San Francisco has a way of grabbing hold of its visitors and taking them for an incredible ride, whether they’re dangling off the side of a cable car or maneuvering the steep hillside curves of Lombard Street.
But that doesn’t mean they want to feel as though they’ve been flimflammed every time they get a restaurant check. Unfortunately, the stratospheric price of dining here is nearly as well-known as the city’s iconic bridges.
FOR THE RECORD:
San Francisco dining: An Oct. 31 article on inexpensive dining in San Francisco identified Cowgirl Creamery, an artisanal cheese maker that has a location in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, as Cowboy Creamery. —
So we went to the people who know San Francisco’s 3,500 restaurants best — its residents — and asked for suggestions on how to eat well on a budget.
Our local experts include Gavin Newsom, the city’s mayor; Jan Newberry, food and wine editor for San Francisco magazine; Patricia Unterman, restaurant critic and author; and Tannis Reinhertz, chair of the culinary arts program at City College of San Francisco.
Their advice helped us develop this list of 20 great San Francisco meals for under $20, our fifth in an occasional series on getting the best value for your vacation dining dollar.
1. Ferry Building Marketplace
The fog had lifted, giving way to a bright blue sky; the wonderful picture postcard that is San Francisco beckoned. So why hide out inside a restaurant and waste this beautiful day?
We didn’t. Instead, we hopscotched our way through the Ferry Building, a historic structure at the foot of Market Street packed with shops that celebrate food. We stopped at every stall that played a siren song: The Farm, where we bought heirloom tomatoes and grapes ($7); the fragrant Acme Bread shop for a sourdough round and olive rolls ($3.30); the Cowboy Creamery for a cheese platter ($12); and the Wine Merchant for a bottle of La Closerie des Lys ($9).
FOR THE RECORD:
San Francisco dining: An article in the Oct. 31 Travel section on inexpensive dining in San Francisco identified Cowgirl Creamery, an artisanal cheese maker that has a location in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, as Cowboy Creamery. —
We ate our picnic lunch outside, with views of Coit Tower and the Bay Bridge — postcard perfect.
We loved: the variety and location.
We didn’t love: scoring a place to park.
Ferry Building Marketplace, 1 Ferry Building; , https://www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com
2. Il Cane Rosso
Champagne tastes on a beer budget? Daniel Patterson’s sandwich shop and rotisserie, Il Cane Rosso (the Red Dog), gives diners a chance to try the food of this four-star chef for a fraction of the cost at Coi, his higher-end restaurant. Another plus: Million-dollar views of the bay are part of the package.
The restaurant uses local products, so the menu varies day to day. A list of dishes is scrawled on butcher paper mounted above the counter; in the background an open kitchen buzzes.
The menu is small — only two items at dinner and seven at lunch. The beef brisket bollito sandwich ($9) is the popular favorite in the afternoon. The main choice at dinner is a three-course meal for $25 (budget travelers would order á la carte); when we visited the entree was polenta and sausage, a warm and comforting choice on a cool San Francisco evening.
We loved: the view.
We didn’t love: the service, which was slow and inattentive.
Il Cane Rosso, 1 Ferry Building No. 41, Embarcadero; (415) 391-7599, https://www.canerossosf.com
3. Hog Island Oyster Co.
“Too expensive,” a friend said about this popular Ferry Building oyster bar. “But a fabulous view. And very S.F.-cool. Maybe you can get a meal under $20.”
Hog Island Oyster Co. definitely qualifies as a happening place: lots of upscale types milling around and sucking down oysters and beer. And the view of the bay is a stunner.
But can you get a meal under $20?
It depends on how hungry you are — and how many oysters you need to quell your cravings.
Two companions shared a mixed plate of 12 ($30) and were happy when they finished. I tried the signature grilled cheese ($14) and was similarly happy. But I also saw some diners with $56 trays of oysters in front of them. I hope they shared.
We loved: the fresh, clean flavor of the oysters.
We didn’t love: the clam chowder, overflowing with unshucked clams and salty broth.
Hog Island Oyster Co., 1 Ferry Building, No. 11, Embarcadero; (415) 391-7117, https://www.hogislandoysters.com.
4. The Educated Palate
Eager young servers scurried to and fro within the light and airy dining room of the Educated Palate — lots of eager young servers; in fact, one for each table. You certainly can’t fault the service here. The food ranks high on our list too.
The Educated Palate, a corner dining room a few blocks from Union Square, is part of City College of San Francisco. It functions as a culinary training ground for the chefs and servers of tomorrow. And we, the tourists of today, reap the benefits. The menu is eclectic, contemporary and packed with upscale entrees that we might have to pay big bucks for if we weren’t smart enough to eat here.
A couple of our favorites: poached salmon with barley pilaf, roasted peppers and corn pesto ($10.25) and heirloom tomato and bean salad with avocado ($9.25).
We loved: the central location, the white linen tablecloths, fresh flowers on the table.
We didn’t love: that it’s open only for lunch, Mondays through Fridays.
The Educated Palate, 88 4th St., San Francisco; (415) 908-7522, https://www.ccsf.edu/campuses/Downtown/palate/index.htm
5. Farm: Table
This tiny downtown coffee shop/diner gives new meaning to the term “hole in the wall.” “We do a lot with 300 square feet,” said Kate Amitin, who co-owns the Farm: Table with her ex-husband, Shannon Amitin. (“It was an amicable split.”)
The restaurant, near Union Square and several hotels, including the Clift and Hilton, isn’t much more than a giant window on the street with one communal table inside and a couple of café tables outside. But lovely creations are served daily, and every day they’re different. The Amitins produce a cereal, an egg and a toast each day, but those descriptions don’t do the food justice. The toast might be an artistic creation topped with pears, figs and crushed almonds ($6.75), and the egg hard-boiled and served over a baguette with squash, padron peppers and cherry tomatoes ($7). Lunch is also served; soups, salads and sandwiches vary daily.
We loved: the innovative, attractive dishes.
We didn’t love: sharing the communal table with a neighborhood boor.
Farm: Table, 754 Post St.; (415) 292-7089, https://www.farmtablesf.com
6. Lers Ros Thai
A family of six got up to leave just as we sat down. “Have you been here before?” a member of that party asked us.
“No,” we answered.
“This is the best,” he said, “and we’re Thai.”
Lers Ros (my waitress translated this to mean “excellent tastes”) is close to Civic Center and is a no-frills contemporary Thai restaurant crowded with tables and diners. It opened only about a year ago and quickly became a favorite of San Francisco reviewers, who like the food and the hours; it’s open until midnight. So if you have a sudden craving for green chicken curry during the late-night news, you can rush out for a steaming bowl of it.
The restaurant’s claim to fame centers on its inventive dishes; flavors are crisp and clean and seem more distinct than at many Thai restaurants. Most dishes on the menu — there are 115 items — cost less than $8, which makes it a good bet for budget travelers.
We coupled Pad Thai Prak ($7.25) with a spicy-flavored tilapia, a whole fish topped with a chilies-based sauce ($12.95). The preparation was flashy, the tastes intriguing.
We loved: the pad thai, piled high and topped with crushed peanuts.
We didn’t love: the crammed-in feeling because tables are too close for comfort.
Lers Ros, 730 Larkin St.; (415) 400-5690, https://www.lersros.com
7. Gold Mountain Restaurant
Start your morning with a dumpling — or six — at Gold Mountain, a busy dim sum restaurant at the edge of Chinatown.
This warehouse-sized eatery seats 200 and is casual, fast and full of locals sipping tea, eating noodles, barbecue ribs and fluffy steamed buns. SF Weekly named it San Francisco’s favorite dim sum restaurant. We stopped the passing carts to try pork buns ($2), sesame seed balls ($2.20), barbecue chicken ($8.25), assorted veggies ($6.50) and a few other items that ran our bill up to $29.95. But for a group of three, that’s a bargain. If you’re adventurous, try the hot pepper chicken feet ($2.20) or boiled beef tripe ($4).
We loved: the flavors and feel of being in Asia.
We didn’t love: trying to stay out of the way of the carts.
Gold Mountain Restaurant, 644 Broadway; (415) 296-7733
8. Tommaso’s Ristorante Pizzeria
Step inside the door of this noisy Italian restaurant in North Beach and you step into the past. The brick oven here has been firing pizzas for more than 75 years, and the décor, paintings and look of the dining room haven’t changed since 1935.
The lines don’t seem to have changed much either over the years. Shortly after the nightly opening at 5, people begin to queue up on the sidewalk of this San Francisco institution. By 7 p.m., especially on weekends, the wait may exceed 90 minutes, which can be dicey on a cold night. But once you’re inside, a heaping dish of pasta or a giant wedge of pizza will warm you.
People don’t seem to mind the wait, nor eating at communal tables; they’re just happy that the pizza dough recipe has remained the same for decades. We were too. Our large mixed veggie and Italian sausage pizza pie ($25) had a crust that was puffy, crispy and a bit smoky. An old-fashioned classic.
We loved: the warm, traditional Italian atmosphere.
We didn’t love: the line. Arrive early.
Tommaso’s Ristorante Pizzeria: 1042 Kearny St.; (415) 398-9696, https://www.tommasos.com.
9. Utopia Café
If you’re searching for utopia, you’ll find it on a side street in Chinatown. Utopia Café may be an odd name for a neighborhood Chinese restaurant, but it’s appropriate in a global sort of way: great food, quiet location, rock-bottom prices and a squeaky-clean environment.
This 12-table restaurant offers a welcome retreat from the hustle and bustle of its colorful neighborhood. You’ll have to search a bit because it’s tucked away, but it’s worth the effort.
The menu offers dozens of items, from $4.25 for two egg rolls to $12.95 for a whole chicken. But the real deal is the special lunch or dinner. You’ll pay $9.95 for hot and sour soup, egg roll, vegetable fried rice and a choice of entrees, such as sweet and sour pork or vegetables with beef, a veritable feast of fresh and flavorful ingredients.
We loved: finding calm amid the stormy streets of Chinatown.
We didn’t love: how difficult it was to find. Calling ahead didn’t help because of language problems. Use MapQuest or a GPS.
Utopia Café, 139 Waverly Place (near Grant); (415) 956-2902.
10. Fog City Diner
If you don’t visit this shiny dining car for the experience, visit it for the food. It offers an eclectic mix of diner favorites (mac and cheese, $10) and upscale, trendy dishes (yellowfin tuna and miso-marinated calamari, $10).
The highly chromed dining car, which opened 25 years ago, is between the Embarcadero and Fisherman’s Wharf and makes a great stop, especially with kids. It was recently renovated and is as plush and comfy as ever. The nostalgic railroad-car theme surrounds you. Booths are overstuffed leather, dark wood panels the walls and servers wear crisp white chef’s jackets.
We satisfied some guilty pleasures and indulged in the rich, buttery mac and cheese and a diner burger, a half-pound of grass-fed chuck ($14) with fries. Fun and tasty.
We loved: the décor and ambiance.
We didn’t love: the overwhelmingly salty flavor of the food.
Fog City Diner, 1300 Battery St.; (415) 982-2000, https://www.fogcitydiner.com
11. Bistro Boudin
Is this Fisherman’s Wharf attraction a tourist trap? Yes, but much more pleasant than the other tourist traps in this beaten-track neighborhood.
Boudin Bakery produces San Francisco’s signature sourdough bread; a few years ago the business — it refers to itself as the city’s “original flour children” — took over a triangular-shaped piece of property at the wharf and turned it into one of the most fragrant spots in town. Bread-making goes on at all hours, and wonderful smells emanate.
But that’s not all. Tourists can stroll through a museum and tour the plant ($3), visit a gift shop or get a meal at a takeout deli downstairs or a bistro upstairs.
Take the stairs to the top and ask for a table on the outside patio. For the price of a sourdough bread bowl full of thick, savory clam chowder ($12.95), you’ll have a first-class view of the bay. And you don’t have to fight the crowds along the wharf.
We loved: a pleasant atmosphere amid the three-ring circus of the wharf.
We didn’t love: having to pay for the museum and bread-making tour; it should be free.
Bistro Boudin, 160 Jefferson St. (near Pier 43½); (415) 351-5561, https://www.boudinbakery.com
The sign inside the door tells the story: taco+Tecate+tequila = $10.
Or, put another way: cheap food and lots of booze. As a matter of fact, the restaurant/bar serves more than 100 kinds of tequila ($8-$30 a shot). So this isn’t the place for the kids or Grandma. But if you’re seeking a young, lively crowd, this might be your place. The food is inventive, and fellow diners are fun, which probably has something to do with all that tequila and beer.
The tacos come in a wild variety of flavors: squash-corn-chard, rock cod, tortilla-crusted fried chicken and more traditional types such as carnitas. Our mixed foursome of tacos ($12) and fried sweet plantains ($6.95) were tacolicious.
We loved: the tacos and salsa.
We didn’t love: the sloppy drunks at the next table.
Tacolicious, 2031 Chestnut St.; (415) 346-1966, https://www.tacolicioussf.com
13. Quan Bac
Sara Le loves San Francisco — and she loves cooking for San Franciscans, she said. That’s why the Vietnamese woman opened Quan Bac, her 15th restaurant in the city by the bay.
Le, who immigrated to the U.S. 20 years ago, has spent the last two decades working toward her goal — owning a dining room like Quan Bac. Unlike her earlier restaurants, which were small, Quan Bac can serve 155 diners.
Le opened the pretty dining room a little more than a year ago, serving French-style Vietnamese food and doing most of the cooking herself. Service is attentive, the portions are generous and the ambiance is tranquil. The location, near Golden Gate Park, makes it an easy, pleasant stop for tourists.
The menu has more than 100 items; we enjoyed the mixed vegetable soup ($13.95) and chicken cabbage salad ($7.95).
We loved: the unexpected flavors, such as the pineapple, that added a lively taste to our soup.
We didn’t love: how difficult parking can be.
Quan Bac, 4112 Geary Blvd.; (415) 668-8898.
14. Prime Rib Shabu
A steamy cauldron of soup bubbles at each table inside Prime Rib Shabu, a hot-pot style restaurant in the Inner Richmond neighborhood, not far from Golden Gate Park. Shabu shabu is the Japanese equivalent of Chinese hot-pot cooking. It can spark an evening’s entertainment, because you and your dining companions cook on a hotplate at your table, sort of like a fondue party with veggies.
Our server advised us to order a set dinner, so we split a hand-cut rib-eye ($18.95). Then he brought us broth and a bountiful basket full of leafy greens that included Napa cabbage, lettuce and watercress. They quickly melted in the hot broth to make an aromatic and savory soup. The next step was to dip the strips of raw meat into the soup. In less than a minute, the strips were tender and tasty. A fun and interesting dinner — and a good way to take the chill off a foggy San Francisco day.
We loved: bonding around our hot pot.
We didn’t love: looking for parking.
Prime Rib Shabu, 308 5th Ave., (415) 379-4678, no website
Three of our four food experts recommended Nopalito — and with good reason. It is a standout.
An offshoot of Nopa, one of San Francisco’s trendiest restaurants, Nopalito was designed to be an upscale neighborhood Mexican takeout kitchen. It didn’t work out that way, a nice turn of events for diners who want a margarita while they’re waiting for their dinner.
You can still get takeout food, but more people dine in than out, choosing from an outside covered patio or table and bar seating inside. We dined in, happily working our way through totopos con chile, a chips dish with cotija cheese, lime and salsa ($5) and carnitas, braised pork with a cabbage salad ($15).
Like many San Francisco restaurants, Nopalito prides itself on using “local, organic and sustainable ingredients.” The home-style preparations include grinding the masa for tortillas and tamales from organic corn. The result? Food that’s rustic and authentic. You feel as though you’re visiting Mexico, even though you’re only at a strip-mall café.
We loved: the laid-back style of the restaurant and the dynamite carnitas.
We didn’t love: a bar that serves only agave spirits. If you’re a bourbon person, you’re out of luck.
Nopalito, 306 Broderick St.; (415) 437-0303, https://www.nopalitosf.com
16. Out the Door
We almost missed this trendy restaurant when we drove by it. Not surprising, since there’s no sign. If you look closely at the glass entrance, you’ll see three letters: OTD. That’s all.
Restaurateur Charles Phan doesn’t believe in signage, said manager Johnny Reinert. “The reputation is such that his restaurants don’t need it,” Reinert said.
Phan’s empire includes six restaurants, including three OTD cafes, at the less expensive end of the scale. Phan also runs the Slanted Door, a popular — and pricey — modern Vietnamese restaurant in the Ferry Building.
OTD features Vietnam-inspired cuisine too and was originally designed for takeout only — thus the name Out the Door. The two other locations cater mainly to takeout orders. But the Bush Street café is cool and contemporary, like the beautifully presented dishes it serves.
OTD’s dinner prices put it out of our range, but it makes our cut earlier in the day. The chicken pho we ordered was hearty ($10), the green papaya salad was light ($9) and the shrimp rolls were crispy ($8). This trio of dishes amply served two. And the food ranked among our favorites.
We loved: the fresh flavors and delicious pho broth
We didn’t love: the absence of signage. Put up a real sign. Tourists like to visit too.
Out the Door, 2233 Bush St., (415) 923-9575
1 Ferry Building, No. 5, (415) 321-3740
Westfield Center, 845 Market St., Concourse Level,
17. The Mint
Mayor Gavin Newsom’s favorite lunch spot is a cramped diner in the bowels of the Civic Center Courthouse.
The restaurant isn’t much more than a few refrigerator cases, a deli counter and shelves stocked with candy and chips. But location is everything, and on a busy weekday there’s a line out the door: attorneys in suits, bored jurors wearing badges, bureaucrats taking a break from the city’s business.
I lined up with the rest and ordered the mayor’s special lunch: a chicken club wrap — huge chunks of chicken, triangles of sliced tomato, lettuce and Parmesan cheese — a half-pound of salad on a tortilla ($6.99). The sandwich was tasty, the ingredients were fresh and the portion was hearty.
Newsom rounds out lunch with an apple ($1) and Diet Snapple Metabolism Green Tea ($2.99).
“The mayor’s our most loyal customer,” said Mint owner Reem Nestra.
We loved: joining the city’s movers and shakers for lunch.
We didn’t love: that the Mint is open only until 3:30 p.m.
The Mint: Civic Center Courthouse Lower, 400 McAllister St., (415) 431-6468, https://www.mintsf.com
18. Los Compadres
You can’t miss Los Compadres: The shiny chrome and bright red paint on this gourmet taco truck stand out among the tall buildings of downtown San Francisco. This favorite stop for City Hall workers is an icon on Polk and Hayes, where it has been selling tacos and burritos at noontime since 1999. “We try to get each order out in no more than five minutes,” said cook Rafael Viscayuno.
The super taco ($6) ranks as one of the most popular items on the menu. It overflows with guacamole, rice, lettuce, tomatoes and choice of meat — we tried the spicy carnitas — and sports slices of lime and radishes, nice touches with a $6 meal. The super burrito qualifies as the other bestseller. For $7.50, it’s a tasty bargain, with a tortilla that’s double-grilled for a crisp crust and mounds of cheese, sauce, guacamole and meat.
We loved: the super tacos and burritos at super prices.
We didn’t love: that it’s not open on weekends.
Los Compadres, 101 Polk St., no phone or website.
19. R-Image Deli
A large hand-drawn sketch of a sandwich hangs alongside neon beer signs on the front window of R-Image Deli in the Mission District.
This tiny corner market-cum-liquor store and deli is a favorite cheap-eats stop for Jennifer Newsom, wife of the mayor. She loves the deli’s falafel wraps, a spicy, healthy and hearty sandwich that is prepared to order at the counter. The shop makes its own hummus and tahini sauce, manager Joseph Jada said as he whipped up a couple of sandwiches. A few other wraps and sandwiches are available too, but the specialty here is falafel.
The sandwich, which can weigh more than a pound, wins our award for biggest (literally) deal in the city. At $4.50 each, R-Deli’s falafel wraps are a super buy. Eat half for lunch and half for dinner and you’ll still be full.
We loved: the friendly service and fresh ingredients.
We didn’t love: the limited variety.
R-Image Deli, 2896–2898 Folsom St., (415) 648-5400.
Chilango’s goal, said the waitress, is to serve food that reminds diners of home.
“If that’s the goal,” I thought to myself, “I shouldn’t be here.”
Happily, Chilango’s fare doesn’t even faintly resemble my home cooking. It’s Mexican food with a San Francisco pedigree, which means it uses ingredients such as free-range and grass-fed meats, made-to-order tortillas and organic vegetables.
An open kitchen dominates the space in this Castro neighborhood cafe; images of Frida Kahlo stare out from beneath glass mosaics on the tables, black-and-white photos decorate the walls.
The word chilango, the server said, describes someone from Mexico City. It also describes the style of the food here: rustic Mexican, the kind of dishes that would be served in the Mexican capital. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the food I sampled, but the chips and chunky guacamole ($7) and the citrus-marinated ceviche del pescado ($10 lunch, $12 dinner) were outstanding.
We loved: the simple, low-key atmosphere.
We didn’t love: trying to find parking. Use mass transit. There’s a BART station nearby.
Chilango, 235 Church St.; (415) 552-5700, https://www.chilangococina.com