plays right into the hands of its chefs. The city stands in the midst of North America’s finest vineyards with orchards, farms and cattle lands on three sides and the bounty of the Pacific at its shore. Over the decades enterprising chefs, tenacious entrepreneurs and innovative customers have also added to the flavor of the city, which has a long list of “food firsts” to its credit.
Among the unique or regionally typical foods to be sampled in San Francisco are abalone, Dungeness crab, sand dabs, bay shrimp, crusty sourdough French bread. The late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen claimed that the classic triumvirate of “dark bake” sourdough French bread, a bottle of chilled Chardonnay and fresh cracked crab, was the “quintessential San Francisco meal.” A Green Goddess salad, varied artichoke dishes and artisan cheeses from neighboring counties would also qualify as a San Francisco classic.
Food trends to look for …
Local publicists for major restaurants share some insights on the local restaurant scene:
- With the emphasis on fresh ingredients and the kick that “here and now” flavor gives to mixed drinks, more mixologists and bartenders continue to feature freshly squeezed juices rather than their canned counterparts.
- Tea tasting? Chocolate pairings? Cheese to please? The tasting experience is no longer the exclusive province of wine drinkers. Menus showcasing tea varietals, chocolate pairings with wine and liqueurs, and more in depth food experiences are not uncommon.
- Slow food is on the fast track. An homage to regional culinary traditions; the common ground to be found between farmers, cooks and consumers; and adapting to the natural inclinations of this earth, the slow food movement has hundreds of advocates within and beyond San Francisco’s restaurant community.
- Sustainability will remain a constant on any menu with a social conscience. It is the strength of the local food scene and diners are becoming more and more sophisticated about their dining choices. They recognize local suppliers and question the source of menu items. To that end, chefs and kitchen staff retain good relations with local farmers and emphasize fresh food prepared from scratch. The eco-friendly trend also extends to packaging, menus, table linens and other “back of the house” decisions.
- A handful of restaurants in San Francisco stay open past 11 pm, catering to their professional colleagues and the late, late, late crowd.
To track San Francisco food trends, visit the Dine food section of the SFCVB Web site.
Reservations San Francisco is one of the culinary capitals of the world. However, a reservation at the hottest new restaurant can sometimes be elusive. Here are a few tips from several seasoned local diners (some of whom still firmly believe that money talks):
- Call well in advance — two to four weeks in advance — and be flexible about your dining hour. Maitre d’s can often accommodate guests before 6 pm or towards the end of the dining hour at 9. If possible, avoid the peak dining-out nights of Thursday, Friday and Saturday. And it doesn’t hurt to reconfirm your reservation (perhaps a week before).
- Turned down? Ask to be put on a waiting list if the restaurant has one or try again closer to the dinner hour. Perhaps there’s been a last minute cancellation. If you are still unsuccessful, know that some restaurants set aside a few tables for walk-in diners only. Also some restaurants can serve a full meal at the bar when space is available.
- Cultivate your hotel concierge. Call ahead to the hotel where you will be staying during your San Francisco visit and ask for their assistance in making a reservation. Concierges often have relationships with restaurant staff and can sometimes gain entree where you can’t.