I’ve been a vegetarian for 17 years, five of which have been spent in San Francisco. On raw ingredients alone, we have it good here in Northern California; because of that, vegetarian-friendly restaurants are everywhere. But great vegetarian-friendly restaurants are harder to find. I think there’s a misconception that vegetarians always want fake meat or the bland cliche that is a portobello mushroom sandwich. Likewise, some of the best vegetarian food isn’t found at vegetarian restaurants. So I’ve rounded up a list of my favorite places to eat in San Francisco — along with some veg-friendly spots that underwhelm, since nobody wants to run all over town for something that’s not phenomenal.
A note on what I mean by “vegetarian food.” To each his own taste, but I prefer vegetable-centric food to fake meat, lighter dishes to ones drowning in mozzarella. Fresh, flavorful, fun. So if that’s the kind of food that you love, too, here you go.
Best veggie burger The Plant Organic Cafe wins praise for its beet-based burger, and it’s a pretty good — if expensive — sandwich. But for my money, the best burger-burger is the Earth Burger at Umami Burger. (So much burger in such a small sentence!) The mushroom-and-edamame patty is topped with ricotta, hugged by house-made buns, and delightfully sloppy. It’s not cheap either, but when was the last time a meat eater actually thought your veggie version was superior to his patty? I rest my case.
Best food truck
San Francisco has a strong food truck scene, but unlike Portland’s, it’s all over the damn place. I don’t have time to keep up with trucks on Twitter, with one notable exception: Liba falafel. Wow wow! The falafel has a crisp crunch, which is reason enough to go, but the real draw is the condiment bar. Spicy carrot strips, lemon-thyme beets, and fried pickled onion are just some of the options. Load up your sandwich like crazy, and don’t forget to get the garlicky cilantro-lime sweet potato fries.
Plow, out in Potrero Hill, makes a damn good egg sandwich and reminds me of that band Plow United. But I’m loyal to Dottie’s True Blue Cafe in Soma. Yes, it’s written up in the tourist guides, but that’s because it’s good. So good, in fact, that I’ll stand in line for 40 minutes while a legion of crackheads ask for money. (You can tell the locals from the visitors by their reaction to this spectacle.) House-made muffins are a big draw, fresh orange juice is available if that’s your thing, and the servers are just so nice. Get the black bean cakes with fluffy scrambled eggs, and get a side of cornbread with jalapeño jelly. Go hungry and leave in a state of bliss.
Taqueria Cancun, followed by the El Farolito on Mission and 24th. But really, go to Cancun first.
Best prix fixe
When was the last time you had a $20 four-course dinner in a former rotisserie joint? If the answer is “never,” get yourself to Mr. Pollo. The food in this hole-in-the-wall spot is as elegant and creative as what you’d find in dozens of more expensive (and less fun) restaurants. Arepas are always part of the meal, but the other courses vary. Expect a soup, a salad, and a beautifully presented main featuring fresh local vegetables. While it’s not a vegetarian restaurant, chef Manny is accommodating to vegetarians.
Best vegan-friendly place I wish I lived near
Outerlands is a few blocks from the Pacific, there’s always a wait, and it’s a pain to get to on public transportation. Those who make the schlep are rewarded with the best little gem salad I’ve had anywhere, sandwiches made with thick, yeasty bread, and an ever-changing menu that usually has a few vegan choices just sitting there. Plus, the weathered wood walls and warm lighting are muy romantico.
Best raw food
Alive used to be a restaurant, but now it only pops up at the weekly Ferry Building farmers market. Which is a shame, because its wraps and desserts are flavorful, creative, and tasty enough that even carnivore Dylan had to admit it was pretty good.
It’s a toss-up between Little Star and Patxi’s. Little Star used to be my favorite — the signature pie with cornmeal crust is the best I’ve ever had — but if you’re vegan or lactose intolerant (hi), you’re out of luck. So now I go to Patxi’s, which is also delicious and offers soy or Daiya “cheese” options.
Best date place
Frances. It’ll take weeks (if not months) to score a reservation, but you can also try your luck at scoring one of the ten seats at the bar. The food is contemporary but non-gimmicky — think chickpea fritters, chanterelles-and-peas crepes — and it’s all wonderfully fresh. Frances isn’t a vegetarian restaurant, but you’ll have no problem ordering straight off the menu. If I could afford to eat here every day, you’d hear no complaints.
All longtime vegetarians fear the proudly vegetarian restaurant that serves bland, soggy vegetables mixed with salty rice. We know that omnivores who eat there will likely cite it as proof that meatless meals are bor-ringggg. This is that restaurant in San Francisco.
If heavy, hit-you-in-the-gut fake meat is your thing, you’ll probably like this place. The faux stuff looks extremely realistic, which is impressive even if you don’t miss actual meat. But I’ve eaten here twice, and both times, I’ve left with a brick in my stomach. Did not enjoy.
I hate to rag on a Japanese vegan place, but I just don’t get the hype. Maybe you need to love simple vegan Japanese food? Depending on your perspective, you’ll find the flavors either subtle or bland. You can guess where I stand.