Since the days of the Gold Rush, San Francisco has been a city whose culture — food included — has been affected by influxes. Today, the abundance and diversity of produce that flows year-round into the city’s farmers markets from the Central Valley inspire chefs at farm-to-table restaurants to tweak their menus daily based on what they discover at the markets. This allows them to create fresh experiences, even for returning diners, in environments that emphasize food and flavor over furnishings and fuss. At the same time, the swelling population of technology and financial workers has elevated the cost of living to the point where restaurants struggle to find staff who can afford to live in town. That shortage has created a surge of chef-driven, fast-casual restaurants that appeal to San Franciscans who want to pick up food after a long day — or order their meals via an app.
San Francisco boasts a generous batch of excellent bakeries such as Tartine, B. Patisserie and Jane. To stand out here, a baker needs to have guts and talent. Craftsman and Wolves (craftsman-wolves.com , 746 Valencia St., 415-913-7713) has both. It is helmed by two-time James Beard-award finalist William Werner and bills itself as “a contemporary patisserie,” an apt description of this clean, modern space in the hipster Mission District. (There is also a smaller location in Bayview.) Most important, the pastries dazzle. The staff are warm and patient with a newcomer as they explain their signature pastry, the rebel within ($7.25), a savory, cheesy muffin with a touch of green onions and sausage, and a soft boiled egg in the center; and how to pronounce kouign amann (“queen ah-man”) ($4.25 to $5.50), a buttery croissant made in a muffin mold with a layer of caramelized sugar on top. This heavenly creation seems to be San Francisco’s pastry of the moment, so make sure to enjoy one while it’s fresh and still has its sugary crunch on top. The spot has a laptop-friendly vibe with plenty of seating for customers who want to linger over one of the exotic tarts, such as one made from whipped coffee, coconut and yuzu.
What’s a trip to San Francisco without dim sum? However, my sources reported that legendary dim sum spots such as Yank Sing have developed long lines and astronomical prices, so locals have shifted their loyalties to spots a little farther out. Thus, I found myself at Hong Kong Lounge II ( hongkonglounge2.com, 3300 Geary Blvd., 415-668-8802) in the Inner Richmond District. HKLII was opened by Annie Ho in 2012 and was recognized with a Michelin Bib Gourmand Award in 2017 and 2018. By focusing on careful preparation and high-quality ingredients, Ho has built a loyal following in a clean, well-run spot on an unassuming suburban corner. Instead of dim sum carts, HLKII relies on knowledgeable staff and an extensive written menu, so food comes out hot and fresh, and diners can create a balanced meal without the frantic over-ordering one can easily succumb to when carts roll by. On the dim sum menu, try the shrimp dumplings ($7.95), baked pork buns ($5.95), Shanghai dumplings (soup dumplings) ($10), and sautéed pea shoots ($16). HKLII doesn’t take lunch reservations and waits can vary from 40 minutes on weekdays to up to 2 hours on weekends, so plan accordingly.
An extraordinary dining experience is about more than an excellent meal. It’s when the staff works as a team and brings a palpable joy to their work that somehow seasons the food. It’s when the cocktail is a perfectly balanced sip of tangy, sweet and spicy. And even the bite of honeycomb bathed in white chocolate that comes with the check leaves just the right amount of lasting sweetness. That was the evening I had at Rich Table (richtablesf.com, 199 Gough St., 415-355-9085) in Hayes Valley. The market-driven, 50-seat restaurant, opened in 2012 by Sarah and Evan Rich, just earned its first Michelin star. The menu is tweaked daily by chef de cuisine Brandon Rice based on what inspires him at the farmers market. Don’t pass up the truly innovative sardine chips with horseradish crème fraîche ($2 each) and dried porcini doughnuts ($9) that are always on the menu. Try the aged beef wonton with chili oil and sesame ($5), and if in season, the roasted cauliflower with lardo, sweet onion and hazelnut ($27). On the cocktail menu devised by bar manager Tommy Quimby, try El Beso Rojo, with mezcal, blood orange, passion fruit and ancho reyes, or the popular persimmon Negroni ($12). If reservations aren’t available, some line up before 5 p.m. for a seat at the lively bar, which is packed with chatty diners until 10:30 p.m.