2 Days to Dine in San Francisco
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San Francisco, home of the Golden Gate Bridge, earthquakes, Mrs. Doubtfire, and of course, Full House. But for me, San Francisco means so much more — it is home to one of my best friends, and I have visited at least twice a year for the past eight years. I’ve never actually stayed in a hotel, and based on my experience, I would highly recommend using a service like Airbnb to stay in an apartment in the city. The architecture and colorful buildings are iconic symbols of San Francisco, and it’s great to experience an apartment in those bright and airy buildings while you’re there.
There are also a ton of things to do and see in the City by the Bay. Despite being touristy, Fisherman’s Wharf is worth checking out for Ghirardelli Square, The Buena Vista Café (the first place in America to serve an Irish coffee), and of course, In-N-Out burger. Riding a cable car is a must as well — you can catch one to or from Fisherman’s Wharf. Driving down Lombard Street and visiting the Japanese Tea Gardens, unique features of the city, and are both fun and memorable experiences. A drive, walk, or bike over the Golden Gate Bridge is always beautiful. And, if you’re feeling ambitious, you can visit Alcatraz and take a tour.
Ultimately, though, the food scene in San Francisco is fantastic and worth exploring, and where I end up spending most of my time.
Foreign Cinema: One of the coolest restaurants I’ve ever been to, and my favorite in San Francisco, Foreign Cinema has a main dining room with a wood-burning fireplace and a huge, covered outdoor garden with a drive-in style movie screen. This may be the only restaurant where you can watch foreign and independent films while you drink California wine and eat a delicious hybrid of North African and Mediterranean cuisine. They serve dinner and weekend brunch, and the menus change daily, as they use only the freshest local ingredients. I went for dinner, and recommend starting with the oysters (they have a wide selection), sharing some of the small appetizer plates, and following with the pasture-raised natural rib-eye steak — a juicy, large, perfectly grilled steak from a local farm. Foreign Cinema is located in the Mission District, which is an added bonus; take some time before your meal to wander around the neighborhood and check out the street art and history of the area.
Nopalito: This is one of the best places in the city for delicious, fresh, and sustainable Mexican food. Nopalito shares ownership with the proprietors of Nopa, an extremely popular restaurant serving California cuisine, also worth visiting although difficult to get into. The Nopa name gives Nopalito some street cred, not that it needs any help. I went with friends and we ordered almost half of the menu, and loved every single thing. The standouts were the Tacos de Pescado al Pastor (perfect grilled fish tacos with a little bit of spice, citrus, and tomatillo) the Quesadilla Roja Con Chicharrón (chile-corn tortilla stuffed with crispy pork belly, salsa, and cheese) and the carnitas (braised pork with pickled jalapeño and tomatillo salsa, served with soft tortillas). The margaritas and cocktails are also excellent, as are the house-made Popsicles for dessert.
Mama’s on Washington Square: This restaurant has a really special place in my heart. It’s been a staple of my visits to San Francisco since 2006. Mama’s is a small, cozy restaurant with a line that is almost always out the door. Get there as early as you can, but no matter how long the line is, it’s worth the wait. Once you get inside you order your food at the cashier, pay in advance, then get seated at a table where your food is brought to you. My biggest and only problem here is I can never decide what to order. Every single thing on the menu is homemade, decadent, and delicious. The pancakes are incredible, as are the many variations on eggs Benedict and omelettes (especially the ones with crab and avocado). But really, you can’t go wrong no matter what you order.
Brenda’s: It may be hard to believe that delicious New Orleans-style cuisine exists in Northern California, but if you need to be convinced, go to Brenda’s. I’ve been there for brunch and the food is Southern comfort at its best. They offer both sweet and savory donuts, which are insanely rich and satisfying (they are called beignets on the menu, which is a bit of a misnomer as they’re much heavier and denser than traditional beignets). I specifically love the crawfish variety, which is salty, spicy and unexpected. My other menu favorite is the Hangtown Fry with scrambled eggs with fried oysters, bacon, and Louisiana hot sauce, served with a side of grits and a biscuit. And all washed down with a cup of Chicory coffee? Heaven.
Super Duper Burgers: Everyone knows about In-N-Out burger and Umami, but Super Duper is a relatively new burger destination in San Francisco. The West Coast’s version of the East Coast’s Shake Shack, the burgers are griddled on a flattop and served with your choice of toppings (including options like house-made pickles, avocado, or roasted portobello). They also offer fries and shakes, and in true California style some healthier options as well, including a chicken sandwich, veggie burger, and salads. The burgers are made from all-natural Niman Ranch beef, all cooked medium, and all delicious and juicy. You can eat in or take out, and either way the service is friendly and fast.
Humphry Slocombe: The go-to spot for gourmet ice cream in San Francisco, Humphry Slocombe creates an amazing variety of interesting flavors including rosemary, root beer, salt and pepper, licorice, prosciutto, potato chips, beet, and balsamic caramel. Options vary daily, but some of my favorites are Blue Bottle coffee, cream cheese chocolate chip, and Guinness gingerbread.
Ferry Building Farmers' Market: Every Saturday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero hosts a sprawling outdoor farmers' market. It’s a beautiful setting; both the Ferry Building and the plaza where the market is located overlook the bay and the Bay Bridge. One of the best things about the market is it’s not limited to just farm-fresh produce; there are tons of samplings and prepared foods as well, including Blue Bottle Coffee, Hog Island Oysters, tacos, breakfast sandwiches, and other delicious treats from local restaurants. Inside the Ferry Building there are some great permanent shops as well, including Cowgirl Creamery, Acme Bread Company, and Miette Bakery. The market is also open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and on Thursdays, there’s an additional array of artisan street food.
Bourbon & Branch: Located in the Tenderloin, this speakeasy is not in the most desirable of locations, but that’s part of what makes it so cool. Make a reservation in advance online and get your secret password. When you get to the door, buzz the doorbell, give your password, and you’ll be welcomed into a dimly-lit, multifloor, Prohibition-era bar. You’ll be seated at a table and given an extensive cocktail list to choose from. You can relax and sip your cocktails to the tune of 1920s music playing on the speakers. My favorite is the Cucumber Gimlet — a light and not too sweet blend of cucumber vodka, lime, elderflower, and champagne. It’s a great experience, and the perfect place for before- or after-dinner drinks.
Sausalito, Tiburon, Napa Valley, and Sonoma: While these areas are technically not part of San Francisco, they are just outside the city and a must-see. Sausalito and Tiburon are quaint, beautiful small towns just over the Golden Gate Bridge with amazing views of the city. Sam’s in Tiburon is perfect for brunch — sit on the back patio, order the crabcake eggs Benedict, and stare at the mesmerizing view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city across the bay. A little further afield you’ll find wine country, where you can taste some of the best American wines in Napa and Sonoma. Frankly, wine country deserves it’s own article, but for now it can be captured in a short synopsis. Napa and Sonoma are near each other but they are too vast to be seen in the same day, so you can either do both over two days or choose one location and spend some time exploring. My personal favorite is the town of Yountville in Napa. There are tons of great wineries nearby, plenty of relaxing hotels, spas, and bed-and-breakfasts to choose from, and of course, an overwhelming selection of great restaurants including Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bistro and Ad Hoc. Also close by are Gott’s Roadside, a great, old-school stop for burgers, hot dogs, and shakes; and Mustards Grill, the perfect stop for a midday lunch break to help balance out all of the booze (both located in St. Helena). Some of my favorite wineries in the area include Groth, Chateau Montelena, Frog’s Leap, and Cakebread Cellars. If you have a lot of willpower and self-control on your winery tour, you can drive yourself; but I highly recommend hiring a driver!
A lot of credit for this article is due to my San Franciscan best friend who has introduced me to most of the places listed above. And one recipe that really reminds me of her is homemade Blue Bottle Coffee ice cream with Ghirardelli chocolate chunks.
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