From elegant to ethnic, from catch of the day to cake of the day, dinner in San Francisco can be quirky, yet always an unforgettable and delicious experience. Whether you are in the mood for a romantic dinner or something a bit more wild and unpredictable, the city by the bay offers plenty of options to please both your palate and personality.
Dinner and a movie may be something of a cliché, but at Foreign Cinema, it’s a package deal. This “only in San Francisco” restaurant in the heart of the city’s Mission District offers a regularly changing menu of Californian and Mediterranean cuisine served during screenings of foreign or independent films. Recent and upcoming film selections include Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and Amelie. They have a substantial wine list, an oyster bar, and a wide range of “premieres” (think appetizers) and “features” (main dishes).
Dining and dancing at supperclub is a “once in a lifetime” experience. True, it’s not “only in San Francisco” — there are others supperclub locations, but not in this country. And the experience? It’s better not to spoil too much of the surprise, but be prepared for dining on a bed, visits from a wandering masseuse, top DJs, live performers, and much, much more. This is not the place to bring your cousin from a small town in middle America, unless you want to shatter plenty of illusions. But if you can embrace the experience, supperclub is not to be missed.
For the cousin from Middle America — or families with underage children — there are plenty of less controversial dining experiences. One of the best is Bistro Boudin, at the Boudin Sourdough Factory at Fisherman’s Wharf. Believe it or not, there is something about San Francisco sourdough that simply cannot be duplicated, and no matter what time of year, a bread bowl of chili or chowder can bring a welcome respite from San Francisco fog. Remember, as Mark Twain said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”
While in the city by the bay enjoy some food from the bay — and the Pacific Ocean beyond the Golden Gate for that matter-as they are key ingredients for many dining experiences. Pesce offers the Venetian approach to its namesake ingredient — small plates of both hot and cold seasonal offerings. Its dining room may be unpretentious, but the food would be appealing at twice the price, and the small plates, meant for sharing, offer groups or couples a way to sample the menu’s best.
If you’re looking for lobster, tuna, salmon, cod, and more, try Acqua. It’s impossible to go wrong with either their prix fixe or tasting menu, though since the tasting menu offers wine pairings, that’s hard to resist. For a more modern approach to fish, try Bar Crudo’s selection of raw, chilled, and cooked fish. This specialty restaurant was recently named one of the “Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants” by The San Francisco Chronicle.
The city’s geography provides some of its most delicious meals, but its history takes the taste buds in an entirely different direction. Considering the city’s important and well-documented Asian heritage, it’s no surprise that some of the best dim sum in the country can be found in San Francisco.
At Yank Sing’s two locations, the variety can turn your head. Don’t be fooled — they may look bite-size, but how can you decide between crab claws, Peking duck, or pork siu mye? Answer: you can’t — so better to have all three. Craving Chinese food with a slightly more continental feel? Try the Cuisine Chinoise at Tommy Toy’s. Their prix fixe menus, whether the “Executive Lunch,” “Celebration Dinner,” or the amazing eight course “Chinese New Year Feast,” offer the ultimate Asian food experience for both the eye and the palate.
It is possible to start a fistfight between San Francisco locals — just ask, “Where’s the best place to get a burrito?” The reason lies in the Mission District, where a host of unassuming and basic taquerias offer some of the best Mexican food you’re likely to taste. It’s dangerous to recommend a “best” one, but Pancho Villa Taqueria or Taqueria Cancun would make most locals’ short list. Don’t go here for a fancy dinner, and don’t go searching for atmosphere — just order, dig in, and you’ll understand.
With dinner complete, there are a couple of “only in San Francisco” dessert experiences that are worth the extra drive. While you can have dinner at Citizen Cake, the real reason to go is their desserts. They offer parfaits, crème brulee, and more, but the piece de resistance is, of course, the cake. Shall we have the After Midnight Chocolate Cake or the Mocha Mi Su? Then again, there is the Retro Tropical Shag, and a birthday cake never looked so much like a work of art as when the Citizen Cake folks have “deconstructed” it into one of their signature “deluxe cakes.”
If the Tropical Shag sounds right up your alley, you’ll love our last stop: Mitchell’s Ice Cream. A family-owned San Francisco tradition for the last fifty years, you’d expect Mitchell’s banana splits, ice cream sundaes, and thirty traditional flavors. What you might not expect are their not-so-traditional flavors — lychee, ube (purple yam), and buko (baby coconut) — and their Halo Halo, which might be described as the Philippines’ answer to a milkshake. And since they do not ship their ice cream, it is truly an Only in San Francisco dining experience.
What & Where
Foreign Cinema (2534 Mission St; 415-648-7600)
Supperclub (657 Harrison St; 415-348-0900)
Boudin Bistro Café (160 Jefferson St; 415-351-5561)
Pesce (2227 Polk St; 415-928-8025)
Acqua (252 California St; 415-956-9662)
Bar Crudo (603 Bush Ave; 415-956-0396)
Yank Sing (101 Spear St; 415-781-1111)
Tommy Toy’s Cuisine Chinoise (655 Montgomery St; 415-397-4888)
Pancho Villa Taqueria (3071 16th St; 415-864-8840)
Taqueria Cancun (2288 Mission St; 415-252-9560)
Citizen Cake (399 Grove St; 415-861-2228)
Mitchell’s Ice Cream (688 San Jose Ave; 415-648-2300)
Kim Haynes is a freelance writer and aspiring novelist. Born and raised in Southern California, she has visited the Temecula Valley Wine Country many times and even got engaged there.