If the greatest football team in the world didn’t happen to be from Milano, San Francisco would very likely be my favourite city. Great food from every ethnic cuisine you can imagine, fresh and delicious seafood and sushi, cocktail bars on every block, Napa Valley wine, alternative thinking, open-minded people, Mission St hipsters, a beautiful metropolitan landscape - no other city in the world can compete.
I have been to SF several times and have come up with a list of my favorite bars and restaurants. A special thanks to Greidy, Nicole, Elizabeth, Erin, Azzurra, and Paul for the great suggestions. Although I've hit most of the places I wanted to on my latest trip, there were a few I missed out on including Argicole, Rye, Forgery, Comstock, 15 Romolo, Alembic and eateries Waraku, Blowfish sushi, AQ, Lamar Cevicheria, Tartine bakery, El Techo and Liholiho yacht club.
Below I have compiled a list of my favorite food and drink experiences in San Francisco.
Blue Bottle Coffee
The coffee here is so good that I always make sure my hotel is walking distance from their Mint Plaza location. This awesome coffee bar offers single origin espresso, excellent blended espresso, and an odd looking siphon bar, which may remind you of the meth lab from Breaking Bad. Their best espresso blend is their signature 17 foot ceiling. If you get a chance, try the Panama Gesha coffee in the siphon format. They also do a V60-ish pour over here, which depending on the bean, can deliver great results.
Be prepared to wait for your coffee as the line-up always spills outside the establishment. You will find line ups everywhere in SF, but if they are made up of a good percentage of hipsters, you can rest assured the product is really damn good. Also recommended at the Mint Plaza Blue Bottle is their breakfast/brunch, whether it be poached eggs, their breakfast sandwich, waffle, french toast or a damn fine cookie (ginger molasses, double chocolate or saffron). If you want to try another great speciality coffee place, head over to Ritual Coffee in the Mission (1026 Valencia St).
Tommy's Mexican restaurant
For the best bar experience of your life, pass by Tommy's Mexican restaurant, originally opened by Tommy Bermejo and his wife 50 years ago. Tommy's is now managed by the amazing Julio Bermejo, a great host and one of the friendliest people you will meet in the bar industry. He is the world ambassador of tequila thanks to is amazing knowledge of the agave-based spirit. As soon as you enter Tommy's, Julio and his head bartender Greidy will make you will feel at home. Start off with a Tommy's margarita, prepared with the freshest limes in the world using an interesting blender shaking technique. Then, let Julio guide you through his world's largest collection of tequilas.
Up at the bar, I had the good fortune of sitting next to Juan Francisco Collado, president of 1921 tequila. I enjoyed the 1921 anejo, which was pleasantly spicy and slightly smoky. However, my favorite tequilas of the night were the complex Fortaleza anejo (NOM 1493, no. A-6122) and the spicy and mediation-worthy El Tesoro anejo (NOM 1139). And if you find yourself getting a bit woozy from all that tequila, Tommy's has some amazing mexican food. I suggest the fresh and delicious Ceviche de Tommy pictured below.
If you are ever in the Bay area, Tommy's is a must visit for their awesome people (both staff and clients) and great tequila. Even if you aren't an expert on tequila, Julio is a patient teacher. He even organizes lessons at the bar with the Blue Agave club.
How can I describe the food at Mission Chinese? High end ingredients used to make non traditional but delicious comfort Chinese food. Although the waiters are Mission-esque hipsters, the cooks are Chinese, with a kitchen similar to one you'd find in a ghetto Chinatown restaurant.
Rockstar chef-owner Danny Bowien has trained his staff extremely well, and all the dishes perfectly executed, day or night. The highlight for me was the thrice cooked bacon and rice cakes, a dish that saved me after my whiskey cocktail binge at Bourbon and Branch the night before. Sorry, I don't have photos from B&B becauase the dicks don't let you take photos there. Back to Mission Chinese, the spicy beef chow mein was also rad, but maybe a bit too “gweilo” (white guy style). This dish has since been replaced by the Lung Shan chow mein, the ultimate gon chow ngau ho, but with Shanghai style noodles. Another winner is the Kung Pao pastrami. Thanks to Gavin for the tip!
Welcome to my favorite cocktail bar in SF. Located in the Mission, ABV is casual, non-pretentious and offers the best drinks in the city. The atmosphere is welcoming at ABV: it's simple but stylish. I suggest sitting up at the bar and in front of the awesome Cecily Kllanxhja. Her friendly and authentic character is a fresh of breath air in a city which is unfortunately becoming very commercial and a bit cold.
My favorite drink at ABV is suprisingly green in color and served in a Tom Collins glass! Check out the refreshing and sour Tarragon Collins with gin, lemon, tarragon and soda. There is no better drink to start your evening. You'd expect to find tarragon in Bernaise sauche or an Asian meat dish, but the pungeant herb works great in this delicious and fragrant cocktail.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Whisky Church with a manly scotch, oloroso maple, and smoked cherry bitters. It's not easy to drink but it is the perfect finish to an evening. I also had a delicious Whisky Sour, Remember the Maine and Rye-based Sazerac from Cecily. People also tell me the food is great at ABV. But seriously, why eat when you can sip on these heavenly drinks? ABV has recently opened a more exclusive bar upstairs, but that experience will have to wait for my next trip to SF.
Whitechapel is a beautiful new gin bar in SF that was designed to look like an abandoned London undeground station. Running the show are Alex Smith and Martin Cate who have come up with the largest gin collection in North America! I was lucky enough to encounter Alex at the door and he suggested I try the spirit forward Penny Dreadful with Sloane's dry gin, Citadelle reserve gin, Amer Bigallet, Antica Formula, Hellfire bitters and Smoked Islay peat. It was one of the best drinks I've had in SF on my recent trip.
Thanks to SF expert Nicole, part of the 28 HKS family in Singapore, for pointing me towards HardWater, a great whisky bar next to the Slanted Door. As soon as I entered the beautiful whisky bar, I was greeted by the sweet smile of barlady Erin Rose. For the first time I felt at ease on my SF trip. Other than Erin's charm, you will be amazed by T. Olle Lindberg's interior design. HardWater is bright and modern with a high ceiling and a gorgeous rack of whiskys in the back. It's a welcome change from the dark whisky bars I am used to frequenting.
Erin prepared three delicious cocktails for my after lunch session: a mint julep, a whisky sour, and from their menu, the Creole cocktail with Rittenhouse 100 rye, Punt e Mes, Benedictine, China-China, Angostura, and lemon peel.
The Slanted Door
At the Slanted Door, you will have one of the best meals of your life. The location is extremely touristy, being situated in the Ferry Building. As I scoured for the Slanted Door in the shopping plaza, I was worried we were about to embark on a TGI Fridays experience. I was relieved when I finally found the place, located on the back side of the ferry building with a spectacular view of the Bay bridge. As I entered the Slanted Door, I was a bit disappointed with a “fighetto” atmosphere that is too posh for my tastes, with a space that seemed unnecessarily large. The staff are friendly but are constantly racing around to meet the demands of a high volume restaurant.
But not to fear, the Slanted Door has one redeeming quality that will put a smile on your face: it has the best food in SF. I admit that the food has nothing to do with real Vietnamese food (other than the spring rolls maybe), but the ingredients were outstanding and the Asian fusion cooking was superb. I suggest starting with the spring rolls, if only to trick yourself into thinking you are at an Asian restaurant. Try the crispy imperial rolls, filled with pork shoulder and gulf shrimp. Served on the side are vermicelli and peanuts, meant to be wrapped together with the spring rolls in rice paper. Other certified food porn are the pork spareribs, the best I’ve had in my life (sorry Mi Li).
Of the main dishes, the cellophane noodles with Dungeness crab were very good. The highlights however were the shaking beef cut from a wonderfully tender filet mignon, and the organic chicken claypot with caramel sauce, chili and ginger. I can’t put into words how good these meat dishes were. The restaurant describes itself as Vietnamese home cooking. Perhaps if your home is a mansion, situated on an organic farm in California. But how I can hate on a place that delivered my best meal in SF? After your meal try one of their awesome cocktails such as the whiskey cocktail, with buffalo trace bourbon, angostura and orange bitters, gum syrup, orange peel and served on a hand cut ice cube.
Lers Ros is perhaps the best thai restaurant in San Francisco. On my first visit I was impressed with their green curry chicken. On my second visit, I decided to try their Pad Se Iw (beef with fried rice noodles). Friends, I almost saw god after eating this dish! I've had beef with fried rice noodles hundreds of times before, all over the world. This includes the cantonese version gon chow ngau ho in HK and the Malyasian char kway teow in Singapore. However, this rendition at Lers Ros blows all the of the others out of the water. I liken it my experience of eating cacio e pepe at Roma Sparita.
Samovar Tea Lounge
I have to thank Kevin Rose (of Diggnation fame for the tech nerds out there) for having turned me on to Samovar tea lounge. It also helps that their best location is situated just above the Moscone center, where the most important conference in my field is held annually. As soon as you enter, you will instantly feel more relaxed, with its beautiful and naturally lit environment that will remind you of a Zen garden. Samovar is a perfect place to go during a stressful work day to help you reach a state of peaceful serenity.
Ryoko’s is an izakaya (Japanese tapas) and sushi bar which offers the freshest and best sushi in downtown SF. This place is always packed so be prepared to wait 30 minutes for a table as they don’t take reservations. Write your name on the clipboard and order a beer to tide you over while you wait. Before the sushi arrives, order as much as you can from the izakaya/appetizer part of the menu. The fried cheese, agedashi tofu and tuna yukke are all excellent. For the sushi/sashimi, order off the daily specials chalkboard or ask your waitress to bring you their freshest fish. I went there 3 times in a week to give you an idea of how awesome this place is.
Thanks to Greidy for taking me to Bar Crudo, one of the best seafood places in SF. The best time to come is for happy hour, when you eat and drink very well for a reasonable price. Check out the fresh oysters or the savory shellfish stew!
Bender's Bar and Grill
Bender's is a dive bar in the hipster-ridden Mission district of SF. I discovered Bender's on my quest to drink the nearly impossible to find Pliny the Elder, the best double IPA in the world. Shout out to Paul B, a former SF-hippie, for steering me towards this awesome watering hole, which also offers great bar food and other fine beers. But back to Pliny the Elder: it is a hoppy, bitter, badass indian pale ale that you will will never forget for as long as you live. If you want an even more extreme version of Bender's check out Zeitgeist, the greatest dive bar/beer garden on the planet (where photos are not allowed sadly).
I have been cheering for this SF cocktail bar since it first opened. Why? I have no idea. But I was inspired by their creative menu, cool atmosphere and Mission location. Trick Dog has constantly hit it out the park since opening 3 years ago, having made the World's 50 best bars 2 years in a row. I finally had the good fortune of visiting Trick Dog this year, and to be honest my first impression was negative: clients who didn't give care about cocktails and bartenders who treated me like a credit card number. But wait, why is Trick Dog on my list of best experiences in SF?
As it turns out, making authentic reviews of restaurants and bars is not such an easy task. On my first visit to Trick Dog, I was in a pissy mood - I had just been let down by another mighty SF cocktail bar and I was still suffering the effects of jet lag. So after a bit of meditation, I built up the courage to return to the mighty Trick Dog. And what a difference state of mind can make...this time I met only cool customers, had friendly bartenders and most importantly, drank world-class drinks. My favorite cocktails were the Biggie and Tupac (1 oz tequila ocho reposado, 3/4 oz hidalgo amontillado sherry, 3/4 oz maurin blanc vermouth, 1/4 oz honey, 7 dashes jasmine and sage tea with meyer lemon) and Reptilian Elite (3/2 oz Bombay, 1/2 oz Noilly Prat, 1/2 oz pineapple juice, simcoe hops tincture!, 1/2 oz lime, 1/2 oz cocoa nib). The perfect second night was capped by meeting the bar manager Morgan Schick - a perfect gentleman who kindly called me a cab on his cell phone to get me to my next destination.
If you're a bartender, Cask is your dream store. An amazing collection of bourbon, rye, japanese and scotch whisky, Cask also has bar tools and a great selectio of bitters. I usually stop in to pick up the hard to find Pliny the Elder IPA.