Eat your way around San Francisco’s high/low restaurants

Dig into these picks for the city’s best bites.

I always say that if I weren’t born in San Francisco, I would have moved here. Lucky for me, I am generations deep in the city: My roots are in the westside in Sunset District at my family’s cafes (Java Beach), where my love of coffee began—first as a drinker, then as a café proprietor, then as a self-taught, full-time roaster master and Q grader (coffee’s version of sommelier).

And beyond coffee, I have a love of food. Maybe you’ve heard that my hometown is a bit beleaguered, tattered, and beaten, but I can report that it’s incredible and innovative in so many ways, especially when it comes to its culinary scene. The high-end places are where I go when I feel like being a bit spoiled; the low-end spots deliver consistently good dishes, which I crave until I come back again. There are so many at both ends of the spectrum, but these are my favorites.


Image: Management/Tripadvisor

I am partial to the North Beach neighborhood, so this is completely biased. It’s the Italian neighborhood where my maternal grandfather settled from Sicily and where my mom spent her early days. Original Joe’s is not original to this location, but we all know that, and we don’t care because it fits right in. The staff is kind and generous, and the entire place is steeped in old-school hospitality. The warm, hearty food feels elevated from someone’s Americanized Nonna with good ingredients.

What to order: I always order chicken piccata with a side of ravioli and garlic spinach. If you’re with friends, get the chopped salad to share. I will not lie; it’s a lot of food; come hungry. The menu has classics like lasagna and spaghetti with meatballs, which are all also great.

A tip: If you’re down to explore more in North Beach, which I recommend, score some Stella pastry cannoli for dessert. Sit and eat in Washington Square, then dip your head into Gino and Carlo’s for bare-bones local flavor. You’ll leave North Beach feeling the legit tingle of the San Francisco experience in the best way.

NoPa, located a few blocks from the Painted Ladies in Alamo Square, has been on every food magazine’s top restaurant lists for years. And for good reason. Yes there’s the food, of course, but I’m also a huge fan of the Brian Barneclo mural that covers the walls inside the tall restaurant, like a postmodern Diego Rivera. The dishes are incredible, and the energy of the open kitchen, communal table, and long, sweeping bar is always on high tilt.

What to order: The last time I was there, I had chicory salad and vegetable tagine with lemon yogurt. So good! I also recommend the Nopa burger. It’s definitely a 10/10.

Scoma’s is housed on a dock in Fisherman’s Wharf and is a unique throwback to an era where the fisherman pulled up with the day’s catch every morning. The tables have fresh white linen, and the servers have been there for about 50 years. The cocktails are stiff, and the customers like it that way.

What to order: Scoma’s is all about the Lazy Man’s Cioppino ( a fish stew), where the star is the local Dungeness crab that’s already cracked for you. If that’s lazy, I am in.

A tip: The clientele is a mix of locals and visitors, and everyone wants to return, whether they’re in the mood for touristy Fisherman’s Wharf or not. Truth be told, Fisherman’s Wharf doesn’t have a lot of history, and if you take a short walk past Cannery Row to Aquatic Park, you’ll see Bay swimmers and spy Ghirardelli Square. It’s true there’s a fair amount of schmaltzy souvenirs, but if you look close enough, you’ll find some of its original charm and joy.


Table topped with several dishes including rotisserie chicken

RT Rotisserie
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

RT is the little sister of the superstar Rich Table restaurant one block away in Hayes Valley. Both are known for their innovative, superior quality, and oh-so-good menu. RT is the quick and easy version.

What to order: I always order the fried chicken fat rice bowl with umami fries and chimichurri sauce. Consider also getting the grilled broccoli or the decadent roasted Brussels sprouts with garlic aioli and cotija cheese.

A tip: You can dine outside in a space filled with picnic tables and DIY cutlery or take a short walk to Patricia Green Park in the Hayes Valley neighborhood. Now, you will quickly discover Hayes Valley has its own vibe. It’s what I call chic-sters. That’s lowkey hipsters with chic style, taste, and funds. The neighborhood has bougie ice cream, chocolatiers, specialty coffee, and the epic Miette candy store.

It’s sacrilegious to suggest a burrito spot out of the Mission, and I apologize in advance; I am going to go there. My favorite burrito spot is Chino’s in the Outer Richmond on Balboa Street. It’s cash only so hit the ATM before you go.

What to order: Go for the super spicy chicken burrito. I don’t know what they do to this spicy chicken, but it’s smoky, rich, and buttery, all at the same time. I’ve been eating this burrito for over 30 years (yikes!). It’s been the same guys folding up the burritos since I started going, and it’s one hundred percent consistent.

A tip: The place itself is not necessarily pretty, and clearly, being pretty is not a high priority. You can sit in their makeshift “dining” room, which also appears to be the supply room, and not in an ironic way. While that does have its charm, when I have time, I get my food to go and walk down the hill to Ocean Beach at Kelly’s Cove.

This is pure San Francisco comfort food and a place I would often frequent with my late dad, who relished in the scene and the hearty portions. Once you enter, you fall into a tried and true system. This is the West Coast, so you stand in line, waiting for your chance to order from the hof brau with an eclectic group of people: city workers, techies and hospital workers.

What to order: Grab a tray and get the Tommy’s special–roast Beef on a French roll. Piled high, it’s monstrous and juicy. Sit in the worn seats that feel like an old pub and take it all in. It’s laid back, and everyone’s welcome.

A tip: Tommy’s Joint is on Van Ness, an original artery of the City, and a few blocks away, you’ll see our sparkly City Hall. The walk from Tommy’s Joint to City Hall testifies to a city in flux and still full of possibilities.


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