Eating in San Francisco

Tartine breakfast San Francisco

The city has changed, but there is no shortage of good things to eat, such as the breakfast above at Tartine.

I love the architecture of San Francisco. The proud, almost sculpted structures that dot downtown have exteriors that boast of a wealthy and adventurous past. They may not be suitable for the 21st century. ‘Leasing’ signs are everywhere on dusty windows, with plenty of properties currently vacant. Market Street is deserted, its streets populated principally, and sadly, by the homeless (‘unhoused’ in local argot). This situation may be getting better but as the country’s final stop west, the city will always be the final stop for many.

COVID has also left a mark on restaurants, dampening a lot of innovation as well as physically leaving many sites empty. But I am delighted to report that there is still plenty of good food and drink to be enjoyed.

Starting with breakfast, I enjoyed one new find and one trusted old friend. The former was in Villon, the restaurant in the Proper Hotel on Market Street where we were served some truly superior granola and Greek yoghurt topped with a vast quantity of strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries. The recipe, which I asked for and was presented with, starts with maple syrup and ends with honey with plenty of pecans in between.

Proper granola

The second breakfast was my reward for a long walk – or should I say pilgrimage – to Tartine Manufactory, the second branch of Chad Robertson’s small group of bakeries/cafes. Off to the left of the entrance is the bakery itself where the action really takes place, the daily, continuous grind of producing what for me is the country’s finest sourdough. I ordered at the counter – bread, of course, with butter and jam and a coffee described as a ‘morning bun latte’, took my order number and sat by one of the building’s many tall windows. What arrived was pure pleasure: three thick slices of bread, the crust thick and chewy, on a plate with a generous smear of butter and a pot of strawberry jam that could have been bettered only by my late mother-in-law’s raspberry jam. US$18.19 for a great start to the day.

I spent far more money a few hundred yards away on 16th Street, at Dandelion Chocolate, which now has branches in Las Vegas and Tokyo as well as in the city’s Ferry Building. Here they have a cafe and an exquisitely laid out shop with plenty of chocolate to taste and, inevitably, buy.

A long walk back to the hotel and another via a bustling Chinatown took us to an outdoor table at a restaurant that has become a firm favourite for when the sun shines. Cotogna has embraced the outdoor seating that COVID imposed: the wooden structure is impressively strong; each table has an overhead heater and any spare chairs are piled high with thick and obviously warm blankets. The Italian flavour of this restaurant, sister to the long-established Quince next door, obviously lends itself to the sunshine that I always associate with this city and the warmth that, occasionally, accompanies it.

Cotogna outdoors

The yellow menu seems to replicate the sunshine in its colour and is replete with Italian classics given an American twist. In a country absolutely besotted with pasta, Cotogna offers nine different pasta dishes, of which the agnolotti del plin 2003 has been a long-time favourite. But I was taken instead by the spaghetti with butter (I was currently reading Butter by Asako Yuzuki, far too long a novel) and anchovies and then the petrale sole, which is reasonably local and in season until April, served here with Bloomsdale spinach and fennel. The three of us finished by sharing an olive oil-and-pistachio ice cream and believing that we were somewhere on the Amalfi coast.

It rained stormily all the following morning and into the afternoon. By the early evening it was raining again and the wind was howling. Not the setting I had in mind when I booked a table at Angler restaurant on the Embarcadero overlooking San Francisco Bay, which was choppier than I have ever seen it.

But the welcome was charming and the bar appealing, as was the lure of an excellent martini. This restaurant is in fact more American than San Franciscan: lots of waiting staff in black and white uniforms; an abundance of dark wood in the tables and chairs; and a great deal of bustle. The theme is represented by a large fish suspended over the bar, and the open kitchen and the open fires determine its cooking style.

Angler bar, San Francisco

The menu looked to be carefully edited but, overall, I found it slightly disappointing. There are half a dozen starters and main courses but no specials of the day as I would have expected from a predominantly fish restaurant. Most disappointingly, having arrived soaking wet and somewhat windswept, I found that there was no soup on the menu: surely they use enough fish for a fish soup on nights such as these when I am sure I would not be the only taker? The dessert menu is also brief with a coconut sorbet the only hint at fruit.

We chose ‘angry’ frog legs with cardamom crème fraîche, which were crisp and were especially welcome after having read that in Europe these are now on the endangered list due to over-consumption. I followed this with a fillet of Mt Lassen trout, its skin carefully blackened, the flesh moist and pink. We passed on dessert.

Mt Lassen trout at Angler

Their wine list cannot be faulted. All the big names are here – Clos St Hune, Keller and the rest – but there are few bargains, although we were directed to a Saison (the name of the restaurant group) Regan Chardonnay 2018 with fruit sourced from the Santa Cruz Mountains that was delicious and only $88 a bottle. Also delicious was the glass of the Walter Scott Cuvée Anne Chardonnay 2021 from Oregon, which the thoughtful sommelier brought to us. The bill totalled $448.92 for three – those taxes and gratuities add up.

Finally, to the Dogpatch, an area of the city between Potrero Hill and the bay, whose name derives not only from the local dogfennel but also from the packs of dogs that used to proliferate here scavenging meat parts from Butchertown, a slaughterhouse district that used to be close by.

Today, the area has been gentrified thanks in part to the building of a large paediatric hospital. This has proved good news for the owners of Piccino restaurant on Minnesota Street, which originally opened in a small location close by in 2006. Today, it occupies a sprawling corner site with a coffee bar attached. Head here for more Italian food, more pizza and excellent roast chicken, fast becoming the most ubiquitous menu item of the restaurants in this still fascinating city.

Villon Proper Hotel, 1100 Market St, San Francisco, CA; tel 628-895-2039

Tartine Manufactory 595 Alabama St, San Francisco, CA

Dandelion Chocolate 2600 16th St, San Francisco, CA; tel 415-349-0942

Cotogna 490 Pacific Ave, San Francisco, CA; tel 415-775-8508 

Angler 132 The Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA; tel 415-872-9442

Piccino 1001 Minnesota St, San Francisco, CA; tel 415-824-4224

Every Saturday, Nick writes about restaurants. To stay abreast of his reviews, sign up for our weekly newsletter.