While the rest of the country heads back to school, late-summer harvests make September prime playtime for chefs in the City by the Bay.
As fresh summer fare begins to wane nationwide this time of year, America's greenest city is just getting started. Provenance-obsessed menus showcase dishes featuring hyperlocal hybrids, such as tangy Flavor King pluots, obscure fresh California herbs like orache, and Pacific bounties of wild albacore tuna and farmed oysters. Fog keeps mornings cool here year-round, but when the city's rising-star chefs hit their stride, this is, come fall, the hottest place to eat in America.
The 29-seat dining room of Sons & Daughters keeps a low profile amid downtown San Francisco's skyscrapers, but its newly Michelin-starred co-chefs have a wild streak as wide as Golden Gate Park. Chef/owners Matt McNamara and Teague Moriarty grow their own organic specialty ingredients in a 1-acre garden south of the city. Back in the kitchen, they specialize in quirky techniques: Grass-fed California lamb loin skips the grill to be cooked instead in tobacco leaves or hay to seal in the juices, with tender fiddlehead ferns served as a side. Foraged eucalyptus boosts the flavor of an herb salad with hand-formed cheese curds, and a chef's vegetable tasting menu is strewn with edible flowers and wood sorrel blossoms.
San Franciscans love retro restaurants. At this vintage 1907 Wild West watering hole, updated turn-of-the-20th-century saloon fare entices happy-hour cowboys to hang their hats and stay for supper. Instead of the classic Hangtown Fry—an omelet loaded with bacon and fried oysters beloved of California Gold Rush miners—Comstock offers the lighter Hangtown Toast: rye toast topped with pickled eggs, a crumble of bacon, and oyster dressing with tangy coleslaw.
Fluorescent-lit lunch counters across the Mission District cater to hungry artists with burritos the size of a forearm. Thanks to Tacolicious, you don't have to blow your calorie budget to savor the city's Mexican heritage. For his latest restaurant, Chef Joe Hargrave cleverly snapped up some of the Mission's best line cooks, San Francisco's freshest local ingredients, and, just to hedge his bets, more than 50 specialty tequilas. Organic corn tortillas topped with slow-cooked pork or cactus with butternut squash and spicy pumpkinseeds are even better when paired with a bracing habanero--passion fruit margarita—all for less than $20.
Fancy food comes down to earth at Commonwealth, a former taqueria turned farm-to-table bistro that looks like the city and tastes like the country. A disco ball dangles from the rafters, but the real dazzle here comes from small plates packed with unexpected flavor. Chef/owner Jason Fox proves eggs aren't just for breakfast anymore, featuring dishes such as a Sonoma Soul Food Farm egg atop savory quinoa and naturally sweet roasted Toy Box carrots with a tantalizing whiff of black garlic. Upgrade to the $65 chef's tasting menu, and $10 goes to a local charity, such as the San Francisco Food Bank.
San Franciscans graze entire Saturdays away browsing the gourmet samples inside the Ferry Building—but you can skip the airfare and shop the market's landmark cheese boutique, Cowgirl Creamery. Award-winning cheeses deliver Northern California flavor, especially the Tomales Bay Deluxe package ($48).
This organic, half-acre nonprofit demonstration garden offers low-cost classes for visitors and residents of any age or expertise level. You can cover the basics in Grow Your Own Food and Urban Composting classes, and then graduate to advanced workshops on topics such as urban beekeeping and cultivating heirloom fruit trees. (gardenfortheenvironment.org)