If New York City is the most international of all cities in the United States, San Francisco surely comes in second. Despite its location on the far edge of the nation, the little city on the bay attracts people from cultures all over the world for its pleasant scenery, ocean breezes, and reputation for tolerance. And among its other delights, San Francisco is decidedly a food town, one where restaurants take pride in their cooking and residents are fiercely loyal to their neighborhood favorites. The Leopard has spent quite some time exploring the city and offers the following list of venues to eat, drink, and enjoy life. As always, good values are emphasized.
Two of the most heavily touristed neighborhoods in the city are still very pleasant to wander around in, particularly North Beach, which is still home to many Italians and a great place to find Italian food or a fine cappuccino. Walking down Columbus Avenue, the main strip, will take you by the most frequented places, including the venerable City Lights Bookstore. Just be sure to bypass the tourist trap restaurants like the Stinking Rose, where all the flavors are overloaded with garlic. As for Chinatown, you would think that good Chinese food would be easy to find. Unfortunately, many of the most visible places specialize in the tourist trade, which essentially means they also specialize in providing low-quality food at inflated prices. You're better off getting recommendations from locals if you're looking for Chinese.
478 Green Street (between Grant Avenue and Kearny Street)
You shouldn't be put off by the alleyway that leads to this Italian restaurant for when you get around to the back of the building you find a generous space that includes some of the loveliest leafy garden seating in the neighborhood. And if that were not incentive enough, the artfully presented dishes are very reasonably priced.
1 Ferry Building Marketplace (at the Embarcadero on the end of Market Street)
I admit I'm fudging a bit on location as the Ferry Building is outside of the range of North Beach, but this place deserves a mention as a wonderful venue for coffee on an esplanade facing the bay. I recommend breakfast with a French press carafe of the exquisite house specialty Blue Bottle three African beans coffee.
Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge
1155 Grant Avenue (between Pacific Avenue and Broadway)
This tiny dive bar's location just off of the main strip ensures that it's preserved for those discerning locals who appreciate the melodious sounds of very bad karaoke and cheap Tsingtao in a bottle. You just have to go there to know what I mean.
1454 Grant Avenue (between Green Street and Union Street)
Jacqueline is definitely unique among French restaurants. How many other places specialize in soufflés? The savory soufflés come in a number of varieties, including prosciutto and mushroom and brie and broccoli. My favorite is the gruyere and garlic. And though they seem light and fluffy, each dinner soufflé is enough to feed two people, which helps defray the cost. Indeed, my dining companion and I were so full we had to skip the highly recommended dessert soufflés.
584 Pacific Avenue (between Montgomery Street and Columbus Avenue)
If the crowds that occupy the bars and cafés of North Beach on a weekend night get to be too much, Cafe Prague can serve as a safe haven where you can try their Czech wine and food specialties and listen to Czech versions of familiar pop tunes on the stereo.
423 Columbus Avenue (between Vallejo Street and Green Street)
Though in some ways it may seem indistinguishable from its neighbor Caffe Puccini (below), you will find subtle differences at Greco. For one thing, I think their tiramisu and other desserts are particularly fine.
411 Columbus Avenue (at Vallejo Street)
If instead of a jukebox oriented towards classic or indi rock you prefer one loaded with arias from the early days of opera recordings to the present, this Italian café on the main strip is the perfect place. Whether you pop in for a cappuccino in the afternoon or a Punt e Mes in the evening, you're likely to enjoy sitting here for a bit.
601 Vallejo Street (at Grant Avenue)
One of the more popular Italian cafés in the area, Trieste is particularly crowded on Sunday afternoons due to the live opera singing.
Golden Boy Pizza
542 Green (between Stockton Street and Grant Avenue)
Pizza abounds in North Beach, and this tiny joint may not at first appear to be one of the best places to get a slice, but actually their thick square pieces are very tasty. As seating is minimal, you may prefer to take your slice to nearby Washington Park to enjoy.
Hang Ah Tea Room
1 Pagoda Place (off of Sacramento Street between Stockton Street and Grant Avenue)
Hang Ah may seem less inviting than other Chinese restaurants in the area, but don't be fooled by the lack of decoration and the dimly lit location. Allegedly one of the oldest Chinese restaurants in the city, this dim sum place has been acclaimed by locals for years as a great place to find cheap, authentic Chinese food.
430 Broadway (between Kearny Street and Montgomery Street)
The fact that this Afghan restaurant belongs to a small chain owned by the family of current Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai may or may not be relevant to you, but the great food is of concern to all. A full dinner begins with a free serving of flat bread with three dipping sauces to try (cilantro, yogurt, and spicy tomato). For appetizers you can try kaddo, sweet pumpkin topped with yogurt and a tomato and beef sauce, and mashawa, an amazing soup with lamb chunks, yogurt, and garbanzo beans. Entrées are huge and generally include grilled meats with generous portions of lentils or rice and vegetables. Everything is delicately spiced and a delight to taste.
House of Nanking
919 Kearny Street (between Jackson Street and Pacific Avenue)
I woudn't dispute those who condemn this crowded Chinese restaurant as a tourist trap; however, the food is actually quite good and has many fans even among locals. The service isn't spectacular, and you need to be assertive in your choices or the waiters will insist on telling you what to order. I would definitely recommend trying one of the Nanking sauce dishes.
Maykadeh Persian Cuisine
470 Green Street (between Grant Avenue and Kearny Street)
Though you can definitely eat well for cheaper in the North Beach area, Maykadeh is worth a splurge for fantastic Persian entrees piled with grilled meats, vegetables, and rice.
Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe
566 Columbus Avenue (between Green Street and Union Street)
If you've been to Mario's when it was still a cigar store, you've been around a lot longer than I have. Now it's a popular neighborhood place known for an excellent view of Washington Square, friendly service, and tasty sandwiches.
201 Columbus Avenue (at Pacific Avenue)
A superlatively divey bar livened up by the friendly bartender. The triangular bar set-up is quite unique.
Mo's Gourmet Burgers
1322 Grant Avenue (between Vallejo Street and Green Street)
Sometimes the name says it all, and Mo's consistently gets written up for serving some of the best burgers in the city. You can get them in many different varieties, but I recommend the simplicity of the "Best Burger," made with beef, turkey, or in garden burger form (though if you want to order the latter, you may be in the wrong place). A choice of fries, chili, soup, or beans is a bit extra. Let's face it, you're going to want the fries. The shakes are big and genuine, but a bit on the sweet side.
New Saigon Restaurant
915 Kearny Street (between Jackson Street and Pacific Avenue)
If the crowds at next door House of Nanking (above) put you off, duck into this unassuming restaurant for some of the cheapest and best Vietnamese food in the neighborhood.
North Beach Pizza
1499 Grant Avenue (at Union Street)
The original location of this popular local chain is still the liveliest, benefiting from a busy corner of the neighborhood. The pizza is very good here and made with fresh ingredients, but I have to admit they put on just a bit too much cheese for my taste. Of course, that hasn't stopped me from coming here on many occasions, and you may not share the same bias.
O'Reilly's Irish Bar and Restaurant
622 Green Street (between Powell Street and Columbus Avenue)
Although it gets a bit packed, I can still recommend O'Reilly's for excellent Irish favorites such as lamb stew and cottage pie. And the Guinness is served as it should be.
Original U.S. Restaurant
515 Columbus Avenue (between Green Street and Union Street)
Contrary to popular belief, the name stands for Unione Sportiva, which indicates the Italian roots of this restaurant specializing in basic Italian comfort food and sandwiches. You'll have a hard time finishing a plate of the spaghetti and meatballs, but you'll enjoy trying.
618 Broadway (between Stockton Street and Columbus Avenue)
The terms "hole in the wall" and "greasy burger joint" may as well have been invented just for Sam's. You will feel greasy just walking into this narrow slot of a diner, but Sam's is open late and after a night of drinking in North Beach a solid burger and fries at the counter can be just the thing.
12 William Saroyan Alley (on the east side of Columbus Avenue between Broadway Street and Pacific Avenue)
Tons of bars fill the streets of North Beach, and many of them are dive bars, but none of them are remotely like Specs' (the full name is Specs' Twelve Adler Museum Cafe). Nested in a dead-end alley, Specs' is immediately distinctive due to its aging nautical decor, though much of it is difficult to see in the cave-like interior. Still, Specs' is unbeatable for classic cocktails done right and a comfortable, cozy atmosphere.
Stella Pastry and Cafe
446 Columbus Avenue (between Green Street and Vallejo Street)
I confess that good tiramisu is my weakness. Exceptional tiramisu makes me dizzy with delight, and I lose my bearings every time I try the fresh, dripping, decadent tiramisu at Stella, a classic pasticceria that produces abundant tasty pastries to take away or eat at one of the tables. Their cappuccino is proper too, but be advised that they close earlier than most cafés in the area.
941 Kearny Street (between Jackson Street and Pacific Avenue)
Though more expensive than the horde of low-cost Indian restaurants that have opened in the city in recent years, Tandoori Mahal is worth it for quality food. I particularly love the Hyderabadi chicken curry, with chunks of chicken, apricot pieces, and slivers of fried potato in a creamy curry.
242 Columbus Avenue (between Broadway Street and Pacific Avenue)
Famous for the Irish coffees that line the bar waiting for launch, this wood-lined place is more of a lounge bar than a café. Local celebrities are known to hang out here (including members of the Coppola clan, who frequent North Beach in general). But even if you don't see someone you know you'll still feel part of the scene.
255 Columbus Avenue (between Broadway Street and Pacific Avenue)
A classic café and bar that was once popular with the local Beat poets (although it would be hard to find a bar that's been around since that time that wasn't), Vesuvio is especially welcoming due to the windows overlooking the street. The upstairs tables are a particularly great place to sit and watch the action on Columbus Avenue.
An area that functions as a magnet for tourists can hardly be expected to have the highest quality and budget-friendly restaurants, but if you know where to go you can still get a good deal, particularly at one of the many South Asian restaurants that have appeared in recent years. If you're feeling in an upscale European mood, you should seek out Belden Place, a small one-lane alley that only runs for a block between Bush Street and Pine Street and forms the center of a sort of Little Paris.
7 Claude Lane (between Sutter Street and Bush Street)
Like its cousins Plouf and Café de la Presse (below), Claude strives to recreate a very French atmosphere in the heart of downtown San Francisco and is a great place for lingering over coffee and a light snack on the sidewalk.
Café de la Presse
352 Grant Avenue (between Sutter Street and Bush Street)
Billing itself as a Parisian-inspired café, de la Presse does a good job of creating the right French atmosphere, and they serve food along with good coffee drinks. Plus, they have a number of foreign magazines for sale to truly enhance your international experience.
511 Jones Street (between O'Farrell Street and Geary Street)
This fancifully named South Asian restaurant is set apart from the others simply by the more scrubbed and polished interior, but the food is still authentic and very reasonably priced.
474 Geary Street (between Taylor Street and Mason Street)
Anyone accustomed to the kind of genuine Jewish deli food available in, say, New York City would likely be disappointed by David's more modest aspirations, but the food is nevertheless reasonable and enjoyable.
Gold Dust Lounge
247 Powell Street (between Geary Street and O'Farrell Street)
It might be hard to imagine a good place for a drink in the heavily touristed region around Union Square, but Gold Dust stands above the other contenders due to the faded glamor in its furnishings, friendly service, and cheap drinks. I would steer you away from the cheap Margaritas, however, and towards beer or simpler drinks.
Little Deli Indian Cuisine
552 Jones Street (between O'Farrell Street and Geary Street)
You can contemplate whether the title contains a pun on New Delhi, and you can contemplate how to get yourself a place to sit when the restaurant only has four tables, but you can also enjoy a number of Indian specialties and snacks.
Max's on the Square
398 Geary Street (at Mason Street)
This sibling of Max's Opera Cafe does not have quite the flair that the Hayes Valley location does and is much more heavily touristed, but you can still get the same tremendous sandwiches and epic-proportioned desserts.
40 Belden Place (between Bush Street and Pine Street)
Plouf is my favorite of the Belden Place dining spots, specializing in seafood and priced accordingly. Sitting on the sidewalk outside is particularly pleasant on a nice day.
532 Jones Street (between Geary Street and O'Farrell Street)
One of the first of the many cheap, no-frills Pakistani restaurants in the area, Shalimar has grown very popular over the years. I like the serve-yourself system: plates, utensils, water, even hot tea is all available, you just need to get up and get them. And the food is very authentic.
398 Eddy Street (at Leavenworth Street)
The name of this Pakistani place may seem a bit obvious, but the food is the reason to go. It's slightly more upscale than the other South Asian joints in the neighborhood (in that they have table service and a mural on the wall, though the TV is sometimes turned up a bit too loud), but it still has a down-to-earth feel.
A journey up Polk Street from the Tenderloin to Russian Hill is a quick odyssey through strata of socio-economic classes. The Tenderloin is dodgy, a good place to avoid late at night though generally safe enough in the daylight hours as long as you are careful and aware of your surroundings. Russian Hill is the domain of high-rise apartments and correspondingly priced restaurants. Nob Hill is squarely in the middle, neither too cheap nor too expensive, neither too scary nor too safe, neither too edgy nor too snooty.
A La Turca
869 Geary Street (between Larkin Street and Hyde Street)
The place to go for bargain-priced Turkish food, including gyro and falafel sandwiches on lavash or pitas, kebab platters, savory pies, and vegetarian appetizers. The decor is definitely no-frills, but the prices and quality are worth it.
1750 Polk Street (between Clay Street and Washington Street)
If you like bars with theme decor you may enjoy the Bigfoot, where a log cabin look abounds in a small but friendly neighborhood place.
Black Magic Voodoo Lounge
1400 Lombard Street (at Van Ness Avenue)
Though it tends to attract a lot of the tourists from the Comfort Inn across the street, I still like this bar for its dimly lit atmosphere and low-key feel.
Bob's Donut and Pastry Shop
1621 Polk Street (between Sacramento Street and Clay Street)
An unassuming and greasy joint that makes what some consider the best donuts in the city. Bob's really picks up after midnight when donuts are made fresh for the enjoyment of the crowds who start spilling out of the nearby bars. I can attribute some of my best donut experiences to sitting at the counter at Bob's and indulging in a light, crispy, superbly greasy offering with a glass of milk.
Boulange de Polk
2310 Polk Street (between Green Street and Union Street)
I firmly believe that a good French bakery is a vital addition to a neighborhood, and this pleasant place fulfills the requirement for Nob Hill and Russian Hill. You can get your daily baguette, your croque monsieur, and sandwiches, and there's no need not to linger over a proper cup of coffee and dessert.
720 Post Street (at Jones Street)
One of San Francisco's many cheap and tasty Burmese restaurants, Burma House may seem a little rudimentary in the sense of atmosphere, but the food is very good and the staff friendly. I can particularly recommend the satay combination appetizer, with chicken, pork, and beef on skewers in peanut sauce, as well as the Rangoon prawns in spicy sauce.
800 Post Street (at Leavenworth Street)
In a city filled with pretentious lounges the Royale is a real find. Modern décor, comfortable couches, and cool music combine in a low-key setting. One of my favorite places to get beer or wine. However, they don't have a hard liquor license, so cocktails are made with sake or soju.
835 Hyde Street (between Bush Street and Sutter Street)
Proof that you don't need to go to North Beach to get great Italian food in the city, il Cartoccio is an intimate and friendly neighborhood restaurant. I recommend the wonderful and hearty lasagna al forno. Half-bottles of wine are reasonably priced.
1574 California Street (between Polk Street and Larkin Street)
The name suggests classic French cooking, but in actuality it is only emblematic of the French influence on Vietnamese cuisine. But don't expect the variety of the standard Vietnamese restaurant. Cordon Bleu is devoted to meat, grilled and marinated to perfection and served in huge piles over rice for very low prices. Table room is scant, you are better off ordering to go.
East Coast West Deli
1725 Polk Street (between Clay Street and Washington Street)
You can probably tell by the name that East Coast West certainly isn't going to be the most authentic version of a New York Jewish deli. That said, they have good food in both standard and variant form (including a Reuben sandwich made with pastrami instead of corned beef). I also like the latkes and knishes.
950 Geary Street (between Polk Street and Larkin Street)
With its selection of fine beers, single malt Scotch list, and fish 'n' chips wrapped in newspaper, the Castle is the closest you can find to an authentic Scottish pub in the city.
La Fina Estampa
1100 Van Ness Avenue (at Geary Street)
The place to go for Peruvian cuisine in the city, Fina Estampa serves hearty plates of beef, chicken, and fish in tasty combinations with vegetables and rice. You can also enjoy tapas, margaritas, and sangria, all in a spacious setting with painted archangels bursting over the walls.
572 O'Farrell Street (between Leavenworth Street and Jones Street)
San Francisco is known for good vegetarian and vegan cuisine to cater to the healthy lifestyles that many residents lead, and the Vietnamese restaurant Golden Era is one of the best and the cheapest. You might be initially put off by the food in quotation marks—"fish" cake, "beef" and broccoli, and spicy "chicken" are among the offerings—but the soy versions of meat dishes are actually very nicely done, and more importantly the vegetables are very fresh and tasty. Plus, you can pick up Buddhist literature in the lobby.
1525 Pine Street (between Van Ness Avenue and Polk Street)
One frequent complaint of San Francisco residents and visitors is the rarity of late-night dining establishments. Grubstake is one of the few correctives and stays open until 4:00 am. The fare consists of the standard spread of decent burgers, sandwiches, and meat dishes, but the menu includes an intriguing "Portuguese Corner" for more unique entrées.
1068 Hyde Street (at California Street)
The upstairs tables are the real draw at this friendly neighborhood bar. Get a drink at the bar, find a seat upstairs, and enjoy viewing the action, which especially picks up when the cable car comes down California Street.
1653 Polk Street (between Sacramento Street and Clay Street)
As one moves north from the Tenderloin, the Indian restaurants tend to become less cafeteria-like and more atmospheric and sit-down. The prices get higher and frequently the food gets less authentic, but thankfully places like Indian Aroma maintain their quality standards. I particularly like the vegetable biryani.
144 Taylor Street (between Eddy Street and Turk Street)
Joe's is both original and very unique. Established in 1937, Joe's takes pride in fine service from a crew of old school waiters and in bringing great food to your table. Though the focus is on Italian cuisine, you can get plenty of steaks and chops here, and the portions are huge. I recommend sitting at the bar to really be a part of the interesting scene.
Polkers Gourmet Burgers
2226 Polk Street (between Vallejo Street and Green Street)
The place to go for good, greasy, unpretentious, large burgers and curly fries. And if you want to stay on the healthier side, Polker's also offers turkey, garden, and tofu burgers.
1760 Polk Street (between Clay Street and Washington Street)
Diners abound in every neighborhood and are generally reliable in San Francisco, but I'm always pleased to mention those that are a cut above the rest. The food at the Rendezvous is carefully prepared but unpretentious, which is welcome in an area that sometimes suffers from food snobbery.
Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason Street (between California Street and Sacramento Street)
The Fairmont Hotel may not have a lot of appeal unless you have the money for it, but the Tonga Room in the basement is a glorious example of California Tiki kitsch, redolent with plenty of tropical imagery and faux Polynesian iconography. When the band, which floats on a pool in the middle of the room, starts up and the fake lightning and rain kick in, you'll either be hooked or repelled. And the drinks, sometimes served in fake coconuts and adorned with plenty of umbrellas, are sweet, strong marvels of juice and liquor mixology.
2000 Hyde Street (at Union Street)
The scene around Union Street can be pretentious and pricey, but you can find places that offer both elegance and value for your money. Zarzuela is one of these. For its classy and welcoming atmosphere, tasty plates, and friendly service, Zarzuela is my favorite Spanish tapas restaurant in the city.
1319 California Street (between Hyde Street and Leavenworth Street)
I feel strongly that a roaring fireplace and a cozy feel on a cold evening makes for a special experience in a bar that otherwise may seem like any other. If you feel the same way, you will enjoy Zeki's.
Proximity to the opera house and symphony lends a bit of a sophisticated air to the quiet area around Hayes Street. The restaurants are accordingly a little pricier than in other areas, but I've found that they're also generally high quality.
398 Hayes Street (at Gough Street)
Absinthe replicates the ambiance and décor of a Parisian café with a reasonable degree of success. I have never eaten a meal there, but I have often ended up there after an opera and enjoyed one of their decadent desserts with wine.
384B Hayes Street (between Gough Street and Franklin Street)
You might look at this café and think it's no more nor less pleasant than any other café in the neighborhood, but what you really need to do is step into the backyard after you get your coffee or food. Arlequin features a gorgeously green backyard garden courtyard that makes for a very pleasant place to sit on a nice day.
Caffe delle Stelle
395 Hayes Street (at Gough Street)
Many people insist that the Tuscan specialties at the "Café of the Stars" are some of the best in the city, and with prices that are very reasonable for good Italian food you can try it out and decide for yourself.
399 Grove Street (at Gough Street)
Perfectly situated for dessert and coffee before or after the opera, Citizen Cake may be a little too modern in décor and pretentious in attitude for some tastes, but the desserts are genuinely good.
579 Hayes Street (between Laguna Street and Octavia Street)
Belgian fries, crêpes, and beer are the staples at this small but nicely decorated place. You can get both savory and sweet crêpes, and a large order of "frjtz" (small and crispy Belgian fries) comes with two dips and easily serves two. The music is frequently cutting edge, and the patio in the back is a particularly inviting place to settle in with some fries and a Leffe, Chimay, or Duvel on draft.
Hayes and Vine
377 Hayes Street (between Gough Street and Franklin Street)
Naturally, Hayes Street would be unimaginable without a wine bar, and Hayes and Vine is one of the most popular. Though a bit upscale, it's a good place to try a glass or share a bottle.
650 Gough Street (at McAllister Street)
A swank bar just off the main strip of Hayes, Jade impresses with its modern decor and lighting (including a waterfall in the downstairs area) as well as a truly odd men's room that includes a window, so a gentleman can gaze at other drinkers and they can gaze back. It's actually not as bizarre as it sounds.
Max's Opera Cafe
601 Van Ness Avenue (in Opera Plaza at Golden Gate Avenue)
Though part of a bay area chain, Max's serves up good diner food to a hungry opera and symphony crowd, who regularly come out for the huge sandwiches and decadent desserts. Sometimes opera singers will perform live to enhance the atmosphere. I would highly recommend sharing as the portions are enormous.
520 Hayes Street (at Octavia Street)
Successfully continuing the pseudo-French feel of this portion of Hayes Street, Pigalle boasts a good beer and wine selection, an art gallery, and big crowds on weekend nights.
525 Laguna Street (at Hayes Street)
San Francisco is blessed with a few choice German restaurants, and this Hayes Valley favorite is one of the most popular for its fine beer selection and elegant atmosphere that eschews the Bavarian kitsch motif too often found in such places. I can particularly recommend the brunch menu. However, you need to be in a social mood as part of the fun is sitting at long wooden tables with other diners and enjoying a festive atmosphere.
A popular neighborhood that is frequently considered the beating heart of the city, the Mission gets its name from Mission Dolores, one of a string of missions built by the Spanish in the early years of California settlement and conquest. Today, it still boasts a large population of Latino residents, though the community of artists and hipsters seems more visible at times. As a result of this unique mix of cultures, you can find all sorts of cheap ethnic food as well as unpretentious drinking places. You certainly cannot visit the Mission without indulging in a classic Mission burrito. Note that though burritos are freqently considered Mexican food, they actually originated with migrant workers who needed portable meals for lunch in the fields. These days, the Mission is cited as one of the best places in the country to get a proper burrito, and I have a few recommendations that will not disappoint.
3336 24th Street (between Valencia Street and Mission Street)
This bar's ground floor location may seem to defy the title, but the dimly lit, cozy atmosphere doesn't seem too far off.
2299 Mission Street (at 19th Street)
Average-looking people need not worry as the Beauty Bar takes everyone who's willing to enjoy kitschy '50s decor, including a row of hair dryers familiar from "I Love Lucy" episodes. Drinks naturally try to evoke the era as well.
2323 Mission Street (between 20th Street and 19th Street)
This restaurant with the unique name and appropriately exotic décor serves up a variety of African-style dishes, mostly grilled meats with a variety of vegetables. And if you're in the mood to continue the fun after your meal, you can go to Bissap's offspring Little Baobab just around the corner (see below).
2389 Mission Street (between 20th Street and 19th Street)
If you feel like going back in time a little Bruno's is a great place to do it. The classic jazz club has been around since the 1940's and comes complete with everything you would expect, including classic décor, a fishtank lounge, and top music acts on certain nights.
878 Valencia Street (between 20th Street and 19th Street)
Ethiopian food is always fun for a communal dining experience as the various stewed meats and vegetables are all spread out on a huge piece of spongy injera bread and attacked by all at the table. Café Ethiopia is a worthy representative of this unique cuisine.
527 Valencia Street (between 16th Street and 17th Street)
So many bars line Valencia Street and so many are indistinguishable. Casanova is definitely distinctive, partly due to its Valentino-inspired décor. It also features a very eclectic selection on its jukebox.
The Elbo Room
647 Valencia Avenue (between 17th Street and 18th Street)
The second floor of this bar is a popular live music venue, but I confess I have never made it past the very comfortable first floor with its dimly lit tables and finely made cocktails.
2779 Mission Street (at 24th Street)
This taqueria seems to get less attention than the others, probably because it's located farther south, yet I think it rates up there with the top places. The burritos are a staple here, but I would also recommend the quesadilla suiza, made with chunky slabs of steak.
500 Guerrero Street (at 17th Street)
The 500 Club is what I consider the ideal dive bar, someplace where you can dress as grungy as you feel and yet still enjoy a nicely made cocktail along with a good jukebox while you try to challenge the regulars at billiards.
3160 16th Street (between Guerrero Street and Valencia Street)
Though the dim lighting and cave feel might at first put you off when you peek in the door of this local bar, it's actually a fun place that gets quickly packed out on weekend nights.
Latin American Club
3286 22nd Street (between Valencia Street and Mission Street)
Though the name suggests something ethnic and perhaps exclusive, the Latin American Club is actually a rather large bar that invites and attracts all comers who enjoy drinks and fun. It can also get terribly loud and crowded.
3464 19th Street (between Valencia Street and Mission Street)
The Lexington bills itself as "your friendly neighborhood dyke bar," which alone makes it stand out, as most bars in the city cater primarily to heteros or gay men or both. The Lexington is also friendly enough that people of any orientation with a tolerant attitude feel comfortable there, particularly if they want to escape the "meat market" atmosphere that pervades many of the Mission's drinking spots.
The Liberties Bar and Restaurant
998 Guerrero Street (at 22nd Street)
Naturally, the Mission wouldn't be complete without an Irish pub to round out the full representation of ethnic offerings, and Liberties is a fine one, with good food and good pints.
3388 19th Street (between Mission Street and Capp Street)
This annex to the Bissap Baobab restaurant (see above) is a nice place to avoid the pretensions of other nightclubs and drink and dance to an eclectic mix of music. Just be warned that the dance floor gets intensely packed and sweaty on weekend nights (which may very well be part of the appeal).
3394 22nd Street (at Guerrero Street)
A very classy and intimate lounge bar that just happens to have a lone palm prominently situated in front. A nice place to relax with a cocktail.
1142 Valencia Street (between 23rd Street and 22nd Street)
Though a little more upscale and modern than some of the other, more authentic pupuserias in the area (see Panchitas #2 below), Mahajual still serves up good food for cheap, though I would recommend the pupusas over the tamales.
Malai Thai Restaurant
3189 16th Street (between Guerrero Street and Valencia Street)
Thai food abounds in the Mission just as it does in every other neighborhood in the city. Malai Thai is quiet and unassuming, a family-run place that pleases with its simple, tasty food and reasonable prices.
4 Valencia Street (at Market Street)
The abundance of martinis in large servings and a piano bar in a separate room make Martuni's a popular drinking spot.
1900 Market Street (at Laguna Street)
Perched at the northern edge of the Mission, the Orbit Room is a nice, classy lounge that thankfully doesn't come with too many pretensions. Although it can get very crowded on weekend nights, the bartenders are friendly and good at their job and the abundance of windows looking out on busy Market Street create an open feel and a pleasant atmospere.
3091 16th Street (between Valencia Street and Mission Street)
The place to go if you like Salvadoran pupusas, corn tortillas stuffed with pork, chicken, cheese, beans, a special vegetable called loroco, or any combination of the preceding. You can make a cheap and filling meal with just two pupusas and a side of rice.
3071 16th Street (between Mission Street and Valencia Street)
Out of all the most noted Mission taquerias, Pancho Villa is the most civilized, with amenities such as metal utensils and a salsa bar. Yet it's still cheap and carries a cafeteria feel.
Papa Toby's Revolution Cafe
3248 22nd Street (between Bartlett Street and Mission Street)
If you like an open-air, sidewalk feel for your coffee and beer drinking experiences, Papa Toby's is the place to go. They generally have interesting beers on draft and frequently feature live music.
260 Valencia Street (between 14th Street and Duboce Avenue)
All pizza recommendations need to be taken with the caveat that California pizza is different from other styles you may be familiar with. That said, the better places can be relied upon for fresh and creative ingredients. Pauline's includes a list of "eccentric" toppings such as muffaletta, andouille, and pepper purée. The dining area is elegant and comfortable.
3120 16th Street (between Valencia Street and Guerrero Street)
The tapas at this colorful and busy restaurant are cheap, filling, and very tasty. Among the abundant choices is squid served in a sauce made with squid ink, which is really much better than it sounds. I would also recommend the sangria. The place really picks up on weekends, but seating is plentiful so you won't need to wait long.
Radio Habana Social Club
1109 Valencia Street (between 23rd Street and 22nd Street)
You can get food in this tiny, eclectically decorated place, but so far I've only had drinks, including cheap glasses of sangria. I enjoy the vaguely conspiratorial air in here, perhaps enhanced by the occasional table of bearded self-styled revolutionaries whispering in the corner.
3158 Mission Street (between Cesar Chavez Street and Valencia Street)
World beat is the thing at this night club with an ample outdoor garden. On weekend nights you can dance to a mix of Latin, reggae, bhangra, and other grooves from all over the world.
3140 Mission Street (between Cesar Chavez Street and Valencia Street)
If you can get past the Flintstone-ish name, you will find this classic supper club to be a great place to go for salsa dancing. Salsa nights begin with a free lesson to help the uninitiated. Afterwards, the live band takes over and the dance floor comes alive.
La Rondalla Restaurant and Cantina
901 Valencia Street (at 20th Street)
Though the name certainly indicates the availability of food, I would be the last one to recommend the dishes at La Rondalla, and many locals agree with me. However, I would recommend the exuberantly festive atmosphere and the strong, if not exactly well-made, margaritas.
3089 16th Street (at Valencia Street)
Though it still possesses a nice neighborhood atmosphere, Skylark seems somehow a little classier than a lot of the other local bars in the area even as it maintains a very down-to-earth attitude.
Sunflower Authentic Vietnamese
506 Valencia Street (at 16th Street)
Good Vietnamese food is cheap and easy to find in San Francisco, and Sunflower is one of my favorites in the Mission. As an appetizer, the fresh chicken spring rolls can't be beat.
2288 Mission Street (at 19th Street)
Another place for fantastic burritos, Cancun is generally very busy, especially at night when the bar crowd gets hungry.
Ti Couz Crêperie
3108 16th Street (between Valencia Street and Guerrero Street)
You can easily find what I like to call a blackboard crêpe restaurant anywhere in most cosmopolitan cities. You probably know what I mean: the crêpe menu is listed on a blackboard and most choices come with loads of home fries. Ti Couz, however, strives to maintain the tradition of authentic Breton crêpes (or, technically, galettes, as the savory varieties made with buckwheat flour are called) with fine ingredients and French cider as accompaniment. The place is usually crowded and justly so. And don't worry, they also have dessert crêpes.
3109 16th Street (at Valencia Street)
Truly Mediterranean is truly cheap and tasty, and they don't make ungainly sandwiches by stuffing their falafel, shawerma, and kebabs into pitas; instead, they pack them into wraps made with lavash. Most of the seating is outside where the action on 16th Street is always lively.
200 Capp Street (at 17th Street)
Uptown has a reputation for being a consummate dive bar with a great jukebox and very cheap drinks. For many of us, the combination of these three qualities makes the place simply irresistible.
381 South Van Ness Avenue (between 14th Street and 15th Street)
With relics rescued from the collapsed Eastern bloc, Walzwerk puts a spin on standard German fare by specializing in East German food. The German beer list features several good choices, and don't leave without using the bathroom; it's really worth it for the décor.
Zante's Pizza and Indian Cuisine
3489 Mission Street (at 30th Street)
You can get both typical Indian food and a standard pizza here at Zante's, formerly located in a more heavily trafficked area of the Mission, but people really come here for the hybrid child of the two: pizza made with a naan crust, spicy spinach sauce, and toppings like tandoori chicken and lamb.
199 Valencia Street (at Duboce Avenue)
Formerly a biker bar, now more of a bicycle messenger bar, Zeitgeist retains a gritty edge, effectively symbolized by the Playboy-bunny-as-skull logo on the black front door. Just gaze out at the styles of the denizens in its backyard beer garden and the small interior (which features what are sometimes called the filthiest bathrooms in the city) and you'll see what I mean. But the bathrooms only get that way as the evening goes on, and I've found that on a weekend afternoon the facilities are downright civilized. In addition to the afore-mentioned outdoor seating, Zeitgeist's big attraction is the large beer selection, featuring many German brews.
Famous for a history of tolerance of alternative lifestyles, the Castro is welcoming to anyone who's willing to embrace the spirit of fun and openness. The streets, especially the central strip of Castro Street, are truly alive in the daytime and burst with music and delight in the evening. One of the draws is the Castro Theatre, one of the last of the art deco movie palaces of old, where an organ player opens each movie.
Café du Nord
2174 Market Street (between 15th Street and Church Street)
The below-ground location lends a welcome clandestine air to this pleasant bar. A great place to come for martinis, manhattans, and other classic cocktails done right.
2298 Market Street (at Noe Street)
With a perfect location on the corner of a busy intersection, Flore attracts crowds of loyals and travellers looking to socialize and people-watch in its lovely outdoor setting. A full range of beverages and food are served.
4288 24th Street (between Diamond Street and Douglass Street)
Technically, this restaurant is located in the quiet neighborhood of Noe Valley, but it is close to the Castro and I have to mention it as a friend of mine used to produce some fine pastries there and always had good things to say about the food. I ate there once and had an enjoyable time as well. Fitting the neighborhood, the place is a bit upscale and pricey but is worth it for a special evening.
500 Castro Street (at 18th Street)
Harvey's is a classic Castro establishment, friendly and serving all comers and all interests, from brunch in the afternoon to drinks and DJ music at night, when it can get gloriously crowded.
2140 Market Street (between Sanchez Street and Church Street)
The atmosphere at this local bar is very rock 'n' roll and leather, and if that isn't an enticing prospect for you, the huge beer list just may be.
420 Castro Street (between 18th Street and Market Street)
Plenty of people have claimed that you can't get "real" pizza in San Francisco, and if real pizza is strictly defined as New York or Chicago style pizza, the statement is largely true. However, you can find the kind of culinary innovation that California is known for applied to pizza at places like Marcello's. Not only is the pizza made well with fresh ingredients, but the available toppings include delights like black beans, clams, corn, eggplant, red apples, rosemary garlic potatoes, shrimp, pesto chicken, and pecans. And I haven't even mentioned the choice of sauces.
Metro Bar and Restaurant
3600 16th Street (at Market Street)
I love places with great views, and the long balcony at the Metro Bar lets you take in all the action at the lively intersection of Castro and Market. Just be sure you like techno music and beware of the strong drinks.
The Red Grill
4063 18th Street (between Castro Street and Hartford Street)
Though the food at this popular local restaurant may be a bit pricey for some budgets, the upstairs Whiskey Lounge is a great place for drinks. The little tables by the windows are highly coveted for their intimate feel and great view of the action on the street below.
Samovar Tea Lounge
498 Sanchez Street (at 18th Street)
Fine coffee is easy enough to find, but fine tea is a special thing, and if you crave something beyond a limp, flavorless bag in hot water you should try Samovar. Along with a variety of quality teas served right, the menu includes tea services representing different cultures. Naturally, the choices include English high tea, but you might also be intrigued by the Moorish tea with kebabs and dolmas or the Russian tea with smoked trout.
Thai House Express
599 Castro Street (at 19th Street)
Combining modern décor with people-watching windows and tasty food, Thai House is one of the better offerings of this cuisine in the Castro. Oddly enough, I find the appetizers sometimes more interesting than the main dishes, and I highly recommend the larb ground meat salad and the gui chai, vegetarian chive cakes.
Yes, this famous neighborhood once represented the center of the universe for a generation of free spirits, but those days are gone now and what remains sometimes seems like a theme park version of a peace-and-love neighborhood, complete with used clothing stores selling "vintage" fashion for high-end prices and a variety of gift shops offering all manner of peace symbols, tie-dyed shirts, and drug paraphernalia. Yet it still has an undeniable appeal and on a lazy afternoon when there aren't too many tourists around it's still a nice area to spend some time in a cafe, and the night scene is one of the liveliest in the city. The western strip of Haight Street near the intersection of Ashbury Street is the busiest area. The region called Lower Haight constitutes the eastern part of Haight Street and is much less touristy.
Ali Baba's Cave
531 Haight Street (between Steiner Street and Fillmore Street)
Located in a busy quarter of the Lower Haight, Ali Baba's is the place for enormous and cheap lavash sandwiches filled with shawarma or falafel as well as other Mediterranean specialties. Try to sit in the alcove area where you can seat yourself luxuriously on pillows at a huge table.
698 Haight Street (at Pierce Street)
If you enjoy the pleasures of Ethiopian food, this Lower Haight spot is highly recommended. Spicy chunks of meat or vegetable stews are spooned onto large rounds of spongy injera bread and served with more injera bread on the side to scoop up bite-size portions. I particularly like the diced mushrooms mixed with tomatoes, onions, and garlic.
86 Carl Street (between Cole Street and Clayton Street)
Conveniently located at the first stop after the N Judah train emerges from its tunnel, Burger Meister specializes in basic burgers done right. They also come with turkey and a variety of vegetarian versions.
Cha Cha Cha
1801 Haight Street (at Shrader Street)
I wouldn't say that the tapas at this very popular restaurant are anywhere near the best in the city, but the lively atmosphere, enhanced by decorative altars, makes for an enjoyable experience for a good group, and the sangria by the pitcher certainly helps.
Escape from New York Pizza
1737 Haight Street (between Shrader Street and Cole Street)
Purists will tell you that the crust doesn't quite have the required degree of crispiness at this New York style pizza place, and though that may be true I still believe that the pies and slices are a cut above. The sautéed potato topping is a particular favorite.
937 Cole Street (between Parnassus Avenue and Carl Street)
Located in a little neighborhood close to the Haight called Cole Valley, Finnegans Wake (I don't recall precisely but am assuming the name lacks an apostrophe like the title of the Joyce novel) is a popular and friendly local pub with backyard bench seating.
233 Fillmore Street (at Haight Street)
Indian Oven has a reputation as one of the best Indian restaurants in the city, and the crowds testify to its popularity. The food is certainly very good and not likely to disappoint, but you could eat just as well at other places at lower prices.
Love N Haight Deli and Cafe
553 Haight Street (between Steiner Street and Fillmore Street)
Excellent sandwiches (including some vegan choices) are the staple at this popular Lower Haight place. Plus, they're open until the bars close, which helps to facilitate late night snacks.
557 Haight Street (between Steiner Street and Fillmore Street)
Definitely a unique place to get a drink if you're in the Lower Haight area. The bizarre décor combines aircraft aluminum panels with vaguely tribal paintings. Don't worry about the bomb hanging from the ceiling; I'm sure it's a dud and securely in place. They only serve beer, wine, and sake, but they do have DJ music.
400 Waller Street (at Fillmore Street)
I can't say for sure that the name of this Lower Haight Thai restaurant is an intentional pun, but it might as well be. Thep Phanom is indeed sort of a phenomenon simply because it constantly gets cited as the best Thai restaurant in the city. In my experience, I wouldn't rate it quite that high, but the food here certainly doesn't disappoint.
1797 Haight Street (at Shrader Street)
Though the burritos here are not as traditional as those you can get at classic Mission taquerias, they are definitely cheap, filling, and very satisfying.
Though primarily residential, visitors to the city may find themselves seeking out a bite in this neighborhood after spending time in Golden Gate Park just to the south. Indeed, Clement Street abounds with authentic ethnic restaurants that constantly strive to please a discerning local clientele.
441 Clement Street (between 6th Avenue and 5th Avenue)
Pubs abound in this area of town, and many are rather nondescript. The Bitter End is a bit more special for the most basic reason of all: attentive, friendly service.
309 Clement Street (between 4th Avenue and 5th Avenue)
I will let the locals argue about whether Superstar or Mandalay (below) serves the best Burmese food in the neighborhood. All I know is I'm never dissatisfied with either one. I particularly love Superstar's tea leaf salad, an exotic style of salad that includes peanuts and sesame seeds mixed at your table with tomatoes, lettuce, and tea leaves.
1901 Divisadero (at Pine street)
Though technically a bit too far east to be considered part of the Richmond district, I still have to fit Khoon Chang in here somewhere because it is easily my favorite Thai restaurant in the city. I could give you recommendations from the menu but I hardly see the point when everything is excellent.
Mai's Vietnamese Restaurant
316 Clement Street (between 4th Avenue and 5th Avenue)
Though California has a large population of Vietnamese immigrants, San Francisco doesn't have as many Vietnamese restaurants as one might expect. Mai's is one of the best, serving up many varieties of noodle soup and rice dishes along with chicken and beef plates. I especially like the imperial rolls served over rice noodles.
4344 California Street (between 6th Avenue and 5th Avenue)
Mandalay is a great place to go if you like Burmese food. Start with a generous serving of satay chicken skewers and go on to some of the special entrées cooked in various flavorful, tasty sauces.
Pig and Whistle
2801 Geary Boulevard (at Wood Street)
I am always quick to recommend an Irish pub that pours a pint of Guinness the way it's meant to be poured, and the Pig and Whistle is one of the most reliable pubs in the city in this regard. Plus, the food is excellent, including a proper Irish breakfast, fish and chips, and bangers and mash. Couple these virtues with a pleasant atmosphere and a friendly staff and you could hardly ask for more.
823 Clement Street (between 10th Avenue and 9th Avenue)
Don't let the hyperbolic name put you off. Orgasmica really does make fine pizzas and offers a fine suite of toppings—including lemon pepper chicken, salmon, and hearts of palm—as well as some intriguing sauces such as their special white wine cream sauce. The corn meal crust pizza makes for a unique base.
Locals will tell you that the name of this stretch of avenues is a cruel joke as the sun is frequently obscured by the fog that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean, but it is still a pleasant area. Most of the action is around Irving Street, particularly near the University of California on the heights of Parnassus Hill. Like the Richmond, its counterpart to the north of Golden Gate Park, the Sunset is mostly residential, but it's also a great place to go for a visitor who has just availed him or herself of the delights of Strybing Arboretum, the newly renovated de Young Museum, or any of the other attractions in the park.
1376 9th Avenue (between Judah Street and Irving Street)
M's may not look fancy and the prices are low enough to be suspect, but the food is actually very tasty. The burger and fries is a great deal (though the burger is much better than the fries), and the Irish breakfast is huge and capacious.
Nan King Road Bistro
1360 9th Avenue (between Judah Street and Irving Street)
Never believe that Chinatown is the only place in the city to get good Chinese food. Nan King serves good food in an elegant setting that is a cut above most of the greasy corner places you're likely to find.
627 Irving Street (between 8th Avenue and 7th Avenue)
Pluto's is basically a modernist cafeteria specializing in comfort food, but they're very good at providing comfort. You can choose among a number of carved meats and have them in focaccia sandwiches or with tempting sides. Do I need to mention it's probably the best place to put together a good Thanksgiving dinner at any time of the year? And somehow that attribute doesn't conflict with the Jetsons-inspired décor.
1319 9th Avenue (between Judah Street and Irving Street)
Thai food is generally reliable in San Francisco, and you can find good, cheap, tasty food at many places. Sukhothai is one of the crowd pleasers.
Villa Romana Pizzeria and Restaurant
731 Irving Street (between 8th Avenue and 9th Avenue)
A classic Italian restaurant (you can tell by the original, retro sign). I can't vouch for most of the entrées as I've never made it past the excellent pizza.
734 Irving Street (between 9th Avenue and 8th Avenue)
Very few bars these days actually earn the title "saloon," and Yancy's is one of the rare few. The wood furnishings, antique lamps, and couches all bespeak of a very faded elegance and make for an enjoyable locale for a drink.
503 Irving Street (at 6th Avenue)
Yes, the decorations are highly reminiscent of a certain Beatles movie, but the best part of this student favorite is the huge and cheap sandwiches.
Last update for this page: 4 June 2008