(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)
San Francisco has a way of grabbing hold of its visitors and taking them for an incredible ride, whether they're dangling off the side of a cable car or maneuvering the steep hillside curves of Lombard Street.
But that doesn't mean they want to feel as though they've been flimflammed every time they get a restaurant check. Unfortunately, the stratospheric price of dining here is nearly as well-known as the city's iconic bridges.
FOR THE RECORD:
San Francisco dining: An Oct. 31 article on inexpensive dining in San Francisco identified Cowgirl Creamery, an artisanal cheese maker that has a location in San Francisco's Ferry Building, as Cowboy Creamery. —
So we went to the people who know San Francisco's 3,500 restaurants best — its residents — and asked for suggestions on how to eat well on a budget.
Our local experts include Gavin Newsom, the city's mayor; Jan Newberry, food and wine editor for San Francisco magazine; Patricia Unterman, restaurant critic and author; and Tannis Reinhertz, chair of the culinary arts program at City College of San Francisco.
Their advice helped us develop this list of 20 great San Francisco meals for under $20, our fifth in an occasional series on getting the best value for your vacation dining dollar.
1. Ferry Building Marketplace
The fog had lifted, giving way to a bright blue sky; the wonderful picture postcard that is San Francisco beckoned. So why hide out inside a restaurant and waste this beautiful day?
We didn't. Instead, we hopscotched our way through the Ferry Building, a historic structure at the foot of Market Street packed with shops that celebrate food. We stopped at every stall that played a siren song: The Farm, where we bought heirloom tomatoes and grapes ($7); the fragrant Acme Bread shop for a sourdough round and olive rolls ($3.30); the Cowboy Creamery for a cheese platter ($12); and the Wine Merchant for a bottle of La Closerie des Lys ($9).
FOR THE RECORD:
San Francisco dining: An article in the Oct. 31 Travel section on inexpensive dining in San Francisco identified Cowgirl Creamery, an artisanal cheese maker that has a location in San Francisco's Ferry Building, as Cowboy Creamery. —
We ate our picnic lunch outside, with views of Coit Tower and the Bay Bridge — postcard perfect.
We loved: the variety and location.
We didn't love: scoring a place to park.
Ferry Building Marketplace, 1 Ferry Building; , http://www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com
2. Il Cane Rosso
Champagne tastes on a beer budget? Daniel Patterson's sandwich shop and rotisserie, Il Cane Rosso (the Red Dog), gives diners a chance to try the food of this four-star chef for a fraction of the cost at Coi, his higher-end restaurant. Another plus: Million-dollar views of the bay are part of the package.
The restaurant uses local products, so the menu varies day to day. A list of dishes is scrawled on butcher paper mounted above the counter; in the background an open kitchen buzzes.
The menu is small — only two items at dinner and seven at lunch. The beef brisket bollito sandwich ($9) is the popular favorite in the afternoon. The main choice at dinner is a three-course meal for $25 (budget travelers would order á la carte); when we visited the entree was polenta and sausage, a warm and comforting choice on a cool San Francisco evening.
We loved: the view.
We didn't love: the service, which was slow and inattentive.
Il Cane Rosso, 1 Ferry Building No. 41, Embarcadero; (415) 391-7599, http://www.canerossosf.com
3. Hog Island Oyster Co.
"Too expensive," a friend said about this popular Ferry Building oyster bar. "But a fabulous view. And very S.F.-cool. Maybe you can get a meal under $20."
Hog Island Oyster Co. definitely qualifies as a happening place: lots of upscale types milling around and sucking down oysters and beer. And the view of the bay is a stunner.
But can you get a meal under $20?
It depends on how hungry you are — and how many oysters you need to quell your cravings.
Two companions shared a mixed plate of 12 ($30) and were happy when they finished. I tried the signature grilled cheese ($14) and was similarly happy. But I also saw some diners with $56 trays of oysters in front of them. I hope they shared.
We loved: the fresh, clean flavor of the oysters.
We didn't love: the clam chowder, overflowing with unshucked clams and salty broth.
Hog Island Oyster Co., 1 Ferry Building, No. 11, Embarcadero; (415) 391-7117, http://www.hogislandoysters.com.
4. The Educated Palate
Eager young servers scurried to and fro within the light and airy dining room of the Educated Palate — lots of eager young servers; in fact, one for each table. You certainly can't fault the service here. The food ranks high on our list too.