Travellers visit San Francisco for many reasons: the landmarks, the culture, and of course, the food. Often deemed the culinary capital of California, the San Francisco Bay Area continues to turn heads and draw crowds for its forward-thinking cuisine, locally sourced ingredients, and bold flavours.
To experience all of the travel-worthy restaurants here, you’d have to plan a yearlong sabbatical. But for those on a slightly tighter schedule, we’ve done the legwork for you with our guide to the top Michelin star restaurants in San Francisco.
Running a successful restaurant in one of the most competitive food cities in the world is no easy feat. Yet Gary Danko continues to win over diners year after year, holding steady for almost two decades in the touristy Fisherman’s Wharf neighbourhood. Unlike many of the modern day “casual-chic” style San Francisco restaurants, you’ll want to don some fancier threads at Gary Danko. This restaurant adopts a traditional approach, requesting “elegant, dressy attire” for its patrons. Appropriately so, because dining here feels special – from the exclusive vibe and impeccable service to the delicious, high-end dishes.
Sample as you wish from the restaurant’s tasting menu of five courses for $119 (optional wine pairings available). Expect a blend of rich and bold flavours (like glazed oysters with caviar and seared fillet of beef) as well as fresh seafood and game dishes. Reservations are highly recommended, unless you can snag one of the 11 bar seats.
One of only a small number of Michelin star restaurants in San Francisco with the highest ranking of three stars, Benu is not just a restaurant – it’s a destination. Chef-owner Corey Lee’s ever-evolving menu does not disappoint, served up in a historic setting in the SoMa (south of market) district of San Francisco. At Benu, contemporary American cuisine incorporates a strong Asian influence, including elegant dishes such as lobster coral or a thousand-year-old quail egg.
For $285 per head, diners put their faith into Lee’s hands as a seasonal tasting menu unfolds before their eyes (course numbers vary). Dishes are thoughtfully displayed, and are just as visually appealing as they are tasty. Although Benu is most definitely a fine dining experience, the approach is decidedly down-to-earth, incorporating the “cultural and ethnic influences” of San Francisco’s diverse landscape.
Contemporary California cuisine is what’s on the menu at Coi, restaurateur Daniel Patterson’s two-star establishment. Coi’s food is strongly rooted in seasonality and locality, its tasting menu always changing to accommodate what’s readily available, and of course, delicious. Locality may be an understatement – Patterson even harvests seaweeds, barks and grasses to add an extra level of complexity to his dishes. The décor reflects the serenity of Northern California, incorporating organic materials such as walnut, clay, and grasses to set a tranquil scene.
Chef Matthew Accarrino’s success at Michelin starred SPQR is a blend of many factors: the traditions from his Italian heritage; his classical training and personal experiences; and the endless Californian ingredients around him. Despite its many accolades, this Pacific Heights restaurant is a favourite local spot that keeps it real, embracing the Italian trattoria style of warm and intimate dining.
Fresh homemade pastas and a selection of more than 300 Italian wines by the bottle – carefully curated to complement the cuisine – are just some of the reasons why this is one of the standout Michelin star restaurants in San Francisco. Sommelier Shelley Lindgren’s selection also includes three-ounce tastings, for those who want to dabble.
Just across the Bay from San Francisco, Oakland is quickly picking up steam as a top culinary destination. Commis is certainly worth the trip, set in a modern Piedmont Avenue establishment and pioneering the open kitchen model, letting diners in on the magic as it’s happening. Chef James Syhabout’s intimate space includes just 22 seats, with another six at the counter overlooking the kitchen. A $149, eight course tasting menu changes at the kitchen’s discretion – from foraged greens, flowers, pollen, and herbs, to the locally sourced meats and fish from local farmers, ranchers, and fishermen.
Specialising in local Northern California Italian and French-inspired cuisine, Quince holds strong with its three Michelin stars. Its menu ($220 per head) changes nightly, reflecting chef Michael Tusk’s take on the season’s freshest products (vegetables are often plucked from the restaurant’s own rooftop garden) and an 800+ bottle wine list heavily focused on Italy’s Piedmont region.
Quince has recently undergone a massive renovation to its 1907 brick and timber space near downtown San Francisco, including new a private entryway, slimmed down bar and lounge area for pre-dinner drinks, private dining rooms, and local artwork worthy of its own gallery. Traditional Italian cooking is melded with a few unfamiliar tastes to generate an element of surprise for guests. Caviar service and a champagne cart are also available for diners looking to go all out.
It all started with a pop-up in 2009, when chef Joshua Skenes and his partner/wine director Mark Bright began introducing their New Californian cuisine to the world. Once the brick and mortar location was born, the glowing reviews quickly followed suit. Today, Saison joins Benu and Quince in the elite three star club of top Michelin star restaurants in San Francisco. Exposed brick and timber, 35-foot high ceilings, and an open layout create a feeling of exclusivity in this historic building that dates back to the 1880s (a 1906 earthquake survivor).
Saison’s chefs like to play with fire in the kitchen…literally. Experimenting with various different techniques, dishes are cooked by fire, using ingredients only from the surrounding Bay Area. A multi-course menu changes daily, as does the price (depending on the ingredients used), so be sure to check in ahead of time for the specifics. Although the menu is high-end, Saison wants you to “come as you are” and simply enjoy the culinary delights before you.
Written by Lindsay Wright
Commis © Vanessa Yap-Einbund
Commis 2 © Vanessa Yap-Einbund
Coi © Coi