In a town with nearly 4,500 restaurants, almost 60 of which boast Michelin stars, it’s extremely difficult to narrow down the ‘best’. However, when it comes to service, atmosphere, value and deliciousness, these establishments knock it out of the park, and are undoubtedly among the top restaurants in San Francisco.
Restaurant, Seafood, $$$
This ‘casual’ Saison spinoff from Chef Joshua Skenes has received a ton of media attention since it opened in late 2018. The good news is that in terms of space, service and food, Angler lives up to the hype. Though the name inspires visions of fishing, the self-proclaimed ‘sea life-focused’ restaurant also excels in the areas of hunting, ranching and gathering. Almost all of the hot dishes are cooked over a 32-foot hearth and open wood-fire grill (the whole chicken is perfection). However, be sure to also order some of the raw dishes, like the antelope tartare, the oysters, and if you’re in the mood to splurge, the caviar service. Saison has two dining rooms, and both have sweeping views of the Bay Bridge; opt for the main dining room if you want an airy, spacious feel and the Game Room if you want a more intimate experience and don’t mind taxidermy animals as decor. Yes, Angler is more casual than its fancy sister restaurant, but the quality of the ingredients, cooking techniques, and atmosphere are still very upscale and the prices reflect that.
Delfina is everything you could want in a neighborhood Italian restaurant. In fact, because it’s so good, the energetic Mission spot doesn’t just bring in locals, it attracts people from all over the Bay looking to enjoy the rustic Italian dishes made with local California ingredients. The spaghetti and the roasted chicken are both exercises in how simplicity can result in near-perfection, which is why those classics are still on the menu. It’s hard not to order them every time, but branching out never disappoints.
Locals and tourists flock to this iconic San Francisco steakhouse for two things: meat and martinis. The former is best iterated as a well marbled prime rib that’s carved tableside and the latter is served ice cold from the shaker with a sidecar. House of Prime Rib has been open since the 1940s and not much has changed since then. The bar is always full of people waiting for a seat in the cozy English-style dining room and the service is always impeccable. Also, dinner always comes with a plethora of sides, including tossed salad, mashed or baked potato, Yorkshire pudding and creamed spinach.
It may seem strange to pay over $300 only to have no say over what you eat or who you sit with (other than the dining companions with whom you arrived), but at this restaurant/dinner party, that’s exactly what happens – and it works. Very well. Lazy Bear is unlike any other dining experience in San Francisco. The meal (which requires advance tickets) starts with a ‘cocktail hour’ in the mezzanine where guests are treated to the first few courses (small bites) and drinks (pairings are optional), before moving downstairs to be seated at one of two very long communal tables. Each course is presented by the chef who prepared it (there are 15+) and though the menu changes often, you can count on each dish being inspired by local and seasonal ingredients, and just one part of a meal you won’t soon forget.
Hawaiian food is pretty prevalent in San Francisco these days, but nowhere does it with more creativity and flair than Liholiho. The trick, perhaps, is that Liholiho doesn’t serve only typical Hawaiian fare, but rather dishes that also take inspiration from Chinese, Indian and Californian food. Yes, there’s Spam, but it’s house-made and served with kimchi fried rice, a smoked egg yolk, tamari, and clamshell mushrooms. The laid-back atmosphere makes you want to hang out for a while, which works well since all the dishes are meant to be shared, and you’re going to want to try as many of them as possible. Be sure to do so while also sipping on the flavorful cocktails.
Nopa is one of those restaurants everyone in San Francisco loves and wants to go to all the time. Which means, despite the fact that it’s a sizable venue, you may struggle for a seat – unless you think ahead and make a reservation, can find a spot at the communal table or bar, or are willing to wait. Of course, Nopa would’t be on this list if it weren’t worth the wait. The famous burger is a star dish popular at all hours of the day, but especially late night, since Nopa stays open until 1am on the weekends. The custard French toast is another fantastic dish that’s great at brunch and is very rich, so try sharing it with the table instead of ordering it all for yourself. Nopa also puts out excellent cocktails, so even if you’re not up for a whole meal, it’s a great spot for a drink and a bar snack.
For diners looking to splurge on a meal, there is nowhere more worthy (or expensive) in San Francisco than Saison. Saison feels like a special occasion dinner. A really, really special occasion. In fact, it could almost be more like a once-in-a-lifetime dinner. If you do happen to be so lucky, then rejoice in the experience of indulging in a 12+ course seasonal tasting menu of New-American food that revolves around open wood fire (much like its sister restaurant, Angler, which also made this list). You’ll want to add the wine pairings because Saison has a phenomenal list full of American and European wines with a focus on Burgundy. And if you’re going to experience this three-Michelin-star restaurant in all its glory, you won’t want to skimp on the wine.
Swan Oyster Depot is almost nothing that a ‘best’ restaurant should be. It’s tiny – just a small lunch counter that seats around 12 people. It’s no-frills in the most no-frills way possible: there are no reservations, there’s always a line out the door, and it’s cluttered with memorabilia, papers, books, signs, and… seafood. It’s the last one that makes this fish market so popular. What to order when you finally get a seat at the counter? Some people say the clam chowder is a must; others say it’s delicious, but mostly just a filler. What everyone does agree on is that even if you get full more quickly than you first expect, you’ll be thrilled with every single thing you put in your mouth.
Zuni has been bringing happiness in the form of food to San Francisco diners for 40 years, and all anyone can hope is that it will be in Hayes Valley for at least 40 more. The bi-level eatery gets tons of light (thanks to enormous glass windows) during the day and is cozy and romantic at night. All of the French- and Italian- inspired cuisine is worth considering, but unless you go there often, it’s hard not to order the Caesar and roasted chicken for two at dinner, or the burger on grilled rosemary focaccia at lunch. While the overall quality at Zuni is always great, there’s something else about the restaurant – a je ne sais quoi, as it were – that keeps people going back year after year. It takes a special magic for a restaurant to prosper in San Francisco, and it’s something Zuni undoubtedly has.