John Birdsall is a James Beard Award-winning, Bay Area-based food writer. Follow him @John_Birdsall.
From a national perspective, San Francisco is the quirky genius kid dropping indie restaurants like iOS apps, and it’s true: the city’s bristling with new and expected openings, just like the skyline here is bristling with cranes building new tech office space. “I don’t think,” Andrew Knowlton wrote in Bon Appétit earlier this year, “I’ve ever experienced such a concentration of exciting and invigorating restaurants in a single year, in a single season. Not even in New York.”
But behind every AL’s Place or Liholiho Yacht Club, there’s a deep and very old dynamic of food in the Bay Area that informs hundred-year-old lunch counters and two-month-old startups alike. Come, eat at our iterated bistros and reimagined izakayas—if you can get a table—but learn the culture behind the buzz. Follow these 10 commandments to eat and drink like a local in-the-know.
1. EAT BREAD. JESUS, GORGE ON IT.
I was going to say San Francisco is among the finest cities for bread on the planet but fuck it: I’m calling best. The sourdough factories that once produced paper-bagged loaves for two-a-day supermarket deliveries are gone (Boudin, a company that lingers, is the lurching, slack-mouthed zombie you must run from), but Bay Area bread has evolved. Thirty years ago at Acme Bakery (1601 San Pablo Ave, Berkeley, 510-524-1327) Steve Sullivan made pain au levain the Bay Area’s defining loaf (levain is a rustic French boule, raised by ambient yeasts). Later, at Tartine Bakery (600 Guerrero St, San Francisco, 415-487-2600) in the Mission, Chad Robertson iterated that loaf into an object of patience and hand labor. Pumped with investor capital, Tartine is even now building the means to jam open the production throttle, so do not wait—spend an hour in line if you have to, be a dick if you have to—to score one of the 200 or so daily loaves still made by hand (an enormous slab of levain toast is more than adequate consolation if you fail). If you have a car, go pay respect to Sullivan’s work at the original Acme on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley (do it when Kermit Lynch, the nearby wine shop, is open). A few loaves still come out of the ovens on San Pablo, better than the ones at San Francisco’s Ferry Building. And do not hesitate to chill before the radiantly millennial bread vibes at The Mill (736 Divisadero St, San Francisco, 415-345-1953), source of SF’s infamous $4 toast, worth every depleting swipe of your debit card.
2. DON’T DRINK IN THE MISSION ON WEEKENDS.
My food photographer friend Chris Rochelle, who lives in the kraken’s beak of the tech-bro Mission, says you’ll only get pissed off if you try and go drinking there during surge times. “There’s this weird tension,” Chris says. “The people who are not techie people are mad—all these hardcores at Zeitgeist (199 Valencia St, San Francisco, 415-255-7505) and Bender’s complaining about everything: the rent, how fucked up the city is right now, and they look at you like you’re part of it.” The way around it is to go on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, when Zeitgeist is mellower, more lovably shitty. If you happen to get thirsty later in the week, consider Suppenküche’s (525 Laguna St, San Francisco, 415-252-9289) Biergarten in Hayes Valley. “It’s nice but sort of on the conservative side,” Chris says. “You definitely can’t smoke weed.” Or consider the city’s original indie-beer tavern, Toronado (547 Haight St, San Francisco, 415-863-2276) in Lower Haight, where Chris has been hanging out since 1995. “It’s still great,” he says, “still feels very local.”
3. CHEZ PANISSE (BUT NOT FOR THE FOOD).
All respect to Chez Panisse (1517 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, 510-548-5525), which changed the reach—the aspirations—of chefs and restaurants. Put on a nice shirt and pay homage to history, either upstairs in the café with a puck of warm goat cheese and the salad that changed America, or downstairs, in the dining room that feels as if you’ve stepped over a stanchion at the Smithsonian, where non-hologram Alice Waters still goes from table to table as she has, mind-blowingly, for 40 years. The food will be tasty, but don’t forget: You came to Berkeley for reverence. To eat, seek out the great Panisse diaspora in neighboring Oakland, at Pizzaiolo (5008 Telegraph Ave, 510-652-4888) or Boot and Shoe Service, Camino (3917 Grand Ave, Oakland, 510-547-5035), or Ramen Shop (5812 College Ave, Oakland, 510-788-6370).
4. ORDER THE CHINESE MENU.
In Chinese restaurants, keep focus, says San Francisco food writer Susannah Chen. “There’s always pre-fixe Chinese menus, usually at the front of the menu book,” she says. “Those preset menus for four or six or eight people—that’s the menu to get on board with, where the best dishes are going to be.” You won’t know exactly what you’re getting, but let’s face it: Left to yourself you’d probably order a Sichuan dish at a Cantonese place, and that’s exactly where you should be in San Francisco: a Cantonese restaurant (R&G Lounge (631 Kearny St, San Francisco, 415-982-7877) and Hong Kong Lounge II (3300 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, 415-668-8802) won’t disappoint). For the region’s best Chinese, though, you’ll need a car and a Waze route to the South Bay, near San Jose. “Milpitas,” Chen says, “is the center of Chinese food in the Bay Area.” If you go, get the salted duck egg crab at King Wah (1235 E Calaveras Blvd, Milpitas), or the oyster omelet at Taiwan Café (568 N Abel St, Milpitas).
5. IF IT’S NOT CRAB SEASON, PASS ON SWAN OYSTER DEPOT.
Not long ago, only old guys from Russian Hill and quirky rich ladies with a sense of history would go to Swan Oyster Depot (1517 Polk St, San Francisco, 415-673-2757), the hundred-year-old seafood market with a lunch counter. Over the past five years the miniscule spot at the heart of Polk Street’s one-time gay hustler zone has become an essential pin drop on any serious SF eating tour. That’s as it should be, but with one huge, hanging qualifier: local Dungeness season. The thing to get at Swan’s is half a cold boiled crab, and the time to get that is in the first four months of the Northern California crab catch, mid-November through about mid-March (the season technically runs through June, but the numbers have pretty much been depleted down to a trickle at the start of spring). Trust me on this.
6. CARNITAS BURRITO AT LA TAQ, NEVERMIND THE BROS.
Last year, after a search that promised surprising discoveries, FiveThirtyEight said the nation’s best burrito was, not surprisingly, from La Taqueria (2889 Mission St,
San Francisco, 415-285-7117) in the Mission. This made an already popular place swarm with out-of-town bros, a thing that San Franciscans—a lot of whom were out-of-town bros themselves last year—really fucking hate. Whatever. La Taqueria is perfect and eternal. It has not changed since the mid-1980s, when first I whacked my shins against its skittering, woven-leather stools. The strands of La Taq’s carnitas turn to supple, frazzled jerky at the edges; avocado (ask for it) is both too much and essential, like gobbing butter on a steak. If the Mission burrito was born, as some believe, in the factory farms of the San Joaquin Valley, La Taq’s burrito is its urban apotheosis: in texture and flavor luxurious, in simplicity elegant.
7. WINE IN SHOPS, FERNET IN QUEER SPACE.
Wolfgang Weber, a local wine industry guy, thinks tasting bars at SF wine shops are better places to drink these days than wine bars. Weber likes Ruby Wine (1419 18th St, San Francisco, 415-401-7708) in Potrero Hill on Fridays, or putting away a bottle wine in the back garden of the Arlequin (384 Hayes St,
San Francisco, 415-863-1104) shop in Hayes Valley. “There’s a lot of cool options,” he says, “and you’re not paying usual restaurant markup.” After that, Weber says, do a different kind of drinking in one of the shrinking islands of queer space in a city that, in the early 20th century, pretty much invented the gay bar. If it’s Friday, check out draggish Club Some Thing at The Stud (399 9th St, San Francisco) in SoMa. Or, he says, go to one of the surviving gay bars still worth a shit: Last Call (3988 18th St, San Francisco) in the Castro. “I love going from drinking natural wine to hanging out in a gay bar with Fernet and a ginger back.” If you’re lucky you’ll get a seat by the windows that open onto 18th Street. “If you snag one of those,” Weber says, “you’re holding court.”
8. EAT BIRRIA IN FRUITVALE.
San Francisco has the Mission burrito, but Oakland has soul. Take BART to Fruitvale, and you’re in a place where Mexican food is coded into the life of the street. Get the Bay Area’s best Jalisco-style goat birria in the tiny, garage-like back dining room at Taqueria Campos (3659 Foothill Blvd, Oakland, 510-261-4260) on Foothill Boulevard. Saturday mornings, the Tacos los Michoacanos (3524 International Blvd, Oakland) truck on International Boulevard at 35th Avenue will sell you a version from Michoacan: soupier, spiced with cloves, and with boneless hunks of goat meat, but just as delicious. Take a seat at the outdoor picnic table, dribble on the searing árbol chile salsa, and soak up the neighborhood.
9. SIP ON A COLD BREW AT BLUE BOTTLE IN THE FERRY BUILDING.
“Going to Blue Bottle (1 #7, Sausalito—San Francisco Ferry Bldg) in San Francisco is like going to Shake Shack in New York City,” says Nicholas Cho, cofounder of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters in San Francisco. “If you haven’t been to a Blue Bottle,” Cho says, mixing his similes (but whatever), “you have to experience the Apple Store.” Ten years ago, Cho’s wife and partner, Trish Rothgeb, coined the term Third Wave to describe an approach to coffee that valued purity, bean terroir, and a nuanced approach to roasting. There’s a certain amount of backsliding from Third Wave going on now, Cho says, an emphasis on fun drinks, with milk and sweeteners, which cold brew represents. Still, you can’t talk about coffee right now and not talk about cold brew. “Culturally speaking,” Cho says, “it’s sort of like the ‘90s are back and people are listening to Third Eye Blind and saying, What the fuck? It’s fun.”
10. GET WASTED AT HOUSE OF PRIME RIB.
The smell of beef fat and jus gets trapped in the warm humid air, under a ceiling that seems lower than it did before your second martini. A jiggly plank of prime beef awash in bloody juices here is merely the objective correlative of San Francisco’s historic lust for flesh, our yearning for bacchanalian obliteration. Flood the city with tech teens holed up in Mission incubators, early-morning yoga ravers, or maxi-dress Instagram brunchers—sooner or later everybody succumbs to the thing that’s lured people to San Francisco for 150 years: the promise of limitless pleasure on the continental fringe.