Seek out these 6 unique restaurants in San Francisco

At Elements, a swanky lounge in Union Square, expect awe-inspiring cocktails divided into categories including air, water, fire, and earth. | Credit: Elements Bar & Lounge at ONE65

San Francisco restaurants get their edge from Northern California’s agricultural havens and Silicon Valley’s thriving startup scene.

The city by the Bay’s most inventive restaurants boast deep and meaningful relationships with the area’s farmers, fishermen, and ranchers. Case in point: local anchovies star on the menu at a celebrated Fillmore District seafood spot. But San Francisco diners also adore immersive experiences, such as a design-forward SoMa venue that serves New American dishes on one-of-a-kind ceramics in an artistic space.

These six cutting-edge restaurants challenge the status quo. For a taste of the city’s innovative side, book a table at one of them now.

The Anchovy Bar (Fillmore District)

Anchovy and burrata toast at The Anchovy Bar. | Credit: The Anchovy Bar

This acclaimed seafood restaurant from the State Bird Provisions team is just around the corner from its MICHELIN-starred sibling. Leading the nation’s tinned fish trend, The Anchovy Bar is dedicated to chef Stuart Brioza’s obsession with local anchovies. It’s a labor of love to cure them in-house: when they’re less than two hours out of the water, the team beheads, guts, and scales every last fish by hand. They’re brined for 48 hours and rest in oil for 7 to 10 days before diners taste the revelations that are freshly cured boquerones on toast. The anchovies here are a far cry from the salty, fishy toppings found on cheap pizza. The Anchovy Bar has led a sea change, deepening San Francisco’s appreciation for this undersung, local ingredient.

Niku Steakhouse (Design District)

Wagyu from both Japan and America features on the menu at Niku Steakhouse. | Credit: Niku Steakhouse

The Omakase Restaurant Group opened this exceptional steakhouse in 2019. For all those who worship at the altar of wagyu, Niku sources some of the finest in the world from both Japan and America. It’s a dramatic black box of a restaurant centered on a live-fire grill; the bar glows with illuminated whisky bottles, and meat lockers display prime cuts. There’s a butcher shop next door, where all the dry-aging is handled in house. In the firepit, chef Dustin Falcon (of Lazy Bear and French Laundry fame) throws down the tomahawk steaks, chawanmushi, and crispy pig ears that helped the one-of-a-kind restaurant earn one MICHELIN star.

Mezli (Mission Bay)

Mezli in Mission Bay is San Francisco’s first robotic restaurant without a human onsite. | Credit: Albert Law

One of the more promising contenders in San Francisco’s robotic restaurant scene comes from a trio of Stanford techies and chef Eric Minnich (of MICHELIN-starred Madera). Mezli is a blue-and-white shipping container, steered by robots at food truck park Spark Social. No reservations are required to step right up and order from a touchscreen—within a few minutes, a bowl slides down into a smart locker. Mezli’s Mediterranean-inspired menu offers plenty of customizable options including za’atar chicken, spiced lamb, falafel, or roasted cauliflower piled on turmeric rice, with pita chips or tahini, plus chocolate chunk cookies on the side. While San Francisco loves its fresh food with a side of artificial intelligence, Mezli is a gamechanger: not a single human is needed to power its onsite operations.

Palette (SoMa)

Tuna carpaccio at Palette. | Credit: Palette

This creative and modern spot is tailored for those craving an immersive experience. Chef Peter Hemsley rose through the fine-dining ranks in Paris, New York, and San Francisco (most notably, at three MICHELIN-starred Quince). For his first solo venture, Hemsley breaks out an inimitable style with artistically designed fish dishes. He takes coastal ingredients and plates them meticulously with tweezers, brushes, and even aerators. The results include oysters dotted with black caviar and splashed with magenta vermouth and deconstructed desserts topped with foam. Palette’s stunning black exterior houses an abstract mural adorned with bubbles—a preview of the effervescence that awaits inside.

Elements Bar & Lounge at ONE65 (Union Square)

Cocktails at Elements are works of art, presented around tree branches and hidden inside library books. | Credit: Elements Bar & Lounge at ONE65

Part of a multi-story French venue (led by James Beard Award winner Claude Le Tohic), Elements is an awe-inspiring cocktail destination. Ascend to the fourth floor and step into a sleek, low-lit bar, trimmed in black and gold. The imaginative drinks menu is split into four categories: air, water, fire, and earth. Cocktails arrive in four-spigot fountains, hidden in a flask inside library books, and poured in dainty teacups. But no drink is as showstopping as the “all bark and no bite,” an amari-forward concoction served in custom-made glass, presented around tree branches. Elements’s fourth-floor location means cocktails are shuttled to O’ by Claude Le Tohic, the fine-dining restaurant upstairs, by a clutch of high-tech dumbwaiters—just another cutting-edge feature that makes this sophisticated lair a San Francisco standout.

Zuni Café (Market Street)

Zuni broke ground for California cuisine when the late great Judy Rodgers slid rustic chickens and bread salads into the hearth in the 80s and 90s. But the Market Street classic continues to evolve. It was the first San Francisco restaurant to entirely switch to reusable takeout containers. It’s thrown bake sales to support women’s healthcare access and denounce AAPI hate crimes. It’s a vocal social media advocate when it comes to housing the unhoused. Most controversially, the restaurant removed tips in 2021, citing an effort to combat the sexism and racism inherent in tipping practices. Longtime chef Nate Norris was Zuni’s trailblazer-in-chief, and though he recently announced that he’s departing the kitchen after 14 years, his impact will last. As the decades have shown, Zuni is a talented multitasker, continually serving up the city’s crispiest chicken while challenging industry expectations.

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

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