Three Delicious Days in San Francisco
Two hours south from Seattle by plane gets you to San Francisco, home of an incredible number of culinary delights. This is a city with a quality bakery scene, patience for pour-over coffee, a farmers market that offers interesting contrast to Seattle’s, a wide variety of Asian food, and some creative Californian cuisine, often with twists.
I go to the Bay Area on occasion and have written about great eats in the past, so this guide is not intended to be a “best-of” endeavor. Instead, this is a little collection of places that avoids fine dining in favor of pastries (and coffee), burgers, boat noodles, Asian fusion finds, and more. Here’s a three-day itinerary that will keep your stomach happy while providing structure for some sightseeing in San Francisco.
Day 1 (Friday)
Dim sum is tempting and a good choice for many visiting San Francisco, but on par with what we have in Seattle. (It’s lower in quality than the L.A. area and even further below Richmond, BC—so accessible to Seattle.) Better, I believe, to explore the bakery scene. Tartine is a classic favorite, and b. patisserie also gets high marks. To start a comparison of three lesser known (to many) places, journey early to Mr Holmes Bakehouse. I normally recommend a plain (butter) croissant if you want to do true bakery comparisons, but this trip presents an opportunity to indulge in more whimsical versions. Mr Holmes actually has three croissant-like creations: the cruffin, the amelie amann, and a croissant with a salmon roll inside. (As with all of the restaurants mentioned, check below the main article for additional photos.) But perhaps the best bite in the shop is the banana doughnut, with actual chunks of banana in the cream filling.
Mr Holmes serves Sightglass coffee, though typical of most bakeries, not in pour-over form. So make your next stop the flagship shop of Sightglass, in the SoMa district. Despite the size, it can be hard to find a seat in this bustling location, but it’s worth a visit. Awake, you now have time and energy to start discovering the downtown shopping area, which can include a stroll through Chinatown. (This one is much more alive than Seattle’s!) And then it’s back to SoMa for lunch at Marlowe. Both the shrimp roll and the calamari & chorizo tartine are terrific, but be sure to check out the Marlowe burger, cooked to “bloody good” perfection.
The afternoon allows time to enjoy some of the great outdoors within the city. Golden Gate Park is a good venue, with a bonus of being the home of the de Young Museum. For just a short time more, this museum is home to an impressive Keith Haring exhibit. It’s thought-provoking, but don’t stay too late, as it will soon be time to get in line at State Bird Provisions. A 4:15pm arrival should yield you first seating upon the 5:30 opening (ask for the chef’s counter if available), and will give you a good hour of time to chat with fellow food-lovers waiting with you. The food—much of it with Asian influences—is fantastic. Expect an early onslaught of dim sum-style small plates; pace yourself and keep the regular menu in mind, knowing that there’s also dessert to enjoy. (This was my favorite meal of my latest trip to San Francisco. Definitely check out additional photos from the meal at the end of this article.)
Day 2 (Saturday)
Saturday offers a chance to sleep in just a little late, as Knead Patisserie in the Mission District doesn’t open until 10am. That’s said, plan to get there right at opening while the pastries are still warm and the selection is still best. The bakery “hides” in the back of Local Mission Eatery, and you can eat your treats at the chef’s counter while watching the workers prep food. The butter pecan croissant is pretty good, but the must-order is the pomme d’amour. A bit on the messy side, this crème brulee inside croissant-like pastry will steal your heart. (Probably the best pastry item I tried my latest trip.)
Near Knead is a beautiful Blue Bottle location (combined with Heath Ceramics) and a more mellow Sightglass café, but if you’re interested in combining coffee with a walk on Valencia Street in the Mission, head to Ritual Coffee. With a long line likely extending to (or through) the door and pulsating music to accompany your pour-over, Ritual gives a glimpse into San Francisco’s hipster coffee scene.
You’ll return to the Mission District again, so soon it’s time to head to the Ferry Building Marketplace, home of Saturday’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. There are many interesting shops inside the building (I’m partial to Cowgirl Creamery and Acme Bread, especially for the start of a picnic lunch), and then there are the farmer stands full of amazing produce and lots of other products on the outside. The colors are vibrant, the setting spectacular, and the scene fun. You can do lots of food sampling here—and that’s before you realize there’s cooking going on as well. One of the food stands: 4505 Meats. Here you can try the beloved hamburger without the commitment of going to the restaurant. The soft sesame-scallion bun is the perfect placeholder for the soft-packed, smoky patty.
From the Ferry Building, jump on the historic F Market Streetcar (free if you have a Muni pass) which cruises along the Embarcadero and makes its way to Fisherman’s Wharf. Here you can do the real tourist thing, from a brisk and bright bay cruise to a dark and “horrible” (but fun) interactive learning experience at the San Francisco Dungeon. From the Wharf, take a stroll through Fort Mason and make your way to The Interval at Long Now. Really, just go. I don’t want to describe it too much, but suffice to say that it’s an incredibly special place to enjoy coffee (more Sightglass) or a cocktail.
For dinner, return to the Mission District for a meal at Pink Zebra. If you’ve been to Mission Chinese Food, it’s similar (there’s actually a chef connection)—but with a Japanese-European focus. Like Mission Chinese, Pink Zebra is a pop-up inside an existing, functioning restaurant (Tao Yin). You can reserve one of the five sushi bar seats for an omakase meal, but I recommend getting a regular table and ordering from the non-sushi menu. Almost all of the dishes have Japanese elements, but with twists that make things interesting. Take, for example, menchi katsu with gruyere, onion agrodolce, and smoked tonkatsu sauce. It’s fun and delicious.
Day 3 (Sunday)
This morning, It’s back to the Mission District and back to Valencia Street to check out Craftsman & Wolves. This is the most “hipster” of the three bakeries on the itinerary, with young people flocking to try whimsical creations like The Rebel Within. Just about everyone is taking photographs (see mine in the photos at the end of this article), as The Rebel is a piece of art—a savory muffin with a soft runny egg inside. Savory is fine (oh, if only The Rebel was served warm!), but for something sweet and to continue the croissant comparison, check out the chocolate croissant stack. Or if you want to be consistent with the rest of today’s food theme, consider the Thai scone with green curry, candied ginger, dried mango, and coconut.
Recall that Ritual is to the south on Valencia, but basically equidistant to the north is Fourbarrel. If you’re seeking pour-over coffee, this might be the best place to visit in San Francisco. The large shop offers a separate pour-over station with a dedicated worker who’ll help you choose from six types of beans, giving great variety in place of origin, flavor notes, and more. Bonus: The barista will offer you a little cookie while you’re waiting for your coffee.
Next, you can enjoy more time in the Mission, or head back downtown for shopping. Then it’s time for Thai food. There’s new upscale Thai in Union Square that’s getting some good reviews*, but for something more adventurous and quite different than what we have in Seattle, head west from downtown just past Larkin Street for part one of lunch at Zen Yai. Skip the menu in hand and look to the wall, where the Thai menu “deciphered” includes Thai boat noodles (guay tiew ruew) at just $2.50 per small bowl. Choose your noodle size and meat (pork or beef), and get ready for bold flavors and blood in the broth. (There’s also a flavorful dry version available, called guay tiew yum, that’s made with ground pork.) From Zen Yai, to complete a two-part meal, go back to Larkin and turn south for a short walk to Sing Sing Sandwich Shop for one of the best banh mi in the city: the banh mi dac biet (special combo sandwich), with paté and various textured meats. Sing Sing scoops out some of the baguette bread to allow more filling and make for a crispier bread experience.
Keeping with the Asian theme, the afternoon presents an opportunity for an easy walk down Larkin to the Asian Art Museum. Befitting the gluttonous, hedonistic weekend, time your visit right and you’ll be there for the “Seduction” exhibit, taking a look at Japan’s floating world (aka pleasure quarters). Then, for dinner, it’s a fuller Thai meal at Lers Ros. You can stay on Larkin and hit that location, or go back to the Mission District again for the newest location, but maybe the Hayes Valley location is best so you can explore a new neighborhood. Meanwhile, your taste buds will explore new sensations at Lers Ros, especially if you seek out some of the unique menu items, like the raw prawns with chili and lemon grass with lime-based salad dressing. The prawns’ natural sweetness plays well with fiery chili peppers, with the other herbal notes a perfect accompaniment. A quality meal to end a quality weekend of eating in San Francisco.
I used points to stay two nights at the San Francisco Marriott Marquis, with the hotel comping a third night (thanks!) in exchange for my willingness to offer feedback on the new menu (see the food photos at the end of this article) for The View Lounge atop the hotel, which was set to open the following weekend. (Especially in light of this interesting recent read about comped meals, note that I paid for all the meals listed in the article above.) The hotel offers comfort and convenience, with the BART just a couple of short blocks away for easy trips to and from the airport, and with a Muni bus stop at the corner close to the hotel entrance.
Thanks also to San Francisco Travel for the local sightseeing assistance—especially a CityPASS that provided unlimited muni rides (which makes the pass highly recommended) and entry into some attractions. The office/website is a valuable resource to those planning a visit to the Bay Area.
* I agonized extensively about whether to go to Kin Khao for lunch. After reading polarized reviews, I asked some people who’ve been and know my food tastes well. They felt I’d be disappointed, saying that Kin Khao serves food that’s “safe” for the cocktail crowd, but not especially interesting or adventurous. Some cited service issues, while others pointed out that it’s expensive. (The online menu lacks pricing—tapping into a major pet peeve.) At about $10 per appetizer and $15 per entrée, $50 plus tax and tip for food alone (for two people) proved too much of an expense and gamble for my stomach space.
And now…more food photos: