My little tribe and I have just had the privilege of over two entire weeks in San Francisco. We’ve stayed in the bustling city centre, lived like locals for six days in Alamo Square and visited Sonoma wine country.
We’ve only seen a fraction of all there is to see but made it our business to scope out a (very) good handful of foodie spots.
I thought I’d share this with you as a bit of a go-to guide – it’s by no means a comprehensive list of all the great places in this city – it’s more of a brainstorm of places that made our trip so special. It’s not a huge city (47 square miles) and lots of places are within walking distance – I say that but some days we walked 15kms! If you’re not up for a stroll you can hop on a train, or a Uber across town.
I’ve mostly focussed on food-centric destinations, but couldn’t help but throw in a few other spots we loved as well. (Having an energetic wee toddler meant good playgrounds were a HUGE part of the mix as were craft beer spots for a Daddy in need of a break). Some I’ve given more attention than others as I got carried away.
I’ve created a list with links and the end for quick reference if you want to skip through all my babble!
As with most cities you need to get out into the suburbs to experience the real city as locals do. For the first four nights we stayed centrally, did a spot of shopping and visited these drool-worthy markets:
Ferry Plaza Farmers Markets is renowned throughout the country as one of the top farmers markets.
Enormous plump stonefruit sit near watermelons and bunches upon bunches of sun-kissed grapes. Mountains of string beans and farm-fresh tomatoes lend their red and green hues to the booths and sweet corn is roasted in the husk for you to enjoy right on the spot.
About those stonefruit, I must give a shout out to the peaches- although expensive at $7.50 US for three, they were worth every penny. Sinking my teeth into their soft flesh sent sugary juices dripping down my chin and over my hands — but the small mess was worth the giant reward in flavour, they were hands down the best peaches I’ve had. (Sorry Hawkes Bay!)
The market is open three days a week—Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. On any day, especially Saturdays, some of San Francisco’s best known chefs, and most famous farmers, can be seen working the stalls.
Presidio and Lower Pacific Heights
Off the Grid – Picnic at the Presidio is a roaming mobile food extravaganza – trucks, carts and tents offer delicious food, music, craft and soul to one spot. They visit numerous areas throughout the city and have an app to find out where. We visited the ‘Picnic at Presidio Park which (at this point) is held every Sunday 11am-4pm. Best of all it’s very untouristy and full of locals enjoying a sunny day out.
Walking off our picnic we discovered the nearby Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina district. It was very grand and looked like it belonged in Rome, it’s beautiful and well worth a visit.
Fillmore Street in Pacific Heights is one of San Francisco’s great treasures and it reminded us of a cross between Hampstead Village in London and Ponsonby Road (it even has it’s own SPQR in the exact same font!). It’s the main shopping and dining district in one of the city’s finest neighborhoods.
My brother-in-law lives bang in the centre so we spent a couple of days strolling amongst the eateries and parks.
Our favourite spots were Roam Artisan Burgers serving eco-conscious healthy menu options with organic shakes, agave-sweetened housemade sodas, microbrews and local wines on tap. Don’t miss the Tejano burger with your choice of turkey, beef or vege pattie with Pepper Jack cheese, jalapeño relish and white corn tortilla strips.
Bun Mee, a small Vietnamese sandwich eatery was a another favourite offering authentic banh mi (Vietnamese word for sandwich) inspired rolls filled with five spice chicken and caramel mayo and lemongrass pork with garlic mayo and pickled vege.
Although a little dated, Jane Bakery served amazing coffee (which is actually hard to come by in San Fran) and pastries and we spotted some delicious healthy looking morsels such as breakfast frisee salad and chia pudding parfaits delivered to nearby tables.
With 30 degree temperatures we couldn’t go past Smitten Ice-cream which is literally ice-cream made to order using liquid nitrogen and no additives. At first we thought it was a bit gimmicky but couldn’t go past the flavours. You don’t get coffee ice cream here, you get Blue Bottle Espresso ice-cream. You don’t get “strawberry” jelly textured sauce, you get “strawberry prosecco sauce” made with fresh, local strawberries. Although none of this means it’s good for you, at least it’s delicious and you know exactly what you’re consuming.
Another great street to stroll along is Hayes St, in the Hayes Valley, a fashionable neighbourhood with plenty of great bars, pop-up restaurants, craft coffee as well as any number of boutique shops to take in. We were eating in that night and trying to get a baby to sleep so just strolled by enviously. We discovered a great wine merchant along the way Arlequin Wine which is worth a visit. It had a terrific range and helpful knowledgable staff.
We were lucky enough to spend five unforgettable nights in a friend’s apartment right in Alamo Square – think Full House with all it’s amazing Victorian housing (including the famous Painted Ladies) overlooking much of downtown San Fran.
Having a well stocked kitchen and being able to cook with fresh, local summer produce was such a treat and one of the main highlights of our trip (for me anyway!)
In America you’re never far from a Wholefoods supermarket but just around the corner we had a Bi-Rite gourmet market. The name doesn’t describe it well but it’s a small but hugely stocked market of organic and locally produced goods. They also have a famous ice-creamery – the salted caramel was to die for and the the long line says it all!
We’re huge fans of long and slow cooked BBQ meats (and desperate to get a big green egg!). 4505 Burgers & BBQ was recommended and didn’t disappoint. Although we had to queue on a Tuesday night, it was worth the wait. The Brisket was melt-in-your-mouth good and the smokiness was spot on. The pulled pork burger needs no explanation other than having to share it causing a bit a of tiff with my greedy fella.
Being creatures of habit (for good food and coffee), we quickly became regulars at The Mill visiting four times during our trip.
This neighbourhood bakery specialising in thick toast and amazing Four Barrell coffee is an example of simple done well. My favourites were the dark mountain rye with Orchard almond butter and sea salt and country bread with butter and cinnamon sugar. They create delicious simple combos weekly in a cool space that’s well worth a visit (or four!).
In what looked like an old mechanic’s garage tucked down a side street we devoured the most delicious mexican short rib and chorizo tortillas and smoky mezcal margaritas at Mercado Urbano. It happened to be happy hour Tuesday so they were even sweeter at a ridiculously cheap $2 each.
With two of my great loves being vintage and baking, to say I was delighted to stumble across ‘Cookin’ while strolling along Divisadero St is an understatement.
The vintage cookware shop run by a curt old eccentric woman was everything it should be and a pleasure to visit. With a heaving collection of cookware from the early 1900s and beyond, a great collection of vintage Les Creuset, copper pots and pans and bundt tins to the ceiling, this random little shop is an absolute hidden treasure. As I rummaged through aisles two days in a row I met a good handful of in-the-know food stylists doing exactly the same.
Originally home to Latin American families, The Mission has become home to the city’s hipsters filled with cupcakeries, bare basic bars, excellent taquerias, music shops, and clothing boutiques.
I’m a huge fan of interesting interiors and Lolo’s kitschy interior was a folk art masterpiece with the feel of a bustling Mexican mercado.
It’s known for its quirky small plates based on traditional Mexican dishes reinterpreted for Northern California. It’s expansive agave cocktail bar made it the perfect light lunch spot for these weary travellers. We sat at the bar right in front of the kitchen so enjoyed watching the artful chefs create their delicious plates. We devoured the shrimp and rockfish ceviche and the panko and spice dusted tropical shrimp tacos.
Bar Tartine’s owners are known as the king and queen of fermentation creating layered authentic flavours with a passion for in-house powders, pastes, pickles, preserves, kefirs and krauts. The meals were on the smaller side but each intensely flavoured meaning we couldn’t eat much. Highlights for us were the handsome beef tartare on toast with tonnato sauce, the exquisitely smoked potatoes with black garlic and the chicken sausage with squash and shishito peppers.
They also have a famous bakery called Tartine of which I poked my head in the door. Everything looked divine and I’m told it is, but on that particular Saturday we were too hungry to queue so headed to Lolo Mexican instead.
With my intimate love of chocolate we had to pop into Dandelion, a bean-to-bar small batch chocolate factory serving as you’d expect, a selection of hot chocolates and chocolate baked goodies as well as Four Barrell coffee (we found anywhere serving this coffee to be good). From the cafe or side bar, you can sit and watch the chocolate-making process. We split a PB&J slice and even then it’s richness meant it lasted well into the afternoon.
For an outdoor ale and crunchy garlic fries, Southern Pacific Brewing tucked away on Treat street has a great vibe – it’s a one time machine shop renovated into a bright, expansive bar, restaurant and brewery , complete with an upper mezzanine and outdoor patio. It’s well worth a visit but make sure you take ID as they’re really strict for some reason. Once in though, it’s really relaxed and we sat in the sun all afternoon.
I love ceramics and am always on the hunt for the perfect coffee mug. Heath Ceramics, an iconic San Francisco tableware brand is beautiful and considered among the most enduring examples of mid-century design. They have a vast retail space, cafe and gallery tucked behind The Mission definitely worth a visit if that’s your thing.
There we a number of other places in The Mission highly recommended which we’ll be sure to try next time, I thought I’d add them in case you get there before me!
Al’s Place – A neighbourhood restaurant, that just the week earlier had been featured in Bon Appetit’s top 10 new American restaurants. Needless to say we didn’t have a chance of getting a table.
El Techo de Lolinda rooftop bar – Latin American street food, rooftop views and cocktails
Rintaro – described as traditional Japanese technique with an almost maniacal dedication to California produce.
We decided to visit Sonoma over Napa Valley as were told it was less touristy. We stayed 20 minutes drive from Sonoma in Petaluma (as accommodation was much less expensive). When we return some day we’ll definitely stay in Healdsburg. This charming quaint little town, heaving with vineyards in nearby Dry Creek Valley, we agreed, was the best day of our trip.
We had no idea which of the vineyards we wanted to visit, so stopped by the information centre with the brief of beautiful scenery (and wine) that may also not frown upon our 20 month old. We were then on our way with four recommendations.
Mauritson – a family owned winery dating back to the 1800s, specialising in Zinfandel and Cabernets. Although a nice setting we were glad it was our first stop as the best was still to come – we love all types of wine, and whilst the reds were good (there was a nice Pinot we tasted that had good “pinotosity”) they didn’t have much at all in the way of white wine. Being lovers or Malbec, we bought a bottle to take back to New Zealand ($42)
Our second stop was at the biodynamic and family owned Quivira Vineyards. This was in the most beautiful setting, amazing views of the distant mountains through the vines (with a slight haze from the distant forest fires), being here was very much like being in Marlborough with the mountain backdrop. Quivira was also really good for little ones with plenty of chickens and roosters (there was a seven to one ratio for those roosters…) all very close to the tasting area. There was a wide range of wines with some nice examples of sauvignon blanc (as well as an interesting sauvignon blanc/viognier blend), very different from NZ sauvignon, but the tropical notes were quite delicious. As well as the usual American red styles there was also a Syrah ($30) – we took one of these and had it recently at home, a savoury example with nice vanilla notes from the oak coming through. We spent about an hour making our way through the tastings, visiting the chicken run and taking in the scenery before moving on to our next stop
Third on our wine trail was the Sbragia Family Vineyards at the northernmost part of the Dry Creek Valley. Of the vineyards we visited this, in our opinion, was the most impressive in terms of the consistency and quality of their wines. Hardly surprising given the owner spent 32 years at the iconic Beringer winery as chief winemaker and then winemaster before establishing his own vineyard. Set on the side of the valley the tasting room and surrounding decks commanded a stunning view of the valley, as with all the wineries we visited, you can take your own picnic (we picked up great sandwiches en route at http://drycreekgeneralstore1881.com/), buy some wine and enjoy your lunch.
The wine here was very good, big, bold buttery Chardonnays are still easy to find in the States and Sbragia do this style very well (we’re old school when it comes to chardonnay) – we had a glass for lunch and brought a bottle of the Home Ranch ($30) back to NZ. The Cabernet Sauvignon ($42) was superb, the best we tasted during our trip. It was true to the varietal, not overly jammy and fruit bomb like, as you can often strike. Definitely make the trip to Sbragia, take a packed lunch and be prepared to make room for their wines in your luggage.
The final stop on our self guided tour of Dry Creek Valley was at Truett Hurst, which was recommended to us with our daughter in mind, another winery where there are plenty of chickens, lambs and goats to keep the little ones entertained. There is also an area down by the river where you can lunch and enjoy a tipple. Although a relatively small operation the wine list was extensive and there wasn’t a dud tasting amongst any of the wines we tried, we were taken by the very reasonably priced Rose ($20 – Zinfindel) which is currently residing in our fridge back home.
Tastings done for the day we made the short drive back to Healdsburg to sample some of the excellent local cafes and eateries.
The Shed was highly recommended and it certainly delivered. Not only was there a strong range of craft beer and local wine on tap but there was also home brewed kombucha (yes, on tap!) as well as three delicious and refreshing shrubs. After a long day of wine tasting a thirst quenching non-alcoholic drink was in order.
The kind folk at The Shed recommended Campo Fina, a little gem with a beautiful courtyard, great Italian food and excellent wines. They even had a Bocce ball court (similar to Pétanque) perfect for kids.
Moustache Cupcakes with cupcake flavours such as lemon, blackberry and rosemary and brown sugar Californian peach, this sweet little bakery won me over. The goods didn’t disappoint as we indulged in our room later that evening.
A list of playgrounds for littlies
Huntington Park – on California and Taylor, right in the city, great little playground as well as friendly locals with their dogs.
Alta Plaza – on Clay and Steiner, Pacific Heights, big playground with a great elevation and a stunning view across San Fran
Alamo Square Park – on Hayes and Steiner, a lovely playground with the bonus of being on the same block as the Painted Ladies.
A few other nuggets
We had heard about the craft beer scene in California before we came out here, but the breadth and range is really quite staggering. The prices are great for the quality, especially so when you can pick up a six pack of craft IPA for around $10.
A little note on wine – we went to some really good local supermarkets/delis (Bi Rite on Divisadero and Falletti’s on Broderick and Oak) and what was really surprising was the dominance of French and other European wines on the shelves -we were there to sample the local wares rather than the imported ones! Where we did find a huge selection of American (particularly Californian wine) was at the Safeway on Market St, only a few blocks from where we were staying. The prices were sharp, even sharper if you registered in store for a loyalty card (anyone can do it) and sharper again if you selected six bottles. There was a dedicated wine specialist working the wine aisles who was a fountain of knowledge on the Californian wine scene, it was quite a surprise to get this sort (and level) of service in what is a huge supermarket chain.
Mezcal – when eating in Mexican restaurants we found most margaritas had a beautiful smoky, earthy flavour, brightened with lime. The secret ingredient was Mezcal, a distilled spirit made from the fermented heart of the agave, often described as cooked pineapple.
Traditionally, mezcal is handcrafted at small family farms throughout several regions in México.
Quick go to list
Ferry Plaza Farmers Markets
Off the Grid – Picnic at the Presidio
Palace of Fine Arts
Roam Artisan Burgers
4505 Burgers & BBQ
Four Barrell coffee
Southern Pacific Brewing
El Techo de Lolinda
Sbragia Family Vineyards