What makes a city one of the great food cities of the world? It’s not just that good food is widespread and easily available across different price ranges, although this is surely important. What defines a place as a great food city - such as Paris, or Rome – is how much food is bound together with the soul of the place, how relevant food is for the people who live there, and just how big a part it plays in the city’s everyday narratives.
In San Francisco, food has made history as a part of the counterculture movement. It is no coincidence that in the 1960s the small city of Berkeley, 16 kilometers from San Francisco, was the starting point of the riots that triggered decade-long student protests all over the world, and at the same time the place where Alice Waters almost single-handedly started the 'farm-to-table' revolution by using local, organic ingredients at her restaurant, Chez Panisse.
Small, independent restaurants and food establishments are still the core of San Francisco food culture today: high quality ingredients, a lot of care in the preparation of food, all makes for an incredibly exciting food experience, to the point that my time in the city has been what I like to call, a“brinner” (breakfast + dinner), i.e. a non-stop day eating. Here’s my tips.
Start the day at Fourbarrel with a cup of manically – I mean, directly and sustainably – sourced coffee, roasted to perfection using a vintage German roaster. Cup of Kenya Miroroma pour-over in hand, let your gaze wander around the room, slowly internalizing the fact that beards – as dear to the Hipster movement as pour-over coffee itself – are finally going out of fashion.
375 Valencia St., SF, CA 94103 Website
A short walk at a brisk pace (this is how one survives a food marathon, anyway) will take you to Craftsman and Wolves, so sleek it looks like the love child of a Parisian patisserie and an upscale clothing boutique. Choose among the ever-changing variety of breakfast pastries, cakes, confections, and confitures for a delicious sweet breakfast. Go for classics such as the caramelized hazelnut financier or the more daring blackberry and eucalyptus tart.
Craftsman and Wolves
746 Valencia Street (at 18th Street) Website
It takes a somewhat out-of-control sugar addiction to combine the previous visit with one to the shop right next door, the amazing Dandelion, a chocolate factory and café. Dandelion makes small-batch chocolate, and it’s one of the country’s very few bean-to-bar artisan producers. While you’re there, you can taste chocolate made with top-quality cocoa beans and cane sugar, watch the chocolate actually being made – the smell is deliciously intoxicating – and have a treat.
740 Valencia St (at 18th) in San Francisco Website
Japantown is far from the best place to eat proper Japanese food (Sunset or Richmond are much better options). But it’s a great place for food shopping. Head over to the incredibly entertaining Ichiban Kan to buy inexpensive sushi and ramen paraphernalia to bring home, in addition to matcha tea and furikake, a Japanese seasoning mix. While you’re at it, there are delicious snacks to be had, such as mochi (Japanese cakes made with glutinous rice) at Benkyodo, a wonderful old-school café with formica tables; or onigiri (rice balls wrapped in seaweed) at Kissako Tea, a tiny stand located inside one of the shopping malls.
In a land where small cheese artisans are frowned upon and raw milk cheese is more heavily regulated than pornography, it is worth a tour of the Cowgirl Creamery Cheese Shop: Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, the founders, were pioneers in the US artisan cheese movement and, although this is now a fairly big business, it still has somewhat of a hippie vibe to it. Try the uber popular Mt Tam, an elegant triple cream named after Mt. Tamalpais, Northern California.
Cowgirl Creamery at The Ferry Plaza
One Embarcadero, No. 17 Website
In the very heart of the Mission District, the alternative porn media giant Kink.com shoots all of its productions in The Armory, a huge building constructed at the beginning of the 20th century to host the Civil Guard. Right in front of it, Kink runs a sleek speakeasy called The Armory Club. Sip a Joya (tequila blanco, green Chartreuse, Punt e Mes, orange bitters), or pick a craft beer from the carefully curated drink list and take a seat at the amber lit bar, or relax on one of the vintage sofas. No kinky action going on, I promise.
The Armory Club
1799 Mission Street @ 14th Website
Mexican is one of the staples of “traditional” San Francisco cuisine. A great option is Nopalito, which serves consistently great and fresh traditional Mexican specialties: everything is made to order in the open-style kitchen where all day the line cooks are busy assembling Taquitos, Quesadillas with squash blossoms, and the signature Carnitas with orange, bay leaf, milk and cinnamon.
Nopalito on Broderick
306 Broderick Street (between Oak & Fell) Nopalito on 9th
1224 9th Avenue (between Lincoln & Irving) Website