San Francisco is a city with an absolutely stellar food and drink scene. We are lucky enough to boast some of the most talented, innovative chefs in the nation who helped to pioneer the local, sustainable organic foods movement, a large group of talented sommeliers and winemakers and many amazing mixologists who treat cocktails like works of art. We even have a collection of cicerones (the beer equivalent of sommelier) and brewers to cater to our elevated tastes for craft brews. While this means we are some of the best-fed people around it also means that we’re a city of well, how shall we say… food snobs. We can use the word “foodie” (which itself has become taboo for the too cool for school) as a euphemism for our snobbery, but it doesn’t change the fact that this food elitism can sometimes lead to preconceived notions and closed-mindedness toward some of the best spots in the city.
Case and point, Union Square – the most visited neighborhood in the City - is often cited as a place lacking in food and drink selection (that is up to the high standards of local tastes). We’re not naming names, but many a local publication has mentioned us as deficient in enticing restaurants and several have whined that the only decent option is Scala’s Bistro. In a post that will most-likely become an ongoing series, we’re here to set the record straight. Union Square is filled with delicious, snob-approved food, delicately-balanced cocktails and excellent beer and wine selections. You simply need an open mind and an open mouth to figure this out.
Yes, Scala’s is wonderful, and Jen Biesty’s Top Chef cred is enough to get any local to give it a try, but there is a lot more to Union Square’s dining scene. We boast a number of fine-dining venues sure to please distinguishing palates. The Taj Hotel’s Campton Place recently earned itself a Michelin star for its artisanal blend of California and Mediterranean fare, and Campton also has an impressive wine list that would leave any wine snob satisfied. If you’re looking for a classic French dining experience with a California twist, Masa’s is the place to be. This 25 year old San Francisco institution also boasts a Michelin star and offers five and nine-course tasting menus of delicately-flavored seasonal delights. Speaking of restaurants with Michelin stars, The Fifth Floor has seen many iterations over the years from synchronized waiters serving 12 tiny gourmet courses to today’s atmosphere of relaxed fine dining under David Bazirgan, and all have been seriously delicious and in tune with the times. The current menu’s rustic yet subtle menu of New American dishes, inspired by San Francisco’s farmer’s markets is no exception. Pioneer of what has become California cuisine Postrio was once the “it” place to be for powerful business men and women and celebs visiting the City. While much of that buzz has faded, the cuisine remains an excellent lunch option for business or pleasure. Even vegetarians with a taste for luxury can get their fix in the area, since Millennium, arguably one of the country’s top vegetarian restaurants, is just a few blocks from the heart of Union Square.
While there are many fancy places to eat out here, San Francisco is perhaps better known for the neighborhood bistro experience. In that mid-range, weekday out on the town arena, we offer a wide variety of options. E&O Trading Company comes to mind with its rich colonial décor and Asian-influenced menu of creative dishes like shiitake mushroom dumplings with foie gras miso sauce, “cellophane” kelp noodles and a variety of gourmet satays. For an intimate date, you can’t beat the wine-centric menu at First Crush. They use local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients like organic asparagus, heirloom tomatoes and Monterey bay calamari that would wow any San Francisco foodie. Their menu is a mixture of small tapas style plates and larger entrees that are great for sharing. Francophiles will enjoy a stop by the Grand Café for a long European lunch, but if you prefer a more Latin flair Colibri Mexican Bistro has a scrumptious menu of Authentic Central Mexican dishes like hearty tortilla soup, mole and chile relleno in black bean sauce. Italian lovers will be pleased to see we have several authentic Italian eateries, including Puccinni & Pinetti with its exceptional customer service and rustic Italian fare and Kuleto’s where you can sometimes catch live opera music with your carefully crafted antipasti, then stay for a full-on Italian feast.
Union Square also recently became home to two gastropubs – Jasper’s Corner Tap and Kitchen and Urban Tavern. Urban Tavern has been pleasing visitors to Union Square with its unique twist on pub food (buffalo style frog’s legs anyone?) for a few years, and newcomer Jasper’s is bound to make a splash. Jasper’s has the distinction of offering 43 different beers, a cocktail program by lauded ex Burritt Room bar manager Kevin Diedrich, wine menu by respected sommelier Emily Wines and delicious pub grub like warm soft pretzels with smoked Gouda and cheddar fondue by chef Adam Carpenter. Many of the same publications that complain about the food scene in Union Square are chomping at the bit to try this alluring combo of food and drinks.
It’s possible that San Franciscans are more snobby about hole-in-the-wall, “authentic” restaurants than they are about Michelin stars, but Union Square can stand up to any neighborhood in that department too. Lines out the door can be seen at Katana-Ya where one can score a giant bowl of their legendary Ramen for under 10 bucks. Theatre Too Café is home to some of the best falafel around. Though it’s more of a full-on restaurant than a corner café, Akiko’s Restaurant offers extremely fresh sushi often made from local, seasonal fish. Tiny café Crêpe o Chocolat has an odd combination of French and health-food influenced dishes, but it works, it really works. Their baguette sandwiches make for a delicious lunch, and their desserts (which include gluten-free and vegan options) are to-die-for.
This was a self-indulgent article to say the least, but we had to set the record straight. Now, it’s your turn to go out and experience these eateries and let us know what you think! In fact, don’t just let us know, let the whole world know! We’re sure they’ll stand up to San Francisco food aficionado standards, and we want to get the word out - we are the center of a city filled to the brim with mind-blowing, palate pleasing dishes!