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16 Great Places to Eat in the Greater San Francisco Region: Destination for Foodies

This weekend’s programming of Travel WITH Stephanie Abrams and Travelers411 continues to bring travel tips and information on attractions, places to stay and places to eat in San Francisco and the region around the area. You’ll find programming show notes with audio of interviews from both of my radio shows reflecting our features on the region of San Francisco and its environs including insights into Napa, Sonoma, San Jose and Pacifica, California from shows which were originally broadcast on November 26th and 27th and December 3rd and 4th .  As I promised, here’s a list restaurants in San Francisco and the surrounding region representing a range of food types, unique surroundings, and places where you’ll have a great food experiences in a unique environment. For the most part, this is not a list of gorgeous dining facilities but places where you will get a great and wholesome meal and where you can go to without getting dressed especially for the occasion! So, sharpen your appetite and get ready to say, “Yum!”

Here are my recommendations grouped by food categories in and around San Francisco:

ASIAN CUISINE:

1. Shanghai Dumpling King, Outer Richmond, 3319 Balboa Street, between 34th & 35th, San Francisco:

An authentic experience in Chinese dumplings served in a spartan atmosphere that sets the mood of eating in the kitchen. Shanghai Dumpling King’s reputation is well known among residents and attracts a loyal local crowd as well as savvy visitors to San Francisco so get there before you are really hungry so that you’re seated by the time you are ready to eat unless you go there at off-peak periods when the place is quieter. Noodles are so thin that they are transparent and fillings are marvelous and come in a wide variety. Be sure to save room to order the egg-puff buns for dessert. One order presents three buns so keep that in mind when you place your order. They are sensational!

2. Pagoda Restaurant, inside the Fairmont San Jose Hotel, San Jose: It’s worth the trip to San Jose just to eat at the Pagoda Restaurant. I wasn’t expecting anything above the ordinary for a Chinese restaurant located in  a hotel but this place will be on my “Must Visit ” list on every trip to San Francisco which is about 90 minutes away. The Pagoda debuted with the opening of the Fairmont San Jose almost 25 years ago so its longevity should give you some clue about its quality or it could never have survived. The first night we stayed at the Fairmont San Jose we were too tired to go out for dinner and chose The Pagoda as a convenience. I ordered won ton soup, shrimp fried rice and beef with asparagus. When the waitress came to the table I asked, “Is your chef from Hong Kong?” and she answered with an inquisitive sounding ,”Yes!” as if to ask how I knew that. If you’ve been to Hong Kong and know how fabulous the food is there, you’ll recognize that quality of food preparation at once. It was so good that we went back the next night to sample more. Try the Mongolian beef! Outstanding! The dining room is reminiscent of a great hall in an emperor’s palace high ceilings, tall columns, Chinese artwork and beautiful Chinese decor. The fact that I dined there two nights in a row should give you some indication of what I thought of The Pagoda! And if you’re clever, you’ll stay at the Fairmont San Jose which is in a great location across from a little park and down the street from a museum and near theaters and everything else you might need or want while in the area.

3. Little Tokyo, 5733 Geary Boulevard, San Francisco:

If you are into sushi, this is your place! The sushi chef is an artist and every dish that comes to the table is worthy of a photo and a place in an art gallery! The restaurant is charmingly decorated and has a small area of the restaurant that seats about 30 people that can be reserved for a group function. In addition to their over-the-top sushi, there is a full range of Japanese menu items. Their Udon dishes are fantastic. Try the tempura udon. I’m salivating just thinking about it! Yummy!

4. Spices!, Szechuan Cooking, 27th & Clement, San Francisco:

If you are into Tex-Mex or carry Tabasco sauce in your pocket, you are going to love Spices! Their Szechuan menu gives you a clue to the spice level of each item with red dots to denote mildly spices to “set your scalp on fire” hot.  There are a few dishes that are truly mildly spiced but, for the most part, this restaurant is for those who crave Asian cuisine and have mouths and stomachs that are lined with asbestos! The food is outstanding and flavorful provided that you choose the spice level you can both enjoy and physically tolerate. If you are looking for a mild dish, try the beef with noodles, an excellent and flavorful choice, and be sure to confer with the wait-staff to order the level of spiciness you are looking for.

ITALIAN FOOD:

5. Scoma’s, Pier 47, Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco:

Scoma’s is located about a block and a  half from Musee Mechanique on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco on Scoma Way, named for the restaurant. It’s right on the waterfront and waterfront tables abound.  You might want to plan your visit to Fisherman’s Wharf to end up at Musee Mechanique where free admission welcomes you and where you can feed antique arcade games from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s (and some newer including vintage video games and pin ball machines) quarters to have them entertain you. Musee Mechanique was featured in the Anne Hathaway/Julie Andrews film, “Princess Diaries” where Anne’s character takes her grandmother for a day of fun in San Francisco and includes Musee Mechanique. So it’s hugely convenient to seek out Scoma’s after you’ve worked up an appetite playing the machines and making machines dance for you and play their piano rolls and more!

Be careful about how much you order at Scoma’s. Everything is delicious there but the portions are huge so don’t be afraid to order about half of what you generally order and do a lot of sharing of dishes!

6. Gaspare’s Pizza House, 5546 Geary Boulevard, between 19th & 20th, San Francisco:

Pizza extraordinaire! So many places in the world serve something they call pizza that is tomato sauce with melted cheese on fat backed dough and they really believe they are serving good pizza. If you are from New York City or have spent enough time there to eat in dozens, or maybe hundreds, or random pizza parlors, as they would be referred to in NYC, you know what good pizza is. You can walk into just about any pizza place in NYC and get great pizza because the competition is so strong that a place that isn’t good can’t survive. As you get farther away from NYC, the product begins to change in so many ways that the end result is often anything but the quality you’d expect in NYC.  Not so at Gaspare’s Pizza House in San Francisco, a cute place that conjures up the sense of eating in vineyard in Tuscany with grapes hanging overhead, where people flock to eat thin crusted delectable pizza with customized toppings.

If you’re not feeling like having pizza, you can choose from a variety of Italian dishes. Note that you can order a hot sandwich, which you may call a hero on the east coast, a sub in the south east, or a hoagie or grinder is so many other parts of the US, but, since you are in San Francisco, one of your bread choices is to have your sandwich served on Gaspare’s home made Italian bread gone sour dough!  You will love this place!

7. Mary’s Pizza, 18636 Sonoma Highway, CA Route 12, Sonoma:

Mary’s is an experience! It’s just down the road from the Fairmont Mission Inn & Spa in Sonoma, CA.  If you’re out for a day of sightseeing and visiting wineries, Mary’s is in a great location to grab a bite or a meal to sustain you while you explore the wine region of Sonoma and Napa.  The  influence of Mary, the founder of Mary’s Pizza, her spirit, hospitality and great cooking of Italian specialties from pizzas to meals, is found in abundance at this warm and friendly restaurant. Not only did we get great pizza and hot sandwiches, but we got amazingly friendly service.

Mary’s Pizza, still a family-managed business where Grandma Mary’s aura is keenly present,  is located in Sonoma right on Route 12 which is the road on which you’ll find dozens of wineries to visit. I had a specific destination in my plans, the Castillo de Amorosa in Calistoga, CA.  Not wanting to lose time getting lost, I asked our waitress for directions. Having been there now, I can tell you it’s a straight run up route 12, which is what she started to convey to us.  I thanked her and she left our table side only to return about two minutes later with a hard copy of directions accompanied by a printout of a map that she had Googled on our behalf and presented to us to make sure we didn’t get lost! So in addition to unexpectedly wonderful Italian specialties, you’ll get service beyond expectation from their super-friendly staff!

Note: I’ll be blogging more to share with you about the Castello di Amorosa in Calistoga, CA. as well as details on hotels and other attractions in the region shortly but in the meantime, this is a place you need to visit. It will blow your mind!

DOWN-HOME COOKIN’ ’:

8. Tommy’s Joynt, 1101 Geary Boulevard at the corner of Van Ness, San Francisco:

Tommy’s Joynt is located directly across the street from one of the Mel’s Drive-In locations and on the opposite corner you’ll find the AMC Van Ness movie theater which is a multiplex cinema in an historic bank building that looks like a portion of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain! So, if you’re a film buff in need of an infusion of new releases, here’s the perfect day for you: Start off the day with breakfast or brunch at Mel’s Drive-In (not a drive-in location, though) on the corner of Van Ness and Geary, go to see your first film at the AMC Van Ness on the same side of the street on the other corner of that block, drop into Tommy’s Joynt for lunch or dinner and catch your second film on your movie-marathon day!

Tommy’s Joynt has a chuck-wagon ambiance of with rough-hewn wood walls and beams, and chuck-wagon style service where you’ll line up with your tray and select from a wide option of hot foods and vegetables and cold salads and all the side dishes you’d expect on the ranch. Their carvers will serve you up succulent slices of turkey, ham and/ or roast beef plus an array of stews. Beer and ale on tap or whatever else you might want to drink are served at your table. Seating is at long family-style tables and booths are also available but there’s a request that you be a party of at least 3 people to occupy a booth. That may not be enforced during off-peak periods but you should be aware of the request. Remember to try their corn break. You’ll get a delicious, wholesome meal at probably the best value you’ll find in any restaurant in San Francisco. So put on your jeans and cowboy/cowgirl hat and head over to Tommy’s Joynt! Sorry, there’s no place to tie up your horse outside!

9. Hard Knox Café, 2526 3rd Street, San Francisco:

Perfect fried chicken. Superb mac ‘n’ cheese. Down-home atmosphere. All the comfort food you crave for when you’ve had one gourmet meal too many! People were lined up outside waiting for Hard Knox Cafe to open when we arrived.  A man drove, parked outside the front door, and with the help of their staff, carried out about a dozen bit aluminum pans destined to cater his home party. Enuf said!

10. Moulin Rouge Restaurant, 887 Geary Street, San Francisco:

This is another San Francisco surprise. Owned and operated by a warm and friendly Chinese couple who make you feel like you’re an invited guest into their home, Moulin Rouge, which looks like the inside of a chalet in the Alps and is decorated with vintage French posters, serves up a limited menu that boasts enough of a variety to make it easy for you to be more than just satisfied with your selection. I’ve been there three times and never been disappointed. Don’t get fooled by the French name which might suggest, if you’ve been to the Moulin Rouge in Paris, a fussy, upscale environment. This is, yet again, another place where you and your jeans will be very comfortable and extraordinarily well fed.  There are always “specials of the day” in addition to the regular menu. I love their banana-walnut pancakes chock full of walnut pieces. I ordered a short stack (2 pancakes) with bacon and one-egg scrambled which was  one of the  specials of the day. I expected the short stack to also be smaller pancakes but this was a more than plentiful dish. I left enough to feed another person with a healthy appetite so unless you are starving, consider sharing dishes! When you leave the Moulin Rouge, you feel like you’ve left mom and dad behind! Mama does the cooking and Dad does the serving. Eating at the Moulin Rouge gives you a personal connection to San Francisco.

11: Mel’s Drive-In has multiple locations in San Francisco. Here are 2 special locations:

1050 Van Ness Avenue: This is the location across the street from Tommy’s Joynt and down the block from the AMC Van Ness Theater. Same menu as Mel’s Drive-In on Mission Street but not as much of the fun atmosphere of the Mission Street location. But it’s a great place to grab a burger and fries, a sandwich or breakfast at any time of the day especially if a meal needs to fit itself into your movie-going schedule.

801 Mission Street Location: You may remember Mel’s Drive-In as it was featured in the film, “American Graffiti.” The sad truth is that the restaurant was demolished just before the film opened! Thirteen years later, the owner’s son decided to undertake the rebuilding of Mel’s Drive-In to restore the iconic eatery. Since then, multiple locations have opened in San Francisco and in other parts of California. When you go to Mel’s Drive-In on Mission Street in San Francisco, you’ll feel as through you’ve stepped into another era and enjoy the ambiance of decor and layout. The menu is so extensive that you’re almost better off knowing what you want to eat (they’ll have it!) before you open the menu and get confused by the never-ending offerings! It’s a fun place you’ll remember. Come as casual as you can get!

GERMAN FOOD:

12. Soupekuche, 525 Laguna Street, San Francisco:

A rare experience in authentic German cooking in an Alpine setting. Blond oak tables crowded into two small dining areas in a clearly successful restaurant! Try their wiener schnitzel! Superb!! I “wiener schnitzel” my way across Germany and Austria every time I’m in that part of the world and the meal at the Soupekuche in San Francisco rates right at the top of my list of best places to eat German food. Try the apple strudel too! Again, this restaurant is about as down-home as you can get so leave the sequins in your hotel room and dress to eat in grandma’s kitchen!

FRENCH CUISINE:

13. Chapeau! 126 Clement Street, San Francisco: For this, wear something a bit more chic! A turtleneck with your jeans will still pass inspection but you’ll want to look a tad chic so that the decor isn’t prettier than you are! The environment of this French bistro is Euro-chic, trendy, edgy, and downright cool! And the food is heavenly! The name, Chapeau!, which literally means ‘hat,’ comes from the French idiomatic expression, ‘chapeau!’ which is what you would say at the same moment that you’d put your hand to the imaginary brim of an imaginary hat you weren’t really wearing in a gesture to tip your hat in a congratulatory manner to indicate that a job was well done. You will tip your chapeau, imaginary or otherwise, to the chef and management at Chapeau! As we  say in America, our hats are off to you! Well done! Chapeau! is a great spot for the splurge or celebration night out because it has that chic flair about it. Ah, those French! You and your tummy will leave walking on the clouds of Joie de Vivre!

14. The Crepe Shop, 429 Gough Street, San Francisco: My producer’s wife, Connie Isby, would love this place! I’ve got to get her there some time soon! She loves crepes and, while The Crepe Shop has a wide variety of dishes that it serves, as the name indicates, crepes are a specialty.  If you’ve ever been to any of the Chez Cora locations in Montreal, you’ll find The Crepe Shop a good answer to your yearning for crepe, breakfast, sandwiches and meals when you are 3000 miles too far away for going to Chez Cora! Similar atmosphere and quality to your expectations in Montreal so you know that The Crepe Shop has hit the mark! And if you’re going to Montreal, make sure you stop into a Chez Cora location (try the one just off of St. Catherine’s Street in the center of all of the downtown shopping) for your own taste comparison test and yet another chance to imbibe in great crepes in a great atmosphere!

BEACH & SEAFOOD RESTAURANTS:

15: Nick’s Rockaway Café, Pacifica, CA: Pacifica is an easy 15 minute drive from San Francisco and when you get there you will find Nick’s Rockaway Cafe right on the beachfront. Sitting at one of the many tables with ocean front views lining the never-ending dining room and bar lounge area, everything you eat will taste even better because of the enhancement of the views at this spectacular location. Once again, don’t get dressed up for the occasion! Pacifica is a beachcomber’s heavenly destination that doesn’t require a long flight or a tedious drive to get to the seashore and watch the waves roll in or take a long walk on the beach!

Nick Gust’s son now manages the restaurant full time but Nick, now in his 90’s, comes in just about every day and takes an active role and active interest in the restaurant started by his dad in the 1920’s.  The wide range of seafood, meats and vegetarian dishes ranging from sandwiches, burgers, pastas, snacks and appetizers to full meals will fit the size of your appetite. But let me recommend their crab sandwich and, rather than having regular fries with your sandwich, order the eggplant fries. Fabulous! The crab sandwich is all crab meat with  an inch thick layer of crab meat. You won’t find filler, stuffing, potatoes, or any other ingredient designed to make the crab meat stretch. Take it from this Maryland girl who is always skeptical about the quality of crab offerings on menus outside of the Chesapeake Bay region, you can order this with confidence. The sandwich is served on toasted thick Texas-style bread slices and, frankly, a normal appetite will not be able to tackle the whole sandwich so be prepared to ask for a box to take the rest with you or plan to share your sandwich with a companion. That will leave room to order soup first for each of you or dessert. But sharing is a good thing because when you’re traveling and have no place to keep your leftovers fresh, it is absolutely sinful to waste the half of this sandwich that are not going to be able to finish! Nick’s Rockaway Restaurant in Pacifica, CA is a must visit dining experience. While you can stay in San Francisco and be back into the downtown area in 15 minutes, you might not want to leave this tranquil and seductive town so consider staying just across the street from Nick’s Restaurant at the Best Western Plus Lighthouse Hotel. The management and staff are remarkably friendly, as are the locals in Pacifica, and the vast majority of the guest accommodations face the ocean. And the ocean is right there. . . not half a mile away that you can view from your balcony in the distance. When you look out your window or sit on your balcony, the beach is literally right there! You know how I feel about great views. For me, it’s all about the view and the ambiance first and everything else is considered next. Pacifica: go for a  perfect meal with a perfect view and stay overnight right at the beach to continue the perfect experience. By the way, the hillside that comes down to the ocean to the right of the Best Western Plus Lighthouse in Pacifica and snuggles up against the beach looks so much like one of my favorite places in County Donegal, Ireland where I like to sit on the opposite hillside and photograph the waves rolling in.  Photos of the two locations, one on the Pacific Ocean and the other on the Atlantic Ocean, look  a bit like they could have both been taken in the same spot.

This is Pacifica, California:

Pacifica, California in front of Best Western Plus Lighthouse Hotel & Nick's Restaurant

And this is Donegal:

While I hope you will get to experience both sites, if you can’t get to Ireland this year, get a little taste of the feeling of being there by going to this cove-like beach spot just to the left of Nick’s Restaurant and the Best Western on the beach in Pacifica, CA.  Visits to uplifting, inspiring destinations, I am convinced, will extend your lifespan!

16. The Beach Chalet in Golden Gate Park, 1000 Great Highway,  San Francisco:

If you’re traveling with your dog, obey the leash laws and courteously care for your dog’s sanitation needs while you take a great walk through Golden Gate Park.  Find your way to the Beach Chalet where there are outdoor tables where you and Fido can enjoy the gorgeous weather and have a snack or meal. The friendly staff with promptly provide you with one of their doggie bowls with water for your pet and, if you dog doesn’t have special dietary restrictions, you can probably find a menu item as a treat for Fido as well!  Sandwiches, pizza, burgers, vegetarian fare abound on the menu. Most of all, the setting is magical.

The Beach Chalet has indoor dining for those who aren’t traveling with pets and for those who prefer to eat inside. The decor is very special and you’ll find hand-painted murals on the walls of this historic building that you’ll want to take some time to appreciate. You can approach the Beach Chalet in Golden Gate Park from the front entrance outside of the park on the main road where you can also park if you can find a spot! The beach view is on the front entry side of the building. Good food, great view, marvelous ambiance. Yet again, another memory-building experience.

When you are traveling, don’t just tank up and keep running as if you are a car filling up! Even for snacks, pick places that are memorable, charming, inspiring, uplifting in addition to delicious!

The above choices are certain to deliver a delight to the mouth and the tummy and, in some cases, to the eyes as well! Enjoy eating your way through San Francisco and its environs!!

--Gotta Fly Now!sm
Your Personal Travel Expert
Nationally syndiated radio show host
Stephanie Abrams

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