If I have to hear once more how San Francisco is no longer a bastion for diverse, affordable eats, I might need to take on a column about it. (Spoiler alert: That’s exactly what I intend to do.)
I’ve been a food and drink writer, editor and judge for nearly fifteen years, professionally — and I’ve been studying food and drink even longer, obsessed with both since my teenage years. In SF, new restaurants arrive weekly, a volume which hasn’t let up in decades. As food writers, we often get invited to “hot” openings, and plenty of those are worth visiting. But I’m disturbed by the constant—almost trendy—complaint that this is all there is. That there’s little outside the countless world-class chefs making us a city with more 3 Michelin-starred restaurants than NYC (a far bigger city, by the way).
I’d call this uninformed… or worse: lazy. In a city merely seven-by-seven miles, our depth of edible, drinkable riches is long spoken of in the same breath as cities many times our size. For decades, the Bay Area has perfected what most cities have only begun the last decade or so.
Farm-to-table? It started here in the 1960s. World-class cheesemakers, olive oil producers, organic produce and meat farms? Same time. Artisan bakers? The 1800s with a revival in the ‘70s. Anomalies like Filipino ice cream flavors? 1960’s at Mitchell’s, still going strong since 1953. Among the world’s best produce, farms and seafood? Again: the 1800s. Craft beer? The 1960s at Anchor Steam. Small batch distilling? Early ‘80s at St. George Spirits, Charbay, Germain-Robin, followed by trailblazers like Osocalis brandy, Quady Winery’s vermouth and Junipero Gin in the 1990s.
Of course, NorCal has changed the world when it comes to wine, first making the Old World take notice that there even was New World (much less competitive) wine at 1976’s Judgement of Paris. As opposed to cities like NYC or London, much of this pioneering has been led by women and with some of the world’s most progressive environmental practices.
Growing up in both NYC and LA areas (though born in the middle) — and as one privileged enough to travel half of every month researching food and drink around the U.S. and globe — I got schooled when I moved to SF 18 years ago. Though, I was weaned on two of the most diverse, best food cities on the planet.
I see overabundances of condos and gentrification take over cities everywhere: change is universal, not unique to SF. With Silicon Valley and the endless business innovations founded there, the complications—and opportunities— of a technology-driven world started in our backyard. Our tiny peninsula cannot expand, yet many who come for the thousands of well-paying jobs want to live in SF, not the suburbs or neighboring cities.
As with any great city, problems are many — supply and demand (thus, a higher cost of living) being the toughest. But so are the joys, especially if you find ways to stick it out.
With an overall higher standard than other metros, there’s a base level here most don’t fall below, which leaves room for perfecting and further innovating. It means even my local burger joints have long sourced humanely-raised meat and my average waiter has a sommelier level knowledge of wine.
California, too, has long held the largest numbers of immigrants from most Asian countries, South America, of course, Mexico and beyond. Our region is founded on immigrant-run restaurants and authentic hole-in-the-walls in every cuisine. From Iraqi food (Jannah!) to Sri Lankan (1601 Bar & Kitchen!), I could list hundreds of “bests” alone, while new treasures open constantly. (SF was the city that introduced the Western world to Chinese food, just another of its pioneering categories.)
SF’s palate has been progressive for so long. Acquired tastes like pickled foods, amaro or oxidative wines trended a couple of decades ago sought after the unexplored. This adventurous spirit is what schooled me; it moved my palate forward, honing it the past decades.
Despite what uninformed complainers might say, SF remains one of the most forward-thinking, vibrant food and drink scenes anywhere, one I am privileged to come home to from any of the world’s great cities. SF is world-class…but in a blessedly small package. (It doesn’t take 2 hours round trip for dinner via car or public transit. I obsess about visiting every new opening but know the urgent need to support our longtimers. Alas, this column is, in fact, just that: A love letter to the hole-in-the-wall dining institutions, new and old, that give this city is gastronomic pizazz.
I’ll give you both: a new opening and an OG pick in the same category or spirit. With a couple of dozen visits a month, I weed through to the standouts. Each place may not warrant 5 stars, but they may have dishes, drinks or special elements that do. From high to low, elegant to humble, hot to hidden, here is what is standing out most…and why.
// Photography by Cloris Ying. Have a delish spot we need to know about that you love? Write in and give us your recs.