22 restaurants vital to San Francisco

Welcome to The Greats, a series on the restaurants around the country that define their cities. Here now, a guide to the San Francisco Greats.

San Francisco’s greatest restaurants are an extension of the city’s diversity and proximity to some of the country’s best produce and farms. Despite how tiny it is relative to other major cities—it’s only seven miles by seven miles, as any local can rattle off to you immediately—there are thousands of superb spots to eat.

An al fresco stunner in the Mission has served Mediterranean-inspired farm-to-table fare since before it was trendy. Both the MICHELIN guide and the James Beard Foundation gave nods to an inventive American small plates spot in the Western Addition. An adored seafood joint in the Richmond gives the Asian-Cajun treatment to local Dungeness crab.

The restaurants that are essential to Golden Gate City include all-time classics rooted in deep histories and newer additions that offer contemporary spins on a range of global cuisines. Read on for a guide to San Francisco’s 22 greatest restaurants to book now.

House of Prime Rib (Nob Hill)

Vintage English-style upholstery covers the chairs at House of Prime in San Francisco
The throwback dining room at House of Prime Rib. | Credit: House of Prime Rib

House of Prime Rib has remained a top destination for both locals and visitors to San Francisco since it was founded in 1949. Boasting some of the warmest hospitality in the area, it’s home to carts filled with towering rib roasts carved to order tableside. The restaurant retains its frozen-in-time interiors, replete with red leather banquettes and generous cocktails that come with an extra drink served chilled on the side. The uninitiated should prepare for a veritable feast that starts with the cult-favorite salad, made with three kinds of lettuce, chopped egg, pimento, and sweet beets. Continue on to a plate full of prime rib, cut to your choice, and sides such as fully-loaded baked potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, and creamed spinach. Pro tip: Don’t forget to take advantage of a second piece of prime rib after you power through your first.

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State Bird Provisions (Western Addition)

Chefs Nicole Krasinski and Stuart Brioza’s lauded State Bird Provisions features some of the most creative presentations and interpretations of Californian cuisine. The ever-rotating small plates selections, along with essentials such as the signature state bird with provisions, is a tribute to all things quail. Since opening to tremendous buzz in 2012, the restaurant has racked up awards, starting with plaudits from both the James Beard Foundation and Bon Appétit for Best New Restaurant and a regular appearance in the MICHELIN guide as a one-star restaurant. If reservations have been snapped up at State Bird, there’s no need to despair: Krasinksi and Brioza’s other acclaimed spots, MICHELIN-starred The Progress and The Anchovy Bar, are within easy reach.

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La Ciccia (Noe Valley)

Seafood-forward Sardinian cuisine is the focus at Noe Valley favorite La Ciccia. Locals have long loved the exceptionally gracious service from the team, established by former chef Massimiliano Conti and his partner and wife Lorella Degan. New owners took over in spring 2022, but Conti brought the new team up to speed on his simple but delicious plates, such as fresh spaghetti with spicy garlicky oil and bottarga. Beyond the pastas, La Ciccia also has a way with fish, whether it’s marinated anchovies or the whole fish preparations that occasionally appear on the secondi menu. The restaurant’s fame goes beyond locals—it has been singled out by MICHELIN, The New York Times, and as one of the San Francisco Chronicle’s best Italian restaurants in the Bay Area.

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China Live (Chinatown)

The throwback dining room at House of Prime Rib. | Credit: House of Prime Rib
China Live serves dishes from various regions of China in a sprawling 30,000-square-foot space. | Credit: China Live

Owner George Chen takes his decades of hospitality experience to create an immersive Chinatown experience at China Live. The 30,000-square-foot complex is an ode to Chinese food in all its glorious forms. The multi-level space starts with an open and inviting ground floor split into various areas with entertaining views of cooking stations throughout the space. Chefs pleat dumplings and pull noodles for dishes on the menu, which features elements from a variety of regions across China. The best seller is the juicy shen jiang bao, with a crispy pan-fried bottom and a lush pork filling. Other well-loved dishes range from Peking duck to kung pao tofu. A more sophisticated dining experience awaits upstairs at Eight Tables.

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Nopa (NoPa)

Nopa has remained a favorite of both neighborhood folks who gather at the bar and industry insiders looking to score an especially delicious burger since opening in 2006. Chef and co-owner Laurence Jossel is responsible for shaping Nopa’s reputation for excellent food, cocktails, and inviting interiors. The open kitchen has great views of Jossel and his team roasting meats and vegetables in a wood-fired oven, which churns out countless iterations of the legendary country pork chop with smoky and charred edges. Regulars frequently turn to Nopa’s burger and house-made Kennebec chips. Vegetarians know that the tagine, which can also be made fully vegan, represents the best of Bay Area seasonality.

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Che Fico (NoPa)

A margherita pizza with fresh basil at Che Fico in San Francisco
Cal-Italian plates headline the menu at Che Fico. | Credit: Krescent Carasso

Che Fico was a certified hit immediately after opening in 2018. Though it has a Cal-Italian focus, it also features cucina Ebraica, or food from the Jewish Roman tradition. Along with plentiful antipasti options, there are hearty meat, pizza, and pasta dishes, plus a variety of cheeses and cured meats. Head below the main dining room to check out Che Fico Alimentari, a slightly more casual restaurant and market filled with housemade goods such as giardiniera (pickled vegetable relish) and hot sauce.

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Foreign Cinema (Mission)

Foreign Cinema has long been a shoo-in on many San Francisco best-of lists, thanks to chef and owners Gayle Pirie and John Clark, who have maintained the restaurant’s destination status since 1999. Before farm-to-table became a buzzword, Foreign Cinema was already taking advantage of the Bay Area’s robust produce to create vegetable-forward preparations and creative dishes such as its brunch staples—“pop tarts” with seasonal fruit fillings. It has always been popular to dine outdoors at Foreign Cinema, and with that availability now in full swing, films have also resumed playing via projector on the patio wall.

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Kokkari (Financial District)

Kokkari has been a destination for diners looking for excellent Greek food—especially lusciously prepared seafood and lamb dishes—since 1998. The restaurant takes full advantage of both local ingredients and top-shelf imports from Greece. To dine inside Kokkari is to treat your nose to overwhelmingly pleasing notes of grilled meats being cooked over a charcoal hearth. The liberal use of lemon adds zip to Greek classics such as avgolemono, a lemon and egg soup, as well as grilled octopus.

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Zuni Cafe (Hayes Valley)

Roast chicken with warm bread salad at Zuni in San Francisco
Zuni’s elegant American dishes include its crowd-pleasing roast chicken. | Credit: Eric Wolfinger

Zuni Cafe is one of those indelible classic San Francisco establishments that has showcased excellence over several decades. Known far and wide for its craveable hamburger, homey polenta, and roast chicken with warm bread salad for two, Zuni has consistently loomed large at the James Beard Awards, scoring its first in 2000 for the late Judy Rogers as Best Chef: West, Outstanding Restaurant in 2003, and for its service in 2018. Dining at this corner-shaped, elegant American restaurant is a true San Franciscan treat.

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Spruce (Presidio Heights)

Spruce is an undeniable San Francisco destination boasting accolades such as a MICHELIN star and Wine Spectator’s Grand Award. The food at Spruce takes inspiration from California, highlighted by the fact that it sources the bulk of its produce from less than 40 miles away at the Woodside-based SMIP Ranch. That bounty features heavily in all the restaurant’s American preparations, from its breadth of fresh salads to the accompaniments of its main dishes, such as grilled ribeye topped with broccoli di Ciccio and Bordelaise sauce.

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Waterbar (Embarcadero)

It’s hard not to be swept away by the incredible Bay vistas at Waterbar. But even dining indoors in full view of the two massive floor-to-ceiling fish tanks and sweeping oyster bar is an amazing experience. Equally impressive is the seafood: Waterbar offers a wide range from fresh oysters to pan-seared filets and whole fish preparations. Sustainability is at the forefront of the restaurant’s dishes, and the care with which the kitchen prepares that bounty is fully evident in the food’s picturesque presentations.

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A16 (Marina)

With food that stems from the southern coastal region of Campania in Italy, A16 has been a pillar of the Marina District in San Francisco since opening in 2004. The restaurant features a narrow but welcoming interior and an open kitchen so diners have a direct view of the work the chefs put into famous dishes such as wood-oven cooked pizzas and meatballs that have their own cult following. Housemade pastas such as the maccaronara, a long, square-ish noodle enveloped by a hearty raguare also a hallmark of the satisfying cooking here. Wine director and owner Shelly Lindgren pours an award-winning list with bottles that evoke a road trip between the Italian coasts.

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Greens (Marina)

It can be hyperbolic to call a restaurant revolutionary, but there are few other ways to describe a place as influential as Greens. Opened in 1979, Greens has maintained its status as one of the premier vegetarian restaurants in the country. A long line of chefs have been influenced and inspired by both Zen Buddhism and the restaurant’s vibrant farm, Green Gulch, which provides the pristine vegetables and fruits. Almost every dish can be made fully vegan, and the liberal use of legumes, yuba (dried tofu skin), and tofu add the depth of protein. The interior is its own work of art, featuring the creations of several local artists and various types of wood to create a warm and inviting atmosphere to enhance the sweeping Pacific Ocean views.

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Yank Sing (SoMa)

Pork and shrimp shumai at Yank Sing in San Francisco
Yank Sing, a third-generation, family-owned restaurant, has served top-notch dim sum since 1958. | Credit: Yank Sing

Three generations of the Chan family have contributed to Yank Sing’s success since its 1958 opening. A deep-rooted local devotion to Yank Sing’s dim sum helped cement its status as a must-visit for Bay Area natives, transplants, and tourists. It’s hard to argue with the critical acclaim the restaurant has scored—it was chosen again as a Bib Gourmand recipient for MICHELIN in 2022. After biting into a juicy pork soup dumpling and feeling the warm broth break free of the wrapper or tucking into a pillowy barbecue pork bao, you’ll know why.

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Octavia (Lower Pac Heights)

When star chef and owner Melissa Perello opened Frances in the Castro in 2009, rave reviews and accolades streamed in from publications such as Bon Appétit and Esquire, along with a James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. Perello’s New American gem Octavia followed suit when it opened in 2015 in an even larger location in Pac Heights. Current chef de cuisine Nico Pena crafts approachable and comforting food featuring seasonal dishes—local quail with hedgehog mushrooms, leek tagliatelle with Dungeness crab—that swap out often.

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Swan Oyster Depot (Nob Hill)

Prepare to wait in line at Swan Oyster Depot, which accepts no reservations. But rest assured, you will be richly rewarded with fresh seafood that’s made this fuss-free Nob Hill counter a favorite of Anthony Bourdain and other culinary luminaries. History is a palpable presence at this family-owned luncheonette. Since its opening in 1903, servers have guided diners to dishes such as crab Louie salad, shucked oysters, and a colorful “Sicilian sashimi” platter. It’s a classic San Francisco experience that locals and visitors must have. Get to know the (not-so) secret menu before going.

Akikos at Avery Lane (SoMa)

Warm woods and golden lights make up the interiors at Akiko’s at Avery Lane in SoMa
Akikos, one of San Francisco’s longest-running omakase restaurants, scored a stunning new SoMa home in January. | Credit Garrett Rowland

Of all the exclusive and extravagant omakase bars in San Francisco—and this fish-obsessed town has a few—Akikos, first opened in 1987, stands out. Sushi master Ray Lee took over from his parents in 2009 and has been a revered presence behind the counter since 2009. Since then, many other talented chefs have come through his kitchen, including Adam Tortosa of omakase haven Robin. The new Akikos at Avery Lane debuted in a dazzling new space in the East Cut in January 2023, so grab a seat for the omakase show. Chefs set nigiri bites directly on the bar and encourage diners to use their hands instead of chopsticks.

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International Smoke (SoMa)

Cookbook author and television personality Ayesha Curry teamed up with prolific restaurateur Michael Mina for this meaty destination on the ground floor of the leaning Millennium Tower. The menu is truly global, smoking and saucing ribs several different ways, using flavors such as gochujang and lemongrass, then rounding them out with comforts including Mina’s lobster mac and cheese and Curry’s warm cornbread. Plus, it’s a trendy scene—Curry’s husband, basketball star Steph Curry and fellow Golden State Warriors sometimes swing through.

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Chili House (Richmond District)

Chili House was established in 1988 and prides itself on having the best Peking duck in San Francisco—a title that few contest. Chef Han Lijun has served his legendary duck to Chinese presidents and diplomats and countless local diners on Christmas Day. But there’s no need to wait for the holidays for this quintessential San Francisco experience. In addition to crackling duck with pancakes and all the fixings, Chili House also offers fiery chile wontons and tan tan noodles.

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Reem’s California (Mission)

Reem Assil was an activist before she became a baker, opening her one-of-a-kind Arab bakery and cafe in the Bay Area. Reem’s California originally launched in Fruitvale in 2017 before moving to the Mission in 2020 and adding a stall at the Ferry Building in 2022. Today, the Mission location welcomes diners into an inviting and colorful corner bakery space that requires no reservations. The team fires up an all-day menu of pillowy mana’eesh flatbreads topped with fragrant za’atar, fresh cheese, or sumac chicken, sweet cardamom lattes, and a show-stopping pistachio baklawa.

Nopalito (NoPa)

Chef Gonzalo Guzmán’s Mexican cooking has won San Franciscan hearts since Nopalito launched in 2009. Though one location had to close due to the pandemic, the original outpost on Broderick Street still stands strong. Guzman’s porky, piquant pozole rojo has a massive following, as do his rich and filling carnitas. And he grinds fresh masa in house for the tender tortillas—a true labor of love.

PPQ Dungeness Island (Richmond)

Meet the crustacean destination of the west side. PPQ specializes in Asian-Cajun seafood boils, sinking beloved local Dungeness crab into flavorful vats before roasting it with garlic butter, and deep frying it with chiles or saucing it with curry. Garlic noodles are mandatory for a full feast. The restaurant just left its longtime home on Clement Street. But fear not, the crab party only scuttled a few blocks sideways to Geary Boulevard and reopened in March 2023.

Tried them all? Check out other options here.

Becky Duffett is a food writer living and eating in San Francisco. Follow her on Instagram at @beckyduffett.

Noah Cho contributed to this guide.

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