San Francisco must be one of the most stereotypically ‘foodie wanker’ cities going. In fact, I’d say the most. It’s a hipster hub, both spiritual and corporate home of tech, blogging and Apple in particular, and localism and organic produce are infuriatingly revered.
The only points I’d say New York scores are due to both its critical mass (although per head comparisons would be interesting) and that innate impatience with anything old, ensuring a blinkingly turnover of premises and a labourious obsession with where's 'hot'.
You’ll need a coffee to perk you up after what is likely to be a long flight. Blue Bottle is San Francisco’s Monmouth or Square Mile. They have plenty of outlets around the Bay Area, but if you’re after a cultural fix too, the excellent SF MOMA sports its own, complete with Mondrian cake and an interesting rooftop sculpture garden.
If in the Mission, try Ritual, the other major SF roastery. I found it smoother than Blue Bottle and a bit less stiff. This place has a ridiculous hipster quotient. Don’t you dare bring in a PC laptop. Or arrive clean-shaven!
Check the amount of shiny Apple lights coming from these antisocial, unemployed, uniform drones:
As mentioned, San Franciscans are obsessive about produce, which isn’t surprising given the climate and soil of the surrounding country. Superlative fruit, vegetables and wine are everywhere – out of state is anathema, let alone imported. Even the crummiest corner deli has a robust craft beer selection (I’m not sure we can count Sam Adams, Sierra or Brooklyn any more) to make a London 'specialist' weep.
America means burgers, right? Even with a hugely diverse population especially heavy on both Asian and Latino cultures, there are countless diners, traditional restaurants and deceptively divey looking bars slinging good burgers.
Jasper’s Taproom offered fantastic spiced cotechini and other bar treats, but this SF Gate Top 50-rated burger was a bit of a let-down. The bun was inexplicably an over-salted focaccia and not the freshest either. You can’t hide this even with a drizzle of oil people, focaccia hardens up in minutes rather than hours! Combined with a forgettable patty – don’t bother.
My vote for Bay Area burger goes to the brilliant Plum Bar in Oakland (yes, I know, but it’s like their Brooklyn, honest!) but I’ll cover those badlands in another post.
The Nob Hill Grille is up there with my favourite brunch places on Earth. The location is great for the hotels, and the hills provide a brilliant way of walking off the impending feast. My chicken and waffles was absolutely sublime and one of my most memorable breakfasts ever. Only in an American morning would this be considered a thing of decency:
The chicken was deep-fried to absolute crunchy perfection, with a hint of paprika giving some spice. And two huge pieces meant I was sorted all day. The Piglet’s corned beef hash with poached eggs was also enormous. Sit at the bar and watch it all masterfully unfold.
Hayes Valley is one of my favourite areas in the city to wander around – it’s pedestrian friendly and Hayes Street is an attractive strip of many indie fashion, home and coffee places. A good amount of the shopping is for guys too. When you tire of big department stores, cabbing it between places and dodging piss-sodden bums around Union Square, it's just the tonic.
Arlequin was our sarnie stop-off here. Brilliant coffees and beers, solid food (meatball sub and spinach and basil pesto grilled cheese) and next door is an excellent wine bar and store.
As SF’s hipsterdom epicentre, the Mission hosts some very good dining and boozing options. Mission Cheese I’ve conferred its own glory here, and there are plenty more in another stretch which is walkable and has enough variety to explore. But the area is traditionally (and still is, especially along Mission St rather than more swanky Valencia) the Mexican and Central American hub of the city.
Taqueria Cancun will sling you three massive tacos overflowing with tender carnitas, cheese, beans and other mush. Superb, especially when taken into Knockout next door (who have no kitchen but the best margaritas) – and all for about $7. Note that black beans in the US are often blended into a baby food consistency…I prefer the bite of a discernible bean but to each gringo, their own.
Finally, some fancier contemporary food. We ate in an endless procession of worthy and affordable restos (I would also recommend SPQR, Delfina, Foreign Cinema and Hayes Street Grill) but on this visit, Nopa was my stand-out.
The menu is contemporary Californian, which is to say that it uses all the local hotshot ingredients (seriously SF, get over the heirloom tomatoes) but primarily in Italian guises and reinventions. There is a wannabe Italian thing going on in California, hence the revolting ‘Tuscan-style’ villas the rich erect, but the climate does lend itself to replicating the food very well.
Wood-baked butter beans with a breadcrumb and pesto crust was innovative and damn good. Flat bread slices with ham hock, greens and tons of parmesan was a great sharing starter. But why not call it a pizza bianca?
Duck leg with seasonal greens and potatoes had an incredibly sweet and yet mellow jus just beneath the spiced, crispy skin. House-made pappardelle with a humble tomato and spinach sauce was perfect simplicity.
Spinach was no doubt in season on our visit, as it was ubiquitous on menus and specials lists. San Franciscans are a demanding, discerning lot, and with such competition and high standards, it has created one of the best dining scenes on the planet. And I haven’t even touched the surface of the incredible Asian food available…