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San Francisco's Secret Restaurants

The City by the Bay is one of the top food cities in the world. Here are some restaurants that are old favorites, along with a few surprises that you may not know about, but should.

a plate of carnitas in a chile verde sauce at El Metate.jpg
Photo caption
A plate of carnitas in a chile verde sauce made with tomatillos cilantro and peppers wins praise at El Metate.

For every top-level restaurant on the must-visit list, San Francisco also boasts a deserving alternative. Area code is 415.

Superstar Chinese restaurant: Yank Sing
This white-tablecloth affair is the city’s most hallowed dim sum destination thanks to excellent pork buns, egg custard tarts, and shu mai dumplings. 49 Stevenson St., 541-4949.

But don’t miss: Shanghai Dumpling King
On a misty stretch of Balboa Street, this no-frills restaurant serves succulent xiao long bao—Shanghai-style soup dumplings that fans refer to as “XLB”—in a dining room crowded with families, hipsters, and anyone looking to beat the Outer Richmond chill. The dumplings' signature filling, pork broth and spiced meat, can only be eaten in in several bites with the help of a spoon. Other standout dishes include stir-fried pea shoots and the decadently sugary egg puffs. 3319 Balboa St., 387-2088.

Superstar classic restaurant: Tadich Grill
All burnished brass and polished wood, the horseshoe bar alone is worth the visit. But the old-world menu delivers as well, particularly the cioppino and the Hangtown Fry—a fried oyster and bacon omelet popularized during the Gold Rush. 240 California St., 391-1849,

But don’t miss: Sam’s Grill
Despite a neon marquee, a Financial District address, and a history dating back to 1867, this veteran still feels like a secret. Inside, the tuxedoed servers staff an oak-paneled dining room and a charming gauntlet of curtained-off booths. Dishes such as sand dabs à la Sam—fillets dressed with butter and parsley—and crab Louie arrive with the occasional, “Here you go, sweetie.” 374 Bush St., 421-0594,

Superstar taquería: Pancho Villa
For many, this airy restaurant rolls the definitive Mission burrito and sets the gold standard for extensive self-serve salsa bars. (Multiple locations.) 3071 16th St., 864-8840,

But don’t miss: El Metate
Two blocks from 24th Street’s vibrant eastern corridor, this friendly spot, decorated with terra-cotta tiles and paper flowers, beckons with umbrellas, sidewalk tables, and a glowing yellow facade. Locals line up for fried-fish tacos, massive chile relleno plates, and a rainbow of meat choices such as chile verde pork and smoky chile Colorado beef for filling tacos, burritos, and tortas. 2406 Bryant St., 641-7209,

Superstar Italian restaurant: Tosca Cafe
This newly restored North Beach bar boasts fantastic craft cocktails and creates inspired riffs on Italian American classics. Be warned: The wait for a table can be longer than a three-act opera. 242 Columbus Ave., 986-9651,

But don’t miss: Da Flora
The crimson, triangular dining room and Venetian-influenced dishes have lured regulars to this spot facing Washington Square Park for nearly two decades. Every meal starts with chewy house-made focaccia. Chef Jen McMahon always adds seasonal touches to the menu such as baby spinach salad with creamy Mountain Gorgonzola, black Jonathan apples, and toasted almonds, or braised duck leg sugo with house-made tagliatelle and wilted radicchio.  701 Columbus Ave., 981-4664,

Photography courtesy of El Metate

For more San Francisco surprises, read the Secrets of San Francisco. Discover new bridges, buildings, museums, and more.

This article was first published in July 2014. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.