Find 3 classic meals in San Francisco (and how to make them at home)
Credit: Photo: Mike Newling

Many cities aspire to be "the new San Francisco," foodwise, and from towns like Portland to Charleston the progress is amazing. Americans are eating more and more the way San Francisco residents eat, singing the tune of local, seasonal, and sustainable ingredients first sung more than 35 years ago by Bay Area organic farmers, ranchers, and chefs.

But when it comes to culinary innovation, the new San Francisco is, if you'll forgive my local bias, San Francisco. Chefs here have been thinking way beyond the New American basics of grass-fed meat and organic vegetables, putting a worldly, streetwise spin on farm-to-table menus, and cooking from an ever-growing catalog of heirloom produce.

San Francisco was not immune to the financial crash despite its high-tech economy, and when the downturn dried up some dining dollars, chefs innovated: Fine dining came down to earth. Superfancy tasting menus gave way to simpler meals based on the ultrafresh California produce delivered daily to the area's farmers' markets (of which there are at least 20 and counting, according to the Center for Urban Education About Sustainable Agriculture).

California-grown fruits and vegetables are no longer side dishes to Bay Area chefs like Melissa Perello. She left her position at upscale, Michelin-starred Fifth Floor to travel in Italy, where she studied the casual sophistication of classic, rustic food made exceptional with superior ingredients. She returned to San Francisco not to helm yet another high-end eatery but to open her own seasonal, casual neighborhood bistro, Frances (415-621-3870).

Vegetables have moved to the center of the plate for Perello. "When I'm coming up with new menu items, the inspiration starts with the produce," she says. "The protein often is the last element I add to a dish." Of course, San Francisco enjoys one major advantage not available to chefs in, say, Chicago or New York: year-round produce grown by local farmers with adventurous gourmets in mind.

"Many of the ingredients I use at Frances come from farmers and cheesemakers I've worked with closely for years now," Perello says.

"You can discover really exciting products at markets and farm-to-table events here—it's like meeting new friends." Her daily market menu highlights her latest finds. One such example from this past spring included a hearty beet salad with tangy California Minneola oranges and peppery, bitter chrysanthemum leaves, and a microscopic mince of locally grown Vietnamese garlic grass over feathery red radicchio di Treviso with a creamy walnut dressing.

California may have a certain eye-rolling, food-fad notoriety, but according to Sarah Sung, of the popular local trend-spotting blog, "That's really Los Angeles. Eating habits in San Francisco are more eclectic and less image-conscious. We're more interested in what tastes good than what's trendy."

That said, Twitter, Facebook, and Yelp are the foodie pipelines for intel on the latest and the best. Sandwich stalls like The Kitchenette and Pal's Take Away (415-203-4911) are regularly mobbed by hungry Tweeters, who follow announcements of daily lunch specials like grilled mushroom banh mi (Vietnamese-style vegetarian heroes topped with cilantro, pickled carrots, and cucumbers) and house-smoked turkey sandwiches (topped by house-pickled apples, naturally). It's clear that the sandwich has a special place in the city's diet. "In San Francisco, a sandwich is more like a restaurant dish that happens to be served between two slices of bread," Sung says.

Berkeley resident Michael Pollan's urging to eat "food your great-great-grandmother would have recognized as food" may seem like a call for old-fashioned, traditional American comfort food. But in San Francisco, where more than one out of three residents were born overseas, your great-great-grandmother may have been from Sichuan, Bangalore, or La Paz, and comfort food may mean anything from pho to goat meat tacos to gnocchi.

Here, global flavors have been woven into the local diet for generations. "During this recession, we're all getting back to our culinary roots, and in San Francisco, that means soul food from Mexico, Asia, and Europe—all those cuisines have been in San Francisco since the Gold Rush 160 years ago," Sung explains. "We've grown up with tacos and kimchi for generations now, so that's our comfort food as much as pizza or mac 'n cheese."

And this just may be the key to San Francisco's edge: the combination of global influences in a temperate, gardenlike place. Witness the Mexican brunch staple of huevos rancheros. At Mission Beach Café (415-861-0198), it's made with Sonoma eggs, heirloom yellow beans from Napa's Rancho Gordo farm, and humanely raised Prather Ranch pulled pork.

Meanwhile, at Namu (415-386-8332), a hip dining outpost run by three Korean-American brothers, the classic preparation of kalbi (short ribs) is made with Niman Ranch marinated beef, and the menu is peppered with sustainable, California-grown ingredients. Namu's stall at the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market offers the downtown lunch crowd two-for-$5 Korean "tacos" made from pasture-raised, barbecued Bay Area beef short ribs wrapped in seaweed and topped with teriyaki sauce and fiery, fermented kimchi salsa (think sauerkraut with an attitude).

For San Francisco's most hardcore locavores, the best ingredients might not come from a Bay Area farm but straight from a neighbor's urban backyard. The Underground Farmers' Market showcases wares from upstart home cooks who don't have the resources or connections to sell their goods at traditional markets. Recent offerings included pie made from fruit foraged from urban gardens and frozen demi-glace.

So as the rest of America catches on to the locavore wave, San Francisco keeps on cooking. Today, its food scene seems more grounded than ever, serving responsible, good food at reasonable prices, impressing a demanding crowd of foodies—and their worldly grandmas.

Born in Vietnam and raised in San Francisco's Chinatown, 2010 James Beard Outstanding Chef nominee Charles Phan combines California produce, classical technique, and Asian menu favorites at his fusion flagship Slanted Door (415-861-8032) and downtown dim sum phenomenon Heaven's Dog (415-863-6008). Now Phan is taking on breakfast, serving hearty dishes like stuffed steamed buns and the spinach-packed quiche that inspired our recipe at Out the Door, his industrial Zen storefront eatery on the border of Pacific Heights and Japantown.

Go there: Out the Door, 415-861-8032
Make it at home:
 Spinach, Green Onion, and Smoked Gouda Quiche recipe

Chef Dennis Leary is bringing back the long-lost lunch break with The Sentinel, a converted cigar shop with ceviche specials and sandwiches made with pasture-raised roast beef and housemade Russian dressing. To keep flavors authentic and the line moving, sandwiches are served with condiments already on them. Not that you'd want any substitutions, anyway: The lamb meatball sandwich comes hot from the oven and slathered in thick, minty tomato sauce.

The sunny flavors at Frances are clearly California-grown, but the precise balance of complementary tastes and textures reveals Chef Melissa Perello's classical training: Velvety gnocchi made from local Bellwether Farms ricotta are topped with perfectly crisp rounds of Broccolini and chunky breadcrumbs tossed in warm olive oil until golden and crunchy. Being tucked away on a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood street not far from Wine Country has obvious advantages: an unusually good selection of Sonoma wines by the glass, and a citrusy house white produced especially for Frances, served from a tap, much like beer.