San Francisco is a renowned foodie destination. If you are part of that food connoisseur club, or want to join it, you most likely will ask a friend, family member or concierge for a restaurant recommendation and perhaps conduct your own search, online on Google or using Yelp or some other popular search engine.
But in a famous food location such as San Francisco, with so many varieties of fine restaurants, you can ask 10 locals to name the best restaurants and they would offer 10 different answers, and none of them would be incorrect. Why? Because to last in San Francisco as one of its 3,600 (pre-pandemic) restaurants, from budget to luxury or anywhere in between, the competition is fierce. You need to be good; otherwise, pandemics aside, you may be on your way out of business.
So when it comes to San Francisco, where should you spend your time enjoying quality meals? Are the answers all on Yelp? What are the best seafood, steak, Italian or vegan restaurants in the eyes of the locals? What about our Michelin-starred restaurants? Or a place for a quiet, luxury lunch? Below are a few suggestions from our private tour guides—to better hone your online search for the best restaurants in the city:
Opened in 1849 by three Croatian immigrants and currently the oldest restaurant in San Francisco, Tadich is a classic, historic downtown restaurant, more suitable for 1-2 guests during lunch and dinner hours. You can ask for a table, or if crowded, grab a seat at the charming bar to enjoy the classic atmosphere. The establishment is operated like a true old-school restaurant—no reservations required—so we recommend you arrive after prime dinner hours. Tadich is located in the Financial District, and many of its servers and bartenders have been employed by the restaurant for an average of 16-17 years, with generations of loyal customers coming through the front doors. What’s not to love?
Opened in 1935 and one of the oldest family-owned restaurants in North Beach, the Italian neighborhood of San Francisco, Tomosso’s is another classic restaurant that takes no reservations. Don’t let the Larry Flint strip club across the street fool you: Tomosso’s pumps out some of the best Italian pizzas on the West Coast, their famous brick oven even inspiring famous chefs such as Wolfgang Puck. Well-known customers, including Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, have partaken of the popular Neapolitan menu, 90 percent of which is the same as it was 85 years ago. Enjoy a glass of wine as you dine. And don’t look for pineapple on your pizza here.
Mourad is a Michelin-starred restaurant in the SOMA neighborhood, within walking distance of luxury hotels such as the Four Seasons and Palace Hotel. It provides a dining experience focused on the rich, vibrant flavors of Morroco. Served on family-style plates, dining options include a lamb tartare, branzino, or even octopus if you are feeling adventurous. With ingredients fresh and local, the food is designed to show the spirit and soul of head chef Mourad Lahlou, who has written cookbooks and been featured on cooking shows such as Iron Chef. Mourad, not his first restaurant, is an establishment serving well-made dishes family-style in a classy, exclusive manner.
Waterbar is a luxury lunch and dinner restaurant on the San Francisco Bay, well-known both for its awe-inspiring views of the Bay Bridge—especially The Bay Lights once the sun goes down—and it has some of the best seafood in town. Dine on the patio and glance at runners on the Embarcadero, or dine inside for a meal away from the Bay’s weather and elements. Meal options include tamari braised swordfish, shellfish bisque, salt and pepper soft-shell crab and more, with the big party each year being Oysterfest, featuring music, locals and, you guessed it: oysters. Consider dining here if you are near San Francisco’s Ferry Building or strolling on the Embarcadero. Valet parking is available, and reservations are recommended.
La Mar is another San Francisco restaurant operated by a master chef, in this case offering a taste of Peru in the middle of northern California. Influenced by the South American country’s ethnic culture, the upscale menu features signature seafood, meat and vegetarian selections, along with their famous cocktail, a pisco sour—a margarita-type drink that pairs perfectly with Cebice and chips on a sunny afternoon. La Mar’s ambiance includes water views and heat lamps for those who are curious. And if seafood is not your thing, try the Peruvian beef tenderloin. Those who visit La Mar very much enjoy the restaurant’s blend of Latin American atmosphere and high-quality cuisine.
Michelin-starred Yank Sing in San Francisco provides the cultural experience of dim sum in a fine-dining setting. Located in two locations in the Financial District, the restaurant’s features servers who wheel around small food carts where you can grab classic dim sum dishes such as dumplings, steamed pork buns and egg tarts as they roll by. After an hour or two here, you’ll be as stuffed as can be and ready to be carried out of the lunch-only restaurant by forklift.
Update – 21 Aug 2021: Lately we’ve heard mixed reviews about Yank Sing (since the pandemic began), so we ventured over to check things out for ourselves. On a Thursday lunch, we had no problems whatsoever with the restaurant and are proud to still recommend the spot to our guests.
House of Prime Rib
Known as a classic San Francisco establishment, if not the classic San Francisco restaurant, House of Prime Rib prides itself on serving only the top 2% of all beef marketed in America. With a high-quality, well-marbled, corn-fed prime rib in the English tradition carved at your table to your exact specifications, there is no question you’ll be impressed with the down-to-earth yet professional ambiance of the place, and with the prime rib melting off the bone as you dine. Picture sides of creamed spinach, fluffy mashed potatoes and Yorkshire pudding, with the warm atmosphere also impressing foodies and regular diners alike. Because House of Prime Rib is so popular, we recommend making reservations early. Very early.
So, you’re in San Francisco and want to find the best sushi restaurant. Look no further than Roka Akor, which offers high-end sushi and a chef-focused menu. Enjoy meals that challenge your tastebuds. Whether your visit is romantically motivated or you are dining alongside long-lost friends, the hot and cold plates, modern nigiri, Wagyu beef and more will leave any foodie impressed. The professionalism of the staff, along with the inside decorated in a contemporary setting with rich wood and sleek lighting—and elbow room to talk—will leave you comfortable and satisfied. Located near the Pyramid in downtown San Francisco, Rora Akor also has locations in other major cities, including Chicago and Houston.
Buena Vista Cafe
A legendary establishment in San Francisco, the Buena Vista Cafe serves more than 2,000 Irish coffees per day. The restaurant’s history goes back to 1952, when then-owner Jack Koepeller challenged travel writer Stanton Delaplane to recreate an Irish coffee that was popular in Ireland. The pair experimented with concoctions for some time before finally realizing that 48-hour-old milk allowed the cream to stay at the top of the glass. Fast forward to today and that’s a great reason to try the best Irish coffee in town. If you aren’t a coffee lover, no need to fret: the cafe offers breakfast, lunch and dinner options—a great way to escape the chilly fog while exploring Fisherman’s Wharf with your loved ones. Located near the Hyde cable car turnaround, at the base of one of the steepest hills in the city, this iconic café has been featured in news publications all around the world.
If you are looking for a bakery, or somewhere in Chinatown to sample authentic Chinese cuisine, look no further than the Eastern Bakery, an establishment priding itself on a selection of quality baked items. Their moon pies, coffee crunch cake and pork buns rival the fare in other, Yelp-famous Chinatown restaurants (many of which you’ll be waiting in line for behind the techies). But why wait when you can stroll to the Eastern? You’ll find the popular bakery on Grant Avenue near the Dragon’s Gate, where you can stop for quality tastes before you continue your exploration through the deeper parts of Chinatown. The coffee crunch cake is legendary to locals.
Swenson’s Ice Cream
There’s just something refreshingly wholesome about a local ice cream shop, and that is exactly what you will find at Swenson’s in San Francisco. The original ice cream shop that led to the launch of the Swenson franchise, Swenson’s in San Francisco uses the company’s original recipes and fresh ingredients so customers can enjoy ice cream the old-fashioned way. The shop offers seasonal flavors and traditional favorites, including mocha fudge and Bordeaux cherry, packed into handmade waffle cones. It’s a great restaurant to visist after you stroll through the stairways of Russian Hill. Swenson’s is closed on Mondays.
Bourbon and Branch
Although not a restaurant, Bourbon and Branch is an intriguing libation destination to add to your list, especially if you are staying near Union Square. Located on the edge of the Tenderloin, and sometimes bordering an area that is not as nice, Bourbon and Branch is nondescript from the outside. Harkening back to Prohibition and speakeasy days, the establishment only allows entry with a reservation and password. And make sure you turn your phone off—active phones are against the rules. As for their drink menu: does anyone care for a neat serving of Pappy Van Winkle—one of the rarest whiskeys in the world? Or how about some Crown XR? Or a specialty cocktail prepared by the skilled bartender featuring a rare rum, tequila and more? Travel back to a simpler time before so much technology invaded our senses. No photography is allowed, and remember to enter and exit quietly.
What Is San Francisco’s Best Upscale Restaurant?
This is a loaded question, for sure. You can choose the best restaurant out of 10 or maybe even out of 100. But out of more than 3,000? Not possible. And how do you determine the best type of meal for the moment? For example, returning to San Francisco after a 40-mile Yosemite hike commands a different meal than a light lunch or cocktail while you relax along the Bay on a sunny day.
We’ve named a few restaurants you should be delighted to experience but, of course, there’s no accounting for taste, and the enjoyment and appreciation of food, to an extent, is subjective. We won’t call you crazy if you don’t like any of our above recommendations, but what are you thinking?!
One of the best ways to partake of San Francisco’s culinary charms is to just go out and explore. Even if you can’t get into a restaurant because you have no reservation or it’s fully booked, there could easily be a better restaurant around the corner. Most of the food trucks even offer good meals. It’s how the city runs.
With thousands of restaurants to choose from, there really is someplace for everyone, from casual to formal and everything in between. Because too many choices can be overwhelming, we have you covered with a number of the hot spots in San Francisco.
Have you just consumed a meal you truly enjoyed? Wait a few hours and you’ll be hungry again.