A local’s guide to eating your way through San Francisco on a budget
San Francisco is a foodie’s playground, with everything from lowbrow to highbrow, greasy spoon to locally sourced, and artisanal everything. And even as this city’s reputation for being one of the priciest places to exist in the world continues to grow, it is more than possible to eat well – very well – on a budget.
If you could look at the San Francisco itineraries of a random sampling of people, chances are good that you’d find Fisherman’s Wharf at or near the top of most of those lists. And we get it. It’s here that you can watch the large, leisured sea lions laying out on the docks, sunbathing at Pier 39; where carts left and right are selling the city’s iconic clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl; and where you can indulge in an enormous ice cream sundae and watch the mesmerising churning of liquid chocolate at Ghiradelli Square. It’s also where you can find yourself squashed among throngs of tourists, as you elbow past what seems like every other person visiting SF, fighting to be first in line to pay for your overpriced souvenirs.
Luckily, life doesn’t need to be like this.
Avoid Fisherman’s Wharf, and to get your fix of clam chowder in a bread bowl, head to Swan Oyster Depot. This spot is a San Francisco institution, and has been serving up delicious, fresh seafood in the Nob Hill neighbourhood for over 100 years. It’s worth noting that there is very limited seating, so expect the possibility of a wait, but know that it is well worth standing in line for. And don’t forget your cash, this place doesn’t accept credit cards.
Another budget-friendly SF staple that’s been getting it right and doing it the same way for over half a century is Red’s Java House, nestled just below the Bay Bridge (San Francisco’s “other” bridge) on Pier 30. It isn’t glamorous, and its menu is basic, but it’s damn good and loved by locals. Enjoy a burger on more of the city’s famous sourdough bread as you sit outside and take in the unbeatable Bay Bridge views and breathe in the wonderfully salty air. Tip: If you’re going to a Giant’s game (which we highly recommend if they’re playing during your trip), this is a great place to grab a bite before heading to the stadium.
North Beach is the city’s Italian neighbourhood, so it’s no surprise that this is where you come if you want good pizza. While there are a lot of opinions about where to get the best slice, two spots rank consistently high and those are Tony’s and Golden Boy. Tony’s is a bigger restaurant with a menu that includes Italian classics like pasta, but you’re coming here for the award-winning pizzas. They specialise in Napoletana-style, and only make 73 of those per day, so if that’s the type you’re after, come early. Other styles include classic American, Italian, Detroit, Sicilian, New York, and more.
For something a bit faster, more casual, and less expensive, go for Golden Boy’s thick, delicious focaccia pizzas, which can be bought by the sheet or by the slice. We recommend purchasing slices of a few different varieties along with a cold beverage, taking them to-go, and walking the block and a half to Washington Square Park to enjoy your delicious bounty on the grass in the sun (or very possibly, under Karl the Fog).
A culinary must is the Mission-style burrito. Unsurprisingly, they’re found in the Mission district, which historically is the Mexican neighbourhood of San Francisco, however they’ve been joined by groups from other Latin American countries in recent decades. When it comes to choosing the best burrito? As one local puts it, “Loyalties are fierce and divided, but Taquería El Farolito, located at 24th & Mission, and one simply known as La Taquería, are strong contenders. La Cumbre claims to have invented the large Mission-style burrito which has since spread to other Mexican neighbourhoods in the Bay Area, and far beyond via chains like Chipotle. Order a super with the meat of your choice (though I especially recommend Farolito’s carnitas, or pork).”
When you’re ready for something a bit sweeter, the beloved Bi-Rite Creamery is a shop serving up handmade ice cream with flavours changing daily based on what’s available, like peach cobbler with masumoto peaches and balsamic strawberry. They also have a revolving menu of soft serve, with different flavours every day of the week including green tea with black sesame on Tuesdays and salted caramel and vanilla on Saturdays.
In the colourful neighbourhood of the Castro, you’ll find Hot Cookie, a spot that churns out – can you guess? – hot cookies, all day long. Sink your teeth into classics like chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin, or live a little and go wild with flavours like their cocoa cayenne or matcha maker cookies.