February 12, 2018

Essential restaurants in SF… anything left out?

February 12, 2018

Essential restaurants in SF… anything left out?

It’s time to update the Eater 38, the answer to any question that begins, “Can you recommend a restaurant?” This highly elite group covers the entire city, spans myriad cuisines and collectively satisfies all restaurant needs. Every few months, pertinent restaurants that were omitted, have newly become eligible (restaurants must be open at least six months) or have stepped up their game will be added. Sometimes a still great restaurant makes way for another one, in order to keep things new and fresh. After all, this is San Francisco — 38 restaurants are only a start to the many worthy places to dine in this city. In fact, many of them can be found here, on the Heatmap, or on the East Bay Essential 38. And keep in mind, this list is presented West to East; there’s no rankinginvolved.

Added in January 2018: For the new year, four restaurants are joining the ranks. Cala (Gabriela Cámara’s breezy, seafood-focused Mexican restaurant), Tartine Manufactory (the Mission’s biggest Tartine outpost), China Live (George Chen’s sleek new Chinatown restaurant), and Octavia (Melissa Perello’s upscale neighborhood restaurant) are now on the 38.

Sliding off are El Molino CentralUna Pizza Napoletana(closed), Tosca Cafe, and Sam Wo.

Rather than having a stage-four meltdown over the exclusion of a favorite restaurant from the list, wouldn’t it be more productive to just nominate it for inclusion?

1 Outerlands

Since Outerlands opened in 2009, it’s been a consistently popular destination for Outer Sunset dining (especially for brunch). After last years chef shuffling and renovations, the restaurant is still operating at full speed, now with chef Yoni Levy (Alta CA) at the helm. The restaurant is continuing the traditions of amazing bread, gorgeous food designed to pair well with fog, and a laid-back beach vibe.

2 Hong Kong Lounge II

Though the dim sum doesn’t arrive on a cart, it’s all extremely delicious at this Inner Richmond standby. Coffee pork ribs, har gow, and more are all worthy of a visit, while their dinner entrees are also very good. Salt and pepper soft shell crab, or whole abalone and pea shoots in supreme oyster sauce: there’s no wrong order here.

3 Spruce

Nestled deeply in Presidio Heights, Spruce is a refined neighborhood restaurant. White tablecloths, a fantastic wine list, and great service are hallmarks. Or, sit at the comfortable bar and order the burger, a favorite amongst those in the know. Add taleggio or foie gras for ultimate indulgence.

4 Nopalito

Though it shares ownership with Nopa, Nopalito is very much its own beast, serving smart, sustainable sit-down Mexican fare that provides a nice counterpoint to the taqueria grind. From the addictive totopos con chile to the comforting tortilla soup to the killer carnitas, there’s something for everyone here (plus damn good margaritas).


Ten years in, chef Matt Accarrino continues to refine his craft, serving his own irresistible brand of Italian food that remains hearty and homey despite the use of refined technique. Handmade pasta, creative uses of foie gras, and Accarrino’s own line of caviar are only a few of the highlights. Try to score seats at the chef’s counter and don’t miss the exceptional wine list, curated by award-winning sommelier Shelley Lindgren.

6 State Bird Provisions

San Franciscans endure three-hour waits to eat State Bird Provisions’ whimsically Californian menu, served dim-sum style. Whether it’s savory pancakes stacked with local cheese, delicious crudos, or a new take on tofu skin, the flavor combinations are always eye-opening, making State Bird one of the most exciting restaurants in town, if not the country.

7 Octavia

Octavia has been a charming neighborhood restaurant since chef Melissa Perello opened it in 2015. Now it has grown up to match its Michelin-starred sibling, Frances, and is a destination in its own right, with dishes like Dungeness crab tonnarelli with toasted hazelnut, saffron, marash pepper and fino sherry, and the signature “deviled” egg with fresno chile relish, marash pepper and spice. There’s no bar to wait in, so show up for your reservation right on time.

8 La Ciccia

Not so much San Francisco Italian as pure unadulterated regional Italian (Sardinia, to be specific), this family-run sparkler is free of pretension. Don’t miss the spicy octopus stew, the sea urchin pasta, and the unusual wine selection at this cozy Noe Valley spot.

9 Petit Crenn

Inspired by the cuisine of Brittany, chef Dominique Crenn’s neighborhood spot offers a dinner party vibe, with impeccable, family-style dishes. A multi-course set menu is centered around seafood, like oysters and roasted whole fish; the crisp wine list, and extensive offering of cider are part of the charm at this lively spot. Reservations are required for a table, but walk-ins are always welcome at the white marble bar that has a prime view of the kitchen.

10 Souvla

The original location of Souvla offers high-quality Greek cuisine, in the heart of Hayes Valley. Order their rotisserie roasted lamb, chicken, pork or sweet potato in pita or salad format (or order it Greek-style, which means fries on or in it). Or, just stop by for their version of fro-yo: frozen Greek yogurt topped with a choice of baklava, sour cherry or olive oil and sea salt.

11 Aster

Another win for the Mission, in the form of chef Brett Cooper’s cozy Aster. It has earned and maintained one Michelin star, while growing a legion of loyal diners. The restaurant exclusively offers an a four-course prix fixe menu at $75 per person, with an optional $42 wine pairing. Dishes like matsutake mushrooms with cabbage, apple, and husk cherry are well-executed examples of Cooper’s California style.

12 Rich Table

Evan and Sarah Rich’s Hayes Valley favorite is a challenging reservation, thanks to wildly inventive, consistently delicious food and a smart wine selection and cocktail program. Don’t miss the sardine chips, porcini doughnuts with raclette fondue, seasonal salads, and pastas.

13 House of Prime Rib

This 30-year-old Nob Hill classic is a total trip back in time to when plating with tweezers was not yet a thing. The restaurant’s apropos name says it all — it serves one thing and one thing only, and it does that roast beef very, very well. The only choices to make are: meat temperature, cut thickness, mashed or loaded baked potatoes, and martini or manhattan. Each plate comes with a salad prepared tableside, creamed spinach, Yorkshire pudding and potatoes— and of course a hulking piece of beef cut from roving meat carts. Take visiting friends and family, celebrate big life occasions or just satisfy cravings for steak here.

14 Jardinière

After 20 years, chef Traci Des Jardins Hayes Valley restaurant continues to operate on all cylinders. It’s an elegant setting with elegant dishes like Alaskan halibut with sweet corn, chanterelles, and crème fraîche. And, Des Jardins recently added the Impossible Burger, a plant-based burger that mimics the real thing, to the bar menu. Stop in for a cocktail, caviar, and one of SF’s few white tablecloth dining experiences.

15 Zuni Café

Besides “the” chicken, Zuni’s burger, Caesar salad and bloody Mary have all been called the best in the city. Sitting on the edge of Hayes Valley, it’s the utility belt of restaurants: good for brunch, for late-night dining, for oysters and a cocktail at the bar, or for a lovely sit-down meal with a date. And don’t forget the chicken.

16 Swan Oyster Depot

Open only for lunch, Polk Street’s 100-year-old gem still churns out the best crab, oysters and sourdough in town. Anthony Bourdain unfortunately clued the tourist crowd into this one a while back, so get there early to snag one of the handful of seats (and a prime view of the quirky, old-school staff), or be prepared for a long wait.

17 Beretta

This Mission hotspot is always packed, with good reason. The menu is rife with antipasti, pizzas, pastas, risottos, and rotating daily specials like cioppino and short ribs. Diners can grab one of the excellent cocktails at the bar, and plot a dining strategy while they wait for a table. It’s open late night (food til 1 a.m.), and for weekend brunch.

18 Cala

With Cala, chef Gabriela Cámara brought an airy, transportative experience to Hayes Valley, creating a restaurant both separate but evocative of her Mexico City restaurant Contramar. The menu is seafood-focused, flavorful, and simply executed; dishes like tuna tostadas, and the signature charred sweet potato with bone marrow and smoky chiles stand out. It’s perennially busy at dinner, while Tacos Cala (the connected taco shop that opens onto the alley behidn the restaurant) is Cámara’s answer to lunch.

19 Lazy Bear

For a truly unique experience, head to chef David Barzelay’s ticketed Lazy Bear in the Mission. The convivial nature of the event and the simultaneous service evoke a dinner party, but comparisons to your friend’s house stop there. An evening at the restaurant kicks off with a cocktail hour of passed appetizers in the mezzanine before you head to the loft-like, yet cozy dining room with communal seating at two long, live-edge oak slab tables. Chefs deliver the modern American dishes like grilled lamb with spring herbs to the table themselves and invite guests into the kitchen to peer over their shoulder while they work.

20 Foreign Cinema

While the beloved brunch, flickering hearth and nightly movies continue, Gayle Pirie and John Clark are keeping things fresh at their Mission standby, with North African and Mediterranean menu leanings and a deepened wine program. It’s one of the city’s most romantic restaurants, with staggering decor and engaging food, including the ever-popular Madras curry-sesame fried chicken with chickpea hummus, Moroccan carrots, and radicchio salad, and ice-cold raw oysters.

21 La Taqueria

It wouldn’t be San Francisco without The Mission’s squadron of gut-busting taquerias. This one continues to lead the pack with unwavering rave reviews for its sublime, spot-on Mexico staples, including an America’s Best Burrito title, and a deep-dive via Eater Elements. The carnitas here are the best around.

22 Californios

The stunning, polished decor of Californios is matched only by its very precise, intricate food. Chef Val M. Cantu (Sons & Daughters) has created a stylish prix fixe menu that offers Mexican flavors embedded in a Californian tasting experience. Delicate dishes with layers of flavors are the order of the day, accompanied by small-production wines from Charlotte Randolph (The French Laundry).

23 Rintaro

Rintaro feels a secret hideout in the Mission, with a lovely front patio guarded from the street by a bamboo fence. Enter, and find an inviting, wood-clad izakaya from Chez Panisse alum Sylvan Brackett, whose menu lures in a stylish, bustling crowd. Gyoza, yakitori of all kinds, pristine sashimi, and the platonic ideal of fried tori katsu (fried chicken stuffed with Cowgirl Creamery cheese) are all on order. Sit at the bar to watch chefs deftly turning skewers of meats on the grill while drinking sake or Japanese beer.

24 Liholiho Yacht Club

This sleek, sophisticated and slightly cheeky tribute to the Hawaiian islands blends chef Ravi Kapur’s heritage with his Prospect pedigree. The Hawaiian-Indian-NorCal cuisine results in dishes like poppy seed steam buns with beef tongue and kimchi that are uniquely Kapur’s, and it’s all in a high-energy space in Lower Nob Hill with the open, bright yellow kitchen as the definite centerpiece. Pros know to stalk the bar, where stools open up much quicker than the oft-quoted 2 ½ hour wait.

25 Tartine Manufactory

Tartine Manufactory scratches all the itches, starting with excellent coffee from its own brand Coffee Manufactory, bread, and pastries in the morning and moving on to an airy light-filled lunch experience, complete with porchetta sandwiches, grain bowls, and smørrebrød. Dinner brings more hearty versions of Tartine’s aesthetic, including pork ribs with pumpkin seed salsa and yogurt, and an eighteen-ounce dry-aged ribeye with chanterelles, paired with wines selected for quality, sustainability, and diversity. At all hours it’s a lively Mission spot filled with locals eating, bakers baking, and seekers of beautifully lit Instagrams hard at work.

26 Del Popolo

After years of serving pizza out of his popular pizza truck, chef/owner Jon Darsky’s Lower Nob Hill brick-and-mortar was destined for success. Now followers of Darsky’s Neapolitan-inspired pizzas are lining up for beautiful antipasti like farrotto with wild morel mushrooms, sweet corn, prosciutto and egg yolk. And unlike the pizza truck days, beer and wine are on the menu.

27 Kin Khao

The dynamic food at Kin Khao, a Thai respite in Union Square’s Parc 55 hotel, induces cravings. Owner and well-respected Chez Pim food blogger Pim Techamuanvivit doesn’t blog much anymore; she’s too busy translating the recipes of her native Bangkok into pedigreed, Bay Area-appropriate fare. Don’t overlook the selection of unparalleled curries — all cooked from spice pastes that are made fresh daily in house — and the Bon Vivant cocktails like the Rasa Umami, made with sherry, scotch and housemade lime cordial, that round out the experience.

28 China Live – Market Restaurant

China Live’s Market Restaurant burst onto the Chinatown scene last year with a sleek dining room and a deep selection of dishes. From pan-fried shen jian bao to Pekin duck and char siu, it’s all an inviting exploration of the cuisine as part of a larger emporium of retail goods, a smaller cafe, with a fine dining restaurant and Scotch bar upstairs. The Market Restaurant combines craft cocktails, a finely matched wine list, and a casual atmosphere to make it a wise choice for lunch or dinner.

29 Deli Board

This SoMa deli doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to heaping flavorful meats onto its pillowy rolls. The menu changes daily, but it always includes Romanian pastrami (a fatter, more delicious cut according to owner Adam Mesnick). Sandwiches like the “Mina,” made with pastrami, roast beef, cheddar and muenster cheese, cole slaw and the signature “board sauce” might make it onto the menu more than once, but check back daily for meaty surprises. Hit it up for lunch Monday through Saturday.

30 Mister Jiu’s

Mister Jiu’s has breathed new life into the shuttered Four Seas restaurant in the heart of Chinatown. Chef Brandon Jew has translated his Chinese-American heritage and SF upbringing into a fresh take on the cuisine, in a modern setting. Cocktails are excellent, the wine list is interesting, and classics like tea-smoked duck are made new again.

31 Akiko’s Restaurant

With chefs who have worked at some of the country’s best sushi meccas (Sushi Ran, Ota, etc.) and details such as Japanese applewood-aged soy sauce, Akiko’s takes its sushi very seriously. The menu pleases everyone from the California roll lover to the seasoned omakase hound. Diners can simply tell a server what their preferences are and what price they’d like to pay, and put themselves into the hands of those experienced chefs. The modern Japanese-style decor and extensive and interesting sake selection take it all to the next level.

32 Trestle

More than just a reasonable prix-fixe, Trestle is an exercise in menu ingenuity. For thirty-five dollars, diners receive three courses, with the option to add a pasta course for $10. Choose from two options in each category, all of which change regularly. Located right at the edge of North Beach and Chinatown, it’s a cozy destination with approachable food.

33 Cotogna

With a warm, flickering hearth in the kitchen, great service, an innovative fixed-price wine program, and Michael Tusk’s pasta throwbacks from the old Quince days (the raviolo al uovo is a favorite), Cotogna is an easy E38 pick. Good luck getting a table, though, as the cozy, firelit dining room in Jackson Square fills up fast at dinnertime. It’s also an ideal destination for a relaxed lunch at one of their sidewalk tables.

34 Leo’s Oyster Bar

Leo’s opened in the Financial District with a retro splash, immediately luring diners to its petit dining room and bar for oysters, clams, lobster rolls, and classic cocktails. The “liquid lunch” martini can be made with vodka or gin, and comes with a side of pickled vegetables— perfect for an expense account-fueled power lunch. The back bar is a lovely hideaway as well, where Champagne can be enjoyed in comfort and style.

35 Mourad

The SoMa restaurant is big and beautiful, matched only by chef Mourad Lahlou’s Moroccan-inspired flavors. Choose from a la carte options like duck basteeya and family-style, large format dishes of lamb and short rib, or go for the tasting menu. Drinks are equally inspired, featuring combinations like pineapple and artichoke. (Note: the prices match the posh decor, making this a great place to take someone with an expense account.)

36 Benu

Three Michelin stars aren’t easy to come by, and chef Corey Lee earns its via his refined tasting menu ($298). A unique mix of East and West flavors bring his French technique, California produce, and Korean heritage into focus in SoMa, with dishes like foie gras xiao long bao.

37 Cockscomb

An open kitchen filled with fire and whole animal butchery is the heart of this lively SoMa restaurant, where chef Chris Cosentino takes meat sweats to a whole new level. Beef heart tartare, foie gras deviled eggs topped with chicken skin, and an entire roasted pig head with a gold leaf-adorned snout are just a few of the memorable dishes here, backed up by solid cocktails. Come for lunch or dinner, and bring enough friends to take advantage of the excellent large-format dishes.

38 Saison

Saison can certainly drain a paycheck (it is the state’s most expensive restaurant at $398 per person), but there’s no tasting menu in town more deserving of that money. The plush, comfortable atmosphere remains relatively unstuffy despite the price tag, especially in the Salon, where you can drop in for an impromptu cocktail and order a la carte. The nightly dishes change often, achieving the artsy, evocative heights chefs of Josh Skenes’ ilk aspire to, but — most importantly — they are damn delicious.