While touristy downtown San Francisco has always been a great place for hotels, happy hour and shopping, the city’s center, Union Square and the streets surrounding it, has rarely been a food destination among locals — until now. In the past year or so, the area has gone through a culinary transformation. Here are four restaurants in downtown SF that should be on your radar for their delicious food and enticing atmosphere.
While it took some time for the neighborhood to become a culinary hot spot, foodies having been traveling to Union Square for years for one reason: to dine at this Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star restaurant. The area veteran, which sits inside Taj Campton Place hotel, has launched the careers of star chefs such as Bradley Ogden, Jan Birnbaum, Laurent Manrique and Daniel Humm. Since 2008, chef Srijith Gopinathan has helmed the kitchen, crafting Southern Indian-infused California cuisine. He spices up local ingredients in his tasting menus. Expect dishes like shallot-crusted black cod with coconut rice and lime-chili essence or tandoori guinea hen with kale composition, paneer (Indian cheese) and carrot jus. The fine-dining restaurant is a must for its flavorful dinners, but you should try lunch there, too. The midday naan bar offers the addictive Indian bread topped with items such as lamb kebab, pickled onions, cucumbers and spicy yogurt, as well as curried shrimp, cherry tomatoes, black rice and green onions.
398 Restaurant and Bar
A little less than a year ago, Hotel G opened on Geary and Mason streets. Its restaurant, 398 Restaurant and Bar, began serving its Euro-American fare in December. With its incredibly high ceilings, 398 is spacious and airy, but with a worn-in feeling that’s somehow chic and charming. There are exposed beams and pipes, dark woods and crimson accents, chalkboards that display food-centric quotes, and a bar that’s covered in floral wallpaper. The menu is French-inspired, so expect to see a delectable classic escargot appetizer that’s doused in a heavy shower of garlic-parsley butter, melt-in-your-mouth scallops with brown butter and slivered almonds, and traditional steak frites that come with your choice of béarnaise, blue cheese or peppercorn sauce. There’s also a lovely selection of charcuterie, several pâtés and terrines, and a trio of tartares. The wine list is extensive and features local favorites as well as French varietals. The Brian Felley- and Mo Hodges-crafted cocktails are innovative and potent. The Peter Rabbit, for instance, is a fresh but not overly herbaceous concoction made with mezcal, chartreuse, lemon, agave, arugula, jalapeño and salt.
A block from bustling Union Square is this nearly year-old gastropub that brews its own beer and dishes out first-rate bar food. Part German beer hall, part American sports bar, the space is open and inviting with plenty of long communal tables and lots of stools. There are several televisions, including a wall-sized projector, making it an ideal spot for catching a Giants game. Stop in for lunch or dinner, or grab a glass of Bartlett Blonde and a couple of snacks in between the two. The food is elevated pub grub like wings slathered in a spicy Calabrian chili sauce; flatbread with pulled pork, smoked mozzarella and fresh pineapple; and a grass-fed burger with cheddar stout rarebit sauce and crispy onions. The constantly changing beer menu spotlights California brews and a few preferred international bottles. There’s also a cider selection and bonded-based (higher-proof alcohol) cocktail list.
Liholiho Yacht Club
A modern Hawaiian restaurant with Japanese, Indian and California sensibilities isn’t something that you would think to find a few blocks west of Union Square, but that’s exactly what you’ll get when you walk into chef Ravi Kapur’s raved-about new spot on Sutter Street. The laid-back restaurant is light and casual and, once you’re inside, you almost feel as if you’ve been transported somewhere with sand. The delightful tropical cocktails are a little too easy to sip, especially The Skipper, a drink that combines aged rum, amaretto, pineapple and lemon. The food that’s prepared in a large open kitchen is thoughtful, but not fussy, and has plenty of interesting layers. For example, the beet salad comes with yellow beets instead of red; it packs crunch from sunflower seeds and crispy sunchokes; and the dish is coated tableside, per the waiter’s instructions, in a tangy shiso-ranch dressing. Beyond that winning starter, there are plenty of unorthodox proteins on offer: tuna belly, game hen, marinated squid and lamb ribs, to name a few.