As a New Yorker I’m seldom envious of other cities’ food scenes. Climate, basketball teams, affordable housing stock, sure, but not food. And then there’s San Francisco. I hate you, San Francisco, because I love your food so much. Not too long ago I was there for a two-day visit and spent pretty much the entire time eating, in one long progressive meal. Thank God I was on foot.
I started, as always, at Swan Oyster Depot, the best and unquestionably the friendliest lunch counter in San Francisco, open since 1912. Sal Sancimino bought the place in ’46; it’s still run by his six jovial sons. Steve fixed me up with a potion of just-picked Dungeness crab, topped with Swan’s piquant cocktail sauce; a bowl of rich, not-too-thick New England clam chowder; and a dozen impeccably shucked, plump and briny Miyagis.
Next I hit the new Blue Bottle Café, on a back alley in SOMA, for the superb latte you’d expect from SF’s finest coffee-roasters. You have to try their cold-brewed iced coffee, which has all the flavor and none of the bitterness of the standard issue. And if, like me, you’re obsessed with espresso, you can sit there for 35 minutes drooling over the $1,250 Ponte Vecchio espresso maker until one of the baristas tells you to stop, please, it’s creeping him out—at which point you might turn your gaze to the $20,000 (not for sale) halogen-powered Cremas Bonmac 105 siphon bar machine, which sits in a spotlit vitrine like a Faberge egg, likely rigged with motion-sensing lasers.
Blue Bottle just opened an outpost in the Ferry Building, which means the latter is now officially The Greatest Place to Eat In California, in terms of temptations-per-square-foot. Whenever I go there I suffer a mild panic attack, so dizzying are the offerings: decadent raspberry bomboloni from I Prefereriti di Boriana; pillowy steamed pork buns from Out the Door, the takeout offshoot of The Slanted Door; organic tamales from Donna’s at the farmer’s market outside, next to the stall selling tart dried plums and apricots (the perfect airplane snack). By the time I get to Cowgirl Creamery to buy a wheel of funky Red Hawk cheese I’ve got a full-blown case of San Francisco Envy.
Two blocks north along the waterfront is La Mar Cebicheria, which T+L food critic Anya von Bremzen called one of her favorite new restaurants in America. The grilled octopus anticuchos and mixed ceviche (above) were fabulous, all the better served on La Mar’s sundrenched terrace overlooking the bay.
Dinner, part 1: the famed Mission tacqueria Papalote for a chicken burrito the size of a puppy. Quite delicious, contrary to Jonathan Gold’s hilarious Mission burrito take-down in L.A. Weekly. Dinner, part 2, four hours later: resoundingly spicy, irrevocably sloppy chilli crab at PPQ Dungeness Island, a Vietnamese gem in the Richmond district.
After a morning at SFMoMA—where the “Matisse and Beyond” exhibit is dazzling—I ducked into Dennis Leary’s new Sentinel sandwich shop for lunch: smoked and fresh salmon, dill, fennel, and tomatillos on a plush seeded roll. Ate it in Yerba Buena Gardens under the sycamore trees. Sublime.
By 4 p.m. I was hungry again and found my way to Lers Ros, a six-month-old Thai canteen in the Tenderloin. You have never had stir-fried pork belly and basil this delicious and convincingly spicy. Great with an order of frog’s legs–in-garlic (above) and an icy Chang beer. So good that, five hours later, I returned with two friends for dinner.
On my last morning, inspired by my friend and colleague Adam Sachs, I headed for Tartine bakery in the Mission for a note-perfect bowl of café latte and their phenomenal morning bun (above): as Adam describes it, a gooey/flakey/sticky/not-too-sweet concoction that guarantees the rest of the day will be at least tolerable. Tartine’s communal tables fill up early with laptop-tappers and skatepunks and artists and stroller moms. Midway through my morning bun I got up to retrieve more napkins, and the three-year-old boy across the table reached over and grabbed the bun and devoured the rest while his mother wasn’t looking. Probably a good thing; I’d had plenty to eat already.
Peter Jon Lindberg is Travel + Leisure's editor at large.