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"Only in San Francisco" Restaurants

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We're in the midst of hosting several sets of out-of-state visitors. Many of them have never been to California and hail from small towns in the midwest - and this is the most exotic trip they've ever taken. They're open to new things, so we'd like to take them to one or two places that they'd never find "back home".

This is all about creating a memorable experience, not necessarily an amazing meal.

So, what are your votes for "only in San Francisco" (and the bay area) memorable spots:
- Ferry Plaza for the wide variety and quality
- Yank Sing or Coi Palace for dim sum
- Asia SF for the experience
-Forbes Island for the setting
- Slanted Door for food & setting
- Tonga Room for the show and and drinks
- Cliff House for the popovers and the view
- Fish. (in Sausalito) for the food and atmosphere
- Boudin Bistro and/or Ghiradelli for the Fisherman's Wharf experience.

What would you add or take out? Let the flames begin!

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      1. I would forget about Forbes Island if I were you, I've never been myself, but from what I've heard it's way too expensive for what you get, and it seems a bit Disneylandish to me.

        I would say the same about the Tong Room, I've been there with out of towners and they hated it as much as I did, but I know of others who have had ok to good times there.

        For a truly only in San Francisco/California experience, I'd go with the tried and true
        favorites of this board:

        Azziza
        Zuni
        Chez Panisse

        I would also suggest

        The House
        Incanto
        Delfina
        La Ciccia

        2 Replies
        1. re: Kristine

          If they are into tiki lounges, Tonga Room is a MUST, however.

          1. re: Kristine

            Yeah, that's pretty much my list of only-in-SF experiences. I'd add Canteen, Piperade, and Tartine.

            It's a shame to waste a meal at a tourist trap.

          2. I would add Foreign Cinema, food is still great and the setting is different.

            Koi Palace is definitely a must even though it's not exactly "San Francisco."

            1. Well, none of those are "Only in San Francisco". Great dim sum can be had in other cities, but instead of those two I would take them to Chinatown, the oldest Chinatown in the US. Ferry Building is a nice place to go, but by no means unique to SF. Sausalito, sure for the view, but certainly the food, again, is not unique by any means. I would suggest top of the Mark for a late night drink.

              37 Replies
              1. re: PeterL

                Ferry Building is absolutely unique to SF. The whole concept is a focus on local purveyors.

                1. re: sgwood415

                  Ferry Building is just a glorified farmers' market. How can it be unique when it has chain stores?

                  1. re: PeterL

                    Inside the farmers market, yes, one must pick and choose. Outside the building on Saturdays, those stores anchor one of the best farmers markets I've ever seen. It's good fun to peruse the great variety of vendors, eating and shopping for items to bring home. A few things I found that I can't get at home: June Taylor jams, dried fruits like Blenheim apricots, nectarines, persimmons, and varieties of prunes I never see in the Midwest, French style yogurt with honey in crockery, dried mushrooms that are better quality than what I can buy here, olive oils, fresh squeezed pomegranate juice, pineapple guavas, cheeses from Cowgirl Creamery (there are only a few of these available here.) I could go on if my memory was better.

                    I do think this would be a treat if your friends love good food. It's great to have so much to choose from, all located in one area.

                    1. re: amyzan

                      I agree. I think the Ferry building is pretty impressive from a chow perspective, but to add to its "only in San Francisco-ness" it's in an historic old building, right along the water, not too far from the end of the cable car line. In fact, when you're done at the Ferry Building, you can hop on the cable car at the turnaround, take it all the way to Van Ness for the views, ride it back and hop off in Chinatown and head to Golden Gate Bakery on Grant Avenue for one of their hot out of the oven custards tarts.

                      If Hog Island in the Ferry Building is still doing its Monday night happy hours (I don't know if ducky's friends are going to be in SF during oyster season) that can be an experience you can't get in small town Midwest either.

                      Also, depending on the season again, it would be fun to get crab somewhere, like PPQ Dungeness on Clement (if it's still good--do they still have the prix fixe menu with the fantastic garlic noodles?) or the salt and pepper baked crab at R&G Lounge downtown.

                      ~TDQ

                      1. re: The Dairy Queen

                        Oh, and another--if you're going to Beach Blanket Babylon, get a sandwich, a house campari, followed by an espresso at Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store. Lovely people watching. Also, stroll down to XOX Truffles while you're there.

                        ~TDQ

                      2. re: amyzan

                        Interesting that once again, the things that are memorable about the FBFM to a poster are mostly processed and value-added products, not fresh produce. It's really an opportunity to buy mail-order type products at mail-order prices without the anxiety of having to wait for the postman. From that perspective, it's easy to see it as a logical extension of the tony shopping mall that the Ferry Building Marketplace is.

                        1. re: Gary Soup

                          Gary, in addition to the fresh local produce, which, if you're coming from smalltown Midwest you don't have the same enormous variety of wonderful local produce, fruits especially (and flowers), it is a genuine opportunity to see all under one roof, and in many cases sample, all of those other products I assume you're referring to as mail order products. (Like the canned jams and olive oils and such.) The sampling is part of the experience of giving people exposure to some of these specialty products that yes, they can certainly mail order, once they decide they like it. For instance, while one can certainly order oallieberry jam online, it would be hard to do so if you've never heard of it. The Ferry Building is just good exposure all at once.

                          But, it is essential to make sure you hit the Ferry Building on a Farmers Market Day so the folks can experience the bounty of fresh produce.

                          ~TDQ

                          1. re: The Dairy Queen

                            ...and have a good chuckle back home about the prices.

                            1. re: The Dairy Queen

                              My least favorite aspect of the inside is the hordes of tourist lined up to taste each and every olive oil. If they sell to 2%, I'd be amazed.

                              1. re: Chris Rising

                                Yeah, I can see how the crowds might interfere with your attempting to do your day-to-day shopping there, I've found it annoying too, but that's no reason not to recommend that people visit it unless people are looking to specifically avoid crowds. If the purveyors feel the point of having a presence at the Ferry Plaza is to market themselves to tourists, it's really up to them. If they just wanted to sell to locals who already know about these products, then, yeah, they might stopping giving out tastes . That would stop attracting the uninformed looky-loos. This of course is part of San Francisco's continuing love/hate relationship with tourism; love the influx of revenues, hate the crowds.

                                ~TDQ

                                1. re: Chris Rising

                                  Heck, I have the same frustration with Costco.....

                                2. re: The Dairy Queen

                                  Excuse me, but we do just fine here in the midwest with produce (barring chokes and avocadoes). Our tomatoes have a much more intense flavor than you find in California, and our corn is second to none. And we have shagbark hickory syrup, which you west-coasters will have to get via e-mail. This is posted by a homegrown SF-er. The only edge you guys have is a longer growing season. (Admittedly, that's a big edge.)

                                  1. re: pikawicca

                                    pikawicca, this is certainly no knock against Midwest produce--what we can grow here is lovely indeed and my Wisconsin-grown CSA is serving me well, right now. But the incredible variety of produce they get in Northern California far exceeds what will grow in the Upper Midwest with the short growing season and extreme temps. Growing season and more temperate climate counts for a lot, as you admit.

                                    I love the farmer's market day at the Ferry Building --the array of fresh flowers, fruits and produce is dazzling. For anyone who loves fresh produce, it's a sight not to be missed, in my opinion.

                                    ~TDQ

                                3. re: Gary Soup

                                  When I have taken visitors to the FBFM, they have exclaimed over the produce offerings but bought the things that they could take home. Yes, they can eat a fresh peach then and there but later they remembered and told the tale of the June Taylor jam they ate for a month on their morning toast at home.

                                  1. re: larochelle

                                    That's essentially my point, that the FBFM is first and foremost a showplace for excellent value-added products and only tangentially a "Farmers' Market" as the phrase is understood in the real world (i.e., outside California).

                                  2. re: Gary Soup

                                    Well, I did pack home some root vegetables and fennel that I knew I could keep on ice in my hotel room. I also ate a lot of fresh produce that day--persimmons, pineapple guavas, the most memorable. I'd never had the guavas before, and persimmons are an outrageous price here, even at the Asian groceries. I can get teeny ones off the trees on my property, if the bagworms haven't eaten them already, but they're mostly seeds.

                                    I also shopped for produce in Chinatown, but that mostly seemed like a great resource for cooks. I looked into motels with kitchenettes, but settled for a better location without an kitchen features in Little Italy. Gary, I think it's a little uncharitable to characterize my memories as not including fresh produce. I don't appreciate that you don't take into consideration my situation. The OP's guests are lucky in that they have his or her kitchen at their access. Maybe they'll buy more than root veggies and fennel?

                                    1. re: amyzan

                                      I also want to say that processed and value added products are available at farmer's markets here. I don't think these products are that unusual in the real world though the variety at the FBFM is huge, compared with our markets. I also noted that the market wasn't really crowded until around 11 am.

                                      1. re: amyzan

                                        That's a good point, amyzan, that even at farmers markets in the Midwest you'll have folks selling their jams from locally-sourced produce and honeys and such...

                                        ~TDQ

                                        1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                          Not to mention pie, bread and even doughnuts.

                                4. re: PeterL

                                  I'm not sure I understand your objections to the Ferry Building. The OP is looking for food experiences that are unique to SF. There is no place in the world like the Ferry Building. The combination of local purveyors and the location/view make this a very unique place. When you complain about the "chains" I think you are mischaracterizing the place.

                                  1. re: sgwood415

                                    I have no objection to the Ferry Building. It's a fun place to be. But it's definitely not something that's unique to SF. I am not complaining about the chains, just to point out the non-uniqueness of a place with chain stores. There are plenty of places in the world that's kind of like the Ferry Building in one way or another. I have been to plenty of farmers' markets that are bigger and better than the ones at the Ferry Building. So food-wise it's definitely not unique. The view into the harbor, again is nothing unique for many coastal big cities. And you can barely see the Golden Gate. If you are a tourist would you go home and tell your friends that you had a great view of the Bay Bridge? You'd get puzzled looks and questions about what's a "bay bridge".

                                    1. re: PeterL

                                      I agree that there might be places in the world other than SF where you have something like the Ferry Building, the closest for small town Midwesterners would likely be in Chicago or maybe Minneapolis' Midtown Global Market (on a teensy, tiny scale), but the Ferry Building really does carry a wide variety of local produce and products, which makes it one of the only places in the world that carries under its roof that wide variety of from-the -Bay Area products. And, if you take it a step further and rephrase the question slightly from "only in SF" to "can't get in small town Midwest", which is how I'm interpreting the question, then the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market totally fits.

                                      In reply to the "What's a Bay Bridge" all you have to say is that the Bay Bridge is the one that partly collapsed during the 1989 earthquake and they all nod their heads knowlingly. They all watched it in horror on television while we locals sat in the dark. Give people a little credit.

                                      And, yes, Gary is right, there will be much sticker shock, but that will be everywhere you go, plus absolute revoltion at having to pay for parking.

                                      ~TDQ

                                5. re: sgwood415

                                  I love the Ferry Building, but its not all that unique. Better, yes, but not one of a kind. The Greenmarket at Union Square, NYC is an excellent local farmers market. (Jersey grows awesome corn and tomatoes- I'll take a beefsteak over an early girl everyday) The Nabisco Building in Chelsea is very, very much like the Ferry Building. Bakeries, a great wine shop, butchers, florist, etc.

                                  1. re: Chris Rising

                                    Even Grand Central Market is not that far off in similarity to the FB Marketplace. The most similar experience I can think of overall, though, would be Atwater Market in Montreal, with about the same array, along a long corridor, of permanent shops inside (down to the French and Italian accents on the food), a farmers' market outside featuring local produce and almost (but not quite) the same degree of preciosity.

                                    1. re: Gary Soup

                                      Since this is the "most exotic trip" ducky's charges have ever taken, it's unlikely they've ever been to Atwater. ;-).

                                      ~TDQ

                                      1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                        Maybe due to my origins, but I find San Francisco more exotic than Montreal (where I would probably live, but for the Winter climate).

                                    2. re: Chris Rising

                                      By that logic you could say that nothing is unique since every city has restaurants. The fact that the Ferry Building is similar to the Chelsea Market or others is beside the point. Of course this format has been duplicated in various cities. But the collection of these purveyors, in this location, with this view is totally unique.

                                      1. re: sgwood415

                                        Seriously, does it matter even a little bit whether its unique? Does it make the food taste better if the Ferry Building is unique? Let's point people to good chow.

                                        1. re: ccbweb

                                          It apparently matters to OP since he/she asked for "Only in SF".

                                          1. re: ccbweb

                                            Lots of good chow at the Ferry Building.

                                          2. re: sgwood415

                                            There are bridges everywhere, yet the Golden Gate is unique. There are street cars in a lot of cities, yet the Cable Car is unique. Therein lies the logic.

                                            1. re: sgwood415

                                              I was reacting to the comment that there is nothing like the ferry building which is untrue. Should a food loving vistor to SF visit, yes. Is there nothing like it no. The location and view from the McDonalds at 16th and Mission is totally unique, but that alone would not cause me to reccomend.

                                            2. re: Chris Rising

                                              Where the Saturday Ferry Building Farmer's market stands out compared to the Union Square Greenmarket and even the Hollywood Farmer's Market (the one on Ivar) is the fruit. Even during peak season, the fruit selection at the Union Square Greenmarket is dismal. You don't get 8+ types of nectarines and 8+ types of peaches and 8+ types of pluots, 6+ types of strawberries, etc. During the winter at the Greenmarket, it's just apples. I've never seen paw paws at either the Greenmarket or the Hollywood farmer's market. For produce, I agree that you get high quality stuff at both the Greenmarket and Hollywood Farmer's Market. Ramps are easier to come by at the Greenmarket but prices are also revved up at the Greenmarket though. The Hollywood Farmer's Market easily offers the best value and you might actually save money by shopping there.

                                              1. re: Porthos

                                                Well, we're closer to the mad scientists at UC Davis. Variety and beauty of fruits has no relationship to flavor. Has California ever seen fruit that can match the flavor of fruits from the Northeast (those that can be grown in that climate, that is)?