The VICE Guide to San Francisco: Where to Eat
There's more to San Fran food than $4 toast.
All photos Marko Knezevic
Let's be real: Eating in San Francisco today requires both a healthy bank account (or an expense account, you lucky bastard) and a hearty tolerance of the queue. Sure, there are still affordable holes in the wall and quiet neighborhood restaurants, but part of the joy of the San Francisco food scene right now is the sheer ambition of it. Bay Area restaurants have never been shinier, more palatable, or more Instagrammable. There's even been chatter recently that the city has hit "peak restaurant." Which is troublesome to local chefs and food industry types, but for the traveler, it basically means you'll eat really fucking well. So yes, you'll wait and you'll overspend, but we say roll with it, embrace your inner tech magnate, and just be grateful you don't have to pay to live here.
Liholiho Yacht Club
Before Liholiho, getting a taste of Hawaii meant either a) quality time with a bag of Maui onion chips or b) a five-hour plane ride. But then the Oahu-born chef Ravi Kapur popped up. Literally: Liholiho did time as a pop-up before Kapur made his fried rice, flecked with homemade Spam, and spot-on tuna poke a permanent thing. Get the buttered togarashi popcorn, a.k.a. Hawaiian crack. Eye the wine list, but order the briny, sherry-based Castaway cocktail. Go nuts over the pork belly or, if it's in season, the asparagus with bone marrow béarnaise and little chunks of brioche for wiping the plate clean. Ignore those I'm so full cues and order the Baked Hawaiian, made from caramelized pineapple ice cream, chiffon, and dreams—there's a reason there's one on every table. What's the catch, you say? Unless you have an ESP-like connection to Open Table, you'll need to eat at the grandma hour of 5 PM to avoid crowds. Pizza If you are from New York, Chicago, or Italy, we really don't want to hear you spout about how much better the pizza is back home. We have pizza here! Try it! We promise our people (who just might be from New York, Chicago, or Italy) know what they are doing. For a blistery Neapolitan pie, hit up Del Popolo, which after three years of roving around in the world's most bangin' food truck, is now a restaurant with real tables and chairs. Using a brick oven shipped over from Italy, pizza wizard Jon Darksy pumps out his tender pies topped with squash or huckleberries or brussels sprouts. Don't want any of that fancy, Bay Area nonsense? Try Arinell, home of NY-style slices served ginormous, greasy, and with time-honored toppings like sausage and green peppers.
Tony's Pizza Napoletana Like we said, this city isn't known for its pizza, but Tony Gemignani seems maniacally focused on changing that. After becoming the first American to win the World Pizza Championship in Naples (which is a thing, apparently, and something we'd be happy to judge), he opened Tony's Pizza Napoletana, which Forbes called the best pizzeria in the country. Tony's makes regional slices from all over—St. Louis style, New Haven style, Detroit style, etc.—but the best pizza there is the simplest. Try to get yourself the wood-fired margherita, but you gotta get there early because Tony's only makes 73 pies a day. What? You didn't think San Francisco could turn pizza into a small-batch, artisanal, exclusive affair?
In the Bay Area, Chez Panisse is like Harvard: People who graduate automatically have an edge when they strike out on their own. Case in point: Sylvan Mishima Brackett of Rintaro, who spent nearly a decade working with Alice Waters before launching his Bay-Area-freshness-meets-Japanese-izakaya spot. Translation: locally sourced wasabi and bamboo shoots dug by hand turned into deeply snackable yakitori. Don't miss the dashimaki tamago (omelettes with daikon) and the charcoal-grilled chicken skewers, which go down easily with the house-made plum wine.
Want to get your Michelin star on without feeling like a stuffed shirt? Al's Place is one of the least pretentious planets in San Francisco's Michelin galaxy. The food is weird in a very, very good way (Pickled fries? Pork belly with galangal soda? "Fish head under a brick"? Wha??). The restaurant is sunny and blue and tiled, like a cafeteria imagined by an IKEA designer gone wonderfully rogue. The servers don't treat you like you're made of glass. Being anointed top dog in Bon Appetit's 2015 best-of list made getting reservations insufferable, but the restaurant recently rolled out a new system to preserve a few walk-in tables every day so that you don't have to be Zuckerberg to get in.
Off the Grid
Sure, you could troll Twitter to find the truck selling that Korean BBQ/pour-over coffee/lobstah roll you just have to try. But the savviest of San Franciscans know that you get the most bang for your queuing buck at Off the Grid, a 30-strong collection of food trucks that rumbles to Fort Mason—near Fisherman's Wharf—every Friday. (There are also regular music and truck events from April through October.) If you visit San Francisco in July or August, it will probably be cold and foggy as fuck. But go to OtG anyway, where you can earn the honor of living like a true local: freezing and tweeting while waiting 30 minutes for a Naughty Naan from Curry Up Now.
Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club
Yes, SF is the land of the $4 toast. And it all started with Trouble Coffee, a cubby hole of a coffee shop at the very end of San Francisco, in the Outer Sunset. Once you try the cinnamon toast here—the OG San Francisco toast—any qualms you had about overpaying for something you can make at home will fade like footprints on the Pacific-washed sand that's just five blocks away. The world is softer out here, a little SoCal-like given its proximity to the ocean. Make like the surfers who hang here and order the "Build Your Own Damn House": small coffee, toast, and a whole young coconut with a straw.
Unless you're rabidly anti-joy and all things happiness, you'll probably want to eat dim sum in San Francisco. There are many options, but we recommend getting as far from touristlandia as you can. That might mean Chinatown, home to places like Great Eastern. If you follow the moves of POTUS, you might recognize this white-linened spot as the restaurant where Obama ordered take-out dim sum from the plastic photo menu (we're guessing he went with the Shanghai dumplings). Want the more traditional banquet-hall, dim sum-cart experience? Yank Sing is your palace. Operating at a full roar on Sundays, the restaurant requires lightning-quick chops to order from servers who push, roadrunner-like, carts piled with baskets of shrimp and scallop-stuffed dumplings and other yums.
Less expensive than the legendary Yank Sing, and less stressful than Hong Kong Lounge, Ton Kiang is the perfect place to come with a group and give yourself that special kind of pork-bun-powered food coma. Waiters are constantly showing up with bamboo baskets of steaming dumplings and plates of stir fry and vegetables (the vegetable dishes are the best of any dim sum spot in the city). Expert tip: Don't blow your load too early; you're gonna want to try a bit of everything.
If you get drunk in the Mission (and you should!), you will wind up here, stuffing your face with a burrito the size of your forearm. If you want to pick a fight while drunk in the Mission, start popping off about the city's best burrito. We're no LA when it comes to our Mexican food, but we can certainly work up a lather about our carnitas. At La Taq—considered, very unofficially, by 54.3 percent of us to be the best—the foil-wrapped bundles of joy come with plenty of carnitas, guac, and pico de gallo (but no rice). Cue local squabbles.
Every true San Franciscan has two things: a go-to nature spot where they go and light up a spliff and a burrito spot they ride for. You'll likely hear lots of talk about La Taqueria (above), El Farolito (named best burrito by Esquire magazine a few years back), and Taqueria Cancun. Truth is, you can't go wrong with any of them. Taqueria Guadalajara, tucked away in the Excelsior, the foggy stepsister of the Mission District, deserves to be in the conversation as well. A burrito is meant to be a day-altering, decadent experience, and Guadalajara's massive offerings and impossibly rich meat will leave you stuffed and happy and a more than a bit sleepy. An insider tip: to turn the overindulgence up a bit, order a Super Mixto with two meats for 65 cents more. The grilled chicken and al pastor is a great combination.
Some people say Souvla is overhyped and overpriced, but, well, those people suck. There's not much in the way of great Greek food in this city, and Souvla's souvlaki (wraps) fill the void with their lamby, spit-fired, yogurt-dabbed goodness. Though we identify very comfortably as carnivores, the garlicky sweet potato wrap with kalamata olives and walnuts is delicious enough to make us swing to the veggie side for a day. And, yeah, there's a permaline here, but isn't that what phones are for? Just don't make the mistake of skipping the froyo with baklava crumbles and syrup.
Super Duper Burger
There are many great burgers in SF, but when it comes to straight up no-frills, always-delivers burger goodness, Super Duper is a ringer. The local chain has a definite fast food vibe, but being in the Bay Area, it also champions local meat, dairy, and buns, plus an all-you-can-eat pickle bar (made on-site, of course).
Anchor Oyster Bar
Consider this a tourist PSA: You don't have to stay on Fisherman's Wharf to get great cioppino. While the Tadich Grill is a classic—and definitely worth the $$$—for pure enjoyability, our money's on Anchor Oyster Bar, an impossibly tiny hole in the wall serving enormously flavorful bowls of the famous tomato-based seafood stew. Marvel over the dance the servers do behind the narrow bar as you chow down on crab claws and fresh mussels. Bibs are required. And wiping your bowl with buttered sourdough is heartily embraced.
Very rarely do old guard SF joints get modernized without losing their soul. Tosca, a North Beach icon, escaped that fate when, in 2013, April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman gently restored the nearly century-old bar/don't-fuck-with-anyone haven for beat poets, Russian dancers, Hollywood stars, and local politicians. They did a fine job. You can now sit beneath the carefully preserved murals of yore while eating smart, contemporary versions of bucatini and roast chicken with potatoes cooked in pork fat and listen to Bay Area techies talk shop. Perhaps the most famously restored element of Tosca is its house "cappuccino," a mix of cocoa and brandy made now with Dandelion chocolate and local cream. And, as folks are fond of saying, the beverage didn't (and still doesn't) contain a drop of coffee—it was designed as a Prohibition-era disguise for booze.
With walls and windows packed to the brim with imported wines, cheeses, and Italian canned goods, this frenetic and crowded slice of Old North Beach still makes the best sandwich in the city. Don't get distracted by the stocked deli case—the nine simple, delicious special sandwiches are the reason this place has been around for over 100 years. North Beach, the traditionally Italian neighborhood, is changing along with the rest of San Francisco, but Molinari's Delicatessen remains as old school as they come—you won't find any gluten-free options sneaking their way onto menus here. The deli has managed to hold onto a bit of Old San Francisco—walk in, grab a ticket and your own roll of bread from a case in the back, and be ready to order when your number's called. The sandwich, like the rest of the Molinari's experience, is a no-frills affair—it's all about fresh bread, insanely flavorful meat, creamy mozzarella, and imported olive oil. The Renzo Special—with prosciutto, pesto, mozzarella, and sun dried tomatoes—is the best sandwich you'll ever have. Hands down.
You will not find Toyose unless you're looking for it. This Korean spot's storefront, in the middle of the residential Sunset District, is literally a garage door. But somehow the restaurant is constantly packed with slightly drunk customers (progressively more drunk the closer you get to 2 AM when the place closes, naturally). The chicken wings, kimchi fried rice, and all of the stews are incredible, and if you're feeling adventurous, try the seafood pancake, which is odd, a bit funky, and pretty amazing. The bar scene in the inner Sunset is lacking, so indulge in as many soju drinks as your heart desires—this place only gets more fun the later you're there.
San Francisco is famous for its changing face nowadays, but this bar/restaurant/meat paradise stands gloriously unaltered (except for more wall clutter and better beer on tap) for the last half-century. Local legend has it that Janis Joplin, who lived next door, was once seen nibbling a turkey carcass out of the restaurant's trash bins late one night. Don't judge until you try this spot. When you walk in, wait in line in front of the carving station, where you can order plates of roast beef, brisket, ribs, and turkey with a choice of sides, all for about $10. Against the other wall, there's a bar with some of the cheapest pitchers of beer in the city. The place is all old-school, gritty San Francisco. And they serve meat. Did we mention the meat?
There are a few different locations of Henry's Hunan in the city, but this place is not that kind of chain. The restaurant specializes in an authentic southern Chinese style that centers around ridiculously delicious smoked meat dishes. Go to the downtown Henry's Hunan, on Sacramento Street, for lunch. It's always busy, but the lunch service is quick, and the heaping rice plates are incredible. Our favorite for lunch is the sliced Hunan smoked ham and vegetables plate. It's hearty and much less sweet than Szechuan-style Chinese food. For dinner, go to the location on Church Street in Noe Valley. That spot is much cleaner and more intimate—the downtown location shares a staircase with a rundown apartment complex and is, how can we say this, less decorum-focused. Make sure to try Marty's Special, with smoked ham and chicken in a black bean sauce. This spot is a little different than the Chinese food you're used to, but that's OK. You're a grown-up.
House of Nanking
On the edge of Chinatown, right between North Beach, Nob Hill, and the Financial District, House of Nanking is a perfect lunch stop if you're touring around. The line can be long, so midday and midweek is your best chance to not wait an hour. But even if you have to wait, it's always worth it. As far as we can tell, the whole menu is amazing—the chicken special, deep fried with a sweet sauce and served with pea shoots and yams, is a favorite. But however long you spend with the menu, it probably won't matter when it comes time to order. The owner, Peter Fang, is always there, and though he may ask what you're leaning toward, he usually makes the final decision for you himself. Just trust the man.
San Francisco has a few great Peruvian spots, but Limon's location and its chicken set it apart. The menu is huge, but you're making a mistake if you don't try its specialty, the Pollo a la Brasa—rotisserie slow-roasted chicken over an open flame with two sides and two of its dipping sauces. Get some ceviche to start—the ceviche de pulpo y camarones has the place's incredibly bright leche de tigre marinade, but you can't really go wrong with any of the options. And though it looks fancy, if you split the chicken with a friend, it ends up being pretty reasonably priced. Spend all the money you saved at the bars nearby. Your rotisserie-chicken base you've laid down pre-drinking is like a minor superpower.
San Francisco has one of the largest Burmese communities in the country, and no spot is better (or faster growing) than Burma Superstar on Bubble tea–happy Clement Street (there are also outposts in Alameda and Oakland, should you stray across the bay). Start with a tea-leaf salad (tossed at the table), and then get a mix of curries, stir fries, noodle dishes, and stews (Burmese food borrows from Indian, Chinese, and Thai). The pumpkin pork stew is so delicious and soothing, it'll make you wish it was freezing out. But it won't be. It'll be 55 degrees. It's always 55 degrees here. You don't even need Google Maps for this one: Just watch for the huddle of people queuing for Burma's legendary garlic noodles and samusa soup.High Treason (a new wine bar) and the Bitter End (a pub) are both really close by, and you could wait there too. You'll be hungry, but patience builds character.
nopa is in a part of the Western Addition that was once rough, but now is overflowing with trendy shops and boutique cafes. This restaurant, which was literally the namesake for the micro-neighborhood (NoPa stands for North of the Panhandle, but got its name from the restaurant), could be held up as a frontline gentrifier. But once you get there, and try the insanely fresh food, take in the hip without being douchey ambiance, and see that locals eat there too, it's hard to not to love. nopa is basically impossible to get into, but if you show up at 5 PM and wait at the bar until the kitchen opens an hour later, you'll usually get seated. The scene is always energetic and loud, the wine list is stacked, bar manager Yanni Kehagiaras makes the best sherry cocktails in the city, and though the menu is always changing, the pork chop is a staple. Also, the butterscotch pot de crème will make you happy and fat. We've heard these men serve brunch on weekends, but also that men have walked on the moon—the evidence seems solid, but we've never met a person who has actually done it. Speaking of brunch...
Given the long wait times here, a lazy weekend breakfast spot is best selected by personality here: Consider yourself a beachy type with a locavore bent? Head to the Outer Sunset's Outerlands, where the walls and ceiling are made from weathered wood and the apple-topped Dutch pancakes are made from all things organic and local. Like a side of hipster with your frittata? Beretta is buzzy, in the Mission, and does an Italian-esque brunch all day. Prefer to drink your breakfast, ideally with a breeze ruffling your hangover? The Ramp, a divey spot in the more industrial part of the city, has built a reputation largely on its Bloody Mary and fantastic outdoor deck.
If you want to treat a lady (or a lad) to a fine, quirky night out, book a table at this Mission fixture. You can eat grilled Kobe while watching The Goonies! Or slurp Hammersley Inlet oysters while watching Gigi! Foreign Cinema also does a great brunch, should your date go well.
Zuni Cafe (150)
Serving the city's best roast chicken since 1987, Zuni Cafe is a must, especially if you have access to an expense account. It's the happy, California restaurant of your dreams: Sunny and full of organic endives and polenta during the day; glowy and passing expertly made Aperol cocktails and sea bass with Jerusalem artichokes at night. Sigh.
It's not easy to find quirky modern food with a down-to-earth vibe and reasonable prices in San Francisco. But Rich Table is a triumvirate near the Opera House, where friendly servers deliver how'd-they-think-of-that bites like sardine chips with horseradish crème fraiche and porcini donuts with raclette dip and mains like rib eye with black garlic salsa negra. And, given its proximity to downtown, it's relatively easy to get a seat at the bar, which serves a full menu. Our only beef is that the drinks and menu are every so often overly ambitious, but the service is unfussy and the desserts kill every time.
Follow the fish sauce (literally—it gets a little aromatic) to this hard-to-find spot in Union Square. Forget everything you thought you knew about Thai food because what Bangkok-born restaurateur Pim Techamuanvivit imagined here is light years beyond the limp, overly sweet Pad Thai that permeates most Thai menus. Order the curry-basted kua kling ribs or khao soi, a comforting, curried soup topped with fried noodles and pickled mustard greens, and you've sailed to northern Thailand by way of San Francisco.
People abuse the phrase "temple" of,but the Refuge is deserving of a pass (and also an Uber, because it's really far down the peninsula from SF). It truly is a temple of pastrami, which is lovingly, painstakingly crafted right there in the restaurant, and Belgian beer. And there's no hipster shit on the walls—you come, you eat sloppy Reubens, you drink high-octane beer, and you go home fat and happy.