How can you understand a city without taking in its gastronomy and its inevitably local specialties? And when you know that San Francisco has more restaurants per capita than any other city in the U.S., you’ll understand that this moment of discovery is a must.

With over 3,500 places dedicated to the culinary arts, San Francisco has made its cuisine a major attraction. Slow food, culinary avant garde, the cradle of the beatnik generation turned high-tech city has plenty of surprises in store. Here are 5 specialties not to be missed during a stay in this mecca of Californian culture.

1. Sourdough bread

San Francisco sourdough bread dates back to the Gold Rush. It owes its pronounced sour taste to the special bacteria that thrive in it, and which only exist here. The name of this bacterium is Lactobacillus Sanfranciscensi, which is activated by contact with the air of San Francisco Bay. In the 19th century, a family of French bakers settled in San Francisco and opened a store, The Boudin Baker. Since 1849, the recipe for French sourdough bread has remained unchanged.

sourdough bread san francisco

The bakery, located not far from Fisherman’s Wharf, still makes this delicious bread with its soft crumb and crisp crust. You’ll find takeaway specialties and sandwiches, all made with the house bread. The bakery also houses a museum that can be quickly visited on the history of this factory and of San Francisco.

2. Zuni chicken

No, Zuni chicken is not a chicken recipe, but the name of one of San Francisco’s favorite restaurants. Zuni café has been open since 1979 in the same location, at 1658 Market Street, and owes its reputation to roast chicken. The two-level restaurant welcomes diners in a warm atmosphere. If you’ve booked a table on the mezzanine, you’ll be looking out over the bar on one side and the open kitchen on the other.

For the chicken, the bill seems a little steep. It costs almost 48 USD for two, but your taste buds will be delighted. The reason is simple: it’s grilled for an hour in a brick oven, rather like a wood-fired pizza oven. The skin comes out plump and juicy, and the flesh tender and melting. Served with green vegetables and a warm sourdough bread salad, Zuni chicken deserves its reputation despite the bill.

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3. Fisherman’s soup

As a coastal city, San Francisco wouldn’t be what it is without its version of clam chowder. Although it originated in Boston, every region rivals in originality when it comes to serving its own. In San Francisco, restaurants serve this clam chowder directly in a loaf of bread, the famous sourdough bread. Fried calamari, Dungeness crab, mussels – all seafood specialties can be found at Fisherman’s Wharf. In this part of town, you’ll find restaurants with their specialties and a few stalls where you can enjoy seafood on the go.

Fisherman's soup San Francisco

Finally, it’s at Cioppino restaurant that you’ll find a typical San Francisco dish, a seafood dish of crab legs, clams, mussels, shrimp, squid and snapper, a vitamin-rich fish. It’s all simmered in a tomato broth and topped with garlic sourdough bread toast. For an additional charge, you can request the addition of crabmeat in a shell. Absolutely divine.

4. The burrito, a Mexican specialty

San Francisco’s oldest Spanish neighborhood, the Mission District owes its name to the first mission founded in 1791. This is where you’ll find affordable Mexican restaurants. The whole community comes together in this neighborhood, considered the poorest in the city, but the richest for its gastronomy.

The specialty of the Mission District is the burrito. This wrap, originally from Mexico, consists of a tortilla or wheat pancake filled with a filling. The whole thing is then rolled up and served hot. There are as many burrito recipes as there are Mexicans. But generally speaking, the burrito should be filled with beans, a vegetable protein and a salsa sauce.

For beans, black and pinto beans are used. For the meat, chicken or beef is preferred, but pork or meatless meat is also available for vegetarians. Making salsa is generally a well-kept secret. Some chefs use creamy, melting cheese or rice to give the burrito a unique texture.

At La Taqueria restaurant, the chef garnishes tacos all day long with grilled beef, kidney beans, cream cheese and cream. Locals with Mexican roots say this is where the best food is served. Ditto at the El Farolito restaurant, where the queue lasts until 2 a.m. As you can see, the Mission District is full of small, authentic restaurants.

5. Oyster omelette or Hangtow Fry

Another of the city’s signature dishes, this one owes its invention to a gold prospector who became so wealthy he demanded that the chef at Hangtow’s Cary House Hotel invent a dish using the most expensive ingredients of the day. Hence the idea of an omelette topped with bacon shipped in from the East Coast, and oysters straight from San Francisco Bay, over 160 kilometers from Hangtow.

Legend or not, the dish popularized by San Francisco’s Tadich Grill has been on the menu for 160 years! Since its creation, it has changed little, apart from the addition of onions, peppers and a few spices. The oysters undergo a transformation and are not arranged in the omelet, but plunged into a frying bath or rolled in corn breadcrumbs. Bon appétit!

6. Clam Chowder

San Francisco clam chowder, a beloved culinary tradition in the city, is a creamy and hearty soup that incorporates a variety of delicious ingredients. This regional specialty features fresh clams as its star component, often used whole or chopped, providing a delightful seafood flavor. Complementing the clams are diced potatoes, which not only add a satisfying texture but also contribute to the chowder’s thick consistency. Onions and seasonings such as garlic, thyme, and bay leaves are used to infuse the soup with layers of flavor and aroma.

San Francisco restaurants

One of the distinctive features of San Francisco clam chowder is the way it is traditionally served. It’s commonly presented in a sourdough bread bowl, which is a famous product of the city’s culinary heritage. The hollowed-out sourdough bread not only serves as a container but also imparts its unique tangy flavor to the chowder, creating a harmonious blend of textures and tastes. This presentation is not only practical but also adds to the overall dining experience, making it a memorable and comforting meal.

To complete the dish, a garnish of fresh parsley is often added. This not only enhances the visual appeal of the chowder but also contributes a burst of fresh herbal flavor.

Bottom line

A land of welcome, San Francisco is brimming with migrant specialties. And its wealth is not just culinary, thanks to Napa Valley, a nearby wine region producing exceptional wines.

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