San Francisco is considered one of the best food cities in the United States, but it wasn’t always that way. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that chefs exploring new and creative ways to use ingredients and incorporate global flavors found a home in the city.
By the 1990s and early 2000s, those chefs had become part of the fabric of the city itself with restaurants like The Slanted Door, Delfina, and Aziza laying the groundwork for lasting culinary greatness.
While many of those influential early restaurants has since closed their doors, some have become beloved permanent fixtures on the SF food scene. From Greens to Lazy Bear, these 10 restaurants helped to define our city’s culinary landscape over the last 40 years—and are still going strong today.
Greens, est. 1979
A cornmeal-crust pizza topped with roasted squash, caramelized onion, Asiago and goat cheese, and pesto.
Founded by the San Francisco Zen Center in 1979, Greens was the first American restaurant to treat vegetarian food with the passion that, at the time, was reserved exclusively for meat. Rather than building dishes around bland tofu and sprouts, founding chef Deborah Madison incorporated little-known produce like fingerling potatoes, golden beets, and arugula from local farmers as well as from its own organic garden...and gave them flavor.
Today helmed by Katie Reicher, the bayside restaurant still delights in plant-based eats with dishes like winter vegetable risotto with caramelized onions and corn miso butter, and radiatore pasta with gorgonzola, wild mushrooms, and rye breadcrumbs.
// 2 Marina Blvd. (Fort Mason), greensrestaurant.com
Zuni Cafe, est. 1987(ish)
(Courtesy of Zuni Cafe)
Although Zuni first opened as a Southwestern-themed cafe in 1979, it wasn’t until chef Judy Rodgers joined the team in 1987 that the restaurant rose to icon status. Rodgers not only took the restaurant’s menu down a more Euro-centric path, she added a wood-burning brick oven for cooking the roast chicken that soon became a national phenomenon. Zuni went on to win multiple James Beard awards, including its most recent accolade for outstanding service in 2018. Today, Zuni’s menu includes dishes like tomatillo-braised pork, plenty of oysters and shellfish, and, of course, its cherished roasted chicken.
// 1658 Market St. (Hayes Valley), zunicafe.com
The Slanted Door, est. 1995
(Courtesy of Slanted Door)
Before Charles Phan, Vietnamese food was stuck in hole-in-the-wall takeout limbo. The SF chef showed not just the city, but the entire country, that it could be so much more. The family-owned Slanted Door, which began in the Mission, eventually became a keystone business in the Ferry Building serving dishes like cellophane noodles with crab, organic chicken clay pot with Thai chili and caramel sauce, and lemongrass tofu. Although the restaurant has taken a prolonged pandemic-related break, it is set to return in early 2023 with a renovated interior and more of the modern Vietnamese cuisine that put it on the map.
// 1 Ferry Building (Embarcadero), slanteddoor.com
Delfina, est. 1998The bar inside the newly expanded Delfina.(Albert Law)
Delfina’s 1998 opening reshaped the Mission District, turning it into the city’s most interesting neighborhood for innovative eats. The California-Italian trattoria has since spawned pizzerias from SF to Palo Alto, but it’s only at their original 18th Street location that you can try the full range of Delfina’s James Beard Award–winning menu. Fresh from a Covid-era closure and stunning renovation, Delfina is serving its cult-favorite spaghetti pomodoro and rich oxtail stracotto with risotto and bone marrow alongside new-to-the-menu house focaccia.
// 3621 18th St. (Mission), delfinasf.com
Foreign Cinema, est. 1999
(Leonard Martin Hughet)
Like Delfina the year before, the opening of Foreign Cinema in 1999 confirmed that the Mission was a bold new frontier. The restaurant where classic films were screened above the interior courtyard was one of the most ambitious projects the city had ever seen but it wasn't until 2001, when its kitchen changed hands, that Foreign Cinema also became known for its inventive Cal-Mediterranean food. The rest, as they say, is history. With dishes like calamari a la plancha with Oaxacan mole and Madras curry sesame fried chicken, Foreign Cinema remains one of SF's most cherished restaurants and special events venues. // 2534 Mission St. (Mission), foreigncinema.com
Aziza, est. 2001
The opening of Aziza marked a shift in SF's upscale culinary scene, from one dominated by Western flavors and techniques to one rich with traditional dishes from around the world. Like Charles Phan’s Slanted Door, chef Mourad Lahlou’s restaurant proved that Moroccan cuisine was exciting, elegant, and delicious. As one of the first notable restaurants in the Outer Richmond, Aziza finally gave San Franciscans a reason to go west. More than 20 years since it first opened, Aziza is still a gem with dishes like the crave-worthy basteeya with chicken confit and spiced almonds, kefta with smoked cream and burnt onions, and spreads like dill lebni with smoked trout roe.
// 5800 Geary Blvd. (Outer Richmond), azizasf.com
A16, est. 2004
(Courtesy of A16)
Pizza Napoletana is a dime a dozen in the Bay Area these days, but when A16 opened in 2004, it—along with other dishes from southern Italy—was still a rare breed. The Marina restaurant was the first in the city to have a properly certified pizzaiolo and wines from small producers that perfectly complemented the food. Their meatballs on their menu birthed a whole generation of Northern California restaurants serving the same. The Michelin Bib Gourmand A16 continues to be known for its crusty, fire-kissed pizzas, excellent wine list, and comforting southern Italian fare.
// 2355 Chestnut St. (Marina), a16pizza.com
Nopa, est. 2006
(Courtesy of Nopa)
Nopa’s 2006 opening was so monumental for the area west of Alamo Square that the neighborhood around it became synonymous with its name. Almost from the moment it opened, Nopa was known as a restaurant industry restaurant, a spot whose food and atmosphere was so on point that it was a magnet for chefs, servers, and restaurateurs from around the city. Although the two-story Nopa is no longer the only game on Divisadero, she remains a classy broad. California-Mediterranean food runs the gamut from wood-baked gigante beans with breadcrumbs to porchetta with roasted broccolini. In 2009, the team behind Nopa opened a second trailblazing restaurant, Nopalito, which ignited a new era of upscale Mexican food in SF.
// 560 Divisadero St. (Nopa), nopasf.com
State Bird Provisions, est. 2012
(Courtesy of State Bird Provisions)
State Bird Provisions didn’t just have a gimmick—small plates served push-cart dim sum-style—it had a gimmick with incredible food. The combination was a revelation that shot chef-owners Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski to national fame and a Michelin star. The frequently changing Cal-Asian menu still draws a crowd nightly, with dishes like shrimp-kimchi dumplings, fiscalini cheddar pancakes with delicata squash, and the eponymous state bird itself (California quail).
// 1529 Fillmore St. (Fillmore), statebirdsf.com
Lazy Bear, est. 2014
An artful presentation of salmon with grilled summer peach, fried almonds, nasturtium flower petals, and wild nasturtium capers.
(Courtesy of @lazybearsf)
Chef David Barzelay brought the dinner party back into vogue when his hit pop-up Lazy Bear found a brick-and-mortar home in 2014. Dinner there wasn’t just a meal, it was an event that began with guests mingling over snacks then moving downstairs for a seven-course dinner in front of an open kitchen. Almost a decade later, Lazy Bear is still hosting its soirees four to five nights a week, now with two Michelin stars to its name. Each menu is kept hush-hush until dinner begins, but you can expect to find eats that play on nostalgic foods like black cod with matsutake mushrooms and foraged aromatics, duck confit hush puppies, and grilled lamb with artichoke, date, and mints.
// 3416 19th St. (Mission), lazybearsf.com