Iconic San Francisco Eats and Drinks that Every Visitor Needs to Try
Recently named America’s most livable city, San Francisco entices people from all around the U.S. to move out to the West Coast. The city has also experienced record-breaking tourism levels over the past decade.
Yes, there’s the famous Golden Gate Bridge and cable cars, but more and more it is San Francisco’s culinary scene which receives most of the attention. There are more restaurants here per capita than anywhere else in America. San Francisco has spearheaded food trends such as Asian fusion and became the second U.S. destination to have a Michelin guide. Today, the Bay Area is home to more 3-star Michelin restaurants than any other city in the U.S.
San Francisco will no doubt continue to be a leading food and wine destination for decades to come, only enhanced by its creative chefs and endless fresh produce. Whether you’re passing through Fisherman’s Wharf or the Chinatown District, there are some signature foods and drinks which every traveler must try when visiting San Francisco. So fly into San Francisco and get ready to tantalize your taste buds with our top recommendations for what you need to eat and drink while experiencing the “City by the Bay”. San Francisco is linked by direct flights from many regions around the world including East Asia which is serviced by Cathay Pacific.
Sourdough bread may not have been invented in San Francisco, but it sure does have a very rich history here. The city has become synonymous with sourdough bread every since French bakers brought sourdough recipes to the West Coast during the California Gold Rush. Boudin Bakery, which many say is San Francisco’s oldest continuously operating business, has been selling loaves of sourdough for over 170 years.
You can find fresh sourdough just about anywhere including local markets, bakeries, and coffee shops. With its signature sour flavor and crusty yet airy nature, you can find sourdough sandwiches, sourdough bread bowls full of chowder, and even loaves shaped like cute animals. Sourdough is so loved by San Franciscans, that they named their professional football mascot Sourdough Sam after it.
San Francisco’s Mission District neighborhood is known for two main things, being home to San Francisco’s oldest standing building and the beloved Mission burrito. Popularized in the 1960s, this giant burrito wrapped in foil can be found in countless taco stands within the Mission District and elsewhere around San Fran. The burrito is packed with rice, sour cream, guacamole, and salsa.
Taqueria La Cumbre on Valencia Street claims to be the birthplace of the Mission burrito. Larger national chain restaurants also sell a similar version of the popular burrito but in order to taste an authentic Mission burrito you really need to order one from a family run taqueria. You should also forego forks and knives and simply eat one with your hands.
Photo By Swift Benjamin from Campbell, ca, United States, CC BY 2.0 Wikimedia Commons
San Francisco is a seafood lover’s dream and the best place to grab it is at the popular Fisherman’s Wharf. The Wharf is home to floating restaurants and some family-run establishments that go back three generations. Whichever restaurant you decide on, you’ll be feasting on some of the best seafood the West Coast has to offer.
One of the local favorites has to be Dungeness crab. The crab features a slightly sweet taste and is considers a West Coast delicacy. Enjoy it steamed, garlic roasted, or as delicious Dungeness crab cakes.There are also countless oyster bars where you can enjoy raw oysters in the half shell, baked oysters with bacon and shallots, and BBQ oysters.
Other seafood specialties San Francisco offers are bay shrimp, calamari, abalone, crab ceviche, and seared Pacific cod.
Dungeness Crab: Photo By Crabmanners, CC BY-SA 4.0 Wikimedia Commons
San Francisco is also home to one of America’s oldest and most delicious chocolate makers. The Ghirardelli Chocolate Company is named after its Italian founder Domenico Ghirardelli who moved to California from South America during the California Gold Rush. After a bit of a rocky start, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company was finally incorporated in 1852. It has been making chocolate ever since and was one of the first chocolate manufactures to display cacao content on it various chocolate products.
Ghirardelli’s factory has since moved to the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay when it was sold in the 1960s. Ghirardelli’s original location is now known as Ghirardelli Square and has become an official city landmark filled with shops, restaurants, and a luxury hotel.
Cioppino is a fish stew that originated in San Francisco and has become a local staple. It is said that the dish was created by 19th century Italian immigrant fisherman who would ask for scraps from successful fishermen when they themselves came up empty-handed.
Local cioppino is created using a mix of fresh seafood that often includes Dungeness crab, scallops, clams, shrimp, mussels, and fish. The mix is stewed in a tomato and wine broth and often served with local sourdough.
Photo By Kelly Sue DeConnick, CC BY-SA 2.0 Wikimedia Commons
Anchor Steam Beer
San Francisco is home to America’s first craft brewery. Founded back in 1896, Anchor Brewery still produces its iconic Anchor Steam beer. The beer is created using a unique method that uses a steam brewing process which ferments lager yeast at higher temperatures than normal. A visit to the brewery allows you to tour the site and sample some of their seven beer styles which includes the Anchor IPA India pale ale, Liberty Ale American pale ale, Anchor California Lager, and of course the popular original Anchor Steam.
Photo By Picardin, CC BY 4.0 Wikimedia Commons
While Britain’s James Bond may have helped spread the word about martinis, the cocktail made with gin and vermouth is said to have actually been invented in the Bay Area. Some say the first martini was made at San Francisco’s Occidental Hotel back in the 1860s for passengers before they would board the daily ferries to Martinez. Another legend states that the drink was actually invented in the city of Martinez which sits in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area.
The cocktail was said to have been invented when a miner wished to order champagne but it was not available so the bartender blended a drink out of the ingredients he did have which included gin, vermouth, bitters, maraschino liqueur, and lemon. Whether you like your martinis dry, dirty, shaken, or stirred, there’s no better place to have one than in its birthplace.
The iconic tiki bar cocktail known as a mai tai also has its roots in California, with many believing it to hail from Oakland which is the largest city in San Francisco Bay Area’s East Bay region. Usually made with Jamaican rum, orgeat syrup, orange curaçao, and lime juice, the drink is said to have been first served up at Trader Vic’s using Victor J. Bergeron original mai tai recipe. The cocktail’s name is said to come from a Tahitian word which means “good” in reference to the drink’s taste.
The drink gave rise to many tiki-themed restaurants around California and the world. There are now many different variants to the drink, which may feature the addition or substitution of other ingredients such as pineapple syrup, bitters, grenadine, and amaretto.
It’s the cocktail named for the fact it actually looks like a sunrise in a glass. The original tequila sunrise may have been invented in Arizona’s Biltmore Hotel back in the 1930s, but it is the more popular modern recipe which began to take off in the San Francisco area and beyond in the 1970s. The modern version actually hails from Sausalito which is just a short distance north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Strait.
The tequila sunrise is made with tequila, orange juice, and grenadine syrup. This recipe was developed at Sausalito’s famous Trident bar/restaurant and made popular by rock bands like the Rolling Stones who had their famous “cocaine and tequila sunrise tour” as well as the The Eagles which wrote a song called “Tequila Sunrise”. Jose Cuervo tequila even put the recipe for tequila sunrises on the back of their bottles at one time.
Photo By TheCulinaryGeek, CC BY 2.0 Wikimedia Commons
There are many more great things to eat and drink in San Francisco including Chinatown dim sum and Pisco punch. There are more restaurants than you can count where you can try these iconic San Francisco favorites and more including Zuni Cafe, Mister Jiu’s, House of Prime Rib, Humphry Slocombe, and Akiko’s.