San Francisco has a reputation for being eclectic, free-wheeling and one of the most charming cities in the US. From bicycling over the Golden Gate Bridge, to a bay cruise to Alcatraz, or ‘The Rock’ – the maximum security prison that notoriously held Al Capone; from jazz performances at the Palace of Fine Arts to vibrant street fairs that celebrate every cross-section of the city’s culture, there’s plenty for couples to discover together.
Each of the city’s districts has its own distinct vibe and evidences chapters in San Fran’s long and prosperous history: the steep slopes of upmarket Nob Hill – still serviced by vintage cable car – was once the home of the city’s many business tycoons and it’s here you’ll find the more luxurious hotels; while Haight-Ashbury, formerly the hub of the 1960s hippie movement and the Summer of Love, has retained its boho feel and is characterised by a plethora of quaint cafes and quirky bars. Chinatown has served up delectable dim sum and authentic Chinese cuisine since the 1840s, and the colourful Mission District remains one of the most eclectic and happening sections of streets, both during the day and after dark.
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And one of the most exciting and celebrated aspects of San Francisco, is its amazing cuisine. San Francisco has a long tradition of producing crops of talented chefs inspired by the wealth of fresh, local, and seasonal fare produced in abundance in the Bay Area. In the early 1970s, chefs Jeremiah Tower and Alice Waters, who run Chez Panisse in nearby Berkeley, dubbed this style of cooking California Cuisine: a label used to describe global fusion dishes using refined ingredients such as avocados, artichokes, grapes, dates, figs, oranges and Meyer lemons grown in California, with San Fran chefs (obviously) giving preference to foods produced in the Bay Area.
Today, the city’s seven-square-mile perimeter encompasses innumerable cuisines and cultures. From Argentinean, Brazilian and Cuban to Egyptian, Moroccan and Senegalese, the world is literally there for the tasting. Here are some of the city’s most romantic culinary experiences.
Michael Mina – 252 California St., (415) 397 9222
Michael Mina’s contemporary self-named restaurant (one of his many outstanding outlets) is a great place to sample the fusion cuisine for which the city is famous. His specialty is contemporary French-influenced dishes with a distinctly Japanese accent – think plates of Georges Bank sea scallop with Hachiya Persimmon, yuzu and picked nameko and Maine lobster pot pie with black truffle and cognac-lobster cream.
Chaya – 132 The Embarcadero, (415) 777 8688
San Francisco’s love affair with Japanese cuisine is also evident at Chaya, a cosy, intimate contemporary California brasserie that evokes a French-cum-Japanese salon. With a family tradition that began 390 years ago in a “little tea house in the shade” in Hayama, Japan, couples visiting Chaya in its current incarnation can enjoy scenic views from the Ferry Building to the Bay Bridge while canoodling over Franco Japanese dishes like sashimi salad, black angus flatiron steak with wasabi butter and Santa Barbara uni risotto with seared hokkaido scallops.
El Buen Comer – 3435 Mission St., (415) 817 1542
Of course, California has a close connection to the vibrant and passionate nation of Mexico, meaning it's the place in the USA to find authentic Mexican fare. You won't be disappointed when you order a few share plates atEl Buen Comer. The owner, Isabel Caudillo, made a name for herself serving guisados (a Mexico City staple) in her living room and went on to open this casual little joint. Made from scratch, the hearty delicacies that grace the menu are homely and completely enticing. The hand-rolled enchiladas are popular, while the fragrant guisados (traditional Mexican stew) are a must-try and change regularly, offering the chance to discover a new favourite every night.
Gary Danko – 800 North Point at Hyde St., (415) 749 2060
This is another must-go restaurant – if you can get in. Formerly of the Ritz Carlton Dining Room and a whole host of other critically acclaimed restaurants, Danko's tables are locked out three months in advance, but once inside the blacked-out windows of this dimly lit, cocoon-like restaurant, couples can share a litany of decadent dishes such as juniper crusted bison with king trumpet mushrooms, cipollini onions and herb spätzle. Every once in a while, flaming pans briefly illuminate other diners around the restaurant as chefs prepare flambéed pineapple upside down cake with almonds and rum raisin ice cream and expert servers are always on hand to guide you through a cheese cart laden with more than 20 rounds and an almost endless wine list.
In Situ – 151 Third St., (415) 941 6050
If it's a fine dining experience you crave, book a table for two at the uber-luxeIn Situ. Boasting a Michelin-starred chef, stylish decor and a rotating, a la carte menu, the world-class restaurant is all about delivering "art on the plate". Chef Corey Lee collaborated with 80 famous chefs across the globe – including our own Peter Gilmore – to create a menu that acts as a somewhat exhibition of the world's greatest dishes.
Sons & Daughters – 708 Bush St., (415) 391 8311
Charming dining roomSons & Daughtersis another must-try for its refined menu centred on locally-grown ingredients, not to mention its quaint ambience. The seven-course set menu features seaonal flavours and the finest produce from the restaurant's private orchard garden in Los Gatos, just outside the city.
Bourbon & Branch – 501 Jones Treet, (415) 346 1736
Revisit the era of 1920s Prohibition at this speakeasy, inspired by a bar which operated illegally at this location from 1921 to 1933. Reservations atBourbon & Branchare recommended for dinner, but to try one of their hand-numbered bourbons, scotches or cocktails, just ring the buzzer and use the password “books” to be escorted to a secret location encircled by floor-to-ceiling bookcases of period volumes.
Hotel Biron – 45 Rose St., (415) 703 0403
The rustic, mottled walls, copper tables and simple wrought iron bistro-style seating at this gorgeous gem of a wine bar-cum-art gallery evokes a Parisian basement hangout. The extensive wine list atHotel Bironfeatures carefully selected labels from French and California vineyards, accompanied by a small – but lovingly presented – menu of cheese, olives, local fruits and charcuterie.
Top of the Mark – 1 Nob Hill, (415) 616 6916
This San Francisco landmark has drawn enamoured couples up to the 19th floor since the hotel opened in 1926. Decorated in rich wood tones with iron accents, casual perches at Top of the Markoffer 360 degree vistas of San Francisco – arguably the city’s most romantic backdrop, and the perfect setting to enjoy one (or more) of the famed ‘100 Martinis’ in good company.
The Fairmont San Francisco – 950 Mason St., (415) 772 5000
On Nob Hill, the Fairmont is a gloriously grandiose icon of San Fran hospitality. Couples will love the Balcony Suites, with their elegant parlours, bedrooms and marble bathtubs, and scenic views of the city from the private ornately filigreed terrace; or the sheer ostentatious luxury of the Fairmont’s singular suite options.
The Intercontinental Mark Hopkins – 1 Nob Hill, (415) 392 3434
Also located on Nob Hill, just across the road from The Fairmont San Francisco and close to Union Square shopping, the Financial District and Chinatown, this imposing hotel is as redolent of success and spectacle as when it first opened in 1926. Boasting stately-home style suites, complete with chocolate model of the hotel and Champagne on ice as a welcoming gift, The Intercontinental Mark Hopkinsis just made for romance.