The food and drink of San Francisco

The food and drink of San Francisco

by Katie Smith 6 May 2016

San Francisco has it all: Michelin-starred restaurants, artisan bakeries and cafés, along with all manner of eateries serving top notch rustic Californian cuisine. Katie Smith tries her utmost to taste it all and discover the secrets behind San Francisco's food scene success.

Katie is an avid home baker, passionate about using seasonal produce and hedgerow ingredients. As part of the editorial team at Great British Chefs, she pursues her dual loves of food and writing.

Katie is an avid home baker, passionate about using seasonal produce and hedgerow ingredients. On her recent travels around South America she could often be found in the bustling food markets trying the local specialities and finding inspiration for new recipes. As part of the editorial team at Great British Chefs, she pursues her dual loves of food and writing.

Emerging bleary-eyed and slightly disorientated from the plane, I stepped out into the cool, misty morning air of San Francisco after a short flight from LA. It was seven o'clock and after an early start I was starving with only one thing on my mind – breakfast! After figuring out the San Francisco public transport system, the next hurdle to overcome was what to eat. The choice is dazzling in this city where food innovation is reactive, frenzied and – above all – exciting. Luckily I had done my research (with a little help from an ex-San Franciscan) and headed straight for the Mission District where a new wave of bakeries have opened their doors and quickly established themselves as some of the best in San Francisco.

Tartine Bakery is just one such example and has won a host of accolades including one of America’s coveted James Beard Foundation Awards for Outstanding Pastry Chef. It isn’t uncommon to see lines of locals queuing around the block, all vying for the in-house bakery’s delectable selection of freshly-made sweet and savoury treats. Venture to the back of the restaurant and you will be rewarded with a sneaky glimpse of the bakers hard at work, making sure everything is baked to perfection in the industrial-sized ovens. I couldn’t resist the frangipane croissant: crisp, buttery layers of flaky pastry encasing a sweet almond cream delicately scattered with flaked almonds.

The Mission District is worth further exploration if you have more time as it is one of the most interesting places to discover San Francisco’s unique and eclectic food culture. One of the district’s most well-known culinary claims to fame is as the birthplace of the Mission-style burrito (or San Francisco burrito) – a foil-wrapped burrito of epic proportions filled with rice, beans and various other ingredients, all of which is held together by an impressively large tortilla.

The bread selection at the Ferry Building Marketplace covers everything you could ask for
Tartine Bakery
The croissants at Tartine Bakery are famous throughout the city

With time pressing on and a Gougère (savoury egg dough, Gruyère and thyme bread roll) safely stowed in my pocket, we left the warmth of the cozy café for the long day of sightseeing ahead, starting with a trip to the iconic Alcatraz Island. Unfortunately, the former inmates were not as well fed as us when it came to breakfast and survived on a pretty unimaginative diet of cereal, scrambled eggs, toast and fruit. In the afternoon we take a little tour of Fillmore District, an area bordering Japantown previously renowned for its jazz and blues scene. Music is still an integral part of this neighbourhood, but it's worth visiting to discover the restaurants and cafés that line the seemingly never-ending Fillmore Street. This is where you will find the likes of world-renowned The Progress and its equally successful sister restaurant State Bird Provisions (a visit to which we were saving for the following evening), as well as the Italian-inspired SPQR.

Italian restaurants in San Francisco are a force to be reckoned with, and the food and drink of the Mediterranean continues to be a powerful driving force in the local food culture. That night a San Franciscan friend had booked us a table at È Tutto Qua – the first restaurant she ever visited in the city and one which remains her number one favourite. The restaurant’s name translates to ‘it’s all here’ and it certainly was! We were treated to a truly authentic Italian meal: antipasti of bruschetta, burrata with tomatoes, rocket and homemade bread, scallops in white wine, primi of Gnocchi allo Zafferano (saffron gnocchi and clams) and Ravioli di Castagne (ravioli filled with chestnuts topped with crispy pancetta and sage butter sauce). They even had our favourite wine which had so far eluded us in California – Pecorino!

Cinnamon currant bread
A loaf of cinnamon currant bread from the Ferry Building Marketplace
Genmaicha is a combination of green tea and roasted brown rice, served in an ice cream sandwich at State Bird Provisions
The variety of mushrooms on offer at the Ferry Building Marketplace attracts chefs and cooks from all over

Essential eats

San Francisco’s enviable Californian location means the city is awash with fresh, locally-sourced produce all year round. San Francisco’s farm-to-fork reputation is evident at the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market held three times a week at the Ferry Building Marketplace. The best time to visit is on Saturdays when local farmers and producers peddle their wares: fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs, breads, cheeses and jams. Inside the Ferry Building itself, restaurants, cafés and delis serve a diverse array of the highest quality San Franciscan food and drink from fresh fish to artisan meats and cheeses. As it was breakfast time I opted for the cinnamon currant bread from The Acme Bread Company. The sweet loaf pulled apart to reveal individual sections of enticingly sticky, sweet Pain de Mie dough dotted with rich currants – perfect sharing bread. After spending the rest of the day dodging rain showers and touring the cafés, bars and shops of the alternative neighbourhood Haight-Ashbury – once the cultural hub for hippies in 1960s San Francisco – it was time to eat. Our destination: State Bird Provisions.

It would have been a crime to have left San Francisco without sampling some of the restaurant’s now legendary American dim sum-style food and see what all the hype was about. We arrived at five o’clock sharp to make sure we got a good spot in the already growing line of people waiting patiently for the chance of a walk-in seat. At 5.30pm we were seated at the head of a row of tables running the length of the open kitchen, giving us a great view of the staff busily preparing tonight’s menu. The restaurant was buzzing with anticipation as the first round of trolleys began circulating, tempting us with a mouthwatering array of perfectly balanced flavours and exquisitely presented small plates. I could go on and on about how fantastic the food was and the fact that it was possibly the best I have ever tasted in my life, but to save us all some time I’ll give you a few of my personal highlights: sourdough garlic dough with burrata; two-day mirin marinated trout tail; vietnamese pork belly and citrus salad; Genmaicha 'ice cream' sandwich, cocoa nib macaron, milk chocolate coulis. Whatever you order you won’t be disappointed!

The restaurant was buzzing with anticipation as the first round of trolleys began circulating, tempting us with a mouthwatering array of perfectly balanced flavours and exquisitely presented small plates.

Katie Smith

b.Patisserie sells all manner of beautiful sweet treats
Dim sum trolley
The dim sum trolley at State Bird Provisions is a treasure trove of culinary delights

To finish...

Dotted with Victorian mansions and boasting some of the most beautiful views of San Francisco, Pacific Heights is a truly elegant neighbourhood. It is also home to the equally chiq b. Patisserie where Belinda Leong and Michel Suas have created a little piece of French pâtisserie paradise. Their combined superior pastry chef credentials were clear as soon as we walked in and were greeted by a counter laden with the finest viennoiseries, pastries and cakes. My eyes were immediately drawn to the chocolate, banana and almond croissants, but after a hard few minutes of fraught decision making I finally settled on the shining dome of chocolate caramel mousse. Put simply, the silky smooth bittersweet mousse was heaven on a plate. It’s not all about the sugar here though as the Tartines – open sandwiches also harking back to Paris – provide a fantastic savoury respite after the inevitable sweet-toothed indulgence.

Now to work off all that fantastic food with a hike along the coastal trail edging around Lands End Park. The views over to Golden Gate Bridge are stunning and we seemed to time our post-brunch walk perfectly, because as soon as we started the sun peaked out from behind the clouds and bathed the bridge in brilliant rays of sunshine. After a quick look around the Legion of Honor Museum, time was pressing on before our flight back to LA. The last stop on our restaurant tour in San Francisco took us to Pizzeria Delfina. The farm-to-table eatery is a popular local destination and specialises in Neapolitan-style pizzas and seasonally inspired antipasti. I immediately clocked the burrata on the antipasti menu and simply couldn’t leave San Francisco without having one more taste of my new food obsession. Cheese cravings satisfied, it was time for pizza. Pizzeria Delfina prides itself on its authenticity and quality of ingredients, both of which were immediately apparent when our Napoletana pizza arrived with its charred, bubbled crust and bright red tomato base, spiked with anchovies, capers and olives.

And so ended my exploration of San Francisco and its unmissable, unique and fast-paced food scene – apart for the double chocolate cookie I saved from b. Patisserie; I mean, who could resist!

State Bird Provisions
One of the friendly chefs at State Bird Provisions