When you land in San Francisco, there are many things to learn about food. For instance, you might, of a morning after the night before – perhaps when one too many Mai Tais have been partaken of – stumble into a local restaurant and ask for a Joe’s Special without knowing exactly what it consists of (spinach, onions, mushrooms, eggs and ground beef, now that you’re asking).
Or you might of another morning after the night before – perhaps when one too many Irish coffees have been sipped – shuffle into a local café and ask for a Hangtown Fry, which, as any panhandler on his way to the Sierra Nevada knows, comprises scrambled eggs, bacon and oysters.
Specials and fries are one thing, and are possibly ordered and eaten in the knowledge that you deserve any stomach upset you might get. Brunch, however, is always something of a comfort zone. Brunch should never be rushed. It should never be something to do between trips to the shops (that’s what sawdust, tooth-rot snacks in crinkly packets are for), but should rather be taken seriously and slowly.
Seeing as there are over 5,000 places to eat in San Francisco (more per capita than any other major city in the US), it comes as little surprise to discover that, after truly splendid scenery, the second most popular reason for visiting this most hospitable of cities is its restaurants.
Like New York, another venerable US city where brunching is a total pleasure, San Francisco consists of grid-based neighbourhoods. Neighbourhoods within city limits are good things; it means that there is a sense of community, a sense of belonging; it means that small restaurants can survive the sometimes over zealous attacks of their city-centre counterparts; it means that local residents can get to know local chefs.
Ultimately, it all adds to a better eating experience, which is why Manila Bowl (Twitter HQ, 1355 Market Street) comes up trumps and should be first on the list. It’s an authentic and inexpensive Filipino restaurant for anyone with a palate that yearns for something a little bit different as you chat about either business or leisure over food.
Interestingly, Filipinos are the second largest population of Asians in the US and the largest in California, so it makes sense that Pinoy food is so popular in the city and state. There are base options such as rice, salad, and/or quinoa that you can team up with traditional Filipino fare such as lechon porchetta or chicken adobo.
The former is the restaurant’s most generous dish with slow-roasted, extraordinarily crispy-skinned pork belly. Topped with pickled vegetables and with signature sweet gravy on the side, you might not be able to walk after this one.
The latter is pitched as the national dish of the Philippines and comes slow-cooked in a blend of bay leaves, garlic, soy sauce, vinegar, and black peppercorns. It arrives overlaid with pickled vegetables, fresh tomatoes, and crunchy fried garlic. If that isn’t ‘yum’ enough for you, then we’re not sure what is.
Should Manila Bowl be a trifle too casual for you, head to Ocean Beach and get thee to the Cliff House (1090 Point Lobos Avenue). Built in neo-classical style in 1909, the present Cliff House was renovated over 14 years ago, and boy, does it look good. In fact (whisper it) it’s almost too good for brunch. Almost.
Perched on breathtakingly impressive cliffs that overlook the Pacific Ocean, Cliff House is not just one of the crown jewels of San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area but it’s also justifiably regarded as one of the best restaurants in the region. With impossibly grand views and art deco décor (think Hollywood, think Bette Davis having a Brandy Alexander and a bitching session with Joan Crawford), the food just has to suit the surroundings, which it does. It’s pricey for brunch (Dungeness crab cakes at $18.50; Classic San Francisco Fish Stew at $34), but only by US standards.
If Cliff House is too far away from the city centre, then try these for size. Brenda’s French Soul Food (652 Polk Street) is by this point a byword for comfort-food quality and quantity.
Its New Orleans-inspired menu features highlights such as brioche French toast (with certain death by butter-pecan sauce), fried chicken eggs Benedict, filled beignets, and chicory coffee. That’s the good news; the bad is that you might have to wait for the best part of an hour for a table.
With that in mind (and, of course, your poor bewildered stomach), you might choose instead a restaurant that has one of the longest weekend brunch times in San Fran – Saturday (10am-3pm) and Sunday (10am-5pm).
Kaya SF (1420 Market Street) produces contemporary Jamaican dishes that include coconut French toast, brown sugar plantains, sweet’n’spicy black pepper crab, and jerk chicken sandwiches. If you have a mind to stick around for a little bit longer you might just be persuaded to partake in a rum cocktail or two.
If you aren’t around at the weekends, then a weekday brunch at Outerlands (4001 Judah Street) will surely fit the bill. With driftwood décor, coffee on tap and a vast array of baked goodies (by pastry chef Brooke Mosley), some people are hooked for a quick foodie fix as soon as they walk in.
Others, meanwhile, root themselves to the spot for brunch dishes (and house specialties) such as the Cornbread Benedict or the Everything Plancha Bread, which sees a sizeable plank of house-made bread smothered by fried eggs, avocado, goat lebneh (Middle Eastern soft cheese), and pickles. Outerlands is mostly a vegetarian–friendly place, but if you fancy adding a sliver or two of bacon to the plate then it’s yours for an extra few dollars.
You might think it wouldn’t get any better, but we have (hopefully, depending on taste) kept the best until last. Beretta (1199 Valencia Street) has a weekend Italianate brunch menu that is about as sinfully enjoyable as you can get without feeling like you have to go to confession.
From Prosciutto Scramble (asparagus and mozzarella, potatoes, mixed greens) and Pasta Chilaquiles (fried eggs, ricotta salata, tomatillo-avocado sauce) to Florentine Dumplings (semolina, Italian ham, spinach, béchamel, tomato, parmesan) and the fiery Eggs Purgatorio (your favourite eggs steeped in peppery sauce, with added uber-spicy salami), brunch here is a hoot.
Factor in the joint’s cocktails (we’re going for the Italian Spiderman – Aperol, vermouth, grapefruit, salt), and brunch here is a woo-hoo hoot.
So, there you go – food in San Francisco, baby. You’ve really got to visit, you know. And I have to go back, too, because – wouldn’t you know it – I left my heart there.
Tony Clayton-Lea is a freelance pop culture/travel writer. His primary aim when traveling is to avoid obvious tourist traps, to make sure an intriguing laneway never goes undiscovered, and to unearth the perfect place for people watching.
Stay up-to-date with Tony’s writing by visiting his website, tonyclaytonlea.com.