A Few Days In

The Ambitious Eater's Weekend Guide to SF

by Carlye Wisel
Thank you, sir, may I have another bite? Photo: Courtesy of Tartine.

The suit, the student, the hippie, the crafter, the foodie, the stoner, the queen — there's a meal for every mood and personality in The City by the Bay. And you can try them all.

SAN FRANCISCO – You've shuffled through the Ferry Building, slurped cioppino, and saddled up to Mission Chinese Food's never-ending line. So now what? From fresh fruit in Oakland to fried crab in Chinatown to Thomas Keller's famed dining establishments, here's an (aggressive) itinerary on how to squeeze more San Fran into your belly.

Blackbird Bar

Photo: Courtesy of Blackbird Bar

Day 1

5 p.m. Straight off the plane, drop your bags wherever you're staying and head to El Toro Taqueria for soft shrimp tacos heaping with sliced avocado.

6:30 p.m. It's over to Blackbird Bar in The Castro for happy hour. Well drinks and beer are a steal, but intriguing drink ingredients like acid phosphate and "Trix syrup" keep your eyes on the curious cocktail menu.

9:30 p.m. After a short beeper-clad wait outside R&G Lounge, descend stairs into a lively dining room where tables of diners pick apart crispy salt and pepper crabs (the undisputed show-stoppers at this Cantonese join), while other tables of diners watch them with orderer's remorse. The chicken soup should not be missed, nor should the roasted duck (with a Tsingtao for sure).

Swan Oyster Depot

Swan Oyster Depot. Photo: jyri / Flickr

Day 2

11 a.m. What better way to start the morning than walking around the SFMoMA? They've got Rothko! They've got Yves Klein! And they've got jet fuel in the form of Blue Bottle Coffee , not to mention a rotating menu of art-inspired treats like Mondrian Cake.

1 p.m. Swan Oyster Depot is both an old stalwart filled with tourists and a continuously impressive dining establishment frequented by locals. Check out the seafood display in the window (scallops for sashimi, dungeoness crab) before squeezing onto one of the tiny bar stools. A survivor of one too many post-Bar Mitzvah luncheons, I figured I knew what I was getting into with the smoked salmon assortment, but let's just say you won't see salmon like this in temple catering.

3 p.m. You're full. Better slouch on over to Chinatown and into Red Blossom Tea Company for a steaming, soothing cup of oolong. For a change of atmosphere, hitch a bus ride down to the Mission, popping into cutesy mainstays like 826 Valencia's pirate shop, Painted Bird, and The Curiosity Shoppe. When you've had your fill of inedibles, trot over to Bi-Rite Creamery and Tartine, which, thanks to incredible urban planning, happen to be on the same block. Grab a lick of any flavor (they're all grand), and pick up a sweet treat (tres leches cake, banan cream tart) during the lunch-dinner lull.

5 p.m. You want to feel the burn. Hightail it uphill to Alamo Square. Load up on Wikipedia-based Full House knowledge along the way and digest in the presence of the architectural pastel prettiness known as the Painted Ladies.

8 p.m. Because one stop through Chinatown is never enough, grab some spicy Szechwan delights at Z&Y Chinese. (Those weary of spice should be super sure to specify that they need it "mild.") My perfect order: deliciously dehydrating salt and pepper prawns, peanutty Tan Tan cold noodles, steamed sea bass (ordered mild to offset the rest), and the aptly named Chicken with Explosive Chili Pepper. With its mountain of chili peppers atop crispy nuggets of meat, nothing — nothing— will look as beautiful on a jam-packed dinner table.


The table's set at Bouchon. Photo: Snackfight / Flickr

Day 3

10:30 a.m. Road Trip! Get your pre-journey coffee jitters on at one of the city's many shops — two thumbs up for the Vietnamese iced coffee from Wooly Pig Cafe in Inner Sunset if you're nearby — and cruise your way through Wine Country 'til you hit Yountville, home of Thomas Keller's Bouchon. I can't stop thinking about the pot of foie gras terrine and its crispy slips of bread, the perfectly potent French onion soup that'll ruin all others for the rest of eternity, and the leg of lamb. I had a mild panic attack trying to pick one dish, but judging from a shockingly rich risotto and a you've-got-to-be-kidding-me poulet roti with macaroni au gratin, you can't go wrong. Two pieces of advice: Don't fill up on the beautiful loaf of freshly baked bread with butter (stick it in your purse!), and walk off your meal in the nearby French Laundry gardens.

2:30 p.m. Work out a designated driver and make the most of Napa. Robledo Family Winery is my favorite, and you can call ahead to schedule a tasting. If you're booze-free, pull off for any and all fruit stands and cherry trucks that look appealing.

9 p.m. You'll be too full for dinner, so plan the night around a bar like Lucky 13 (+1-415-487-1313), a perfect dive in The Castro. The free popcorn will quell your need for a snack, the bartender will give you a glass of bright orange Goldfish from his secret stash behind the bar if you ask really nicely, and the whiskey will cause you to, well, make a few good-bad decisions.

2 a.m. Now's the time. Big ups to the friendly cab driver who dropped us at late-night meaty taco castle El Farolito, where you can saddle up to a plate of carnitas tacos, chorizo-topped nachos, and a ceviche tostada.

Morning Doughnuts

Good morning, doughnut. Photo: Courtesy of umamimart.com on KALW.

Day 4

9 a.m. Rise and shine! Trek over to Cole Valley hot spot Zazie in the early morning to grab a taste of the famed pancakes. If you can manage to nab a coveted spot on the back patio, kudos to you. Otherwise, enjoy your stack of gingerbread flapjacks or challah French toast inside the bistro.

12 p.m. Repent for your late-night carnivorous sins with one of the West Coast's best offerings: produce. If you've visited the Ferry Building enough times to have spent a significant portion of your paycheck on dried fruits and kale chips, take a trip over to Old Oakland Farmers Market or Temescal Farmers' Market — less overwhelming, with offerings that are just as grand. For something sweet, take those legs a few blocks to Colonial Doughnuts (1636 Franklin St.). Obviously, buttermilk's the way to go for good behavior.

2 p.m. Spend the rest of the afternoon cruising around. Nearby Telegraph Avenue has Bibliomania, a cool specialty bookshop. Museum of Children's Art (MoCHA) and the historic Housewives Market (you'll be blown away by the sausage selection) are set up inside Swan's Marketplace. Hunker down for a day beer or three at The Trappist, a Belgian beer haven, or try a crafty liquor concoction at Plum.

7 p.m. Oriental B.B.Q. Chicken Town (6101 Telegraph Ave.; +1-510-595-5338) is a place drunken dining dreams are made of. This Korean chicken wing joint's dishes can be delicious grease bombs combined in a variety of ways that will impress even your favorite resident stoner. Things I ended up eating from our vat of tofu stew: spam, hot dogs, eggs, dumplings. The spot looks shady from the outside, but considering they melt mozzarella cheese on Korean rice cakes and serve it with glasses of yogurt soju, you will not mistake it for the KFC they share a parking lot with. The chopstick wrappers say "Good Luck!" on them; consider that your warning. I ate so much MSG that I had a lucid dream about Anthony Bourdain and a drag queen. Worth it.

10 p.m. Heaven is a place on earth, and it's located inside of The Fairmont Hotel. Bourdain blew Tonga Room into the kitschy mainstream when he popped by on The Layover, but it is real, it is fabulous, and it has remained remarkably unchanged over time. With bowls full of nuts to snack on, a live band on weekends singing the classics, and a dance floor packed with well-dressed older couples, it provides all the joys of a solid wedding, only without the awkward speeches. If you like hollowed-out pineapples, simulated tropical rainstorms and, oh I don't know, happiness, then you'll fall instantly in love. 


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