“SF vs. NYC restaurants” is always a popular topic of debate, and there are certainly arguments to be had for both. Since I live in NY and visit SF one-off every year or so, I’m clearly more familiar with and biased towards the NYC food scene. That being said, I did visit SF several weekends ago and had wonderful meals at a couple restaurants, and here are some key differences I noticed between the two cities:
- Food quality is generally better in SF, so the baseline of restaurants is higher. You can walk into a divey looking bar in SF and expect to eat very decent food since chances are good that the ingredients will be fresh and locally sourced. In New York, not so much…
- The fine dining restaurant price points are generally higher. Saison $398 before gratuity?? (they said tipping is optional but come on…). Benu $268 before the 20% gratuity? Atelier Crenn $298 all-inclusive? On the New York side, Eleven Madison Park at $295 doesn’t sound like a steal, but it at least includes gratuity and there’s always the option of eating at the bar. Gramercy Tavern at $125 sounds like a bargain, by comparison, and again, there are even cheaper lunch menus and bar menus available. On the high end is Per Se at $325, gratuity included, but I think it’s safe to say that this restaurant is losing its edge a bit and is not as relevant as it once was. In case you were wondering, Atera is $235 gratuity included.
- Food in SF veers on the heavier side and tends to be served “family style”. I was surprised by this, as I expected California to have the edge on healthy foods, but every single lunch and dinner I had in SF was so rich and heavy. The ingredients were high quality, but it was like heavy full fat organic creams, meaty grass-fed, dry-aged beef patties and deep fried handmade tortillas. And family style dining is the norm in SF…I’m not sure why that is, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, just something I noticed.
- Mid price restaurants taste better in New York. I do think that New York is stronger in this category. The high quality, moderately priced restaurants like Pasquale Jones, Freek’s Mill or Uncle Boons are much more interesting and more flavorful than a Kin Khao or The Progress. I’m not saying that Kin Khao tastes bad, but the food is not as memorable as Pok Pok or Sripraphai.
- Japanese is better in New York. Ramen, sushi, just about everything. Korean is probably just as bad, and I can’t really speak to Chinese, Thai or Vietnamese…
Anyways, enough about that. Here’s a recap of recent SF restaurants I visited. Hope this is helpful to you if you’re ever making a trip out there.
Kin Khao (Rating: Above Average) – Kin Khao is a 1-Michelin star Thai restaurant in Union Square. It has a modern bistro look and feel to it, much spiffier and more charming than your traditional Thai restaurant. The cooking style is also not really traditional, it feels like a Westerner’s take on Thai food, similar to a Pok Pok or a Little Serow. Unfortunately it’s not really at the same level as a Pok Pok, the flavors weren’t distinctive or memorable enough to warrant that kind of recognition. I do have to say that the caramelized pork belly was pretty fantastic, but the overly hyped black pudding dessert was a disappointment, and everything else was pleasant but nothing special.
Marlowe (Rating: Very Good) – Marlowe is an American bistro in SOMA that offers comfort food classics. The inside is bright and airy and looks like a French brasserie, which makes for a nice atmosphere. If the description “comfort food” didn’t tip you off, be aware that the food here tends to be very hearty and a bit heavy. Nearly every one of our lunch dishes had something fried on it–french fries, fried brussels sprouts, fried chicken sandwich–but it was all very good. I would get the angus ribeye salad again in a heartbeat.
The Progress (Rating: Very Good) – I had mixed feelings about the overrated State Bird Provisions, the very popular American dim sum restaurant that racked up all sorts of “best of” awards, but I was about to give them another shot by having dinner at their sister restaurant The Progress. I had a better experience here, probably because the whole family style banquet meal approach felt very convivial and more authentic than the dim sum cart novelty. Plus they have a $30 corkage fee for the first two bottles of wine, which is not bad at all. Because the wine was flowing so freely, my memory of the meal got a little hazy towards the end, but I do remember that I loved the pecorino almond biscuits, the steak tartare and the squid ink flat noodle stir fry, and overall I was just very happy here!
Nopalito (Rating: Excellent) – It’s pretty obvious that San Francisco has better Mexican food, although New York’s is getting better. We have places like Cosme and Empellon on the high end and then a bunch of mediocre chain restaurants or random mom and pop shops at lower price points. What we lack is high quality places in the middle, which is the space that Nopalito occupies and does very well. No surprise, my dinner at Nopalito was my favorite meal on the trip, because it was very good and not something you can really find in New York. It was again very heavy, a lot of deep fried tortillas, cheese and fatty pork, but the calories were well worth it. I’ve never had such crunchy textured tortilla chips pre-marinated in a spicy sauce, and the esquite sweet corn pudding blew my mind. And I love their call ahead wait list policy, it’s so convenient, basically you give them a ring the day of, they quote you a wait, and you roll up to the restaurant at the time they quote you. So much better than waiting hours at a place with all party members present hoping for a walk-in or showing up only to be shown the door.
Cotogna (Rating: Very Good) – Our last meal was fittingly a Sunday Supper at Cotogna with some of our very good friends. You can’t really go wrong with homey Italian classics served family style on a pretty, rustic table. This is the type of restaurant I like to eat at regularly, a casual place serving solid food that is very accessible and made with the best ingredients. The Sunday Supper consists of four courses, a starter, a pasta, a protein and a dessert. Each course was spot on, although I have a special place in my heart for the burrata in the melon and prosciutto appetizer and the octopus rigatoni. The Italian flavors aren’t as punchy or as attention grabbing as something at L’Artusi or Babbo, it’s very California-esque in that the ingredients do most of the talking, but I liked this sort of restraint.
55 Cyril Magnin St, San Francisco, CA 94102
500 Brannan St, San Francisco, CA 94107
1525 Fillmore St, San Francisco, CA 94115
1224 9th Ave, San Francisco, CA 94122
490 Pacific Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133