san francisco: a few favorites
Each year we trek home for the holidays, full of vim and vigor in the youth of our lives... and just days later, find ourselves being rolled home in a daze of sugar and salt, weeping as we go. California is known to be the land of health: all avocados and chia and homegrown whatever, but when you only have three days you plow through everything you can (and the occasional three-dessert morning) and regret not doing more.
A caveat: while the Bay has a totally vibrant scene with newcomers popping up constantly, the few days we have are always spent with old favorites. Here are a few of the we're-just-not-home-until-we-go, and yes I've been liberal with the term "san francisco"... they're all more or less near there and you should go.
My favorite car game is called "top 10 foods of your life" and the morning bun from Tartine is one of the few foods that's consistently top three, no debate needed. This is not your average cinnamon bun (much as I love those), nor is it a raisin- or fruit-laden sticky bun. This is perfect piece of pastry, with a whiff of orange, starting soft and dense on the outer swirls and moving to almost candied in the middle. Paired with a little espresso it's the perfect foggy morning start, but I wouldn't pass it up for mid-morning snack, post lunch or dessert for that matter. Outside of the morning buns, be sure to have the perfect lemon tart, incredible chocolate croissants, and the most delicious brioche bread pudding with stone fruits, which would get top billing, except oh those morning buns, how I love thee.
If I had to pick one restaurant to eat at for the rest of my life, it would be Chez Panisse's cafe. Tucked onto the top floor in an old building in Berkeley, Chez Panisse feels like an old world treehouse, but a treehouse with the warmest staff and food that somehow is both interesting and homey. Whether you're having a crisp salad with just ripe persimmons, fired saffron clams, or the most perfect apricot tart, it's always the most festive and the most delicious meal.
Bi-Rite: ice cream & market
Conveniently down the block from Tartine is Bi-Rite market, an institution in the city. The original Mission location is packed with local flowers, olives, incredible produce...really everything a little grocery store should have. And across the street is their ice cream shop: the lines may be hours long on the weekends or in the evening, but it's one of the only places (the only place?) where I'll happily wait my turn. The salted caramel puts all others to shame: it's burnt, barely sweet and totally addictive.
Our visits home tend to be jam packed, as we quickly run through all our old gems (see: the rest of this list), but The Mill is a newcomer on Divisadero that has wheedled its way in. No day in the city is complete without popping into the beautiful space for an impeccable cappuccino and maybe loaf of bread (their toasts were hilariously on trend in 2016... but they're still really, really good). They also keep a carefully curated selection of ceramics and teas -- good gift browsing.
A catch all category, but when in San Francisco, burritos (or at least tacos) are required. The old favorite was La Taqueria, but alas winning 538's burrito contest in 2014 has led to long lines and not-so-great food. These days, we swing by Gordo's on Clement for a flashback to our Berkeley years (though it's not technically a burrito, order the quesadilla with carnitas: it's griddled and only slightly cheesy and really, really good.) Other favorites from back in the day are Cancun (their chicken is surprisingly good, especially when piled on top of 2am nachos), Little Chihuahua (cleaned up, but they have an incredible salad and perfect tortilla soup in addition to shrimp burritos), Papalote has great salsas, and well, the best burrito usually comes from whatever dive is closest to where you're standing.
So this one isn't in SF, but it's so damn good, I'm listing it and suggesting you drive the hour or two to go. Madras Cafe is a south Indian spot in a strip mall in Sunnyvale. Originally a hole in the wall, it's continually expanded. Order at the counter, and then expect a 20-minute wait at lunch. The channa batura is one of the best -- fried dough that is both flaky and chewy, with a side of perfect chickpeas-- the masala dosas are reliably delicious, and every meal must finish with a filter coffee: delicious milky coffee served in a metal cup with saucer. Pour the coffee between the two (in South India, they're often feet apart!) and froth up the coffee while cooling it. Drink and debate having another round.
Bonus: not food, but food-related: Omnivore Books is a totally delightful tiny bookshop jam packed with cookbooks, from new to vintage. Very much worth a visit.