Few cities in the USA have the beating foodie heart of San Francisco, a city that fills your senses. From the moment you set foot on its hilly streets, it’s a rollercoaster of thrills from the visual sights of the bay, the bridges and the buildings, to the cornucopia of tastes just ready to be explored.
First stop, go directly to Fisherman’s Wharf or, in my case, Pier 39, for the touristy but oh so delicious, creamy and steaming clam chowder in a crusty sourdough bread bowl. The Crab Clam Chowder at Fog Harbour Fish House, is especially good and comes with a great view of the water. The combination of a warming soup on a crisp sunny day is a perfect antidote to any jet lag you might be feeling.
We settled into our vintage apartment in the latino Mission District, the place to go for all things Mexican and Cuban. La Taqueria is worth the queues for authentic Mexican tacos, enchiladas, guacamole and quesadillas to die for – all prepared fresh on the spot, which is the essence of good Mexican cooking and really my favourite sort of fast food. Really, when they are mashing the avocado and chopping the cilantro (coriander) fresh in front of you, you know you are onto a good thing.
A trip to the hippy chic Haight Ashbury is not complete without a real diner experience at the Pork Store Cafe. This is not high end food, it’s ‘grub’…but hey, you have to try a Philly Cheese Steak some time, and this is the place to do it. Just do a little extra walking by vintage shopping your way along the strip and you’ll be fine…
And while we are on diners…It’s Tops is the go to for big fluffy American style pancakes and shakes you can chow down on in a real retro atmosphere with the jukebox playin’ in the background. Also, there is no shortage of hot dogs on street corners around town for that on the run snack you just have to have – including organic hot dogs (if that makes you feel better!).
But enough of the American fast food…there is only SO much a foodie can take. My advice, is get it out of your system early and then focus on the many excellent restaurants, cafes and emporiums that this city is bursting with.
At Bellota, you will find suave and sexy Spanish done to the max. This is a menu that is made for sharing and matching with a very food-loving wine list. Croquettas, octopus and their tapas tower were a great start, but, for me, the most sensational dish was a unique combination of smoky lamb served with roast eggplant and cherries. This came from a chef with confidence and understanding of how polar opposites can attract to form an electric partnership taste-wise. I want some more…
Seriously sophisticated Vietnamese awaits at The Slanted Door – a classy spot in the Ferry Building with a sparkling raw bar selection and delectable modern takes on Vietnamese favourites like short ribs, spring rolls and seafood dishes.
For true French immersion, Monsieur Benjamin is ‘en pointe’. After a well mixed Martini, we luxuriated in crab remoulade, foie gras, roast quail and rabbit followed by Îles Flottante with pistachio cream and strawberries. All were expertly cooked and transported us to Paris. A perfect pre-theatre dinner if you are going to a show nearby. Ooh la la!
Americans love their ice cream, and the San Francisco temple of this frozen delight is most definitely the Bi Rite Creamery. This little shopfront near Dolores Park in the Mission district serves more than half a million scoops of handmade ice cream a year and boy, is it good. A giant scoop of their seasonal Peach Cobbler flavour was so jam packed full of fresh succulent peaches and spice, that it had me going back for seconds the next day.
I can also recommend Over The Moon Creamery on Chestnut Street for another super scoop.
No trip to San Francisco is complete without a visit to Chinatown. This time, we feasted on new age Chinese at the amazing China Live emporium, headed by celebrity executive chef, George Chen. This is a slick operation with a high energy vibe and a menu that ticks all the desirables. The Market Restaurant is dotted with exhibition kitchens where you can watch your handmade dumplings being pumped out, your stir fry being wok tossed or your roast duck being carved. It is food theatre that definitely whets the appetite. We had tender, plump water dumplings in chilli oil; very more-ish baby calamari tossed with a sticky blood orange dressing and asian basil; the ingenious peking duck in sesame pockets (it definitely looked like it was peeking out from inside the crisp little parcel it was nestled in) and flash fried salt and pepper crab whose flesh was so succulent, it practically screamed freshness. A couple of flashy cocktails on the side, and it really is one of the best places to eat in Chinatown.
If you are hankering for a pizza, head to Little Italy and if you find you can’t be bothered waiting the 2 hours it takes to get a table at the much hyped Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, then skip across the street to Acquolina for a perfectly good wood fired pizza Napoli- style…Italian sausage, mushrooms and truffle cream with a campari soda, all served up by friendly Italian waiters…I was happy.
Sorry, no pics of this, but Izakaya Rintaro is my pick for great Japanese in this city…sashimi, yakitori, udon and katsu to die for.
And on the last note, late evening cocktails and live jazz at the Ritz Carlton is a great way to end the day!
A couple of side trips worth a mention:
Just across the bay, the seaside town of Sausalito is the place to be at sunset, to watch the sun drop down over the city scape. We had pots of mussels at the French inspired Le Garage, and were so entrenched in food, wine and socialising we forgot to leave in time to get to a good vantage point to watch the complete sunset, but a good spot to go is Vista Point near Fort Baker for an awesome view.
There is lots to choose from in the Napa Valley to keep you amused. Restaurants, cellar doors, specialist producers and guided wine tastings. We enjoyed an al fresco lunch at Rustic – the family style restaurant at the rather showy Francis Ford Coppola winery, a private wine tasting at the more boutique Inglenook and a batch of fresh oysters at the Hog Island Oyster Co to keep us going for the drive back to town.
Carmel By The Sea
This little hamlet is a storybook town filled with boutiques, cafes and restaurants and home of the picturesque 17 mile drive which is a must do. La Bicyclette is superb for the francophile … excellent Bouillabaise and french pastries.
In Monterey, if you grab a hot chocolate at Ghirardelli in Cannery Row you can sit on the balcony overlooking the water and after visiting the world famous Monterey Aquarium, if you still feel like seafood, then the unassuming Crystal Fish really does make some of the best specialty sushi rolls ever.
Pack a deli picnic lunch and head to one of the ‘beaches’ in the Yosemite Valley for a breathtaking spot to have a bite!