In San Francisco, you'll find innovative, artisan chocolate makers taking the sweet confection to new levels of sophistication.
To find uniquely San Francisco chocolates to enjoy during your visit, I made the ultimate sacrifice. I spent two days tasting chocolate with my friends Monica and Sid. By the time it was done, we were drunk on chocolate, had a chocolate hangover and probably gained a collective 5 pounds. But don't worry, we have all recovered.
All the chocolate shops on this list make their products locally. They're listed in the same order I would recommend them to a chocoholic friend who is visiting town.
Indulge your sweet tooth or win your sweetheart's undying gratitude with one of these San Francisco chocolate delights.
I've been in love with XOX Truffles since the first time I walked into the small shop on Columbus Avenue in 1998. It's still one of my favorite San Francisco chocolate experiences and the one I'm most likely to take my friends to.
XOX was ranked as one of the top ten chocolate makers in the United States by prestigious Chocolatier Magazine. The Rosengarten Report says "they are producing unbelievably delicious, very artisanal, exceedingly idiosyncratic chocolate truffles," naming XOX one of the seven greatest chocolates in America.
Don't go to XOX expecting to find those big, flawless chocolate truffles that others sell. Instead, these small treats are traditionally made and rustically shaped, dipped in cocoa powder by hand. They sell individual truffles, but you can get a small, plain box of them for a moderate price - or ask for a fancier box full if that's what you need.
Chocolate maker Jean-Marc Gorce is understandably proud of all the honors. his adventure with chocolate started when the former chef de cuisine of Fringale restaurant and his wife Casimira opened their small shop on Columbus Day, 1998. Gorce says he doesn't know if he was born to be a chocolatier, but he was "always stealing the chocolate in the drawer of the kitchen" as a child.
XOX truffles are a study in simplicity and an international adventure. Chocolate is grown on Africa's Ivory Coast, processed in France and shipped to the United States. From there, it's simple: Pour boiling cream over chocolate and flavoring, mix, cool, shape into irregular pieces that look like giant raisins and roll in cocoa powder or other coatings. Voila! Chocolate heaven, tiny bite-sized truffles with melt-in-your mouth fillings.
Gorce says truffles got their name because their shape resembles the aromatic fungus prized by French chefs. Gorce makes more than two dozen flavors of these chocolate nuggets, including some made with white chocolate or soy milk. There's a white truffle named for Casimira, the most popular truffle is caramel, but you can't go wrong with anything that sounds good and for the indecisive, you can just order an assortment.
The shop is a short walk up Columbus from Ghirardelli Square, or down Columbus from the main part of North Beach. Get off the cable car where it crosses Columbus and walk uphill about a half block.
The shop also serves coffee and has a few tables on the sidewalk. It makes a good place to stop if you're walking between the waterfront and North Beach.
If you get hooked (which you may), or want to taste but can't visit, you can order their truffles online. The truffles will keep 2-3 months in the refrigerator, but don't worry - they'll be eaten long before they have a chance to spoil!
The chocolate in this photograph is the burnt caramel truffle. Being chocoholics, we couldn't wait to try them after the purchase. They literally stopped us in our tracks; they tasted so good. For a few moments, other visitors just had to walk around us, while we stood there, savoring the chocolatey, silky richness, rolling our eyes and going "ooh!"
Recchiuti's skill with chocolate texture is unparalleled, and the surfaces of their truffles are as shiny as glass. But their real forte (in my opinion) are unusual flavor pairings, which include combinations like Tarragon Grapefruit + Cardamom Nougat, chocolate-coated "Key Lime" apples and rose caramel. And their burnt caramel is perfection.
Recchiuti sells a cute little box of truffles with San Francisco scenes on the top. If you're looking for something to take home, they're tempting. If I were there with you, I'd tell you to resist and pick something more unusual instead.
Dandelion Chocolate is one of the latest wave of chocolate-makers who want to take up where the ground-breaking, San Francisco-born Scharffenberger Chocolate left off. At Dandelion, they stay focused. Everything is a 70/30 chocolate/sugar blend. But that doesn't mean all their bars taste the same.
Dandelion's small batch bars are each made from cacao beans grown in just one small area and purchased directly from the growers. At their factory and shop in the Mission District at 740 Valencia Street, you can sample their products, take a fun factory tour, take classes in chocolate tasting and even sign up for a hands-on chocolate-making lesson.
The easiest thing to do is walk in and sample the chocolate. Then get a cup of Four Barrel coffee or a hot hot chocolate (or a frozen one) with one of their yummy-looking S'Mores made with a homemade marshmallow and singed with a blow torch.
Take a seat along the wall beside the work area and you can watch the chocolate being made. Questions are encouraged. In fact, this might just be the only place where any visitor can engage with the chocolate makers.
The small factory inside the store works 7 days a week. They give one tour daily in the early evening and have limited capacity. To avoid disappointment, you should make a reservation at least a month ahead of time. Younger children aren't allowed on the tour, but they can participate in a chocolate class that's just for kids.
Dandelion is open late enough that you could easily have dinner somewhere nearby and stop by for dessert.
Dandelion's production is very limited (only 500 to 1,000 bars a day) and it's the most expensive of the chocolate shops on this list. But well worth it, in my opinion.
Dandelion isn't the ultimate chocolate destination for everyone. They don't serve gooey hot fudge sundaes or chocolate-covered anything. But if you seriously enjoy food, chocolate and unique experiences, it's a don't miss.
Jade Chocolates is a little outside the usual, tourist-filled part of San Francisco, but well worth your time to get there. They're located at 4207 Geary Boulevard, on the way from downtown to the Cliff House and Ocean Beach.
Jade's owner Mindy Fong is a native San Franciscan of Chinese/Filipino heritage. The think that makes her chocolate special is the way she uses Asian teas and spices. Her Dragon's Breath bar is 65% bittersweet chocolate mixed with smoky lapsang souchong tea, sesame seeds and just the right amount of warming red chili.
It was my favorite among the dozens of chocolates we tasted while researching this article, but it wasn't the only big hit. Being impatient, we had to taste the macadamia nut tile as soon as we got it out of the store. It was so delicious that we went right back in to get another.
Besides chocolate bars and truffles, the shop has a hot chocolate menu and serves interesting-sounding “tea floats.” You can buy online, but some flavors are available only in the store.
Jade's wrapped bars are exceptionally beautiful and would make a great gift to take to friends back home. To make it all even better, Jade's chocolate tiles are slightly less expensive than they were at the other shops we visited.
The only downside at Jade is that they no place to sit down and get immediate gratification from your purchase.
In a bit of whimsy, they say their mascot Harriet the alpaca flies around the world looking for unusual flavors. It might not be literally true, but they do create some unique flavor combinations that include chai, Vietnamese coffee and scorchingly-hot sriracha chocolate.
The staff is cheerful and helpful, and the shop has a small sitting area.
For several years, TCHO had a shop and gave factory tours on the San Francisco waterfront, but they moved to Berkeley in mid-2014. You can check their website to find out if factory tours have resumed. Meanwhile, you can find their chocolate bars in many local shops or at their kiosk in the Westfield Center at 865 Market St. One of their most popular flavors is Mokaccino (flavored with local favorite Blue Bottle Coffee). They also make a variety of pure chocolate bars ranging from milky to bitter.
Ghirardelli isn't new to the San Francisco chocolate scene. In fact, they claim to be the oldest continuously operation chocolate maker in the USA. They may not be artisan, but no discussion of San Francisco chocolate would be complete without them. These days, you can find their products all over the place, making them less of a treat to take home than they once were, but a hot fudge sundae from their soda fountain at Ghirardelli Square is still a chocolatey, gooey San Francisco treat.
Chocolate and Gelato at Gelateria Naia
If I want my chocolate frozen, I love Gelateria Naia (520 Columbus Ave) in North Beach, where they use local products to flavor their oh-so-creamy gelato. Try flavors that include Blue Bottle Coffee, Michael Recchuiti's almost-but-not-quite-burnt caramel or TCHO chocolate.
San Francisco Chocolate Tours
Chocolate Tours offers a couple of kinds of chocolate tours, including one that pairs chocolate with port wine. Gourmet Walks also offers a chocolate-focused walk that goes from the waterfront to Union Square.