San Francisco's 15 Best Restaurants (Slideshow)
April 24, 2014
Locally-sourced ingredients and Asian influences continue to ignite the Bay Area
15. Rich Table
Rich Table is pretty much everything you could want from a great California food spot. Massive wine selection? Check. Cheese? Check. Local ingredients with Asian, Italian, and seafood elements? Check, check, and check. The unpretentious dining experience offered by New York and San Francisco veteran chefs Evan and Sarah Rich puts a focus on freshness, with locally-sourced flavors resulting in dishes like gnocchi with guanciale, treviso, and Meyer lemon; and asparagus with, fresh cheese, peach, and walnut. Opened in 2012, Rich Table has found a substantial fan base in a hurry, including the folks at The James Beard Foundation, who awarded them a Best New Restaurant medal in 2013.
Huey Lewis once famously sang “it’s hip to be square.” But sometimes, it’s just hip to be hip, as anyone who has ever sampled the arty, California-style comfort food at Nopa will tell you. The Panhandle neighborhood favorite’s “rustic urban” cuisine will satisfy the cool kids looking to experiment with dishes like a warm goat cheese dinner with Asian pear, fuyu persimmon, and crostini, or anyone looking to play it safe with a burger (grass fed of course — this is San Francisco, after all), or a grilled pork chop with Brussels sprouts. Dining at nopa also isn’t an especially bank-breaking endeavor: almost everything on the menu prices at $25 and under.
Since chef Corey Lee opened Benu after four years at The French Laundry, it has consistently been ranked one of the finest restaurants in the country, warranting two Michelin stars and a AAA Five Diamond Award. Lee’s menus incorporate the best of Asian and American cuisine, and combine the two styles in some truly brilliant, upscale ways. When whole steamed bass with crispy skin, shiitake mushrooms, broccolini, turnips, and mustard shares a menu with sea urchin tarte flambée and pork rib-eye in the style of baked ham, you know you’ve come to the right place. -- Marcy Franklin
Located in the Richmond District, chef Mourad Lahlou’s Aziza brilliantly displays that his Iron Chef America award-winning chops transcend the small screen, and then some. Since 2001, the Moroccan-born cook has melded his two biggest culinary influences: his North African homeland, where he lived until he was 20, and the Bay Area. The result is a globe-spanning menu featuring items like mackerel flavored with plum, turnip, and ras el hanout, and for dessert, pecan crémeux, with fig leaf ice cream and spiced honey. In 2010, Aziza became America’s first-ever Michelin-starred Moroccan restaurant.
Chef Michael Tusk’s Quince offers a refined, modern Italian and French-inspired menu. But Quince’s adjoining Jackson Square sister restaurant Cotogna just shows another great side of the same chef, something mirrored in the spot’s name. Cotogna, which means “quince” in Italian, is a casual spot that harbors a more rustic menu featuring spit-roasted and grilled fish and meats, homemade pastas, and wood-oven pizzas that change daily. Don’t miss pastas like English pea tortelli; gnocchi with white, purple, and green asparagus; garganelli alla Bolognese, saffron pappardelle with hand-cut lamb sugo, and perhaps most important, the raviolo di ricotta with fresh farm egg and brown butter.
10. Yank Sing
Yank Sing, the popular dim sum restaurant in the financial district, was founded by Alice Chan in 1958. There are now two locations of this third-generation family-run restaurant, both creating almost 100 items a day to be rolled out into the dining rooms for diners to choose. Both locations are excellent, but some of our Chinese friends prefer this one, where on weekends, the crowd spills out into the Rincon Atrium. Any conversation about San Francisco's best dim sum is dangerous, but you can easily make a case that this is the city’s best. Either way, complimenting the merits of Yank Sing's xiao long bao is well-tread ground. Thin dumpling skin, pursed plump dumplings, a dash of vinegar, perfection. Wait, was that a xiao long bao haiku?
9. Mission Chinese
Is Mission Chinese Food one of the most overhyped restaurants in America? If you want the opinion of the restaurant’s own Korean-born, Oklahoma-raised chef Danny Bowien, the answer is yes. But most fans of the San Francisco original and the currently shuttered second location in New York City’s Lower East Side would vehemently argue that the attention and praise are well-deserved. Some might even argue that Bowien — who has been praised for doing to Chinese food "what Led Zeppelin did to the blues," and is known to have flown his entire San Francisco kitchen staff to China to try the real thing — is just being humble and has picked up the mantle of New York’s other Korean-American sensation, David Chang. Bowlen's kung pao pastrami, cumin lamb breast, and riff on ma po tofu are just some of the signature dishes on a menu of what Bowien himself calls "Americanized Oriental food."
Quince offers a refined, modern Italian and French-inspired menu. Located in a historic brick and timber building dating back to 1907 in San Francisco’s Jackson Square neighborhood, the Michelin-starred restaurant is both charming and elegant. Chef and owner Michael Tusk, who won the 2011 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Pacific, creates a dining experience rooted in his relationships with a tightly knit network of only the best Northern Californian food purveyors. Typical dishes include black cod, ibérico ham, Dirty Girl Farm leeks, and celeriac. After stints at elBulli and The Fat Duck, executive pastry chefs Alen Ramos and Carolyn Nugent came to Quince. Their bread and pastry programs helped contribute to the restaurant’s success and its achievement of three Michelin stars. Quince’s stylish, intimate setting provides the backdrop for either a prix fixe four-course dinner or a seasonally inspired tasting menu.
7. Gary Danko
Like Manresa, Gary Danko is another reader favorite from California making this list for the first time this year. Danko; whose classical training focuses on French, Mediterranean, and regional American cooking, has been receiving accolades from the likes of the James Beard Foundation, Zagat, Michelin, and Esquire since opening his eponymous San Francisco Wharf area restaurant in 1995. Choose from the three-, four-, or five-course prix-fixe menus and prepare for dishes like glazed oysters with Osetra caviar, salsify, and lettuce crean; horseradish-crusted salmon medallion with dilled cucumbers and mustard sauce; and seared fillet of beef with potato gratin, Swiss chard, cassis-glazed shallots, and Stilton butter. At Gary Danko, everything is expertly executed and everything has a purpose and place.
Using carefully sourced ingredients, Coi chef Daniel Patterson serves thoughtful Northern California cuisine, balancing classical methods with modern techniques to create unusual and evocative experiences for diners. Recent menus have included such creations as inverted fromage blanc tart with fennel and wheatgrass; grass-fed veal with chicories, caper berries, and Seville orange; and a buttermilk-ginger sorbet with epazote. Some of Coi’s many accolades include a two-star Michelin rating and the title of 58th best restaurant in the world according to San Pellegrino.
5. Michael Mina
become an important figure in the Las Vegas restaurant scene, but it’s his flagship restaurant in San Francisco's Financial District, Michael Mina; named as Esquire’s Best Restaurant of 2011, that gets the most praise for its Japanese and French-inspired take on the best American ingredients; for instance, Morro Bay abalone with Japanese rice, cedar smoked apple, shiitake mushroom, and dashi broth.
4. Bar Tartine
You’ll find a homey setting offering approachable yet modern fare at this San Francisco eatery, popular since the day it opened in 2005. Run by chefs Nick Balla and Courtney Burns along with baker Chad Robertson, Bar Tartine is sophisticated but unpretentious. Chef Balla pickles, smokes, and bakes seasonal ingredients for his monthly menus and offers dishes like Brussels sprouts with trout roe alongside chicken in paprika sauce with buckwheat and collards. (Spring for the $65 multi-course “Friends and Family Menu”). The cozy setting, right off a bustling street in the Mission District, evokes the comfort of your own home, but the menu tells you you’re in for a fine dining experience. Tartine Bakery is the restaurant's sister establishment, so the bread basket is a must.
3. Zuni Cafe
Zuni showcases San Francisco Mediterranean cooking at its best. Although award-winning chef-owner Judy Rodgers passed away in December of 2013, Chez Panisse alumnus Gilbert Pilgram continues to run the kitchen. The seasonal and organic ingredients are always impeccable and the fish and meats are sustainably raised. The house-made finocchiona salami with shaved fennel, Black Mission figs, and pistachio picada is a must. The whole roasted chicken with bread salad for two are among the emblematic dishes in this food-mad town, and the house-ground grass-fed burger on rosemary focaccia with aïoli and house-made pickles (lunch only) is epic.
2. State Bird Provisions
What started off as a place to serve fried quail (California’s state bird) to the masses ended up as one of the hottest restaurants of 2013, even snagging the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant of the year. Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski, the husband-and-wife team behind Provisions serve more than 30 small, clever plates via dim-sum style rolling carts. The fried quail; buttermilk-marinated and encrusted with bread and pepita crumbs, might be a signature here, but don’t overlook the section devoted entirely to pancakes, or the elegant, Asian-influenced desserts.
1. Chez Panisse
Celebrating more than 42 years in business, Chez Panisse is still going strong even after a devastating fire shut it down for three months last year. Sometimes it's hard to remember just how instrumental this place was in changing the American food scene. Before Chez Panisse, practically nobody in America served only fresh, local foods and wrote menus daily, according to the season. Alice Waters; an organic-living pioneer, is also the founder of The Edible Schoolyard Project, a foundation that is bringing healthy breakfasts and lunches to schools across the nation. It has become fashionable to criticize this culinary icon as irrelevant, but the truth is that her restaurant's food is still superb, both in the one-menu-a-night downstairs restaurant where the dishes tilt toward Italy and Provence — think white sea bass carpaccio with blood orange vinaigrette and shaved fennel, followed by spit-roasted pork shoulder with salmoriglio sauce and cannelini beans, and the lively, diversified upstairs Café.