San Francisco is known for a lot of things, and delicious cuisine is one of them. But some foods are so intricately tied to the city and its history that it's almost a travesty not to experience them while you're here. For a full-delve into the City by the Bay, don't miss these 11 must-try treats, sips, eats, and dishes.
Rumor is that Cioppino—a seafood stew that's like the “stone soup” of fresh-from-the-sea ingredients—originated with immigrant fishers from Northern Italy on the docks of Fisherman's Wharf, who, when returning to land without much of a catch, would ask other fishers to “chip in” for the day. The words somehow morphed into Cioppino, and this mouthwatering combo of clams, scallops, mussels, shrimp, and the West Coast's beloved Dungeness crab, all served together with tomatoes, a white wine sauce, and a side of grilled bread for dipping, was born. The dish is shell-heavy, so things like a crab fork and bib come in handy and make the dish more of an experience than a simple entree. Two great places to sample it are Sotto Mare, a family-owned North Beach institution that's nautically-themed, and Scoma's, a waterfront Wharf eatery known for its “Lazy Man's Cioppino,” served with much of the shells removed.
Crab Louie Salad
Another San Francisco staple, Crab Louie (or “Crab Louis,” as it's sometimes known) got its start on the U.S. West Coast in the early 20th century, but its exact origins remain up for debate. One thing is for sure, it's been appearing on SF menus since at last 1914. The dish consists of crab meat, hardboiled eggs, asparagus, tomato slices, and lettuce—all mixed with a flavorsome mayonnaise-based dressing. For the best crab Louie salad, look for those that use real Dungeness crabmeat over imitation crab at places like Sutro's at The Cliff House and the Palace Hotel's Garden Court, where it's known as the Signature Dungeness Crab Salad.
San Francisco is home to North America's oldest Chinatown and one of the largest populations of Chinese and Chinese-American residents of any U.S. state. It's also where you'll find the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, which has been making these thought-provoking treats in an open-kitchen (and by hand) since 1962. In fact, fortune cookies as we know them—crisp, folded sugar cookies that have predictions such as “you will travel again soon” tucked inside—are believed to have gotten their mass start here in the City by the Bay. More specifically, at the Japanese Tea Garden, originally constructed for the 1894 World's Fair in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Today you can purchase bags of them to-go from the Ross Alley gem or get them post-meal at most Chinese eateries citywide. They're also for sale at Mee Mee Bakery, on the cusp of North Beach.
While Irish coffee is indeed an Irish invention, San Francisco's Buena Vista Cafe is responsible for creating their own unique version of this frothy beverage and popularizing it with the masses. The story goes that former Buena Vista owner Jack Koeppler and travel journalist Stanton Delaplane set out to perfect a mix of Irish whisky and cream similar to what was already being served in Ireland's Shannon Airport. It took multiple tries, but they eventually settled on a recipe that's remained the same since the 1950s and served up in a clear, “heat-treated goblet” that completes the experience. And an experience it is, especially when the fog rolls in and you're sitting at the Buena Vista bar, sipping on an Irish coffee while watching the cable car make its way up to Hyde Street—a moment that's quintessentially San Francisco.
Clam Chowder in a Sourdough Bread Bowl
While the rich and creamy soup known as New England clam chowder is most obviously associated with the eastern United States, it has a solid place in San Francisco's history too, as settlers moved west and brought this delicious delicacy with them. But here in SF, it's the sourdough bread bowls that really take this dish up a notch. Boudin Bakery in Fisherman's Wharf is the best-known purveyor of this concoction of clams, white broth, with onions, celery, and potatoes served up in a loaf of fresh sourdough—using the same bread starter that the bakery first inherited more than 170 years ago. You'll also find wonderful versions of the dish at spots like The Old Clam House (on the eastern edge of Bernal Heights) and Crazy Crab’z at Oracle Park, home to the SF Giants baseball team.
It's big, bold, and beautiful, not to mention a San Francisco original. The Mission-style burrito (named for the neighborhood where it first originated) takes the standard burrito—a portable tortilla wrap traditionally filled with beans, meat, and cheese and loads it with sour cream, guac, salsa until its bursting at the seams. This overstuffed invention was born in the 1960s, with El Faro claiming the sale of the first SF burrito and Taqueria La Cumbre the idea for its assembly-line production—something that's now on full-display at taquerias throughout the district. Foil wrap holds everything together nicely and keeps the burrito warm while you eat. Pancho Villa Taqueria makes their burritos with rice or majado, meaning smothered in a savory sauce and topped with cheese. Senor Sisig uses pinto beans, cilantro cream sauce, lettuce, and adobo garlic rice for their own unique spin.
It's It Ice Cream Sandwiches
A staple dessert at San Francisco's legendary Playland-at-the-Beach amusement park, which ran from 1913 to 1972 alongside the city's Ocean Beach, for more than four decades, IT's-IT ice cream sandwiches are synonymous with the SF Bay Area. You can find these delectable treats—made up of individual ice cream flavors such as chocolate, vanilla, and classic mint sandwiched between two old-fashioned oatmeal cookies and then dipped in chocolate—at corner stores and markets from San Francisco's Nob Hill neighborhood to downtown Palo Alto. They're available in western states like Arizona, Washington, and Oregon, but rest assured they're born in the Bay Area.
While Maryland may have the market on blue crab, the Pacific waters along the U.S. West Coast are best known for their Dungeness: tender and slightly sweet crab that are a delicacy from Washington state to Santa Barbara, and a favorite among San Francisco chefs. The relationship between this idolized crustacean and the city dates back to SF's early days when Italian fisherman would cook their freshly-caught crabs in cauldrons along the wharf, attracting passersby with paper cup-filled offerings of the delicate meat. The typically Dungeness crab season runs from November through June, and you'll find it on menus citywide—though swing by Foreign Cinema or the Hayes St. Grill for top-notch dishes like crab frittata and a cracked Dungeness crab salad with lime-green chile mayo, avocado, and citrus.
Undoubtedly one of San Francisco's best weekend traditions is heading out for dim sum, especially in the city's Richmond neighborhood, where places like the two-story Ton Kiang and corner-spot Feng Ze Yuan Restaurant dish out small plates of shrimp dumplings, egg tarts, and fried sesame balls for sharing. These bite-sized portions of Cantonese eats have been a part of SF culture for well over a century, and dim sum restaurants exist citywide, but it's in the Richmond—San Francisco's 'other' Chinatown—where you'll find some of the most beloved spots. For dim-sum on the go, try Good Luck Dim Sum on Clement Street, or head to Dragon Beaux on Geary Boulevard for dim sum with a twist.
Tea Leaf Salad
Tea is a delicacy in Myanmar, where it is both drank and eaten, and perhaps no Burmese dish is as well known as lahpet thoke, or fermented tea leaf salad. It's also a San Francisco staple, thanks to the city's Burma Superstar, where this mix of fried garlic and yellow beans, sunflower and sesame seeds, tomatoes, jalapenos, dried shrimp, lettuce, cabbage, and peanuts (and of course, fermented tea leaves) has become so beloved that the restaurant even sells its own tea leaf salad kit, available on Amazon. You can also find this wonderful dish elsewhere in the city, including Superstar spin-off Burma Love in the Mission and the Richmond district's Mandalay.
Salted Caramel Ice Cream
There's nothing quite like the sweet, deeply rich taste of caramel balanced with a bit of salt, especially when it's made into an ice-cream using local, organic dairy. Today salted caramel ice cream adorns dessert menus across San Francisco and beyond, but's it's at the city's renowned Bi-Rite Creamery where this legendary flavor truly hits its stride. A part of this small-batch ice cream maker's original menu of rotating offerings, salted caramel remains an all-time favorite. Grab a scoop or two to enjoy in nearby Dolores Park, or try Smitten Ice Cream, with locations in the Mission, Hayes Valley, and Pacific Heights, which uses liquid nitrogen to create their own fresh-churned varietal.