When I was growing up, I lived in Northern California for a combined total of nine years, and for the past five, I’ve traveled to and from San Francisco every few months for work. Not only does The Bay Area house some of my all-time favorite people, but it’s also one of my favorite cities to eat in. The cuisine is diverse and refined, making for a delicious plate of food at any time of day. I have my regular spots, and it’s rare that I steer away from them for fear of being disappointed by a subpar meal, even with many wonderful experiences elsewhere. In the name of long-distance cravings, and perhaps to fuel a visit sooner rather than later, I’m sharing the places I eat every time I’m in S.F., alongside my go-to orders. Warning: when I travel, all bets are off when it comes to healthy eating practices. I treat myself because YOLO, so be prepared for lots of bread and savory goodness!
Hook Fish Co.: 4542 Irving St., San Francisco.
If you find yourself in Ocean Beach, you must hit up Hook Fish Co. It is one of my all-time lunch favorite spots in The Bay and serves up some of the freshest fish I’ve ever had. The casual spot gives off a chill, local vibe and has a honed-in, minimal menu, which I like because, in my opinion, there’s nothing better than sticking to what you know and delivering a consistent good product — in this case it’s seafood. I have only had one thing on the menu, The Poke Burrito, and so must you. Don’t ask questions, just do it. Order it as it comes and prepare to be transported to some kind of heaven. This burrito is huge, but I always seem to make room to clean my plate. I crave this weird sushi-meets-Mexican food hybrid all the time and it’s always one of my first stops when I’m in S.F. I have been so lucky to stay with my cousin on a few of my stays who lives just mere blocks from this tiny, primo spot. I’m guilty of going two days in a row on more than one occasion, and then back one last time before flying home to Nashville where the fish ain’t so fresh.
Outerlands: 4001 Judah Street, San Francisco.
This is a great little place, also in Ocean Beach, that I hit up regularly. It’s a great space for business meetings and the food is stellar whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner, plus the bartenders whip up fresh cocktails on the fly. The clams are excellent and can we just have a moment to discuss the bread? It’s made fresh daily and ’tis incredible. I always take a loaf to go. Here’s my regular order: for breakfast I usually get the Breakfast Salad or the Quiche and always the Levain Toast with a nice cup of coffee. For lunch, it’s either the Cast-iron Grilled Cheese Sandwich (a must try) or the Kale and Walnut Pesto Toast — so good! My go-to dinner order is always the Clams Casino without bacon and The Passenger — a mezcal, ancho reyes, pineapple gum, carpano antica, and lime concoction — and Brown Sugar Panna Cotta and a chocolate chip cookie for dessert.
Nopa: 560 Divisadero, San Francisco.
Nopa is a real culinary treat if you can get a table. This place is usually jam packed and booked solid a month or more in advance. Luckily, I have a couple of friends in high places and have been able to score a table on a few occasions without longterm reservations. Nopa is known for having one of the best weekend brunches in the city. I’d highly recommend going with a group and sharing several things. My favorites are the Custard French Toast, Butter Basted Eggs, and the Smoked Trout bagel. For dinner, I most look forward to the clams. Again, with the Clams! What can I say? I love a fresh and well prepared clam dish and this one has the most delicious and light tomato base, perfect for bread soaking. The Rotisserie Chicken and Moroccan Vegetable Tagine are exceptional, and I’ve heard rave reviews about the burger, although my annoying Alpha-Gal allergy prevents me from getting to try it. Lastly, always get an order of fries and share the Oro Blanco Tart and Sesame Puff Pastry for dessert.
Shizen: 370 14th Street, San Francisco.
I cannot/will not go to San Francisco with out hitting up Shizen during my stay. It’s a vegan Izakaya and sushi bar (yes, vegan sushi) in The Mission. It is hands down my #1 spot to eat in S.F. for a couple of reasons. One being that it’s become a tradition for me and my nearest and dearest to go for dinner and order all the things. It’s really an experience more than a meal, at least that is what it’s become to us. As far as what to order, you can’t really go wrong here. I’ve had almost everything on the menu and I suggest that you do the same. Go with a group and order more than you think you can handle. Try as much as you can. The food is super unique and fun. To start you off, I’d say order the Tomato, the Green Mango, and the Shiitake. They are phenom — the Tomato being my favorite nigiri by far. When it comes to the rolls, I’d recommend the Colonel’s Pipe, Candlestick, Prime Suspect, and the Surprise Ending. We usually get a few rounds of the Surprise Ending because it’s literally a game of food Russian Roulette. One (and only one) of the six pieces is laced with an incredibly spicy, make your eyes puddle, and your mouth fire, hot pepper sauce hidden within its layers. Each willing participant takes a turn choosing their bite and everyone carefully watches with suspense to see whether or not they got bombed. It’s a good time, and the unlucky eater gets to down the shot of sweet sake that comes with it. Eat, play, love, you’re welcome!
Udupi Palace: 1007 Valencia St., San Francisco.
My (ex) brother-in-law Colin, who isn’t like an ex-in-law at all (he walked me down the aisle and officiated my second wedding) took me to Udupi Palace for the first time and introduced me to the outstanding world that is Dosa. Colin’s a gluten-free vegan, which narrows the playing field for eating out, although he’s found the best places in The Bay that can accommodate his needs, while satisfying us non-vegans. Udupi is a vegetarian Indian spot thats ambiance feels very much like a hole-in-the-wall, but the food and service is incredible. I’ve tried many dishes, but the one I always come back to is the Masala Dosa. It’s huge and delicious, and not overwhelmingly spicy. If you’re unfamiliar with dosa, it’s a crispy crepe-like shell stuffed with good, savory stuff like spiced potatoes and veggies, served alongside a variety of chutneys and sauces. I highly recommend this wallet-friendly, authentic eatery in the heart of San Fran’s Mission District.
Grasias Madre: 2211 Mission St., San Francisco.
Gracias Madre is another go-to serving up plant-based Mexican food that I hit up often when in S.F.. The menu is incredible and they have a great happy hour, complete with tasty sangria and $6 nachos. The guacamole is fresh and my forever favorite item is the Bowl Uno, a combination of tempeh chorizo, black beans, guac, brown rice, and pico de gallo served with romaine and topped with nacho cashew cheese and pepitas. Yum! The flautas are killer, too, and be sure to try a side of coconut bacon!
Eric’s: 1500 Church Street, San Francisco.
Every time I stay in the city, I have to order Chinese food at least once. The Chinese in Nashville is terrible (that was said in my best Mona Lisa Vito voice). It’s my own personal tradition to stay in, usually the night before I fly home after several work-filled days and late evenings spent with my people, and have it delivered to my hotel room, while binge watching Bravo, pant-less and alone. It’s my way of coming back down to earth and recharging before reuniting with my much loved, but very loud family. I always order the Kung Pow Chicken, Avocado Rolls, and Chow Mein from Eric’s in Noe Valley. It’s damn good!
Ben Thai: 1331 Polk Street, San Francisco.
Another cuisine that I never fail to miss when traveling is Thai. We have some okay options here at home, but there is definitely room for improvement. My fave in S.F. is Ben Thai. This place has never failed me and I dine-in or takeout often. I can confidently recommend the Chicken Satay, Prawn Rolls, Tom Kha Soup, Pad Thai (one of the best I’ve every had), Pad See Ew, and the Gang-Dang and Pa-Nang curries. Take your pick!
Trouble Coffee: 4033 Judah St, San Francisco.
This last place on my list isn’t a restaurant, in fact, it’s far from it. It’s a petite, walk-up coffee counter in Ocean Beach, but is definitely worthy of a mention. Why? Because they serve one hell of a morning cup (I get the iced coffee), and I can’t not order the cinnamon toast every time I’m there, which by all means counts as breakfast. I promise you it’s the best cinnamon toast you’ll sink your teeth into. Who wouldn’t want a thick slice of warm, fresh bread slathered in butter and a generous layer of cinnamon and sugar, to go?! Be prepared to stand in line, and don’t expect the most friendly service. These people are an assembly line cranking out coffee after coffee, and it shows.