In middle America, and even Los Angeles, cheese is abundant. Not in the same way that it is in the Adelaide Central Market, where brie and camembert vie for attention with vintage cheddars and stilton, but in the way where thick yellow slabs dominate all other ingredients.
So when arriving off the plane in San Francisco, we had diminished hopes for a culinary culture that would rival Adelaide or Melbourne.
Yet San Fran was a surprise. Its main attractions – the fascinating Alcatraz, and the almost mandatory bike ride across the stunning Golden Gate Bridge – more than live up to expectations, despite hordes of tourists.
Stepping into the main street, beautiful heritage buildings and vintage trams give the city a charisma more like to what you’d expect in New York or Europe.
And the food is diverse and delicious. Like Australia, SF benefits from a multi-cultural heritage. China Town is a must visit, while the city’s Italian and Mexican migrants add spice to the mix of restaurants.
So here’s the must-try food hot spots in San Francisco.
We know that the Central Market is special, and that South Australians are a bit spoiled by our farmers’ markets, so it’s always fascinating to see how other cities do it. At the Ferry Building along the Harbour is a small fresh food market, and on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings, the local farmers and chefs come together to create a full market. You will find unpasteurised cheese, local brussels sprouts (as trendy as kale in SF), and mouth-watering sandwiches, burgers and seafood from local restaurants. As far as markets compare, Adelaide’s still wins for scale and variety, but this one is well-worth the visit.
If, like me, you have been ruined by Bar 9 and other Adelaide coffee specialists, you won’t be able to stomach a bad espresso. So head straight to a Blue Bottle café. They’ll even accept your pretentious three-quarter latte order without a single eyebrow raise.
In the US, a great burger is not difficult to find; even a dodgy-looking diner in the middle of nowhere can produce a burger, fries and milkshake to rival some of the most hip burger joints in South Australia.
In San Fran (or LA), checking out an In and Out Burger has become obligatory for Aussie travellers. If you want something a little more upmarket, check out Fog City. The revamped diner makes a classic American cheeseburger with a few twists.
SF’s harbour has an ample supply of glamorous restaurants lining the water’s edge. They are the kind of high-end places you see in movies, where fish swim in floor-to-ceiling tanks, and tech companies are bought and sold over freshly shucked oysters and Chablis.
We chose the Waterbar, which has the above-mentioned fish tanks and gorgeous views of the Bay Bridge, with a menu that changes depending on what fish is available. The meal was exceptional: oysters, buttery soft scallops, fresh fish from nearby waters and incredible desserts. Plus, the sommelier really knows his stuff – he’s even visited the Barossa.
Waterbar is the kind of restaurant where you splash out and feel like it was worth every penny.
I’d never heard of Cioppino, an Italian-American fish stew which originated from San Francisco, and opted to try it rather than the city’s other famous dish, clam chowder. As we were reliably formed by the internet, the best can be found at Sotto Mare, a small, authentic-looking place in North Beach.
The stew arrives in a giant silver pot – a fragrant and thick tomato-based soup with shellfish, prawns and fish, served simply with bread. It’s warm, comforting and delicious.
SF’s Chinatown is the oldest neighbourhood of its kind in America. A walk through it brings sensation overload – grocers, fish mongers, butchers, restaurants and clothing stores of every kind spill out into the street. The Golden Gate Bakery is famous for its egg tarts.
We went upmarket for lunch, venturing slightly out of Chinatown to Hakkasan. The menu was at once mouth-watering and overwhelming, so we picked a short banquet lunch and left the rest to the staff – a decision we didn’t regret. The highlight was deep-fried dumplings that were light, crispy and delicate.
A fun fact – Americans love happy hours. In San Francisco, a city where the average annual income is more than $US25,000 above the nationwide average, seeking out bargains is almost essential.
Located in the financial district, Tropisueño was filled with suits and conference-goers when we headed there on a Thursday afternoon. We were drawn by the promise of $5 margaritas and weren’t disappointed. You get free chips and nachos, and the guacamole, tacos and ceviche are all (by Australian standards) very cheap.
And make sure you don’t miss happy-hour oysters. At 9pm you’d pay $4-5 a pop, and far more for a glass of wine, but between 4pm and 6pm you’ll be happy slurping down these freshly shucked delicacies for $1-2 each.
Located in the Ferry Building on Embarcadero, The Hog Island Oyster Co is an institution. We used our last hour in the city (conveniently timed to coincide with happy hour) to sit, take in the water and the Bay Bridge, drink a Napa Valley Chardonnay and eat dozen oysters – no thick slices of cheese in sight.
A number of airlines offer flights from Australia (ex-Sydney) to San Francisco via Los Angeles; South Australian travellers can also fly from Adelaide via Dubai with Emirates, or via Singapore with Singapore Airlines. Qantas announced yesterday that it will be introducing direct flights from Sydney to San Francisco six days a week from December under a new deal with American Airlines.
The author was a guest of Waterbar, Hakkasan, Hotel Zephyr and San Francisco Travel.