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LA Hound's First Time in SF (aka "Help!")

So my wife and I have lived in LA for a few years, but have yet to make it up to SF proper. That's about to change, as part of her Christmas gift will revolve around a 5 day Gastronomical Tour of SF ... which is where I need YOUR help. Please! I've read through many a thread on this board, and all I find myself doing is trying to cram more and more meals into our schedule ... thus it's time to get some advice from the experts.

We will be flying up on a Saturday, getting into SFO around 3:30 and we are staying at the Four Seasons in the Union Square neighborhood. We will be staying for four nights, thus leaving on a Wednesday. We will most likely NOT rent a car. We've done Napa/Sonoma before, so those are not areas that interest us on this particular trip.

I am looking for an excellent, representative sample of SF cuisine -- in the sense that, I am trying to find food here that I cannot get in LA. From cheaper eats in the Mission to fine-dining like the French Laundry, and everything in between ... just so long as it is tasty!

We are looking for dinner recs for Saturday - Tuesday (4), breakfast/brunch recs Sunday - Wednesday (4), and lunch recs Saturday - Wednesday (5). Price is not really a concern.

I DEFINITELY am looking to try some tasty cuisine in the Mission. I've heard the al pastor burritos are spectacular, and am looking for recs for those as well as other places you think are amazing.

I am also really in search of a GREAT brunch, most likely for Sunday. As we both have huge sweet-tooths, a more sweet than savory brunch may be the way to go (think Bongo Room in Chicago if you are familiar).

Additionally, we're looking for great bakeries/dessert places; I'm 100% sure we're going to hit up Citizen Cake, but any other recs?

Also, I'm fairly certain we'll be doing Michael Mina (looked at the menu online and am LOVING it), but would love some other fine-dining recs. All cuisines are desirable, but we've been eating tons of seafood/sushi lately, so I'd actually prefer to stay away from those types of places. Bonus points to restaurants with Alba White Truffles (Mmmmm!!!).

Thanks in advance for all of your help, and let me know if there's any other info I can give to help with suggestions.

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  1. Yikes... well, here's what I'd recommend.

    - Okay, best sweet tooth breakfast is at Tartine's in the Mission. Hands down the best bakery in the city. But go early or risk being trampled... they open at 8am.
    - You have to get dim sum in SF (dim sum is pretty sad in LA -- lived there for 5 years). If money is no object, go to Yank Sing and be sure to get a steamer of xiao loong boa -- it's the best.
    - Zazie in Cole Valley has the most consistently lovely breakfasts -- everything about the place is relaxing and lovely.

    - SPQR is perfect for lunch because it's jammed in the evening for dinner. And you can walk off your food on Filmore. Stop by Bittersweet Chocolate Cafe for a spicy hot chocolate.
    - La Mar Cebicheria Peruana down near the Ferry building is the hottest reservation in town so go there for lunch instead. Slanted Door is another restaurant that's great for lunch. And then you can stroll the Ferry Building and get something sweet like macaroons at Miette's.

    - Dosa has the best Indian in the city and the service here is fantastic. Located in the Mission.
    - If you can get a reservation, La Mar has the best vibe at night -- really hip, mellow, and the drinks and food are fantastic. And it's Gaston Acurio's (Peru's most famous chef) only restaurant in North America.
    - Ame in the St. Regis is first class and you're guaranteed a fantastic meal. They also have a great bar to hang out at before or after dinner.

    As for the best burritos... oy, you're opening a can of worms here. That's a favorite debate in the city. My favorite is La Coroneta in Glen Park (you can take BART to the Glen Park Station and it's a block away) but another favorite is the El Tonayense Taco Truck parked outside Best Buys on Harrison and 22nd.

    2 Replies
    1. re: sfwork

      You'll have a blast. I would consider Danko over Mina for a couple of reasons: 1. Mina has so many restaurants, you'll be able to sample his food other places (Vegas, etc). whereas Danko does not. 2. Danko lets you mix and match - you aren't locked in to one choice per course (you could choose two appetizers, for example) and will adjust portion sizes accordingly and 3. Although more or less the same price at first glance, Mina adds surcharges for some of their most popular items (lobster pot pie, for example) whereas there are no surcharges at Danko (except for Kobe beef, I believe) and the quality of the ingrediants is still superb.

      1. re: sfwork

        Hmmm ... this is one of those cases of different people having different tastes. Some of those would be on my don't go list.

        I agree that you are wasting your precious SF time going to Michael Minna since you can pretty much get that menu across the country. Danko isn;t my favorite, but it is a two star Michelan restaurant and lots of people like it. It is a good value for a top scale restaurant.

        In that category, my favorite is The Dining Room at the Ritz. I would like to get around to COI. Here's one of the best reports I've seen and it links to a blog with photos. I think after reading that you will know if it is for you or not. The second link is to the place record which has the website and other reports

        I am flat out not a fan of Miette. The baked goods look beautiful, but rarely have much taste. In the Ferry Building Acme, Frog Hollow or Boulettes, have better baked goods, IMO.

        I like Tartine, but I wouldn't choose it for breakfast. It is annoying with the cramped room, people in line waiting for baked goods and leaning all over you or bumping into your chair. It is not a full breakfast either. If you do drop by for the baked goods then walk up the street to Bi-Rite Creamery which has some great ice cream.

        IMO, the best bakery in SF in Thorough Bread and Pastry. It doesn't look like much, but everything is so tasty. Citizen Cake is hit and miss. I like their chocolates a lot. I love their ice cream. That's little neighborhood is becoming interesting to wander around.

        I put together this list for people whose first time is in SF. If you click on the restaurant name it will take you to the Place record with the websites and links to chowhound reports and some restaurant reviews.

        It is aimed at people who want the uniquely SF experience, so it is more tried and true standards than the latest and greatest. They are places that have proved themselves over the years.

        For your requirements Mama's and Dotties would meet your breakfast requirements. If you go to Mamas then stop by Liguira Bakery and XOX truffles.

        For dinner/lunch you might consider Zuni, Aziza is a long bus or cab ride down Geary, but it is probably one of the more different restaurants in the country.

        My favorite for Cal Cuisine is 1550 Hyde, a true neighborhood restaurant and right on a cable car stop.

        Tadich doesn't have cutting edge food. They have been serving pretty much the same menu for decades. However, for a piece of old time SF, it can't be beat. It is crab season (from the Pacific Northwest currently) and Tadich's cioppino is my favorite. They have the last true sourdough bread in the city ... bakery or restaurant.

        BTW, The Four Seasons is a fabulous hotel. Great service. The restaurant is only ok at best. I wouldn't choose it. HOWEVER, do have a drink at the lounge. It is one of my favorite places for a relaxing drink in the city and they have fabulous complimentary snacks.

        In the mission if you search the board there were two recent taco and burrito threads. I'd go to 24 street and walk down it for a flavor of the mission. As far as different, there's a lot of Yucatan cuisine in the city. On 16th Street in the mission there is Poc Chuc which is the best of the lot, IMO.

        Have fun. Hope you report back after your trip. Then we will have an idea of what you like and don't on your next visit.


      2. Thank you all so much for your help. I realized that I completely forgot that I had already made reservations for Tuesday evening at COI, so that one will be covered.

        I'm still digesting everything else that was written (sounds like most are down on MMina), and reading through some of the linked threads, but please do keep any/all suggestions coming!

        7 Replies
        1. re: a213b

          I've been to COI and it's fantastic -- you won't be disappointed. Personally, I just like the dining room at Ame better and the Japanese influences.

          Also totally forgot about Mama's so agree with rworange about going there for breakfast. Also agree with rw about Citizen Cake in that it's hit and miss... and in my opinion not worth it. Hayes Valley opened a La Boulange recently (gets crowded) and you're better off going there for something sweet and a big hot bowl of cafe au lait. Also in that neck of the woods is two great food stops: Suppenküche (schnitzel and beer!) and Frjtz (frites with some great sauces to dip into) and very good shopping.

          1. re: sfwork

            I forgot about La Boulange. Good call. If still stopping by Citizen Cake you could also scope out La Boulange. There's also one in North Beach.

            1. re: rworange

              Thanks rw ... I'll definitely put that on the itinerary.

              Bakeries/Choclatiers/Patisseries are easy, since we can just pop in and get a small taste of what it is about, so I'll take as many ideas on that front as I can get. And then we can just pop into a location whenever we are in that part of the city.


              1. re: a213b

                Some of my favorite things at La Boulange are the mini quiche lorraine and the lemon tart. Also their almond croissant has a big following. There are people from France who have raved about it on the board. The quiche has nice cubes of ham in it. The lemon tart ... well, it just tastes like the lemon pie my grandmother made. Lots of people like the canneles there, but I have yet to have one like those described by the fans.

                Should you ever decide you need a car, there is a zip car program in SF

                1. re: rworange

                  Nice! Thanks rworange!

                  Oh, and I love LOVE canneles, so I'm going to have to try them! I'll check into the zipcar program; I remember reading an article about it in the past 6 months and thinking it sounded pretty cool.

            2. re: sfwork

              Oh, yes! I am ALL over Frijtz. I order frites/fries anytime I see them on any menu ... they are my addiction.

              Mmmmmm, fries (eyes glaze over).

            3. re: a213b

              Let me know what you thought of Coi after your visit. I am in the minority as far as popular concensus but personally, I thought the staff was PRENTENTIOUS and I was just not impressed at all with the food . We went to Tomasso's and got a pizza after eating at Coi.
              I agree with the breakfast suggestion for Dotties True Blue Cafe. That's a breakfast I get in line for on occasion. Mama's is good but not good enough for me to stand in line.

              I have no background as far as sweets so I won't even try although I love, love Stella's Bakery on Columbus for their sacrapantina cake. Spongecake, rum, cream - what could be better. If you want it - get there early.

              Danko is always spot on. Yes, I agree that the menu does not get very adventurous - but they are consistent and consistenetly good. I go every couple of months or so and I may not be WOWED by the ingenuity of the menu, but I ALWAYS leave happy. That is so much more than I can say for some of those wonderfully reviewed yet disappointing restaurants (Murray Circle & Coi)
              I love Mina, but not real SF since he is almost a chain now, Ame is ok - Terra is better

              I would do Danko, Quince, Delfina & Canteen for finer food.

              Then as rworange suggested just walk down 24th (toward Florida) and snack here and there. Las Palmas serves great food to go - great chicharrones too.

              I only do The French Laundry for lunch now so haven't been for dinner in about a year but if you like them you would love Manresa in Los Gatos. If you can't do them this trip try to catch them later. it's a bucolic little town as well.

              Happy Dining!!

            4. Near the Four Seasons is Amber India, a more refined dressy take on Indian food. Worth checking out.
              Agreed with RWOrgange's suggestion of Tadich's - it's a San Francisco classic, other options would be Sam's, or John's Grill.
              Also second the suggestion of Aziza for something unique.
              Enjoy your visit.

              1. Haven't been to Tadich (sigh) but I wonder if all those recommending it noticed your not wanting seafood?

                1 Reply
                1. re: estnet

                  Yikes ... thanks. Yeah, skip Tadich's if you don't want seafood ... of course you could always stop by the bar for a classic martini after visiting the Ferry Builidng.

                2. You should certainly go to Michael Mina. I have had uniformly excellent experiences there. I found the food and decor at Gary Danko to be dated. It is hard to get into and inexpensive for fine dining but is not at the MM caliber. My favorite dish at MM is the foie gras and kobe beef shabu shabu.

                  I don't think that dim sum in SF proper is essential if you live in LA. The options in the San Gabriel Valley are far superior to anything available in the city of SF. The best I have had in SF proper is in the Richmond district at Ton Kiang. I found Yank Sing to be a ripoff.

                  Azizza could be an interesting choice for you as it is rather unique Moroccan restaurant. They also make wonderful cocktails.

                  People rave about Dottie's True Blue cafe for brunch but apparently the waits are an hour plus and sometimes significantly longer at prime time.

                  It is a taxi ride away, but i recommend you getting a car service or taxi to take you to dinner at Murray Circle, at the new Cavallo Point resort just across the Golden Gate Bridge. The food is wonderful as is the setting. Comfortable luxury.

                  1. Just chiming in with a couple of seconds - love Ame, which is very near your hotel. Aziza is also fun and great food - take a car as it is a schlep way out to the Richmond. We recently had a wonderful meal at Amber India which is right near your hotel...we were there at dinner, but they may also be open for lunch.

                    I know you said no seafood, but I think of Tadich more as an SF experience than seafood. You might want to give it a try for lunch - go early or late, no reservations and they get crowded at this time of year.

                    Enjoy your visit!!

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: dinnerout

                      How is it a different experience than Musso and Frank's?

                    2. Uh, totally disagree about dim sum in LA being "sad". I would however recommend Koi Palace for dim sum. It's still a step ahead of high end dim sum in LA. Get the whole dungeness crab soup dumplings. I would pass on Yank Sing. Sea Harbor is better and more reasonably priced.

                      Other recs keeping in mind you want things you can't get in LA:
                      -Pass on Mina, Dining Room, and Danko. And a big pass on sushi.
                      -Keep Coi
                      -Really, really consider driving down south for Manresa. I'm in the camp that feels it's even better than The French Laundry if you're talking flavors and creativity. It's not as refined and rarified as TFL but that's part of the charm.
                      -Canteen for dinner. Very intimate and unique setting where you see the chef cooking right in front of you.
                      -Bar Tartine for dinner. I dunno, I just love this place. Think Lucques but cheaper and better in my opinion.
                      -Ferry Building Saturday for your brunch
                      -Incanto for excellent italian.

                      7 Replies
                      1. re: Porthos

                        Porthos, I went ahead and made a reservation at Manresa based on your recommendation.

                        Although, I will say that my experience at TFL was lackluster at best (ducks and looks for lightning). Perhaps it was just our menu for that particular evening, but neither my wife nor myself felt any emotional connection to any of the courses. Most were "Fine" to "Good", but nothing - and I mean NOTHING - blew us away.

                        We also had the same experience at Bouchon -- both the bakery and the brasserie.

                        Sigh ... I know it's heretical to say, but I'm just not that impressed by Keller (ducks again and looks for lightning and brimstone). It's either that or I just don't "get" him.

                        Either way, it's moot -- we'll be heading to Manresa, and I'm very excited about it!

                        1. re: a213b

                          At Manresa, do the tasting with wine pairing or better yet, the premium wine pairing. The decor is more relaxed and the service can be a bit unpolished at times (if you wanted to be picky), but the food and flavors are spectacular.

                          As mentioned below, they will bend over backwards for you and try to accommodate your every request. Tell them your likes and dislikes and they will run with it. If you like beignets, tell them ahead of time and they will add it onto your desserts for you. It's that kind of place.

                          Manresa, Koi Palace, Oliveto's Whole Hog and Truffle Menus are the 4 things I miss most about the Bay Area and the only things I feel I would have to make a trip for.

                          Enjoy and please report back!

                          1. re: Porthos

                            Dear god am I excited about Manresa now, Porthos. Yes, I do happen to have an affinity for beignets, so I will certainly mention that (though I understand you meant it just as an example; nevertheless, how perfect!).

                            Seriously, thanks to all of you guys; you are making this an awersome Christmas for my beautiful and deserving wife.


                            1. re: a213b

                              if you really like beignets, you should def do boulette's larder in the ferry building for brunch. even if you dont like beignets, BL is a very unique SF experience... we go there EVERYTIME we're in SF from LA (about 4x a yr).

                        2. re: Porthos

                          You're 100 percent right on about the dim sum. I suspect the poster has been away from L.A. for a while and is comparing today's S.,F. dim sum with yesterday's L.A. dim sum, where both cities have progressed greatly in the last few years. L.A. has the overall lead, but Koi Palace is #1.

                          1. re: Chandavkl

                            Okay true, haven't had dim sum in LA for some time and you guys might be right, but do you guys really think Koi Palace is worth the wait? Food is terrific, but I would never send a tourist to spend an hour in line getting elbowed. (calm down, I'm Chinese) Yank Sing is definitely a better tourist experience wouldn't you say?

                            One other suggestion for the poster: Went to Kokkari last weekend (hadn't been in a year) and it was so YUM and the dining room was so cozy and warm and wonderful. We decided it was the perfect winter restaurant.

                            1. re: sfwork

                              I think Koi is worth the wait because they have items you won't find in LA, Boston, NYC, or SF. Yank Sing on the other hand, doesn't offer anything remarkable. For someone from LA, either go to Koi Palace or skip dim sum in SF altogether. No need to go to Yank Sing and pay more for what you get better in LA.

                        3. I urge you to try a super burrito al pastor (or grilled chicken) with black beans at Taqueria San Jose on Mission at 24th. I also highly recommend the super burrito with grilled chicken at Paplote on 24th at Valencia. Another personal favorite is El Farolito (Mission at 24th) which puts a half avocado in their super burritos. This used to be my go-to place for al pastor until I was pointed to the stuff at TSJ. Here's my recent reports of several burrito places:


                          For something slightly more upscale in the Mission, a long-time favorite is Delfina, which does lovely Cal-Ital cuisine. I'm especially a fan of their salads and pastas, less so the mains.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: a_and_w

                            a_and_w, I will definitely take your recommendation for Taqueria San Jose to heart. I recognize you from the LA board, and remeber feeling from reading many of your posts that we share similar tastes.

                            Thanks for the rec!

                          2. hi a213b,

                            dont intend to threadjack, but if i remember correctly our paths crossed on the vegas board briefly. things have been hectic - but with only 2 nights there, our family went for the 14-course kaiseki at bar charlie, and robuchon's 14-course (how many were there...) at the mansion. both were absolutely memorable.

                            we're actually here in sf for 8 nights! if i may i'll chime in- as sf is our home away from home, basically a culinary vacation 2-3 times a year.

                            in our book, i'd say manresa takes tops. we've never been to tfl, but have been to per se in new york. seems very similar. i'd have to put manresa over per se. here's a little bit of what happened last year - it was all 5of us - my wife & me, 3 daughters. our server, one of those rare gentlemen - an older man, with an air of experience without any pretense - congenial - asked casually if we had any favorites. my then 9 year old said "i love foie gras." he says - give me a minute. he comes back, and says he can incorporate 4 - that's four differently prepared foie dishes in our chef's tasting. how's that? and every one was divine. you won't regret it.

                            yank sing for dimsum is a little different, a bit more modern, koi palace more traditional, both good in my book (i'm asian...hahaha.)

                            we have forced ourselves to no repeats, hence no manresa. BUT - here's our itinerary:

                            going to canteen, la mar cebicheria - (most of the lunches we have left open)
                            dinners: chapeau!, bar crudo, dining room at ritz carlton, aziza, boulevard, orson. (had dinner at ino sushi last night - great, but not spectacular. ankimo was awesome!)

                            enjoy! have to run - time for brunch. merry CHRISTmas!


                            ps: we ended up replacing quince & coi...

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: jacknhedy

                              I'm curious... why Chapeau over Clementine? Philippe Gardelle personally spends his time at Clementine now.

                              1. re: RenR

                                1. well we found out last night philippe is now overseeing clementine
                                2. we've been to chapeau under gardelle quite a few times
                                3. his wife is a friend of my wife's sister!
                                4. the different direction chapeau is heading is not bad either. case in point - i thought the preparation of escargot last night was awesome, as elllen said so herself, is untraditional vis-a-vis the more traditional preparation..
                                5. no real reason in the end - more my wife's preference...

                              2. re: jacknhedy

                                I had lunch with some chowpals at La Mar Cebicheria Friday. It was delicious and the room is lovely. How nice to have a restaurant with a view that's worth recommending!

                              3. I just wanted to thank everyone for your help. I am still finalizing the itinerary, but will be away from the internet the rest of the day, so I should be able to post back with a close to finalized itinerary.

                                Again, thanks so much. You guys ROCK!

                                1. My recomendations are:
                                  **Range -Michelin starred and reasonably priced, awesome cocktails and great food, their rosted chicken and duck are delicious.
                                  **La Folie -Michelin starred and the best french restaurant in San Francisco, foie gras and duck breast is a must! They usually have white truffles however if they dont you could probably call chef passot to order them especially for you. I have done this in the past.
                                  **LoLo-small place in the Mission with Mexican/Turkish cuisine, if you go here have the panko crusted shrimp on a jicama "tortilla"
                                  **Dosa on Fillmore- just opened about 3 weeks ago, their cocktail are good and 4 course tasting menu is a great way to go to try a little bit of everything.
                                  **Masa's- They have the best wine list in the city, you will be amazed with Alan murray's pairing and the food is perfect, they have some of the best foie gras in the city.

                                  As for Michael Mina. I have been twice the food is really good however there are so many places in San Francisco to try and you won't be upset if you skip it. If you must go to the lounge and order a la carte or do the 3-course.

                                  Happy Dining!

                                  1. Make sure one of your days involves eating your way from one end of the Ferry Plaza to the other. Caviar and blinis at Tzar Nicoli, spring rolls at Slanted Door, a glass of Champagne at the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant, Cheese at Cowgirl Creamery, a cupcake at Miette, get the picture?

                                    1. It looks like many bases are covered by the other replies, but I wanted to throw in a few of my favorites for eats "on the cheap"
                                      - Taylor's Refresher" at the Ferry Plaza Terminal Building - the Ahi burger is $14, but worth every penny and the sweet potato fries are not to be missed
                                      - La Taqueria in the Mission - 2889 MIssion Be sure to order the tacos "Crispy style with cheese"
                                      -Henry's Hunan - cheap chinese food at its best. An institution in San Fran with 3 or 4 locations around downtown. Go there for lunch and make sure to split a "Diane's Meat Pie" as an appetizer. My favorite is the shrimp with string beans, but some people swear by the BBQ pork dishes