Where to eat in San Francisco, according to chef Michael Mina

Photo via Liholiho Yacht Club/Instagram

Where to eat in San Francisco, according to chef Michael Mina

Foodie City Guides

Where to eat in San Francisco, according to chef Michael Mina

Celebrity chef Michael Mina has lent his name and expertise to nearly 40 restaurants across the United States and as far away as Dubai under the Mina Group umbrella. But since 2010, his flagship restaurant, called Michael Mina, has been in San Francisco. For Mina – who grew up nearby in Ellensburg, Washington – San Francisco is the perfect city to show off his chops and test out new concepts. 

“San Francisco’s food scene continues to amaze and humble me,” says Mina. “We have access to the best product, talent, and guests, and a community that supports our chefs and restaurants that allows us to continue to create and evolve. It is one of the most exciting times to be a chef and restaurateur here.”

San Francisco has long been known as one of the country’s best food cities, thanks to the year-round growing climate of the Bay Area that provides pristine produce, its proximity to the ocean and its abundance of fresh seafood, as well as the population’s high regard for organic and environmentally friendly practices in conjunction with real innovation. The city is responsible for countless food fads that have made their way across country and beyond – expensive toast, the slow food movement and whole animal butchery, to name a few – but it’s also just as known for its simple, fresh cooking that highlights quality ingredients.

That’s why it’s been the perfect city for Michael Mina – both the restaurant and its namesake. Mina recently decided to completely overhaul the menu and concept at his Michelin-starred SF restaurant by returning to his roots. Mina, along with executive chef Raj Dixit, recently debuted an all-new menu that pays homage to his Middle Eastern heritage. He was born Cairo, Egypt, and both his parents are Egyptian. He has strong memories of days spent with his mother’s nine siblings and their families where everyone cooked and ate all day. “That’s kind of where it all started for me with cooking, and my passion for food,” says Mina.

The new menu celebrates Egyptian and Middle Eastern cooking with dishes like glazed Egyptian mango with foie gras and ginger – a dish that pays homage to the fact that foie gras was invented in Egypt tens of thousands of years ago – and the bread program features Baladi, or Egyptian flatbread, a favorite of Minas’s from childhood. Ensuring that things remain high-end at the Michelin-starred restaurant, a reimagined caviar service features top-quality, responsibly sourced caviar served with distinctive accompaniments like smoked salt, labneh yogurt, hibiscus and sumac onions. 

“It’s definitely been the most fulfilling of any food concept I’ve ever done in my life,” says Mina.

Although the famous chef has restaurants around the world, these days he spends most of his time in the Golden City, enjoying restaurants both old and new. “I’m kind of a purist. There’s still some old restaurants here that to me are really special because they bring back great memories,” he says.

Here are the chef’s go-to spots in SF:

Zuni Café

A legend in the SF dining scene, Zuni Café touted locally sourced foods and a laid back California vibe before it was cool, thanks to its founder, the late, great Judy Rogers. The copper bar counter and wood-burning oven remain as centerpieces in the iconic, light-filled restaurant. With simple dishes that are expertly executed, like the caesar salad, a perfect burger, and the famous roast chicken, let’s hope Zuni Café is around for at least another 40 years.

“Zuni Café for oysters and roast chicken: To me that’s a must if you come to San Francisco,” says Mina.

Kokkari Estiatorio

This iconic Greek taverna has stood the test of time – and San Francisco’s evolving food scene – by serving delicious Greek food in a cozy yet sophisticated setting for 20 years. Known for its welcoming, Old World hospitality as much as for its tasty renditions of Greek classics, Kokkari Estiatorio attracts locals and tourists alike. Menu favorites coming off the wood grill include smoky souvlaki, lamb chops and head-on prawns in garlic butter. An order of the warm, fluffy pita bread is a must, as is saving room for gelaktoboureko (phyllo dough rolls filled with custard) or baklava for dessert.

“It’s an old restaurant, but they just get it – their consistency is amazing,” says Mina. “And the food is delicious.”

Liholiho Yacht Club

Opened in 2015 in the Tenderloin, Liholiho Yacht Club goes way beyond the poke craze to utilize the region’s abundance via Hawaiian techniques and traditions. The restaurant is a tribute to chef Ravi Kapur’s heritage, which includes Hawaii, India, and of course Northern California. Kapur, who previously worked at Boulevard and Prospect, serves up dishes like shaved pig head with pickled Fresno chilies, melon, pumpkin tomatillo pesto and crispy pig ears, as well as Manila clams in a coconut curry with eight ball squash, carrots, fresh turmeric and naan.

“Ravi is a really fun, great chef. It’s amazing what the evolution of Hawaiian food has become,” says Mina.

Monsieur Benjamin

Monsieur Benjamin brings French fine dining to a modern bistro atmosphere in Hayes Valley. Chef Corey Lee’s sophisticated restaurant turns out well-executed classics like steak frites, braised rabbit leg and escargot, alongside an extensive list of French wines and craft cocktails. And save room for dessert – there’s Ile Flottante with strawberry and pistachios and housemade ice creams. Brunch is also well worth a visit, with timeless dishes like frisee aux lardons with poached eggs; Arctic char almondine; and a French crepe filled with ham, cheese, spinach, mushrooms and egg.

La Ciccia

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A petite, rustic Italian spot owned by a husband and wife serving Sardinian food, La Ciccia is a Noe Valley hidden gem. The intimate dining room is always full of regulars who adore their hosts almost as much as the food. Specialties include a rotating house-cured salumi, baby octopus in a spicy tomato sauce, seafood fregola in squid ink and breaded pork scaloppine with saffron and smoked pancetta. Do not leave without trying the Sardinian ricotta and saffron honey cake with toasted almonds.

“You walk in there and you immediately become the most important person in the room,” says Mina. “They do it for everybody! I watch!”

Tony’s Pizza Napoletana

The playground of 12-time World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana provides award-winning pizzas to the heart of San Francisco’s Little Italy. Using ingredients imported from Napoli, Italy, the pizza menu includes Italian classics like pizza margherita and diavola alongside American favorites like a Jersey’s Trenton tomato pie and a New York-style pie. There’s also a California pizza menu with options like the honey pie with honey, Calabrese peppers, scallions, mozzarella, piave cheese, fried caramelized onions and serrano peppers. Get there early to try the limited edition (only 23 are available per day) Sausage and Stout, on a dough made with honey malted stout beer and topped with mozzarella and beer sausage, caramelized onions, fontina cheese, scallions, crushed red peppers, beer salt and a sweet stout reduction.

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