The dining scene in San Francisco is an ever-evolving landscape of hyped openings, quiet closings and, most importantly, innovative and delicious cuisine. If you’re planning a visit to the city and find yourself in need of a satisfying lunch, head to one of the following five restaurants — all located on the bustling blocks of downtown SF. Soak up the sunny California sun while slurping oysters or savoring a signature dish in the flagship of one the nation’s top chefs. Wherever you decide to go, just be sure to arrive hungry.
Fourteen years ago, Mourad Lahlou opened a Moroccan restaurant, Aziza, in the Richmond district. While the food is certainly still worth the trek to the area, fans of the acclaimed chef can now enjoy his upscale North African-cuisine downtown at this newly opened namesake eatery. Located on New Montgomery near Mission, Mourad is a massive and sleek space with a long, dark gray marble bar, booth seating with black leather chairs and shiny chestnut wooden tables. The high ceilings are dotted with globular light chandeliers and the kitchen is partially open to the public eye. The menu is a lengthy, slightly intimidating list of options. If you’re not sure what marash ash or brassicas are, simply ask a smart staffer to explain things. Start with the deviled eggs that delight the palate with texture and flavor courtesy of a creamy cumin-laced filling and crunchy chicken skin garnish. The spreads served with warm housemade flatbread are rich and scrumptious, especially the rust-colored, piquillo-almond spread. All of the food arrives impeccably plated — the kitchen must be filled with squirt bottles — on rustic serving dishes. Other noteworthy items include: the elegant avocado toast with albacore crudo; merguez sausage with grapes and fennel; and the light, melt-in-your-mouth yellow couscous with cauliflower, harissa and preserved lemon.
If you’re more in the mood for French cuisine, you can’t go wrong at this spot inside The Galleria Park Hotel. The moody, two-story space on Sutter Street, in between Montgomery and Kearney, is dark but welcoming with brown walls, red leather banquettes and black bistro chairs. It’s a sexy, slightly masculine restaurant that brings to mind an alluring Parisian boudoir. The three-course market lunch features a weekly changing menu highlighted by seasonal produce and a take-away dessert. If the price-fix menu doesn’t suite your fancy, you can’t go wrong with à la carte options. The fare is traditional French brasserie: there’s escargot smothered in parsley-garlic butter; layer upon layer of crepes filled with smoked salmon, salmon roe and crème fraîche; white-wine-steamed mussels with a tangy, grainy mustard broth; and tuna tartare with Moroccan tapenade and bright yellow hen yolk. Craving a potent libation to go along with that? The master mixologists shake and stir up Champagne tipples, absinthe concoctions and an extensive array of cocktails that feature French spirits like Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados and Eau de Vie.
Although The Keystone opened in August, it’s a new favorite in the downtown restaurant scene. The modern tavern is a lively, industrial-chic social house with exposed brick, a black, gray and white color scheme, swivel back chairs and tile floor. Crown molding and seasonal greenery add a touch of feminine elegance and pop of color. Chef Banks White’s menu is an interesting mix of global dishes. There’s collard green lumpia wrapped tightly in flaky pastry rolls; roasted cauliflower with pickled pappadew relish, curry and Parmesan; and crispy, addictive Brussels sprout chips with chicken schmaltz aioli. The kitchen’s lineup may seem a little unfocused at first, but as you enjoy the most complex, scrumptious vegan carrot and quinoa salad with cashew cheese and berbere-spiced citronette alongside macaroni and cheese with the cheesiest smoked gouda and white cheddar cheese sauce, you realize that all of the dishes are comforting, filled with soul and have some sort of meaning to the chef. And, somehow, it all just works out deliciously. Order a cocktail or a glass of wine, sit back and relax because you’re in for a memorable treat at this unique restaurant.
With restaurants all over the nation, Michael Mina is one of the United States’ most successful chefs. However, he calls the Bay Area home and his flagship eatery, the Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Michael Mina, on California Street with the cable cars passing regularly by the windows, is an excellent spot for a leisurely lunch. No detail at Michael Mina is overlooked. From the moment you arrive, you’re treated with the utmost care. A stylish hostess takes your coat and escorts you to one of the tables in an expansive dining room that’s decorated in shades of cool navy and slate. The atmosphere is chic but relaxed and there is a celebratory vibe that beats throughout. The menu features plenty of seafood dishes, from a selection of caviar and Mina’s unparalleled ahi tuna tartare to butter poached Maine lobster and tagliatelle with grilled prawns and coconut-shellfish reduction. Of course, if you’ve got a hankering for something meaty, there’s artisan foie gras with candied pecans and pain de mie, squab with apple butter and chanterelles, and prime black angus rib eye with potato, beet and cabbage.
On a sunny day, grab a table under a wide yellow umbrella at the outdoor patio at Market Bar. Located on the Embarcadero at the Ferry Building, Market Bar is a spot where you can linger for hours doing nothing but people-watching and savoring local cuisine. The almost always-packed address puts you in the mind of a new American brasserie. The cuisine is classic Californian, offering something for everyone at the table. There’s crispy flatbreads, oysters on the half shell, a host of salads (the Asian pear and prosciutto number with endive, watercress, candied pecans and apple cider vinaigrette is a personal favorite), and entrees like chicken pot pie or whole wheat pasta with housemade Italian sausage and broccoli rabe. The tables are tiny, so ask your server to bring out one dish at a time — that way you’ll be able to fully enjoy your meal and the marvelous views.