Let no one say I don’t love San Francisco. It defies expectations at every turn. It is my kind of dirty old town. See you at the Tiki bar.Anthony Bourdain, The Layover
There are several cities that Anthony Bourdain visited for all of his shows – San Francisco is one of them. SF – as the locals call it – is in the headlines a lot: It’s got social problems. It’s got crazy California politics. It’s right next to Silicon Valley where they’re trying to invent our AI overlords and gentrify the nation through IPO money and literally came up with the idea to build a city out of nothing. There have always been stories and stereotypes about San Francisco, that’s just how it is.
Anthony Bourdain visited San Francisco to film all four of his shows: season 1 (episode 18) of A Cook’s Tour, season 5 (episode 15) of No Reservations, season 1 (episode 8) of The Layover, and season 6 (episode 5, “Bay Area”) of Parts Unknown. It’s a great city to showcase the passage of time: both in Tony as a TV host and the development of a city that is known for always reinventing itself.
I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for four years, so I know it well, and it was really fun to sit down and watch Tony Bourdain visit the places I called home and develop his own – albeit changing – opinions of the city over time. If you’re curious about everywhere visited by Anthony Bourdain in San Francisco, you’ve come to the right place. Below is a complete list, from his favorite seafood spots to the experimental restaurants that didn’t make it.
Want to watch the episodes where Anthony Bourdain visits San Francisco?
The A Cook’s Tour episode is available for free on Youtube; the No Reservations episode is available on Hulu and Apple TV; The Layover episode is available on Amazon and Apple TV; and the Parts Unknown episode is available on Amazon and Apple TV.
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Ohlone, Ramaytush, and Muwekma peoples, among others. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present peoples of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
A Cook’s Tour (2001)
During Bourdain’s first visit to the Bay Area, he doesn’t just stick to San Francisco, it’s also the trip when he first visits the French Laundry in Napa. I included that in this section too, even though it’s a bit outside the San Francisco area – it didn’t quite merit its own post, but definitely merited mentioning!
Swan Oyster Depot (Nob Hill/SF)
Bourdain’s first San Francisco stop is the first of what will become many to Swan Oyster Depot in SF’s Nob Hill area. It’s here that he gets his first taste of the West Coast’s best fresh seafood – even for breakfast.
He starts with a platter of fresh raw West Coast oysters – probably from Tomales Bay, as that’s where the best oysters in Northern California come from – and crab back. As you’ll see, these are both instant favorites he returns to (and for) time and again.
Polly Ann Ice Cream (Sunset/SF)
Bourdain next heads out to the Sunset area of San Francisco, so named for its proximity to the Pacific Ocean and the incredible sunset views you can enjoy there. Here he tries a series of ice creams from Polly Ann Ice Cream, including pumpkin, red bean, taro, American Beauty (rose), lychee, durian (“a camembert/avocado flavor”), as well as a few others. This is a great spot if you want a treat but not of the usual chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry variety.
The French Laundry (Yountville)
Joined by chefs Michael Ruhlman, Eric Ripert, and Scott Bryan, Tony sets out on a fanboy dream meal trip to The French Laundry to try everything and anything set before them. The meal starts with coronets with salmon tartare on top – one of the most original dishes on the menu – followed by a four-person, 20-course tasting menu. (That’s 80 different dishes, just to be clear!)
They move on to a soup course (roast shallot soup, braised scallop belly soup, marine lobster consomme, and Vichyssoise), a sorbet course (yuzu sorbet, cucumber sorbet, roasted red pepper sorbet, and beet sorbet), followed by a treat: “Coffee and cigarette” specially made for Tony. The dish features Marlboro cigarettes crunched into coffee-custard ice cream and foie gras mousse while the other three enjoy a more traditional dish from the tasting menu.
They have a pasta course of English pea Agnolotti and hand-cut tagliatelle with black truffle on top, followed by more entrees of Atlantic salmon chop, pannacotta with cauliflower mousse, pickled Belon oyster, Yukon Gold blini with shitake mushrooms and chive butter, Lobster Navarin, baby lamb braised shoulder and kidney with lamb reduction sauce.
Not named on-screen are literally dozens more dishes before a finale of dessert courses including “coffee and donuts” (a French Laundry classic, chocolate ravioli filled with sauteed bananas, French Laundry ice cream with chocolate tuile, Crepe Suzette with lemongrass ice cream, and lime sorbet with Hass avocado.
I’m totally sold on visiting someday – maybe my next milestone birthday!
No Reservations (2009)
For his second trip to San Francisco, Bourdain decides to follow a food theme – though it’s probably the opposite of what you’d imagine when thinking of the hippie free-love cruelty-free vibes that most people associate with SF (or at least what was associated with the city 15 years ago!). His theme? Let’s just call it “anti-vegan.”
Pirate Cat Cafe (The Mission/SF) (CLOSED)
Bourdain starts out by visiting the now-closed Pirate Cat Cafe at Pirate Cat Radio. This Mission area spot was famous for its alternative broadcasts and bacon-adjacent coffee drinks; Tony tries the vegan maple bacon latte and does a quick radio interview before setting out to explore more of the city and enjoy a heartier (read: meatier) breakfast.
Tadich Grill (FiDi/SF)
At Tadich Grill in the Financial District (FiDi), Bourdain meets up with writer friend Oscar Villalon. Here, they dig into an institutional San Francisco dish – cioppino – which originated in Fisherman’s Wharf but, to paraphrase Tony, somehow manages not to suck. Tony also orders the “Hangtown Fry,” which is a scramble of bacon, eggs, and oysters.
(Aub) Zam Zam (Room) (Haight-Ashbury/SF)
Over its 80+ year history, Zam Zam – or “Aub Zam Zam” or “Zam Zam Room” or “Aub Zam Zam Room” – has managed to stick to its guns about what it does best: classic cocktails in a place with character, no compromises.
After learning the history of the place and how one might have been treated if one orders the wrong thing (at least by the bartender’s standards), Tony orders a beer! This would have been sacrilege to the original owner, Bruno, but luckily the current bartender seems more tolerant.
House of Prime Rib (Hayes Valley/SF)
Properly liquored up between meals, Bourdain’s next stop is another haven of meat: the House of Prime Rib. Here he starts with a martini – or rather, one is brought to him as the appropriate drink to be having, and he works his way through the traditional entree: salad with raw beef, creamed spinach, Yorkshire pudding, and the prime rib of your dreams – or at least of Tony’s dreams.
Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market (SF)
Looking to find some way to poo-poo the vegans on the show, Bourdain decides that a farmer’s market might be a place to accomplish such a goal. He heads to the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market, and is pleasantly surprised to find that everything he’s offered to try (bleu cheese, fresh-picked citrus, and olive oil) is actually delicious.
Even more offensive – but not really – he orders a plate of pork and red chile tamales expecting to begrudge the price and quality, only to be pleasantly surprised by those too. Maybe the “localvore” movement isn’t so bad…
Tamales Mi Lupita (International Boulevard/Oakland)
Inspired by his experience, Tony next heads across the Bay Bridge to seek out even more delicious and authentic Mexican food – there are some great pockets of the Bay Area for it if you know where to go.
Guided by a local fixer, he visits Tamales Mi Lupita, one of several taco trucks that park along International Boulevard as it stretches from Oakland to East Oakland. He’s delighted to find that the tacos – chorizo, cabeza, and chicharrone – are on par with anything he’s tried south of the border.
Sushi Sebo (Hayes Valley/SF) (CLOSED)
Perhaps distracted by the idea that San Francisco might actually challenge his preconceived notions, Tony next heads back across the Bay Bridge to the now-closed Sushi Sebo in SF. He’s joined by chef Chris Cosentino (who’ll appear later in his whites) to try fresh sushi – though Bourdain is skeptical that it can be that good if neither chef is fully Japanese.
Over several courses including kampachi (amberjack), Hokkaido scallops, giant clam, and bluefin tuna sashimi, uni, seared tuna, cutlass, and ankimo (monkfish liver), Otoro with Jidori Tamago, grilled sea bream head, cured mackerel and soft roe, and accompanied by plenty of soju, well, let’s just say Tony changes his mind.
That’s It Market (The Mission/SF)
Back to the meats! Bourdain’s next stop requires meeting back up with his friend Oscar to visit That’s It Market in the Mission. This liquor store also serves tortas, including the Cubana made here with a variety of meats including ground beef, chorizo, ham, and hot dogs, and eggs, tomatoes, and cheese. Tony says it’s a seven-pound sandwich – he also mentions taking Lipitor so…
R&G Lounge (Chinatown/SF)
Heading back to the sea – at least in terms of what’s on the plate, Bourdain next journeys into Chinatown – the largest of its kind outside of Asia – with a local SF police officer born in Hong Kong but raised in the city.
The pair head to R&G Lounge, where they enjoy a towering plate of salt-and-pepper crab, followed by lychee martinis.
Incanto (Noe Valley/SF) (CLOSED)
Run by chef Chris Cosentino (I told you he’d be back!), Incanto is a “station of the cross for offal” that occasionally offered a 5-course all-gut menu that aims to use every part – and use it very well. Bourdain sits down with several food writers and partners to enjoy dinner and talk about the contradictions of San Francisco.
The group tries nduja (“spreadable salami,” if that sells it for you), dehydrated Iberico ham fat crystals that are deep-fried in duck fat that taste kind of like popcorn, and a series of courses including venison heart tartare; goose intestines with artichokes and anolini pasta; calves brain and testicles with “brainnonaise.” Gotta love those nasty bits.
Red’s Java House (Embarcadero/SF)
For one final meal before leaving town, Bourdain heads to a favorite spot he doesn’t feature at any other time: Red’s Java House. While you might think here’s there for a caffeine fix, you’d be mistaken. Instead, Tony goes for a double cheeseburger and a beer – for $7 (at the time!) – and chili cheese fries. He calls it “the antidote to Alice Waters” (of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse), though both certainly have their place in the Bay Area food scene – as he well knows from past trips and learns on future ones.
The Layover (2011)
While the show was short-lived, it should be no surprise that San Francisco was an essential stop on The Layover. In fact, it’s one of the few places in Season 1 that I feel safe saying Tony actually enjoyed himself – unlike other destinations, he knows and loves the city and settles right into it (rather than his salty demeanor common in other episodes) and soaks (himself) in as much as possible. As such, it’s one of the funniest episodes, possibly in Bourdain’s entire TV career.
Swan Oyster Depot (Nob Hill/SF)
Per usual, Bourdain makes a stop at Swan Oyster Depot to kick off this trip to San Francisco; “[it’s] one of my favorite places to eat in America.” This time, he’s joined by chef Roland Passot of La Folie – which also makes the list of other recommendations (below).
The two chefs dive into some of Tony’s favorite dishes: crab back (crab fat and roe in the carapace with fresh sourdough), a variety of raw oysters on the half-shell (including some local ones), and fresh sea urchin (uni) that they both rave about while marveling at the size.
Toronado Bar (Lower Haight/SF)
Next, Bourdain kicks off a marathon day of drinking; he descends from Nob Hill into The Haight and tucks into Toronado Bar in the Lower Haight. This spot is known for having 50+ micro and craft beers on tap and bottles, and being popular day and night, including among restaurant industry workers.
Unsurprisingly, Tony feels right at home in both this no-frills bar and among his fellow midday drinking patrons.
To Hyang (Inner Richmond/SF) (CLOSED)
Next, Tony heads to To Hyang with friend and chef Chris Cosentino of the restaurant Incanto (also closed – SF has big restaurant turnover). This is a neighborhood spot for Cosentino, who works with the proprietress to treat them to a series of huge and incredible Korean dishes made home-style – including banchan and kimchi from the back shed, fish head curry and ginseng soju, and pork belly with date soju.
Unsurprisingly after starting at a bar and chasing courses with soju, Bourdain is starting to feel it… but that doesn’t slow him down.
Tonga Room (Nob Hill/SF)
Bourdain and Consentino move on to a true SF institution: the Tonga Room. While tiki in the Bay Area dates back to Trader Vic’s (where Tony will visit on a future visit), the Tonga Room is one of the oldest tiki bars in the city (Trad’r Sam‘s actually takes that accolade, for the entire U.S.). It’s located in the basement of the Fairmont San Francisco, and aptly described as a “tiki bar cum Polynesian restaurant.”
While he starts out judgemental, saying they serve “girl drinks with umbrellas and [bleep],” this changes once he tries the Lava Bowl (a shared drink), a Bora Bora Horror, and a Zombie: “oh, that’s lethal.” Don’t judge the girl drinks, Tony; they’ll knock your socks off!
While most of us might call it a night after drinking at the bar in the basement of our hotel, this is a Layover after all, and he needs to pack a lot in. So back out into the city he goes…
Rice Paper Scissors (Pop-Up)
While it never became a full-fledged restaurant, Rice Paper Scissors still holds a special place in the hearts of true SF foodies; it started as a Vietnamese street food pop-up in part supported by volunteers and run out of free spaces (which Tony comments are probably not permitted to serve food), and even today, a decade later, is still a lifestyle/clothing brand.
At the dining experience, Bourdain noshes on shrimp chips and bahn mi sandwiches which he says they get right because the bread is perfect – just like in Vietnam (which we all know he’s an expert on!).
Li Po Lounge (Chinatown)
Here’s one of the places visited by Anthony Bourdain in San Francisco that I’ve actually been to! By chance when staying at the Fairmont for a work trip (and yet somehow missing the Tonga Room due to the wait for a table), my husband and I dashed out in search of an alternative, and ended up in Li Po Lounge on the edge of Chinatown. While nowhere near as immersive as the Tonga Room, Li Po should hold a special place in the heart of anyone who’s both a fan of Tony and of Tiki (as I am).
Here, Bourdain ordered the “special Mai Tai” accompanied by chef Danny Bowien from Mission Chinese (listed below as one of Tony’s other recommendations). Sometimes also called the “Chinese Mai Tai,” the recipe is not officially known – Reddit thinks they figured it out though, if you want to make it at home or compare it to a traditional Mai Tai like you’d have at the Tonga Room or Trader Vic’s…
Comstock Saloon (Chinatown/SF)
Bourdain and Bowien then head out in search of… more drinks! (Seriously, this episode shows Tony at possibly the most drunk he ever appears on screen – including that drunk dinner scene in Sicily after he gets blasted following the fake fishing scene…)
They head to Comstock Saloon, a no-nonsense craft cocktail bar on the edge of Chinatown/North Beach, where they have a round, pick up one of the bartenders into their rag-tag crew, and head onward into the night.
Mr. Bing’s Cocktail Bar (North Beach/SF)
The final drink stop on this long evening is Mr. Bing’s, which Bourdain loves from pretty much first sight. This is a delightfully divey bar with plenty of neon, where Tony slurs his way through a monologue on respecting the good bars in San Francisco. It’s hard to find spots like this in most of SF due to rising rents and gentrification, but Mr. Bing’s is still kickin’, a decade-plus after Tony’s visit.
Sam’s Pizza & Hamburgers (North Beach/SF)
It should be no surprise for any devoted watchers of Bourdain’s shows that when he drinks too much, he’s going to do anything for a meaty late-night treat… including jaywalking, apparently! In SF, he heads to Sam’s Pizza & Hamburgers and impatiently waits for a double cheeseburger to try and combat the inevitable hangover.
Chaac Mool Food Cart (CLOSED)
Tony’s next on-screen stop feels out of order, but my guess is that he genuinely didn’t film much the next morning; nevertheless, it’s worth giving an honorable mention to the now-closed Chaac Mool food cart that he visits at Dolores Park. This spot used to serve Yucatán dishes like cochinita pibil tacos on homemade tortillas; they look delicious and actually exactly like what you need to help cure a raging hangover headache.
Molinari (North Beach/SF)
On his way to the airport to wrap up the Layover, Bourdain makes one final stop at Molinari – which is, actually not on the way to the airport, just in case you’re planning to do the same on your own visit to San Francisco.
This deli is known for its classic Italian subs, which are heartening before a long plane ride. Tony orders the Special, which has mortadella, head cheese, pinot, dry salami, and the accompaniments.
Other Places Tony Recommends in San Francisco
As always in The Layover, Bourdain recommends a number of other spots he doesn’t actually visit on screen. I’ve listed them below, but not included them in the final count of all the places he ate since… hed didn’t. (At least not that we saw!)
- You can find Blue Bottle Coffee spots all over the Bay Area; this place makes artisinal coffee any way you like it – except how you might order it from Starbucks – plus fancy toasts and egg dishes for breakfast/brunch.
- Zeitgeist Bar (The Mission) for a no-frills dive.
- Pier 23 Cafe (Embarcadero) for views, bites, and drinks with (slightly) fewer crowds than in Fisherman’s Wharf.
- Incanto (Noe Valley) was an offal-centric restaurant run by Chris Cosentino (who Tony dines with at To Hyang); it closed back in 2014. (It was also already mentioned in the No Reservations section!)
- King of Noodles (Inner Sunset) for wontons and noodle dishes.
- Off the Grid food trucks that offer a variety of affordable eats.
- Alembic Bar (Haight-Ashbury) for high-quality cocktails and delicious but esoteric food plates .
- La Folie (Russian Hill), also known as the “House of Foie Gras” for a white tablecloth but unstuffy French dinner; this closed back in early 2020 (pre-pandemic, surprisingly!).
- Mission Chinese Food (the Mission) for classic Chinese recipes with an SF twist.
- Benders (The Mission) for late-night drinks and live music.
- Yuet Lee (North Beach) for Chinese food after a night out – go for the salt and pepper prawns.
- Lucero Muñoz (The Mission) for bacon-wrapped late-night street meats.
- Boccalone (The Ferry Building) for hand-made cured meat sandwiches; this spot closed in 2017 which explains why I never saw it in the Ferry Building when I lived in SF.
- Rosamunde (The Mission) for grilled sausages on French rolls.
- El Huarache Loco (Alemany Farmer’s Market) for Mexico City-style dishes like huaraches and cactus salad.
Parts Unknown (2015)
Bourdain’s final trip to San Francisco was a bit selfish, if we all have to be honest: he wanted to train at the Ralph Gracie Academy, sister to his home Brazillian Jiu Jitsu gym in Manhattan. However, he used that good excuse as a reason to come out and eat at some of his favorite spots in the Bay Area, as well as to explore new areas and new cultures represented therein.
Sinbad’s (SF) (CLOSED)
Unfortunately, the now-closed Sinbad’s was once an institution of the San Francisco waterfront; it closed in 2015 not long after Tony visited – and after nearly 40 years of being in business. (Today it is, as predicted in the episode, a fancy plaza that’s part of the SF Ferry building.)
Over glasses of Anchor Steam beer, Bourdain and fellow food writer John Birdsall had a conversation about how San Francisco’s changing, always changing, but maybe not for the better – if ever it was.
Swan Oyster Depot (Nob Hill/SF)
Next, Tony returns to one of his favorite haunts in the city, Swan Oyster Depot. It’s his third visit in four on-screen trips – that’s quite an accolade! This time, he enjoys a crab back & cold beer, followed by crab legs and Louis sauce and fresh oysters.
Trader Vic’s (Emeryville)
Crossing the Bay Bridge, Bourdain next heads to one of my personally favorite spots in all of the Bay Area: Trader Vic’s in Emeryville.
While this mecca of tiki culture – and in fact, one of the original sites where tiki culture was born in the U.S. – is no longer in its original location in downtown Oakland, the Emeryville outpost is a decent substitute for the many, many Trader Vic’s that once were and are no more.
Here, Tony is joined by author Shawn Wilsey; the pair enjoy Mai Tai’s (naturally, for Trader Vic’s) – Tony orders the Mai Tai wave (flight) – and delicious BBQ spare ribs, slow-cooked in the restaurant’s iconic oven.
4505 Burgers & BBQ (Alamo Square/SF)
Next up, Bourdain heads to 4505 Burgers & BBQ with chef Richie Nakano; Nakano is known for Hapa Ramen, which shows the classic trajectory of investor-led restaurant development – it shuttered just before Bourdain’s visit in a very public falling out between the chef and his investors.
In addition to discussing the difficulties of running a great restaurant in the Bay Area (a theme you might notice from all the spots that have closed since Tony’s visits), they tuck into 4505’s Presidential Platter: all of the meats from their menu (brisket, smoked chicken, smoked sausage, pork shoulder, and pork spare ribs), along with a sampling of all sides (cole slaw, posole, baked beans, potato salad, and french fries), and all of the fixin’s too (“frankaroni,” collard greens, spicy fries, 4505 chicharrones, and 4505 cracklins).
Miss Ollies (Oakland) (CLOSED)
Jumping back across the Bay, Bourdain next sits down with Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers, in Oakland; the pair are at Miss Ollie’s – a once-beloved restaurant that has since closed its doors for good.
Over a discussion of historic race relations and modern politics, the pair enjoy Caribbean-influenced soul food: rice and peas, skillet fried chicken, and collard greens.
Juhu Beach Club (Oakland) (CLOSED)
Next, Tony heads from a classic institution to a modern spot: chef Preeti Mistry leads him through a guided tasting of her menu at Juhu Beach Club (also closed).
He tries a variety of dishes (which were later offered as a special tasting menu), including Bhel Salad (persimmon, pomegranate, purple potato pickled onion, puffed rice, peanuts, and housemade chutneys), Manchurian cauliflower, chili paneer, lamb kofta, and a Methi chicken leg made with fenugreek and a tomato butter sauce.
Eagle-eyed viewers also noticed he washed it all down with a Linden Street Burning Oak Black Lager; I didn’t catch this in my viewing, but now you can truly wish for the whole experience – even Linden Street Brewery is closed for good.
Minato Japanese Restaurant (Japantown/San Jose)
I was quite pleased to see Bourdain make a trip down to the South Bay as part of this “Bay Area” episode; San Jose is often overlooked among the cities further up the bay, but it has a lot to offer – and a unique mix of cultures and cuisines that settled in this part of the area.
Joined by writer and artist Curt Fukuda, Tony heads to Minato Japanese Restaurant; this spot is still open – hooray! (The pair actually discuss how San Jose’s Japantown might endure or change in intervening years, so it’s great to see this spot has not been lost to the sands of time.) Here, he tries Japanese curry tonkatsu with tempura and beer.
In a prep kitchen (possibly at Michelin-starred COI which unfortunately closed as of 2022), Chef Daniel Patterson makes Tony a mind-blowing burger to show off some of the menu items at “Locol,” a project he started with Chef Roy Choi to try and offer healthier fast food – including a veggie burger that even Bourdain says he would eat (if he didn’t know it was veggie burger!).
(Locol started in 2016 and ended in 2018 – the track record here just isn’t great!)
He later returns for a full meal of the tasting menu with BJJ pro and his trainer Kurt Osiander; they dig into signature dishes like the beet rose, king salmon wrapped in yuba, seared spot prawn, and lichen-encrusted beef tenderloin, and a number of other noma-worthy dishes.
San Francisco & Bay Area Food Tours to Try
While you certainly have plenty to be getting on with, you might want to try and pack a little more in – and we don’t all have fixers and location scouts to sort out where to eat when we travel, as Tony did. To that end, food tours are a good option; here are a couple that head to the same areas of the city Bourdain visited and ate:
Have any other questions about the places visited by Anthony Bourdain in San Francisco? Let me know in the comments!