It’s amazing how many famous San Francisco restaurants have flourished for decades and even generations. Their incredible staying power is due to any number of things. But the unique atmosphere they embody, the passion their staff have for good food and drinks, and the steps they take to be innovative have embedded them into San Francisco’s history.
Restaurants that serve as a meeting place for their communities and beyond attract up-and-coming creatives and celebrities. Newer restaurants that are carving out a spot for themselves hold similar values of fostering community and serving the best ingredients available and are well on their way to writing a storied history for themselves.
No matter what you’re in the mood for, we’re certain that any one of these seven best famous San Francisco restaurants will impress and have you leaving satisfied.
Caffe Triste (601 Vallejo Street), a North Beach neighborhood landmark, has always given creative types a warm welcome. When the Giotta family opened the café in 1956, the Beat poets settled in to write, discuss and recite poetry. Later, Francis Ford Coppola took up residence at a table to work on The Godfather screenplay. And the Giottas themselves have a love for singing and performing Italian-inspired music.
Besides being a literary magnet, this famous San Francisco restaurant is best known for introducing the West Coast to espresso. Nibble an Italian pastry, pizza by the slice, or delectable dessert while catching Caffe Triste’s monthly Saturday concert. Or come for the accordion, harmonica, and guitar backing danceable Italian-flavored jazz and show tunes and raise a high-octane cup of coffee.
What about Tosca Café attracts writers, filmmakers, musicians, actors, internationally known ballet dancers, and politicians to mix with locals and visitors alike? Maybe it’s the dull-lit ambiance hinting at an unspoken veil of secrecy, or maybe it’s just the honest, fresh food and handcrafted drinks.
Tosca Café has welcomed guests to sip cocktails at their lengthy bar and to huddle conspiratorially in cozy booths since 1919. Enjoy fresh shellfish raw bar selections, house-made focaccia and pastas. Sip an Italian-inspired cocktail like the berry-licious gin-based “That’s Amore”, or reinvigorate your senses with a House Cappuccino spiked with bourbon.
Fog City Diner
Famous for its angular shape and all-around windows letting in foggy gray daylight, the San Francisco restaurant Fog City has staying power. An Embarcadero mainstay since 1985, Fog City serves modern cuisine to Financial District employees on lunch break and waterfront tourists alike.
Its V-shaped bar offers a chance to watch skilled bartenders put on an impressive show. And its row of spacious window booths is still recognizable since the filming of the double date scene for 1993’s Mike Meyers comedy, So I Married an Axe Murderer. The exhibition kitchen reveals the restaurant’s wood-fired pizza oven and the seven-foot grill where ribeye, salmon, and skirt steak are seared to perfection. Dinner and a spectacle? No wonder Fog City Diner tops our list of famous San Francisco restaurants.
After playing the club in the 1940s and 50s, dance band musicians, local radio hosts, and in-the-know fans would split to open late Tommy’s Joynt, an affordable Hofbrau. The famous San Francisco restaurant has been continuing the party for 75 years with hand-carved meat sandwiches, daily dinner platters, and a selection of over 100 beers.
You can’t miss Tommy’s Joynt’s bright blue corner building with bold red lettering and carnival barker-inspired murals advertising buffalo stew. Try a meatball or corned beef sandwich, or maybe a giant turkey leg not generally seen outside of a Renaissance faire. A collection of beer steins line the bar, and Tiffany-inspired chandeliers provide dim light for the restaurant’s conspiratorial den atmosphere. Metallica band members ate it up, and you will too.
Red’s Java House
On a pier of its own under the San Francisco Bay Bridge, Red’s Java House (38 Bryant Street), a small clapboard restaurant, has served breakfast and lunch to dockworkers, tourists, and the occasional celebrity since 1955. Known for their burgers on San Francisco sourdough bread, Red’s makes it clear that lettuce and tomatoes are a non-starter. They want you to enjoy the flavor of the meat.
Eat inside at a two-seater table with Bay breezes flowing through, or take your meal outside on the patio for expansive waterfront views. Watch out for dive bombing seagulls ready to swoop down on your chili cheese fries or hotdog! Red’s Java House was a stop for some of the San Francisco 49ers team on their 1989 Super Bowl victory parade. You never know who might step in for a bite to eat.
The Buena Vista
The Buena Vista restaurant is a perfect waypoint between Ghirardelli Square and the Fisherman’s Wharf waterfront to rest and refresh. This famous San Francisco restaurant has been operating since 1916 and is conveniently located near the Powell-Hyde cable car’s last stop.
But The Buena Vista is known for its take on Irish coffee and for introducing the drink to America. The restaurant perfected its recipe back in 1952 and hasn’t changed since. Ingredients are Tullamore D.E.W. Irish whiskey, Peerless organic coffee, C&H sugar, and heavy cream. Find a spot at the antique wood bar, order a Dungeness crab omelet or clam chowder bread bowl and lift a warm glass of Irish coffee.
There’s something magical about Fable. The Castro neighborhood restaurant weaves California cuisine with a sense of whimsy, transporting guests into a flavor-filled world. Fable’s menus frequently change to reflect the seasonal local ingredients used in their dishes.
This San Francisco restaurant is becoming famous for its fanciful outdoor dining oasis. A heated deck with golden globe light strands and vine-covered awnings creates a relaxing environment for guests amongst potted plants, palm fronds, and trickling statuary fountains.
You’ll want to try Fable’s celebrated take on brunch. Taste spiced cherries drizzled over sweet baguette French toast or poached eggs and avocado on a bed of red quinoa. Toast the weekend with a mimosa made with seasonal juice, or perk up with a spicy bloody mary.
Counting down the days to your trip to San Francisco so you can start devouring all the delicious food in sight? We feel you—that’s how we travel, too.
Let’s hang out while you’re in town, preferably on our Ultimate San Francisco Food Tour! Let us feed your curiosity and show you our San Francisco.
Eva Barrows is a San Francisco Peninsula freelance writer and book editor. She writes for regional magazines PUNCH (The Spirit of the Peninsula) and Edible Silicon Valley and contributes to the Kampgrounds of America (KOA) blog. She visits San Francisco and its restaurants on weekends when she needs an adventure. Read more of her travel and food writing at www.evabarrows.com.