It’s time that I confess. I haven’t shared the whole picture of my eating habits in San Francisco. In fact, I didn’t want to share my secret list of San Francisco restaurants because the truth be told I covet these restaurants — these are the places that I only go with my husband. Not many of these have I even brought my own close friends and family to.
I suppose there’s no better time to share that list than now as I have moved from SF. You better believe though that when I do visit, you’ll find me in the back corner crushing soup dumplings, arriving annoyingly early to grab the bar seat at my favorite omakase restaurant, and chatting it up with my favorite barista in town. I’m a creature of habit — I haven’t paid much attention to those new restaurants that have opened up over the past years.
I haven’t been too interested in gambling $150 on what might be a good dinner in a hot, new restaurant that I’ve waited for three months to get a res at — San Francisco’s current trend for the past four years. I’m sure that most are a lovely experiences but that’s just not where I’m at. I’m interested in going to my tried and true. I feel like that’s what happens after you live in San Francisco for almost a decade.
I’ll miss these places. I haven’t given it much thought that they won’t be within earshot for dinner until recently. I realized how close we’ve become with the chefs and waiters at these restaurants. The kind of people who look at you and know you by name and ask if you’ll be adding the popcorn roll tonight. Even in a big city, there’s familiarity.
So here it is, those restaurants I never really talked about. The ones I’ll miss. The ones where I’ve spent countless hours with my husband dreaming up big decisions, like this one, to move to Sacramento. The ones that I’ve sat at solo when returning from a long journey.
The ones I’ll wish were still close by because damn, they’re that good.
My Secret List of San Francisco Restaurants
Address:3856 24th St, San Francisco, CA 94114
The first shout out goes to Saru. I actually have tears in my eyes when I think about how special this place is. Gosh, it’s weird how food can have so many memories attached to it. It’s hard to describe why it’s so special but what this small, omakase sushi restaurant has done is otherworldy. There are no reservations here so get used to arriving early or having the host tell you its a 2-hour wait. It’s worth it, show up at 5 pm for the 5:30 pm open, and trust me, you won’t be the only one.
The chefs at Saru have changed this past year. I watched the sous chef, Chef Armando, work side by side the head chef for over six years. He has worked hard and deservingly has taken the role as head sushi master. Sit at the bar, forget the corner tables. This is the kind of place you need to see the magic he works when he crafts the nigiri and sashimi. I’ve come to appreciate the food that much more.
Order omakase. Let me repeat, order omakase. I regret that I spent the first two years ordering rolls until one day they sent out a piece of nigiri. I haven’t gone back since and neither has my bill — but it’s worth it. I get the salmon and the omakase nigiri every single time. Sometimes if I’m feeling reckless, I’ll add a few pieces of that $9 a piece wagyu or local uni. A few beers always do the trick. And of course, each meal starts with those tuna crackers.
It’s funny, I don’t even have a single photo of the food here. It’s a sacred place, reserved for nights with my husband only.
Address: 1500 Irving St, San Francisco, CA 94122
I’ve eaten a lot, probably too much, ramen in the past decade. I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but I’ll tell you that Izakaya Sozai is the best ramen I’ve had. Dare I say it’s better than most I’ve had in Japan? Off of Irving Street, this izakaya restaurant is known for its ramen and small bites. We order the same thing every time until recently we jumped off the bandwagon and unashamedly I decided to show up in sweats to fit a few more bites in.
Order the onigiri off the specials list. You’re in luck if it’s the uni that night, if not, the mackerel is always a win. Their crispy spicy tuna thing is delicious. The fried mushrooms with truffle salt, an absolute pleasure and delight. Always end with the ramen and always make a reservation online.
Kingdom of Dumpling
Address: 1713 Taraval St, San Francisco, CA 94116
If you can’t tell by now, we love all Asian food. So what list would this be without a proper Chinese restaurant? This is one of those spots that we order the same thing every single time: garlic green beans, three orders of soup dumplings, and the chicken chow mein. Once we deviated from it when they asked if we wanted the green onion pancakes — don’t do it. They offer it to everyone when you order, and I understand, it’s probably a high margin dish. Stick to the dumplings or whatever other small plates you fancy.
It’s kind of out there off of Taraval, where you can actually see the Pacific Ocean and a welcomed reminder that there’s more to this concrete city. The trek, worth it. The food, served hot. The manager who parks out front with his Lexus to bring in pans of handmade soup dumplings out of his trunk, hilarious. I love that guy. For the countless times, we’ve been in, I don’t remember his name and he doesn’t remember mine. And that’s okay, we both smile and it’s business as usual. Chopsticks clanking plates, hot tea even when it’s not necessary, and some really freaking good Chinese food.
Address: 560 Divisadero St, San Francisco, CA 94117
I think I took my first sip of alcohol as an adult here. I hadn’t moved into the city yet (this is back in 2011) and I had just turned 21. My cousin had, and he knew his way around the restaurant scene. So where would we spend at least one night every time I visited? The bar at Nopa.
Almost 9 years later, this is still one of the most coveted reservations to get in the city. I get it — the atmosphere, the food, the drinks and everything in between is soulful. It’s funny, I couldn’t name a single dish here as it changes that often. It’s a classic and an institution to SF dining. But there’s one other meal to talk about here besides their late-night menu that is served until midnight.
Let’s talk brunch. Ask Travis how much I drag my feet to go wait in line for brunch every time we’re invited (it’s nothing personal, friends). It’s my least favorite meal — overpriced eggs and pancakes. So when I say that I absolutely adore the brunch here, I mean it. Oh and you can reserve, what a novelty in SF on a Sunday morning. Their oven-baked egg dish is insane, their bread out of this world, and any full-sized protein on the menu that week is an easy win. I’ll happily go to brunch anytime it’s here (and reserved).
Address: 3406 18th St, San Francisco, CA 94110
Let’s keep the international trend going, and take a right turn to Burmese food. This place — I don’t know what’s better, the women who run the joint or those garlic house noodles. Yamo is another one of those where our order is on repeat: tea salad, house noodles, and a bottled coke. There’s a system here so when they say stand outside until they’re ready for you, they mean it. I think that’s why their food tastes so good, there’s some personality in it. It’s delicious. And that other said Burmese restaurant that hails from Berkeley which I won’t call by name doesn’t come close to the flavors here. It’s cash-only and has maybe 7 seats and you can eat for under $15 a person.
Wrecking Ball Coffee
Address: 2271 Union St, San Francisco, CA 94123
I know this isn’t technically a restaurant. You’ve probably seen that iconic pineapple wallpaper on Instagram at least once if you’ve looked up SF coffee shops. This place is more than that.
I want to take a minute to appreciate the team here — thank you for not being like the rest of those coffee shops in SF. Thank you for looking me in the eye when I order, for asking me how my day is, and being kind and welcoming. It’s gone a long way for me after years of having such a distaste for the majority of the coffee shops in the city. Your coffee is incredible, truly.
To Jose — you’re one of the best baristas in town. I’ll miss sipping down those iced cappuccinos (that no other coffee shop can figure out how to do) and sitting at the bar watching you work your magic.
Address: many locations in the city.
This place is no secret. But it’s one of the first places I truly loved in the city when I moved here. I remember when the first one opened, then the second, and now the empire that has spanned from SF down the peninsula. Chapeau, it’s a solid meal.
I crave that off-menu cheese/guacamole/bean trio when I come home and that spicy passionfruit Margherita. This is the spot to bring friends, and over the years, that’s exactly what we’ve done. It’s become a go-to for social events, late-night bites at the bar, and much more. Gosh, and those chips, they’re addicting.