Photo: Andrionni Ribo, Flickr
Long before Alice Waters turned the Bay Area into a global gourmet hub, San Francisco was a food-obsessed city, even if the often-repeated boast that the city has more eateries per capita than anywhere else is iffy at best (exact stats aren't available).
"It's the weather. Unlike Southern California where they can go frolic on the beach – we're trapped inside our houses a lot, so we entertain, we eat and drink together," suggests Laurel Mays, managing editor of 944 magazine. And the ease of access to high-quality ingredients, which Waters so emphasizes, has been a source of local pride since the start. "That access to amazing ingredients, whether wine country or produce from the [Salinas] valley or seafood, that's catapulted our cuisine onto another level," agrees Marcia Gagliardi, who writes a weekly column on the local food scene.
Eating out is part of the DNA of San Francisco: when Gold Rush miners descended en masse, holed up in rooming houses without their kitchen-savvy wives, they paid for home cooking at impromptu cafés and the city's boom in restaurants had begun. "You hear so many stories of older San Francisco restaurants being boarding houses where the guys would smell the food the wife was making upstairs, she would start cooking for them and suddenly, they had a restaurant," Gagliardi notes. "It's the same now – the big tech community of young, single, unattached people go to restaurants each night to meet and mingle," Laurel Mays chuckles.
Read on about San Francisco's classic treats, after the jump...
There's an ever-shifting underground farmer's market, with the details emailed solely to subscribers. "You have to sign a waiver to go in – the last one I went to had a line of 300 people standing outside," she laughs. As for Twitter, it's enabled a raft of guerrilla cafes on carts to thrive – followers receive tweets as soon as a new location's set up. "People on bicycles ride around with pies in their baskets – it's not even trucks now." Laurel's faves to follow include Korean Tacos, Filipino treats and homemade moon pies. And, yes, even Alice Waters is on Twitter, though she's yet to manage a single tweet.
The best of San Francisco's indigenous eats:
Started by two Italian immigrants in a two room apartment in North Beach in 1917. "Now that most chefs do their own version of salami, the Columbus folks are sending the descendants back out from Italy to create a 'modern San Fran' version," explains food guru Jared Rivera.
Green Goddess dressing
In 1915, George Arliss was an actor starring in a play, 'The Green Goddess', near the Palace Hotel. In his honor, head chef Philippe Roemer devised this tangy, tarragon and anchovy salad dressing. "You can sill get it at the hotel, and it's really fresh and green-tasting," Marcia Gagliardi raves.
Cooked up by the namesake chef de cuisine at the St Francis Hotel, Victor Hertzler, in 1910, this is a dish of marinated and chilled celery hearts over romaine lettuce leaves.
There are competing claims from LA and San Francisco as to where this was invented, but it's likely that the first was made by a Japanese man in the Bay Area. Makota Hagiwara, first owner of Golden Gate Park's tea garden, was ousted from his job by racist mayor James Phelan in 1907 – he was quickly reinstated and invented the cookies as thank you notes to supportive friends.
More than 150 years old, this secret recipe can't be exported outside the Bay Area – no one knows why the yeast won't thrive elsewhere. But every loaf is still made from a starter mix, known as Mother, directly descended from the first batch ever used - the proto-loaf even travels first-class on planes.
Much-debated and with murkiness around its exact origins, but most believe that this dish – whose name derives from the Chinese character for 'odds and ends' – was cooked up by Chinese-American railroad laborers here 100 years ago.
Gold miner-turned-grocer Domenico Ghirardelli discovered how to sweat the tasty butter out of raw cocoa using the so-called Broma process in 1865 and transformed the chocolate industry. Now the Bay Area is also home to contemporary artisanal chocolatiers like Recchiuti.
This mash-up of scrambled eggs, oysters and bacon was invented in the Gold Rush era. "It's a total 'Give me Lipitor now' dish. The story goes either you'd struck it rich as a miner and were celebrating with a breakfast of bling, the most expensive ingredients," explains Gagliardi, "or you were condemned to die and it would take a while to procure them – a stay of execution." It's still served at one of the city's oldest restaurants, Tadich Grill.