Nothing about living in San Francisco is inexpensive anymore, especially the dining scene. Sure you can fill up on $7 of dim sum or an $8 burrito, but at the same time, $18 burgers and $15 cocktails have become the norm.
Then, of course, there’s the growing trend of SF restaurants that aren’t just expensive, they’re basically prohibitively expensive unless you’re post-I.P.O. The thing is: a lot of people in SF are. And they don’t mind dropping hundreds of dollars on a single meal.
If you’re one of those people, great. Go eat at all of the restaurants. Drop $1000 on “Omakase at Chef’s Table” for two at Hashiri (that’s without the $150 per person beverage pairing). Spend over a grand to take your date to Saison. And make the $300 per person Lazy Bear experience part of your regular routine. (Of course, if you’re newly wealthy, you probably already have.)
If you’re NOT one of those people, though (*solidarity fist bump*), then you have to be really discerning about if and when you splurge for a fancy meal. You want the food to be delicious, the service to be impeccable, and for it to an experience you’ll never forget.
These five very expensive SF restaurants all fit the bill.
This elegant Michelin-starred restaurant in the Taj Campton Place is reminiscent of how upscale dining used to be. There are roomy leather booths, white tablecloths, and servers who are incredibly attentive but without any arrogance. However, that’s where the parallels to a time “way back when” end, as Beef Wellington with mashed potatoes is not something you’ll find anywhere on the menu.
In fact, Campton Place probably isn’t for the unadventurous meat and potato eater. While Chef Srijith Gopinathan’s Cal-Indian cuisine certainly isn’t too far out there for the average palate, diners do need to go with an open mind, and be excited about dishes that are all about aromatics, spice, smoke, and fire—and unlike anything they’ll find coming out of anyone else’s kitchen.
Diners choose from two tasting menus: the Spice Route Menu or the Vegetarian Menu. They are both seven courses, and all of the dishes feature fresh, seasonal Northern California ingredients cooked with a nod to Chef Sri’s Southern Indian heritage. Every course is beautiful on the plate and the palate, and despite the fact that there are seven (more if you add optional supplements), every bite still feels special. Be sure to add the wine pairings; they’re the perfect harmony to a meal that sings.
Price: $155 for the Spice Route Menu; $140 for the Vegetarian Menu; $115 for the wine pairing.
From the outside, this tiny 14-seat Edomae-style sushi restaurant looks very modest. In fact, it’s very easy to miss its existence entirely if you aren’t seeking it out. But you should absolutely be seeking Omakase out, as it’s one of the best (if not the best) high-end sushi experiences in all of San Francisco.
The fish is flown in from Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market (the oldest and biggest fish market in the world) three times a week and is said to be some of the best fish you can find in San Francisco. That is impressive on its own, but it’s the art and skill Chef Jackson Yu puts into preparing it that’s really the showstopper. Don’t worry about making tough choices about what to order; Omakase offers two different prix fixe menus, and because the fish is so fresh, even if you go back five times, you’ll almost never get the same thing twice.
The atmosphere at Omakase feels almost reverent, as part of the meal is about the performance of the masterful chefs making careful cuts, searing sushi with a blowtorch, and presenting each course. Don’t worry if you don’t know a ton about fish; they’re very diligent about explaining each dish and how to eat it.
There are only two seatings each night, at 5:30pm and 8:30pm, and because of the way service progresses, it’s important to be on time. A credit card is required to hold a reservation, and there’s a $100 fee for reservations canceled with less than 72 hours notice. But why on earth would you ever cancel one of the most exquisite meals you’ll ever eat?
Price: $150 or $200 for the tasting menus; $80 for the optional sake pairing.
San Francisco has a lot of great steakhouses, but if you want wagyu beef that melts in your mouth, Alexander’s is the only place to go. It’s also the only place to go if you want an excellent cut of prime beef prepared with Japanese flavors and ingredients. Which, though you may not realize, you definitely do. (And if you don’t, there are more traditional menu options available as well.) It’s also worth noting that you can add seared foie gras to any steak for $30, which you should do because you only live once.
The Japanese overtones don’t stop with the meat; it’s also apparent in the appetizers and design—there are several raw fish options meant to be ordered as starters (the Hamachi Shot is a must).
The service at Alexander’s is impeccable—like, you may start to feel like the server is waiting for you to take a sip of your water so that he can refill your glass—but for the most part, the attentiveness is refreshing, especially considering the prices.
Price: Steaks and roasts range from $47 to $100; wagyu ranges from $45 to $225 for a three-ounce portion.
For most people, Atelier Crenn is a once-in-a-lifetime meal. Somewhere you go for a special occasion. A very special occasion. But if you have an excuse and the money to back it up, it’s a meal that will stay with you forever.
Dominique Crenn’s food is poetry on the plate. It’s elegant. It’s flavorful. It’s inventive. And it’s artistic. There is only one tasting menu served each evening, and it is literally part poem, part riddle; it’s fun to guess what you think the dishes will be, but it’s even more fun when they come out and the server shares the story behind them. The cuisine is often described as French, but the food is so original and creative that to just call it French food feels like a huge disservice. Atelier Crenn has had two Michelin stars for five years, and many expect Crenn to be the first U.S. chef to earn three.
There are only eight tables in the warm, cozy restaurant that was designed to make guests feel like they’re actual visitors in Crenn’s home. The atmosphere is so inviting and the food so delicious that even though you’ll feel like you’re walking on air by the time you leave, you’ll still be a little sad that the experience is over.
Price: $375; wine pairings begin at $175.
The cuisine at this two Michelin starred restaurant is often described as Mexican, but Chef Cantu’s cooking is so personal and inventive that it truly transcends labels. It’s best to go in without expectations and just enjoy the journey as it happens.
And it’s quite a journey. Each meal is comprised of around 16 courses, all which are meant to maximize the vibrant flavor of the fresh ingredients. Still, each course is full of surprises, and not just because you don’t receive a menu until the end of the meal. Expect bold flavors that feel perfectly refined. And don’t expect to get the same dish twice, even if you go back five times.
The dining room is a weird juxtaposition to the food; it feels almost like a nightclub or lounge thanks to the dark wood walls, ceiling, and floor, and the low light. All of the leather banquettes face the open kitchen. Those seat 18 and there are another six seats at the counter where you can watch all of the action. If you get to choose where you’ll enjoy your meal, pick the latter.
Price: $177 to $197 per person; $98 for beverage pairings.