Eat Your Way Around San Francisco: Where To Go And What To Order
Did you know San Fran has more Michelin stars than New York City?
Talk of San Francisco instantly brings to mind iconic images. Alcatraz prison, set on a spooky island amid choppy waters. The house from Mrs. Doubtfire, where Robin Williams partied with a pony. The Golden Gate Bridge, surrounded by looming fog (which descends so often, the locals named it ‘Karl’).
Nowadays, the first thing you think of should be mind-blowing food. San Fran’s biodynamic wine, authentic Asian cuisine and world-class vegan grub makes it one of the biggest players in the Michelin Star game.
Northern California is now counted as America’s fine dining capital, with no less than eight three-star restaurants. To give that some perspective, the Big Apple only has five.
Stomach rumbling? Let's take you on a magical mystery tour of the best eats in the Bay Area and beyond (plus incredible shops, music, sights, hotels and museums to keep you busy between meals)…
Start with some sightseeing
Before you dig into the food scene and feel too bloated to move, try a bike tour. You can rent everything you need from Bay City Bike.
Begin with a scenic ride through the green spaces of the Presidio, with gorgeous views of the Golden Gate Bridge, then continue along the waterfront past the iconic Ferry Building (home to an awesome food market on Saturdays). You’ll spot the Aquarium of the Bay and Pier 39 (stop for sea lions, trashy arcades and overpriced seafood), and you’ll soon come to Pier 33. From here you can board the ferry to The Rock with Alcatraz Cruises – a must do.
You can spot Alcatraz prison from the top of most staggering hills that make up this city – an eerie shape in the distance, it’s just begging you to come take a look. Over a thousand criminals were once locked away there, doing time for unspeakable crimes. Now it’s a creepy museum (and weirdly, a beautiful garden) boasting incredible views of San Fran. When you get back, you could hop on another ferry to Sausalito, a sleepy waterfront town peddling seriously good ice cream. Another option is to cycle there, up and over the Golden Gate bridge – it’s a scary but super rewarding adventure, especially if Karl pays a visit – he’ll scupper your view but it’ll make for an crazy story (trust us).
Before you head back to the mainland, board a helicopter or seaplane for truly unforgettable views WAY out of Karl’s reach. Seeing that iconic bridge from above is something else. This can be booked through Seaplane Adventures via GetYourGuide, which is a scheme worth knowing about. They offer queue jumps and tickets for the best attractions and events at the fairest prices. There’s a Movie Tour exploring locations from your fav San Fran films and TV (yep, even the Full House house), day trips to Yosemite National Park, Segway rides, sailing excursions, golf days and tons more. If you’re worried about travel, check out San Francisco CityPASS – they offer tram and train packages that’ll help you get around plus access to museums and galleries.
By evening, you can catch a gig at Fox Theatre in gritty Oakland (we saw Noname crush it with thousands of fans singing every word), browse rare records at Amoeba in hippie Height Ashbury, or wander bookshops open ‘til late (City Lights, which published Allen Ginsburg’s ‘Howl’, is a no-brainer).
Of course, there are hundreds of clubs and bars to try (let’s just say a night in the Castro is unforgettable). After much research - read: drinking - the best hangover-busting eats were as follows…
Put these restaurants at the top of your list
Commonwealth (one Michelin star). Executive Chef Jason Fox’s progressive Californian cuisine combines flavour palettes from around the world. The wine is expertly chosen, service is perfect and there’s a friggin’ disco ball hanging from the ceiling.
Boulettes Larder. Best for a sunny breakfast or cosy lunch sitting in the beautiful kitchen or on the patio, which faces the sunrise and the Bay Bridge. Try the hot porridge with a poached egg and ghee.
Tartine. Unmatched for fresh baked goods, pumped out all day to massive queues of people. Tartine is a San Fran institution. The candied orange morning buns were so good, we went back for another to eat on the plane home. Later, we spotted a Tartine kiosk in the airport. We did not grumble.
Noosh. Ocean blue and white interiors make this spanking new restaurant feel super fresh. Turkish flatbreads, pita and kebabs are washed down with whiskey colas and Moroccan martinis.
China Live. A super modern Chinese market restaurant with crispy suckling pig, kumquat-glazed Peking duck and epic Xiao Long Bao (soup dumplings); we dreamed of this meal for weeks afterwards.
Kaiyo. The food and drink experience of the Japanese journey in Peru, fusing the best Peruvian Pisco and Japanese whisky. Try crab, trout, tempura asparagus, avocado, onion, jalapeno, and garlic chilli oil sushi rolls, or the stone pot lobster rice.
Fiorella Polk St. This newly opened modern trattoria is home to the world’s coolest wallpaper (we won’t spoil it) as well as mouth-watering pizza and pasta. Try the spicy salami pie, or Spaghetti alla Cacio e Pepe. Carb-lovers, assemble.
Spark Social. You can catch a movie, see some music and eat authentic food in this new urban gathering space in the heart of Mission Bay, loved by local workers sick of filter coffee and sandwiches.
Avital Tours. With these guys you can take a hands-on walking tour of the burrito-obsessed Mission district, checking out amazing murals as you graze ‘n’ go. The best vegan plates can be found at Gracias Madre (Obama’s a fan). Get tacos from Hawker Fare and churros at West of Pecos.
Liguria Bakery. A tiny independent spot near Jack Kerouac Alley and the Beat Museum in the super hip North Beach area. We tracked this place down after someone uploading a pic of their focaccia on Insta. Worth the journey.
Drink cocktails in every single one of these
Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar. Walk through the door of a hotel bar and you’ll be faced with an actual lagoon. With a band playing cheesy tunes from a boat in the middle of it. Every now and again there’s a thunderstorm, but that doesn’t stop the fun.
Pagon Idol. Find yourself in the belly of a wooden ship, that will transport you off the streets of San Fran and deliver you to an exotic escape - with lots of alcohol.
ENO. In the heart of Union Square, it's perfectly located to start your night. An unpretentious wine bar for people who aren’t sure what wines they like, but know they enjoy finding out.
Black Sands brewery tour. Taking you past the houses of Jimi Hendrix and The Grateful Dead, via world-class thrift shops and breweries (Magnolia is perfect), this super-friendly and informative three hour (!) experience will be one of your best (and blurriest).
Vesuvio. The actual saloon where Neal Cassady, the real-life Dean Moriarty of Beat classic ‘On The Road’ and Jack Kerouac used to drink until they couldn’t drink any more. Literary geeks, cheers to you.
Where to catch (some) zzzs
A city like San Fran requires little more than a room in a central location, in which to dump your bag before you run around trying to soak in every last detail. Union Square’s Hotel Emblem is just that, plus dreamily plush interiors, an awesome bar and cute hidden details.
You’ll spot Beat poetry printed in the carpet, Kerouac quotes behind the towel rail and not-so-subtle book collections hinting at the city’s personality (‘Ganja Yoga’ before bed, anyone?). Speaking of beds, theirs are super soft, with 'yuge TVs at the foot of them.
Hotel G offers a stunning Penthouse Suite, its corner sofa and bar/kitchen area crying out for a party - it even comes with complimentary Champagne to get things started. If you're too jet-lagged to consider anything but sleep, a fireplace built into the wall in the bedroom creates *just* the right ambience. The views from the private roof terrace are superb, too.
One for music lovers, Phoenix Hotel is a beautifully converted motel, dripping with sordid celeb stories of Hollywood glitz gone by. The Tenderloin area can be gritty (do your research), but this is a glittering diamond in the rough - with a lovely swimming pool. Every music legend has stayed here - a note scrawled by Courtney Love on the hotel’s notepaper was in Kurt Cobain’s pocket when his body was found and Debbie Harry and JFK were once accidentally checked into the same room.
Near the Embarcadero waterfront, The Battery is a super chic private member’s club and hotel (just 14 rooms) boasting a spa, library and four bars. Set up by the British couple who sold Bebo to AOL in 2008 (then bought it back for a snappy $1 million five years later), it's cooler than cool, with a programme of events to keep you busy 'til the small hours.
Whichever you choose should give you enough rest to fall in love with the city by the bay, all over again the next day. Then tackle some more of those goddamn hills...
MTV Travelled with… San Francisco Travel and stayed with Hotel Emblem. Fly direct to San Francisco International Airport with Virgin Atlantic from London airports. Arrange airport pick up and drop off with Blacklane transfers.