San Francisco is constantly changing, which makes it a great place to visit or move to, depending on what world-changing industry has sprung up here most recently. Whatever your reason for coming here for the first time, you’re probably planning on eating and drinking at some point - maybe more than once even - and there are a lot of great places to choose from.
This is our “starter pack” guide to the city. It’s in no way comprehensive because that’s what the rest of our site is for, but it’s got a good representation of what you can find here - from burritos to seafood to creative cocktails you can only get in SF.
One thing to pay attention to is that some of these places have lines and others it may take some time to get a reservation. We’ll make note of that when it’s relevant and important to plan ahead. That being said, we wouldn’t want you to put out any effort unless it’s absolutely worth it. For all of these places though, wear comfortable shoes - not because of any dress code requirement, but because the hills that you’ll have to walk up and down to get to them are no joke.
BREAKFAST, BRUNCH, & LUNCH
If there was ever a time to shut your eyes, point, and hope for the best, it’s at Tartine Bakery. Everything at this Mission classic - from the morning buns to the gougeres to the croissants - will make you consider moving nearby. And while it seems a little insane to wait in line for baked goods (and in a lot of cases, it is), it’s more than justified here.
Tartine is great for things like lemon bars and croissants, but Acme Bread Company makes our favorite bread in the city - especially their sourdough. Plus, if you end up at their outpost at the Ferry Building on a farmers market day, you can get things like jam and cheese to go with your bread. Find a spot outside, and try not to eat a whole loaf in one sitting.
SF doesn’t have a defining breakfast food like bagels or breakfast tacos, but the breakfast sandwich at Devil’s Teeth is almost as iconic. Even if you’re coming from Union Square or close to Pier 39, it’s worth making the trek out to this bakery in the Sunset just for this. There will be a line, but it moves fast, and once you get your sandwich you can go a few blocks down to Ocean Beach to eat while the rest of the city wakes up.
It may not be a law that you have to eat dim sum in San Francisco, but it’s definitely a guideline you should follow. Yank Sing in SoMa is one of our favorites, and it’s best to go with a group as much of the menu as possible. Have fun looking around the room at the carts passing by and waiting for the one with soup dumplings or shrimp har gao to reach your table.
If you take a walk around Chinatown, but don’t want to commit to sitting through a whole meal, hop in line at Good Mong Kok Bakery. You can get giant steamed pork buns and shrimp dumplings for less money than your Uber that morning - $6 will absolutely get you enough food for two people. There’s nowhere to sit, but you can eat your pork buns while scoping out where you want to try next in the neighborhood.
The Mill’s avocado toast costs up to $8, which might make you shriek a little, but it’s absolutely worth it because everything served on their homemade bread is incredible. From cream cheese and pesto on rye to seasonal jam on brown bread, it’s all fantastic, and if you proudly identify as a “light breakfast and coffee” kind of person, this should be one of your first stops. In the afternoons, they switch from toast to making pizza for only $3.50 per giant slice, so when you’re done reenacting the Full House opening a few blocks away in Alamo Square Park, you can come here for slices and beers.
There are certain rites of passage you need to experience during your first trip to SF, like seeing your first self-driving car, or learning that distances are sometimes measured in hills instead of miles. Having breakfast at Plow is another and while it’ll require getting there when they open at 7am to avoid the insane wait, the lemon ricotta pancakes alone are worth the hassle.
Breakfast isn’t always worth going out of your way for. You’ve got a waffle iron at home, and eggs are eggs - unless it’s the Rebel Within at Craftsman and Wolves. It’s a muffin with sausage and a soft-cooked egg baked inside. Think about that for a minute. Then go get one instead of eating dry cereal at your hotel.
Just like Kermit the Frog, Zuni Cafe is the definition of aging well. This place has been an SF staple since it opened in the late 70s, and it feels just as cool today as it did then. Their food is just as classic - if you’ve ever seen a whole roast chicken on a menu, it’s this place’s fault, and theirs is the gold standard. The caesar salad is perfection, too. We like to go for lunch and pretend that we’ve retired early to a life of casual midday feasts, but do whatever you need to get to Zuni.
At Swan, they keep things simple, with fresh oysters, cracked crab, and pretty much every other delicious raw sea creature you could want. If you’re not sure about what you’re doing, just ask someone behind the counter. Even though there’s always a line, you won’t be rushed by anyone who works there, so you can take your time, order accordingly, and eat while you weigh the pros and cons of smuggling oysters back home in your suitcase.
There are a bunch of great places to get Mission-style burritos in the heart of the Mission, but El Castillito is our favorite. Their carnitas are the benchmark for carnitas in this city and they melt cheese onto the tortilla before they load it up with rice, beans, and meat. It’s as close to burrito perfection as you’ll find.
While we’ll happily wait in line at Swan Oyster Depot for hours with the sole mission of getting raw shellfish, sometimes some multitasking is necessary. The seafood at Hog Island is similarly fantastic, and when you come here, you also get the bay views at the Ferry Building. After you make it to the front of the queue, order a few dozen oysters and the amazing chowder, drink a glass of rose, and go oogle at the farmers market produce (Thursday - Saturday) that you’re definitely not cooking back at your Airbnb.
We’ll take any excuse we can get to hang out at the Ferry Building, but coming to Humphry Slocombe for some early-afternoon ice cream is one of our favorites. We love the Secret Breakfast flavor with bourbon and corn flakes, but there are always a few seasonal options rotating in and out that we use for our second scoop. Eat your ice cream while overlooking the water and figuring out if it’s actually worth it to take a ferry to Sausalito for the afternoon to take in the views.
There are always people lined up almost around the block for this North Beach pizza place every Saturday morning, and if you get there with anything less than a three-hour wait, it’s worth it. You can choose from nearly any pizza style on planet earth, and even with that variety, the pizza is still some of the best in SF. We like the Margherita DOP and the coal-fired New Yorker, but don’t skip the stranger sounding combinations like the Eddie Muenster with kale and Munster cheese either.
If Dungeness crab is in season (November - July), you should absolutely go to Scoma’s to eat as much of it as possible. It’s one of the only places at Pier 39 we’ll go out of our way for (the other is In-N-Out), and there aren’t many better ways to start an afternoon of walking up and down far too many hills than by having some chowder, a whole roasted crab, and a few beers. Just make sure to roll up your sleeves before you dive in.
If it’s your first time in SF, you’re going to end up walking up Columbus Ave to check out our version of Little Italy at some point, and if you’re hungry while you do that you should stop at Molinari. This Italian deli/grocery store makes great sandwiches piled with high-quality cured meats. You can go with one of the options on the menu, but we prefer making our own, which usually means something with mortadella covered in their basil-garlic spread.
There’s always a line at Bi-Rite Creamery for ice cream, and that’s because they make some of the best in the entire city. Rincanelas, creme brulee, and salted caramel are our favorite flavors, but you can’t go wrong with anything here - especially if you’re going to take it to nearby Dolores Park. If you’re really committed to that idea, go ahead and buy a few pints instead, which allows you to skip the line of people waiting for singular scoops.
Eating at Mister Jiu’s feels a bit like you’re in the middle of a Quentin Tarantino movie. Not because it seems like someone could come crashing through the front door at any moment seeking revenge, but because the main dining room feels like some sort of reality that’s too cool to exist anywhere else. There are big chandeliers, murals on the walls, and the whole backside of the restaurant is floor-to-ceiling glass that overlooks Chinatown in a way that makes it feel a bit like a movie set. The food here is a modern take on Chinese classics, like fried rice with Wagyu beef and tuna heart and crispy turnip cakes that taste like latkes. Even if you lived here, this isn’t a place you’d hit up often so it’s good to come with a group to try as many things as possible, including their cocktail punch bowls.
Since opening in 2006, Nopa’s basically redefined what it means to be a “classic SF restaurant.” The space is huge, but incredibly laid back, and the food is all pretty simple, with things like pork chops, big plates of pasta, and flatbreads, but they’re all done to perfection. The bar is walk-in only, but if you have more than two people, it’s worth making a reservation up to a month out. Even if you already have all of your meals planned for a trip, come in late night after hitting a few bars to sit down and order the burger because it’s one of the best in the city.
This place has been open longer than California has been a state in the Union, and it’s the very definition of an SF classic. The menu here is a mix of mostly extinct dishes like lobster thermidor, sole a la Newburg, and lamb chops with mint jelly, and they also have more approachable things like great clam chowder. Tadich is open almost all day and you’re just as likely to catch us here at lunch grabbing a few martinis with a cup of soup and clam strips as at night with a small group trying to relive a time period we were never around to enjoy.
This is not the kind of restaurant you go to every day, but it’s one of the coolest spots you can eat at in SF. Small plates are brought around the restaurant dim-sum-style for you to choose from, and there’s a small menu of things that you can order straight from the kitchen. State Bird is an exercise in restraint because you’ll want to eat everything that passes, but regardless of how many plates you get, the state bird (fried quail) should be on your table no matter what.
This is a new school Cal-Italian place that has some of the best pasta in the city. You should plan this one ahead of time because if you don’t have a reservation, you’ll need to line up at 4:30 in the afternoon to get in at a decent hour. Spring for the pastas over the pizza, and if you and everyone you’re with is serious, the whole table can do the pasta tasting menu.
For a lot of first-time visitors, Union Square is the central hub of the trip, and when you’re done with a day of shopping and teetering on going to the Cable Car Museum, you should check out Ayala for dinner. This place makes some of the most interesting seafood dishes in the whole city, with things like a whole-fried snapper served with lobster pho broth and nori spaghettini with white miso and Dungeness crab. It’s also one of the few great restaurants in SF that’s not impossible to get a reservation at without consulting a Zoltar machine or getting a letter of recommendation from a 5-star general.
Rich Table is one of our favorite restaurants in the city. The dining room is laid back and always has a great playlist, and the menu is an ever-changing mix of creative dishes that never quite come out looking or tasting how you’d expect but in the best way possible. Some things are always available, though, like the porcini donuts and sea urchin tonnarelli, which should both be on your table along with one of their great cocktails. If you’re more of a vegetable eater, check out Al’s Place in the Mission. It has a similar casual vibe, but does things with salads and burrata dishes you’re not going to find anywhere else in the city.
Liholiho is a restaurant greater than the sum of its parts. The space is cool, the drinks are great, and the Hawaiian-inspired menu is delicious, and when all of these things come together, it’s one of the most fun restaurants in SF. The poke is the best we’ve had and the fried oysters are nothing short of incredible. If you have a complete carnivore with you, order the beef ribs, but make sure you leave room for the off-menu spam special and the baked Hawaii dessert.
Trattoria Contadina is as good as it gets when it comes to old-school Italian food. The menu has the classics like veal saltimbocca and house-made gnocchi with tomato cream that are exactly what you want from a place like this. It’s a five-minute walk uphill from Little Italy, but you’ll feel less like you’re in a ’90s rom-com dinner scene and more like you’re actually eating a real meal than pretty much anywhere on Columbus Ave. Plus, you can pick your favorite celebrity headshot on the wall after you order - but not Cheers-era Kirstie Alley, she’s our favorite.
This place has been around for a while, but it has a cool enough space and modern menu that you’d believe someone who said it had just opened. If you have dinner outside, you get to watch classics like The Maltese Falcon that are projected on the courtyard wall while you eat. And if you request the same table in the morning, you get to eat brunch in a nice sunny courtyard. It’s tough to lose. Order the fried chicken or the Persian omelet.
With its huge gravel back patio covered in signs, this bar in the Mission looks like it’s stuck off to the side of a junkyard somewhere, Even so, it’s one of our favorite places to spend a sunny afternoon when going on an adventure to Land’s End or Twin Peaks is just going to require too much effort. They have a great selection of craft beers, which you can order by the pitcher and drink at a picnic table while you chat with the people sitting next to you about what tech company they work for.
Sausalito is right across the bay and it’s a great place to check out views of the Golden Gate Bridge with the city behind it and to explore the nearby Muir Woods. While you’re there getting in touch with nature, you should stop in for drinks by the water at Bar Bocce. Get here early so you can snag a table in the shade and watch the place fill up with everyone trying to find some sunlight by the bay. When you inevitably get hungry, you can stay here and order some flatbread pizzas, but we recommend you make your way to Fish nearby for some great seafood with a similar view.
This Chinatown bar has all the essential ingredients for a great dive: it’s super dark inside, has questionable carpeting decisions, and a basement with the same cell phone reception as New York City in 1963. It’s a great spot to come to with a group and grab a booth as you plot out your night ahead. And while you’re at it, drink a few Chinese mai tais, which are the house specialty. They’re basically the SF equivalent of getting a hurricane on Bourbon Street - mostly because they’re both tall red drinks in funny glasses that encourage good stories for the next day, but also because you should really cut yourself off after one.
Odds are you’re going to go to the Tonga Room at some point, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you look around and think, “This is more Disney-esque and filled with conference-goers than I can handle,” and you still want a tiki drink, head to Pagan Idol afterward. It gets crowded here too, but it’s more people hanging out and talking after work than taking pictures like they were at Jurassic Park. The bar itself is a cool space with a more modern take on the tiki theme, and the drinks are just as strong as the Tonga Room’s.
Tennis officials don’t sit in those tall chairs just because they’re afraid of John McEnroe and Nick Kyrgios, they do it because it’s easier to tell what’s going on from up above. That’s also how we feel at El Techo, with its panoramic views of the city. This spot in the Mission also has a great weeknight Happy Hour from 4-6pm with $7 margaritas that are perfect for taking in the sunset while you decide where to go next. If you’re looking for something a little closer to downtown, we love the creative cocktails at Charmaine’s on the roof of the Proper Hotel. They also have fire pits and blankets if it gets a little cold at night.
This is one of the best cocktail bars in the city. Trick Dog’s drink menu changes often, but is always based on a theme, like tattoo artists or movie villains, and the drinks are consistently fantastic. If you’re not in the mood for anything on the menu, this is one of the only bars where the bartenders actually seem like they enjoy helping you build a drink from the ground up - at least as long as they’re not swamped. It’s a great place to grab a drink before dinner at Flour + Water, or if you’ve planned a loose bar crawl night around the Mission. And in case you need something to hold you over, they have pretty good food upstairs, like the “trick dog” hamburger in hot dog-form and housemade chicken nuggets, as well.